The musicians of the San Antonio Symphony have developed a special program that both gives and gets back in spiritual rewards. During the month of December 2009 we celebrated our 21st season of presenting the gift of holiday music to the city of San Antonio through the Caroling Project . The project began in 1989 with principal string players visiting two hospitals. It has grown to include as many as 40 volunteer musicians playing at 25 institutions. In 2009, groups of musicians visited Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, Southwest Mental Health Center, the Bexar County Jail, Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center, Cyndi Krier Correctional Institution, HealthSouth Rehabilitation Center of San Antonio, and Methodist Children’s Hospital.
My favorite event each year is the trip to Bexar County Jail, a correctional facility that houses up to 4,000 inmates. We usually take a string quartet to the jail because of the portability of the group and the wealth of seasonal repertoire. We wander through the maze of cells with our instruments, music, stands, and, of course, an armed escort. The inmates are visibly surprised at our act of kindness and they respond respectfully and gratefully. We feel privileged to share a moment of humanity with a part of our society that needs positive interaction.
Over the years we have given priority to children’s hospitals, as young patients cannot always rationally understand their pain and suffering. The children love to hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Jingle Bells. We take along a collection of small percussion instruments such as sleigh bells, tambourines, and triangles for the children to play. We also always manage to squeeze into Intensive Care units where we play favorites like What Child Is This and The Little Drummer Boy. The monitors of very sick children show an improvement in their vital signs as they listen to our soothing music.
Each year the Caroling Project culminates with a chamber orchestra performance at the Juvenile Detention Center. At this particular concert many of the symphony musicians invite their students (or their children who play instruments!) to join us. We set up in a cold and depressing gymnasium which is quickly transformed into a concert hall brightened by our colorful clothing. This year we were very fortunate to have four trombones in our chamber orchestra. They played several arrangements alone and garnered enthusiastic response from the teenaged inmates.
One of the most surprising and gratifying aspects of the Caroling Project is the mentoring opportunity. Students relish the chance to go out into our community with their teachers and classical musician idols, stand beside them, and share their talents. I am always humbled by the attentive and serious expressions on the faces of students as they strive to keep up with the “pros” in even the most difficult arrangements of Christmas music.
So, the music is put to rest in my file cabinet, the percussion instruments are quiet in the closet, the memories and the photos bring smiles. I am waiting for the inevitable and pivotal day in November 2010 when one of my colleagues will ask me, “Hey, are we doing the caroling thing this year?”
Allyson Dawkins is the principal viola of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra.