Pass It On!

Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Healing and Rebuilding Through the Arts:
An Interview with Judy Caplan Ginsburgh

conducted by Sarah Pirtle

PIO!: You gave an inspiring special presentation at the 15th CMN National Conference. For those who didn’t get to hear you, can you tell us about your work and where you live?

JCG: I live in Alexandria, Louisiana, and I work professionally as a singer, songwriter, and educator. In 2003, I took a part-time position with my regional arts council as arts and healthcare coordinator. This was a job I was able to create from scratch, and I just love it. I work way more than part-time and see so many possibilities for the arts and healing to work together.

I also sing as a cantorial soloist in synagogues around the country. I’ve traveled for many years as a performer, sharing music in schools, libraries, community centers, and festivals. In my work as arts and healthcare coordinator, I spend more time bringing other artists into the hospitals to perform. About the only time I “perform” in the hospital is singing lullabies to the babies in the neonatal units.

PIO!: What was your involvement with music as a child?

JCG: I have always had music in my head. My mother said I used to hum and sing all the time as a small child. We had lots of music in our house, mostly classical and Broadway. My mother loved musical theatre, and she directed musicals at our local community theatre. She would bring my brother and sister and me to rehearsals with her, so we grew up knowing a lot about musical theatre. I sang in school choirs and all-state choirs and did lots of musicals throughout school. I have a degree in vocal performance from the Indiana University School of Music. And I have been performing, recording, and writing children’s music for over twenty-five years now.

PIO!: How did you get involved in music as a force for healing?

JCG: The first inkling I ever had that this whole arts-in-healing thing was something amazing happened after my grandmother had a stroke. She was going to physical rehabilitation. There were about ten people sitting around in wheelchairs. The physical therapist was in the middle calling out directions like “Let’s all hold our right hand up.” Most of people just sat there. I watched for two or three times, and I went up afterward and asked, “Would you mind if I took what you’re doing and put a tune to it?” She said it, and I sang it. When I did that, people perked up. People I’d never seen move started to do it. I just went, “Wow!” The music really made a difference.

PIO!: Would you describe the Arts and Healthcare Initiative in your area and tell us how you got involved in that?

JCG: The executive director of our regional arts council attended a conference where someone spoke about arts and health care. At this meeting, he became aware of an organization called the Society for the Arts in Healthcare. He found out that they had consultants who would come to an area and do a study of how to bring the arts into the hospitals. He brought a consultant down to Central Louisiana, and she made recommendations. One of them was that we put together an advisory board of doctors, hospital administrators, and artists. I was asked to be on the advisory board as an artist. After drawing up a mission statement and goals for the Arts and Healthcare Initiative, they decided to hire a coordinator to start the program. I applied for the position and excused myself from the board, and I got the job.

At the time there was one hospital that was interested, and they gave us $15,000 as seed money. That amount doesn’t go very far when you have to pay a salary and initiate projects in the hospital. There was no groundwork. There was nothing to go on when I took the position. This had never been done before in our area. I pretty much had to dream it and do it. I had to write grants and find the money to implement the projects I wanted to do. We were very, very lucky and received a good number of grants for specific projects. And, after six months, the other hospital in our area saw how well our programs were going and they wanted us to do programming in their hospital, too. They matched the $15,000, and we are now working in two hospitals. Of course, after the hurricanes, we immediately shifted our focus to helping the many who needed healing in the shelters.

PIO! You spoke about arts as part of complementary medicine. What is your experience of the role of the arts in the power of healing?

JCG: One of my favorite quotes is “Doctors heal the body and mind, but the arts heal the soul.” That’s what we’re trying to do. Over half of the 4,500 hospitals in America have established arts programs in them. In times of crisis and trauma the arts play an increasingly important role in recovery and support of individuals and communities affected by tragedy. We took that statement and we used it in the shelters.

Take the power of drawing, for instance. You could see it in the round robin at the CMN National Conference when the artist Peggy Lipschutz drew a picture with pastels while Kristin Lems was singing. That’s the type of thing we do.

And we also do it on a broader level. We bring a blank canvas and paints and brushes into a cancer infusion area. There are people sitting in chairs. Family members are sometimes with them. We ask them as a community, “What do you want to paint?” We make a decision. Sometimes we print a picture from the Internet. An artist starts painting it, but anyone in the room can add to it either by painting something on the canvas themselves or letting us know what they would like to see painted on the canvas. This may go on for several months. When the picture is finished, we frame it and put it on the wall.

PIO!: How did you launch your arts programs in hospitals?

JCG: The first thing I did was to get the staff on my side and help them understand what we were doing. Because if they all of a sudden see programs happening, they’re going to say, “Who’s paying for this? Why am I overworked and underpaid and we have someone singing in the lobby? Where did that piano come from?” You want to get the staff on your side, so we began by setting up programs for them. We started Staff Open Studios (S.O.S.) where once a month staff could drop in and participate in a quick arts experience to provide a needed break and relieve stress. Some of the classes we offered were Cajun dance, making scented bath salts, making jewelry, and decorating paper fans. Our next plan is to build a meditation station: a rolling cart that we can roll to the various nursing stations with aromatherapy, foot massages, and soothing DVDs to watch. Staff will be able to take a ten-minute break to rejuvenate at the meditation station.

