MusicMDs: Hitting all the right notes

Rice group inspired by music therapy

Gentle light bounced off the polished marble of the atrium’s surfaces. A tall, slender woman stood beside a baby grand piano. Dressed in opera black and holding herself next to the ivory-keyed instrument like the seasoned vocalist she is, she parted her lips and sweet melodies flowed out naturally, almost effortlessly.

Julia Zhang performs at Methodist Hospital.

The young woman is Julia Zhang, and she is not a professional singer standing on a grand stage before a typical audience. Zhang, a Jones College senior, is one of two dozen Rice volunteers, and her stage isn’t a stage at all. It’s the entry of Houston’s Methodist Hospital, a towering monolith in the heart of the Texas Medical Center.

Her audience members haven’t bought a ticket, but they all seem to be paying some sort of price. Some are patients on a stroll; others are beleaguered family members waiting; a few are doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators scurrying between patients and appointments or taking a much-needed break.

In that moment, Zhang is like a melodious doctor. Every weekend she and her cohorts file into hospital rooms as they carry instruments, stands and sheet music. Zhang just has to bring her voice. Their role: healers. Their medicine: music. Their name: MusicMDs.


MusicMDs members visit hospitals in The Medical Center.

Founded in 2009, MusicMDs was born from a pair of siblings’ discovery that hospital patients responded positively to music. Members of the Rice chapter of MusicMDs are musicians inspired by the field of music therapy who provide music as a service to all patients to lift their mood and help in their recovery through the power of music and therapeutic dialogue.

Duncan College senior Varun Bansal and his sister started the group when they were high school students in Florida. Their grandmother, a terminally ill cancer patient, brightened when they played their instruments for her.

“She responded to the music more than to caregivers or even therapy dogs,” Bansal said. “It gave her comfort that other things could not.”

After his grandmother’s death, Bansal realized that other patients could also benefit from the therapeutic qualities of music. Changes in patients’ demeanors and attitudes were immediate and noticeable, he said.

“They start smiling, their eyes light up. … You can see that they are much happier after our performances and engage in conversation afterward,” Bansal said. “In the hospital, sometimes you don’t have family members around, and you feel socially isolated, so this helps you see that someone – in person – actually cares for you.”

Varun Bansal plays the violin for a patient.

When Bansal, a violinist, first moved to Houston and enrolled at Rice, he realized that there wasn’t a similar service in the medical center and decided it would be the perfect place to expand. He circulated messages through the Rice Pre-Medical Society and generated interest from fellow students.

Zhang, an engineering student, was one of the first to answer the musical call.

“At that time I was looking for a way to do really meaningful volunteer work, but also I’m not apart of any singing groups,” Zhang said. “I had sung a lot in high school, so this seemed like a really good way to do what I loved and share it with other people.”

Hanszen College junior Gabriela Barrios also joined MusicMDs because it combined her two passions: music and medicine.

“I had been thinking of ways to continue performing in college, and MusicMDs was the perfect opportunity. “It was a great chance to explore medicine from a different perspective, and the program also got me thinking about how I would bring music to my future career in medicine.”

Barrios finds the expressions of appreciation on the faces of the patients and their families the most gratifying.

“It is amazing to see how such a small act as playing a song for a minute can completely change someone’s day for the better,” she said. “Even the nurses and physicians have been really appreciative of our music as they go about their stressful jobs.”

Chelsea Wu, a biochemistry and English double major, serves as vice president of the Rice chapter and helps organize the roster of the club’s musicians. Like most club members, Wu volunteers for a couple of hours each weekend. In addition to Methodist, they visit Ben Taub and Texas Children’s hospitals.

For Wu, the connection goes beyond the music.

“I realized that playing music produced a connection between me and the patient — a connection that perhaps could not have been realized if we were purely speaking to each other,” she said. “Many times after I play for patients, they open up and tell me their stories, and that, for me, has been extremely rewarding and inspiring.”


About Arie Passwaters

Arie Wilson Passwaters is a Web editor in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.