ideastream: Northeast Ohio Musicians Start Conversations Through Songs

It’s common this time of year for musicians to perform Christmas carols, often visiting people who could use some holiday cheer. A pair of instrumentalists did just that on a recent afternoon at Joseph’s Home, which provides housing and medical care for men in downtown Cleveland.

But the visit was about more than familiar tunes.

In the lower level of Joseph’s Home, a cellist and violinist set up music stands in front of a coat rack and a handful of men gathered in a small, multipurpose room taking seats nearby.

The musicians flipped through binders of holiday sheet music asking for requests and sharing thoughts about the songs.

Violinist Rachel Englander pointed out that her favorite, “O Holy Night,” resonated with an abolitionist, who shared the French song with American audiences.

“It’s not just about the religious side of things, it’s about kind of the human spirit that we think about at Christmastime,” Englander said.

Some in the audience sang along to “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night,” a favorite of Derek Thomas.

“I think it really just has to do with the harmony,” Thomas said. “When I like music I don’t think about the words first, I always think about the sound. It takes me wanting to hear the sound to make me want to listen to the words.”

Englander organized this session, and she and her husband, Chester, launched a group earlier this year, Access Music, dedicated to sharing music and forming relationships with people who may have limited access to music. ​

“Traditionally, musicians, classical musicians, have played concerts known as outreach concerts, where you go into places where you find nontraditional audiences,” Chester said. “Rather than providing a concert, we use music as a form of engagement.”

The couple modeled Access Music off of Los Angeles-based Street Symphony, with a similar mission and founded by fellow musician Vijay Gupta.

“It dawned on me that that type of organization could be easily duplicated in Cleveland,” Chester said. “I was very confident that our musician friends would be enthusiastic in support of the mission.”

Cellist Julie King is one of those friends. She’s played twice with Access Music.

“I was very touched when, when the guys were singing with us. It adds a lot,” King said.

Sam Jackson said he too was touched by the musicians sharing songs with him and others at Joseph’s Home.

“These people here showed me love, and they don’t get paid for it, not by me,” Jackson said.

While some musicians have volunteered their time, Access Music also pays musicians through donations, said Rachel, who leads the organization.

Access Music plans to continue working with Joseph’s Home and develop new partners in the future.

Written by: Carrie Wise and Natalia Garcia