Allyson Dawkins
Robert Rivard

Walking through a children’s hospital is a very different experience than walking through a hospital serving adults. There is something especially emotional and touching to see innocent young children fighting serious illness or disease. Except for caregivers and family members, most of us seldom enter this world.

That’s why I was eager to spend part of my Thursday with a group of dedicated San Antonio Symphony musicians as they performed, floor by floor, at the newly renamed Children’s Hospital of San Antonio on North Santa Rosa Street. The children and their families were delighted and surprised by the unexpected arrival of musicians in red Santa caps and other seasonal wear, carrying their instruments and ready to perform.

Cristine Godea, 15, joins the Principal Percussionist Riely Francis and Cellist Noe Benavidez for a song. Photo by Robert Rivard
Cristine Godea, 15, joins the Principal Percussionist Riely Francis and Cellist Noe Benavidez for a song. Photo by Robert Rivard

This holiday season marks the 25th anniversary of the Caroling Project, a musician-run volunteer effort to bring music and cheer to some of our neediest communities. There is something about hearing holiday favorites that lifts all spirits, young, old and infirm.

Project coordinator Allyson Dawkins, the Symphony’s principal viola player, pointed out that Thursday’s half-day performances on each floor of the hospital to different groups of children and their families is only one of the traditional holiday season outreach programs the musicians conduct in the city.

Like Santa with a bag a toys, Dawkins pulled out small hand bells, a triangle, and a maracas and the little patients were invited to join in the music making. Children as young as two up to age 15 happily joined in, each big smile telling its own story.

Randy Lopez, 2, plays the handbells. Photo by Robert Rivard
Randy Lopez, 2, plays the handbells. Photo by Robert Rivard

Amy Venticinque, a member of the Symphony’s Second Violin corps, invited two of her young adult students to join the professional musicians playing on Thursday. Marian Amini, a sophomore from Texas A&M and Rebecca Ward, a freshman at UT-Austin, had just completed their semesters and returned home. Both have been violin students of Venticinque since they were adolescents, and both are already giving back to their community even before earning their degrees.

Symphony musicians are at the heart of the city’s music education ecosystem. Most maintain year-around teaching studios, and are essential to the development of advanced music students hoping to gain entrance to leading music school or university.

“This is a unique opportunity for musicians to mentor their students by sharing, through demonstration, the act of volunteerism,” Dawkins said. “At the same time, students act as adolescent role models by taking the special gift of music, along with the simple gift of human kindness, to San Antonio’s ill, institutionalized, incarcerated, and indigent.”

Students Marian Amini and Rebecca Ward join Symphony Violinist Amy Venticinque, their longtime teacher and mentor. Photo by Robert Rivard
Students Marian Amini and Rebecca Ward join Symphony Violinist Amy Venticinque, their longtime teacher and mentor. Photo by Robert Rivard

The holiday season for me is always a time to appreciate classical music performance both at the symphony and by enjoying ensemble performances. What we take for granted in our own lives seems so much more special when we experience it among others who live under more challenging circumstances.

Most of the people who get to hear the musicians up close and personal, from jail cells, hospital wards, or a homeless shelter have never attended a symphony performance, but the reaction to music seems universal. Even very sick little people wear expressions of joy.

This year the orchestra members have brought music to the Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio, The Methodist Children’s Hospital, the Bexar County Jail, and the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. They will visit the Haven for Hope and Mission Trail Baptist Hospital in the coming days. There is no charge, of course, and no one gets paid. Symphony musicians, in my experience, are among the most highly educated and lowest paid professionals in our city and always among the first to volunteer.

Allyson Dawkins
Allyson Dawkins

“My favorite part is our element of surprise.  I love that we can walk into a hospital waiting area and turn it into an instant party,” Dawkins said.  “How we can capture the astonished glee of a child who has just gotten his own private orchestra to play Jingle Bells, and how he even gets to help by playing the triangle.

“It’s touching to see how many are moved by the power of music.  In the third floor Oncology Department at Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital a janitor, who was cleaning the floors, paused to wipe away a tear as we played Silent Night.”

San Antonio Symphony musicians who performed Thursday at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio included: Violins: Bassam Nashawati, Darryl Tolliver, Aimee Toomes, Amy Venticinque, Rebecca Ward and Marian Amini. Violas:  Emily Freudigman, Allyson Dawkins, Jill Van Gee. Cello: Noe Benavides. Bass: David Milburn. Percussion: Riely Francis.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group has performed communications consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony, but does not publish any sponsored stories on the Rivard Report site.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.