Humanities Institute

Health and Humanities Symposium Discusses the Healing Powers of Art and Music

Mon, July 9, 2018
Health and Humanities Symposium Discusses the Healing Powers of Art and Music
Panelists Amber Fogarty (L), Rachel Blair, and Amissa Miller (R) listen to audience questions.

By Sarah Schuster

Art and music can be essential forms of healing--that’s what many of the panelists at the University of Texas Health & Humanities Pop-Up Institute (PUI)’s concluding Symposium will tell you. Held on May 30th, the Symposium featured leaders of community and health organizations from across the Austin metro area discussing “humanistic methodologies in community health organizations.”

Moderated by PUI participants Dr. Chelsi West Oheuri (Dell Medical School), Dr. Suzanne Seriff (College of Liberal Arts), and Dr. Ted Held (Dell Medical School), three community panels discussed ways of fostering community health and healing through the arts and humanities. Possibilities for partnerships between community organizations and the university were also discussed. Panelists represented a number of local social service, humanities, and art organizations such as Art from the Streets, Austin Classical Guitar, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and VSA Texas.

Vice President Daniel Jaffe, Dr. Steve Steffensen (Dell Medical School), and Dr. Pauline Strong (Humanities Institute) introduced the morning’s panels, noting the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry and Dell Medical School’s mission to create a “vital, healthy ecosystem” beyond the doctor’s office.


From L to R: Profs. Dan Jaffe, Pauline Strong, and Steve Steffensen


In the first panel, Celia Hughes, Executive Director of VSA Texas, an organization creating and teaching art to people with disabilities, spoke of VSA’s aim  to create an arts-inspired, inclusive community of individuals with diverse abilities, and to challenge perceptions of how people “contribute.” She noted that the organization’s primary work is helping students and participants achieve their own goals. 

“All that we do is grounded in meeting people where they are,” Hughes said, whether that is to pursue dreams, careers, or simply a new hobby. 

VSA Texas’s programs are accordingly diverse, designed to meet a range of interests and needs, including audio description, providing descriptions for visual arts and movies for the blind; mixed ability and integrated dance programs; a distinguished artist veterans program; and  a mobile art initiative that takes art to senior centers and mails art supplies to individuals who are unable to leave their homes.


Executive Director Celia Hughes discusses VSA Texas.


In the second panel Kelly Worden, Executive Director of Art From the Streets, detailed the work of bringing art to communities in need. Art From the Streets is an open studio that operates three times a week at St. David’s Center, providing studio space and free art supplies to people experiencing homelessness.


Panelist Amissa Miller (L) listens to Kelly Worden’s (R) presentation.


Art, as Worden said, can provide a needed release, especially to people who have been chronically homeless. The studio is a safe environment with a dedicated group of volunteers, and Worden was quick to point out that the organization benefits volunteers as well as participants:

 “We enjoy the communities that we share and the friendships that we gain from it,” she said.

 Art From the Streets holds an annual art show at the Austin Convention Center, displaying thousands of artworks that people can buy.

 Panelists also discussed the transformative aspects of music, not only for patients, but for people in the Austin metro area. As Rachel Blair of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) said, “Music is the lifeblood of what we do in Austin.” HAAM aims to protect Austin-area musicians through access to affordable healthcare.

 Since 2005, HAAM has served 5,000 low-income working musicians with a focus on preventive services. The organization delivers services on three axes: guidance and advocacy, which includes services aimed to navigate health and insurance systems; prevention services, which include screenings, custom-fit earplugs, voice education for protection, and holistic care, among other discounted programs for musicians; and access to care, which includes primary, specialty, inpatient, and emergency care.

 In 2017 HAAM dispensed $796,304 in insurance premium assistance; in 2018 this number is much closer to two million.

 “There’s an unprecedented demand,” Blair said, noting that the organization continues to grow. With roughly 8,000 musicians in Austin--and with life expectancy for musicians at a 25-year deficit in comparison to the average person--Blair stressed the importance of protecting the music community.


Dr. Ted Held (with microphone) poses a question to the panel.


 The final community panel featured panelists from Austin Classical Guitar (ACG): Dr. Matthew Hinsley, Executive Director of Austin Classical Guitar, and Dr. Travis Marcum, Director of Education at Austin Classical Guitar.

 Moderator Ted Held briefly contextualized the importance of the humanities to medicine. As he stated, medicine, science, and the humanities all possess their own language for analyzing and synthesizing their findings.

 What this can amount to, Held pointed out, is a lack of understanding between disciplines, even when they’re discussing the same thing. Using the Adverse Childhood Experiences Index study as an example, Held noted that the findings of the study shouldn’t have been surprising or groundbreaking in 1998.

 Writers like Emile Zola and early sociologists like Jane Addams linked adverse experiences in childhood to diminished health and wellness in adulthood roughly a hundred years before the ACE study. In other words, the social and economic underpinnings of health have long been known, but these discoveries have not readily crossed over to medicine. He pointed to Austin Classical Guitar’s Lullaby Project as one significant area of crossover.  

 Matthew Hinsley of Austin Classical Guitar began his presentation with an overview of the services that ACG provides to the community.

 “We have heard about the secret superpower of art today,” he began, acknowledging his fellow panelists and presenters. ACG’s primary goal is to inspire people through musical experiences with deep personal significance.

 Classical guitar, in his view, is no less of a potential superpower for people who have been disempowered for one reason or another.

 Music brings people together, as Hinsley pointed out. With this in mind, Austin Classical Guitar brings classical guitar lessons to school, providing tutoring for guitar students and teacher training, working with 23 partner schools in central Texas.

 The organization has worked with children in Dell’s Children’s Hospital, providing instruments, classes, and systems for learning. A notable Braille project has allowed students at The Texas School for the Blind to learn classical guitar.

 Hinsley theorized “deep personal significance” as a learning tool on a number of axes: firstly, students need to feel safe. Next, students should feel a sense of belonging, and a sense of individual personal responsibility. They must feel that their contribution is critical to the success of the project. There must be a significant challenge to overcome in learning, or an adversity that the student must persevere through, followed by a successful performance and, finally, an acknowledgment and celebration of the student’s achievement.


Matthew Hinsley outlines Austin Classical Guitar’s primary programs.


Hinsley played a short video illustrating this model of learning from PBS Newshour, spotlighting an ACG student who learned guitar while he was imprisoned. Hinsley went on to explain that the UT School of Social Work researched the importance of guitar, finding that it encourages self- esteem through a unique learning environment--one that gives a student unused to artistic endeavor a feeling of safety and belonging.

 Travis Marcum went on to discuss Austin Classical Guitar’s Lullaby Project. ACG teachers work with incarcerated mothers, teen mothers, mothers in shelters and mothers in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to compose lullabies for their children--a simple statement of love from mother to child, one that is specific to the child.

 ACG bases their work off of the Carnegie Hall Project, which demonstrates developmental health benefits when a mother engages with her child. But, Marcum said, “the true benefit, from our perspective, is to mom.”

 Marcum provides mothers with a booklet describing the project, then asks questions around her pregnancy and the significance of motherhood: for instance, how she found out she was pregnant and how she felt when she found out. “It becomes a moment for the mom to tell her story,” Marcum said. “It’s a discussion to make the mom feel like an artist.”


Travis Marcum talks about the Lullaby Project at ACG.


Marcum played a short video of a mother he worked with to illustrate this process, which he noted was “very exploratory” and focused on the mother’s creative suggestion and vision. Once created, the lullaby is recorded professionally and given to the mother.

 Marcum ended his presentation with a moving song an incarcerated mother wrote and performed for her child while in prison, noting that she couldn’t at that time communicate directly with her child. The recorded lullaby offered the mother a line of communication that she would not have had otherwise.

 The audience praised panelists for their work integrating the arts and humanities into healing. In answer to a question about how the audience can help further this work, the panelists agreed that all community organizations depend on the generosity of donors and volunteers. Research relationships were mentioned as well and, indeed, some of the organizations featured in the panels already have strong research relationships with the University of Texas. For these non-profits and researchers, the “secret superpower” of art might not be so secret anymore--a benefit to the central Texas and UT communities alike.


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