Caring Concerts

ECF grant keeps professional musicians and elders in care connected through a digital concert series

“One hundred percent of our audience has barriers to accessing the arts, whether those are cognitive or physical,” says Meran Currie-Roberts, executive and artistic director with Health Arts Society of Alberta in Edmonton.

Health Arts Society of Alberta brings high-quality professional music to elders in care homes, retirement communities, long-term care, and even palliative care.

“Someone could be a lifetime arts supporter, with a subscription to the symphony. And then one night, they have a stroke and they will never hear another professional musician perform again,” Currie-Roberts says. Most care homes have very small budgets for entertainment in general, usually less than $100 per month per facility, she adds.

The program also fills a need to employ professional musicians and singer-songwriters across genres: classical, jazz, World, Celtic. And it has agreements in place to pay living wages to its professional artists.

Before COVID-19, Health Arts Society of Alberta averaged 300 to 400 concerts a year, in the Edmonton area. The registered charity coordinates and produces these performances with a budget that combines corporate and private donations, plus civic funding, together with the concert series fees from the care homes.

On March 12, “COVID-19 shut down our operations … in one day,” says Currie-Roberts. Understandably, with the prohibition on gatherings, and certainly, elders in care are some of the most vulnerable people in society with the pandemic.

Health Arts immediately began to record and post concerts on YouTube. They were well received, but there were challenges too.

“Either seniors didn’t have the computer literacy to go onto YouTube and watch. Or, they didn’t have WiFi available in the individual rooms, or the technology itself,” Currie-Roberts explained.

The revenue stream from the care homes itself was disrupted as well, as live concerts were cancelled.

A $20,000 Emergency Community Support Fund grant in June for the Concerts in Care Digital Series “solved so many problems,” says Currie-Roberts.

It enabled the nonprofit to pay for more recordings, maintaining union rates and keeping struggling professional musicians employed.

And the grant covered the purchase of a number of tablets that Health Arts pre-loaded with concerts, working around the WiFi and computer literacy issues, and distributed them to the recreation managers. Properly sanitized between uses, tablets could circulate safely among residents.

“It’s been huge to have both the revenue stream and the connection to the audiences,” Currie-Roberts says.

The Concerts in Care Digital Series model has even sparked new collaborations and partnerships. The ESO has provided recording otherwise-prohibitively expensive space for these concerts at the Winspear Centre, and a number of other symphony musicians have gotten involved.

“COVID-19 has really shown us a gap in care for these quality-of-life pieces, ” Currie-Roberts says. ”And although we’re starting this because of COVID, it might actually end up extending our reach in general and might be something we do even when we get back to the days of performing live.”

“The music industry was one of the first hit and will be the last one back, fully,” says Currie-Roberts, who is also a cellist with  the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. “Anything we can do as a community to keep the arts alive is important. That’s why we’re grateful for this grant — from the elders’ perspective as our audience, to the artists.”

Learn more about ECF’s response to COVID-19.