Even as San Antonio Symphony musicians continue their strike, a group of 30 look to fulfill an annual mission of ministering to San Antonians in need of cheer.

In the days before Christmas, the Caroling Project will bring holiday songs and sound to patients of the Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of San Antonio on Dec. 16, homeless populations served by Corazon Ministries and Christ Episcopal Church on Dec. 17 and Dec. 18, and the lobby and patient wings of Methodist Hospital on Dec. 22.

Several freelancers and musicians from the U.S. Air Force Band of the West will join in the festive effort.

Of the hospital visit, Caroling Project organizer Allyson Dawkins said, “This event is in keeping with the traditional spirit of caroling, where groups of singers went from door to door to sing Christmas carols for people. The patients don’t know we are coming, and the element of surprise is part of what makes this such a healing and loving activity.”

This time of year, violist Dawkins and her fellow orchestra musicians would normally be busy rehearsing and performing in symphonic holiday classics such as The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah. She said the strike has taken its toll.

“We are all in need — definitely — spiritually,” Dawkins said, recounting how she and several fellow musicians cried over their circumstances while gathered after playing Sunday church services.

“We’re all hurting,” she said, but “it’s good to be together and to be playing. And also, it’s just good to do something,” including another volunteer gig stuffing Christmas socks for San Antonio nonprofit military support charity Soldiers’ Angels.

Thirty years ago, Dawkins took over the Caroling Project from former symphony concert master Greg Mulligan, who had brought the idea with him after relocating from Baltimore. Dawkins related closely to the idea in part because the project visited inmates of the Bexar County Jail each year, and her brother once did jail time.

She said she hopes an inmate, or anyone under difficult circumstances and in need of a self-esteem boost, might react to a musical ensemble performing for them by thinking, “‘These people remembered me and took care of my soul.’”

The Caroling Project has been unable to visit the Bexar County Adult Detention Center during the coronavirus pandemic, but Dawkins said she hopes to return in the future. In the meantime, the group has developed relationships with additional organizations, including Corazon Ministries, which it will visit for the first time, and gained access to Methodist Hospital in the South Texas Medical Center thanks to Constanza Roeder of Hearts Need Art, a nonprofit that also brings musical healing to hospital patients.

Despite the unusual circumstances of not playing for a dormant symphony beset by labor strife, Dawkins said the Caroling Project must go on.

“The purpose of these specific events is the same as every year,” she said, to reach “all those people who would not be able to enjoy holiday music in the circumstances that many of us do.  It is and has always been a labor of love for us.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...