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AdventHealth’s employee orchestra and how music brought healing after COVID

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The AdventHealth employee orchestra gives a requiem performance.

It was a dark time for health care workers, when Richard Hickam, director of music and the arts for AdventHealth, thought of a way to let in a little light.

The pandemic was in full force. Every day more people were dying from COVID-19. And health care workers were worn out. What if, Hickam thought, music can help? After all, music and the arts and the love, faith, connectedness and healing that comes with them are intrinsic to AdventHealth.

So with support from leadership, he decided to form an orchestra, the first all-employee orchestra in the organization’s nationwide health care system.

Grace Lai and Dr. Vincent Hsu with the AdventHealth employee orchestra.

“Humankind was as isolated as it’s ever been, and I realized the tremendous need for connection. In my mind, an orchestra was the perfect way to bring us back together,” Hickam said. “For years I’ve been wrangling musicians who work at the hospital to play for company events, so I knew we had the talent.”

It started with strings — violin, viola, cello and bass — cobbled together from clinicians and office workers who auditioned, and eventually expanded to brass, wind and percussion instruments – clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba and timpani. Today, there are almost 60 members.

Mostly strangers until now, the rag-tag group of musicians includes physicians, nurses, music and respiratory therapists, pharmacists and lab techs intermingled with team members from finance, HR, IT and even a CEO from AdventHealth’s Tampa market. It feels like a high school band room, albeit with more attentive students.

“We’re people who would not normally sit together in a room for several hours,” laughed Paul Adeogun, an operations manager at AdventHealth Kissimmee who plays tuba, in an interview with Orlando Sentinel arts reporter Matt Palm. “It really does break down walls that naturally exist in organizations.”

The AdventHealth employee orchestra rehearses.

Sitting in the violin section is Dr. Vincent Hsu, the hospital system’s top infectious disease specialist, grateful for a break from working the COVID units. Ian Barnett, an assistant nurse manager at AdventHealth New Smyrna Beach, is a bassoonist; he’s been up since 4:30 am but doesn’t mind the long drive to rehearsal. Michael Carulli, a pharmacist in Deland, mans the percussion section, still in his scrubs. And on bass there’s Rob Roy, the company’s chief investment officer; the orchestra needed a bassist, so he learned how to play one.

With the brass section there’s Adeogun, who learned tuba growing up in Nairobi, Kenya. Playing viola is Ivanna Mirabal Molina, a patient care tech based in Orlando who trained under the world-famous conductor Gustavo Dudamel in her native Venezuela; before the orchestra, her colleagues had never seen her long brown hair out from under a scrub cap. Near the front is Anna Chamoun, a doctor in Altamonte, who studied cello at the Alexander Spendiaryan Music School in Armenia and only recently picked it back up after her husband surprised her with a new one.

At rehearsals, which are held once a month, everyone swaps memories of their old music teachers, marching for halftime shows in college, playing hymns at church, and knowing that through kids, careers, marriages and moves, their passion for music remained.

“I just celebrated my 51st year playing the trumpet,” said Ken Cutler, a procurement agent for AdventHealth’s corporate office.

Richard Hickam conducts the AdventHealth employee orchestra.

But life gets busy and time to practice and play gets more and more scarce. Hickam said that’s been one of the most rewarding things about starting the orchestra — seeing members dust off their old instruments and fall back in love with a forgotten hobby.

"I had really stopped practicing for the most part,” said Ndala Booker, a health and biomedical assistant professor at AdventHealth University who started violin lessons at 7 years old. “Being in an orchestra again brings me back to the person I was before all of the other facets of life happened.”

Emanuel Pope, a trombonist and auditing supervisor, said rehearsals are one of the only times he sees colleagues in person, after his department became fully remote. Grace Lai, the hospital’s director of safety and high reliability, hadn’t played in 20 years; to practice for her audition, she played from her daughter’s music books. Amelia Lane and Erica Kopp, both music therapists who every day play music for patients, found solace in playing for themselves.

“Everyone who has been in health care the past three years, it’s been horrendous. Amelia the music therapist — that just becomes your identity and you kind of forget who you were, before your life became fighting a global pandemic,” Lane said. “Being a part of the AdventHealth orchestra … helps us remember.”

The AdventHealth employee orchestra performs a requiem performance.

The group’s first performance was recorded at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in the summer of 2021. It was a requiem — Samuel Barber 's Adagio for Strings — for the patients, team members and people across the world who perished during the pandemic. At the end, the group stood to bow, wearing the white coats and scrubs they wear every day to work.

The orchestra played its first public performances this past December, Christmas concerts at Disney Springs and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission.

Speaking with WMFE’s Nicole Darden Creston for 90.7’s arts, culture and entertainment show Spotlight, Hickam thought back to those first rehearsals.

“It’s a bunch of strangers in the room. And then, all of a sudden, in this medium through the gift of music, we’ve become something new. Something creative. Something that I hope energizes the community and can bring wholeness to those who we perform for. And for ourselves.”

To learn more about the AdventHealth Orchestra and how to audition, visit AdventHealth Orchestra | AdventHealth.

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