It can be difficult to feel the cheer and light-heartedness that comes with the holiday season from within a jail cell or hospital bed.

But for the past 28 years, instrumentalists of the San Antonio Symphony have used their musical talents to spread the holiday spirit to those who may be a little harder to reach.

Last week, several groups of musicians visited Bexar County adult and juvenile detention centers, Methodist Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, and the Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio to play holiday music for the inmates and patients. San Antonio Symphony principal violist Allyson Dawkins said that the volunteer-based tradition – called the Caroling Project – is one of the group’s favorite activities of the year.

Over the years, the effort has grown to include as many as 40 musicians playing at 25 institutions.

San Antonio Symphony Caroling from Rivard Report on Vimeo

Musicians, who show up on a day unbeknownst to their audiences, play traditional holiday music and also take special requests from the group. After a few songs, tambourines and bells are handed out to willing participants who want to join in on the music-making.

Dawkins, who has been participating in the Caroling Project since the beginning, said that it often takes a little while for the inmates and patients to feel comfortable and allow themselves to participate. Sometimes, young hospital patients are too sick to sing along to the music or request a song, she said. Many times jail inmates are shy and only quietly listen to the music.

But Dawkins knows that the music she and her colleagues play for these groups of people in unfortunate situations makes a positive impact on them. Last week, when leaving the adult detention center, Dawkins was approached by a female inmate who thanked her for “warming (her) heart” with the music.

Another woman, an elderly patient at a rehabilitation center who was clapping along to the music, told the Rivard Report that the unexpected performance made her feel less alone since she has been away from her family.

“Those are the kind of things that make you say, ‘I’m so glad I bothered (to do this),’” Dawkins said.

That’s what keeps Dawkins and so many other San Antonio Symphony musicians volunteering each year for the Caroling Project. It can be difficult, she said, to play in front of extremely ill children, rehab patients visibly in pain, or jail inmates hardened by unfortunate life experiences.

But music is Dawkins’ and her colleagues’ way of reaching out to those individuals in a meaningful way, to show them they haven’t been forgotten during the holiday season.

“We know how powerful music is, and it can say things that words can’t,” Dawkins said. “I can’t just go up to an inmate and say, ‘I really care about you,’ but when I play ‘Silent Night’ for him or her it says … ‘I care about you and I’m giving you a gift of something that’s really beautiful.’”

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is