We then began a series of public performances in the hospital lobbies and the cafeterias. A local harpist and a violin player come in during holidays every year. We have rolling art carts, and we facilitate projects with patients in their rooms and with staff in the nursing areas.

When I first took the Arts and Healthcare position, I spent several months just doing research. Where were the programs and people who could give me advice and guidance? What projects could we offer to help people heal? Right now in the hospitals we have a quilt exhibit on display. Each quilt depicts botanicals that are used in cancer-fighting drugs. We have ongoing exhibits of art at each of the hospitals.

I asked many people in CMN to send me CDs, and they did. We have set up listening libraries throughout the hospitals—in the cancer infusion room, the dialysis area, pediatrics, and surgery waiting areas. Patients and family members can choose a CD or book on tape to listen to on portable players with headsets. If they’re getting chemo for three or four hours, they can listen to some music. We have put together a book with a page about every musician whose CDs are available to them with information about how to contact the performer. If patients like what they hear, they know where to buy it.

PIO!: You told us about a man who does a temporary mural using tape art. He asks people, “What do you miss?”

JCG: His name is Michael Townsend and he is from Rhode Island. He uses a tape similar to masking tape, and he does art with it. We brought him down to Louisiana last year and he spent a week with us. He would go into someone’s hospital room and start a conversation with them. Through this conversation, he learned about the person. Then he illustrated things particular to that person on the wall of their room. He even talked to families while their loved ones were in surgery. When the patient returned after surgery, they would return to a personalized mural on the wall of their hospital room. It might be a tape drawing of their dog or their favorite superhero.

PIO!: Let’s talk about your most recent work. I understand there were 10,000 people in shelters in your area of Central Louisiana after the hurricanes this fall. What was it like in the shelters?

JCG: In these shelters you had people from all walks of life living together. You had people who were homeless living with people who had lost everything and could not afford to live in a hotel or had nowhere to go. In one of the shelters, there were even prisoners. Everyone was living together, sleeping on cots one after the other. Most had their possessions in plastic garbage bags next to or under their cots. There were no classes of people in the shelter. Everyone was the same.

I worked at the shelters in the afternoon because that’s when most of the children were there after school, and in the mornings I worked at our local donation center. There were people who came into the donation center and were griping, “I shouldn’t have been in this situation.” And you just wanted to say, “I’m very sorry. Everybody’s the same.” Everybody was reduced to that sameness. There were no rich or poor or good or bad. Everybody was a person and everybody had the same needs. I think for some people, it was very hard to be needy.

One of our shelters was like a baby Superdome located off one of our highways. There’s really not a lot around it. The people who stayed in this shelter were a little stranded if they didn’t have transportation. The cots were set up in the middle in the arena. There was a perimeter where we did our activities, and we also did activities in an adjacent building that was set up as a dining hall.

PIO!: When the group that you trained worked in the shelter, how did you identify yourselves?

JCG: We had aprons made with our logo and name on them and three deep pockets at the bottom. Just like the Red Cross had their vests, we had aprons, and all of our people wore them. We kept supplies in the pockets. We tried to build relationships and a sense of community within the shelters, and we did. When we went into the shelters, people looked forward to our coming back.

PIO!: What were your goals?

JCG: For a helping artist, listening is essential. You want to build relationships. One of our other goals was to build community. As I said, these people came from all different backgrounds, but you wanted them to build something together.

We got people over that hump of just sitting there traumatized and in shock. We wanted to bring them to the next level so they could try to deal with the things going on in their lives, and there were a lot of them who moved to the next step of some healing. There comes a bridge that you cross, and you’re able to express yourself again.

The way we think of our work is that we are there to facilitate their stories. We wanted to encourage people to express themselves. Listening comes first. Our mantra is honor, respect, and support. When you’re doing this work, you want to honor everyone as a human being, you want to respect every person, and you want to support them in whatever they need.

PIO!: How do you train the people who work with you?

JCG: We teach them, “Leave your ego behind.” Go in with an intention, not an agenda. Don’t be so rigid that you can’t go with the flow. There were days when we went into the shelter and they’d tell us to leave because they were getting six hundred more people in the next ten minutes. So you leave. There were other days when we went in maybe intending to be there only a few hours, and they’d say, “Can you please stay? The kids are out of school all day today.” We’d call more troops in to help us and we’d stay for eight hours. So we had to be very flexible.

In our trainings we say to the artists, “Facilitate, don’t dominate. Be flexible and be patient.”

PIO!: How do you begin?

JCG: You build relationships. You want to have some connection with the people you’re working with. You let them know that you care. Then you start some creative activity happening, whether it’s music or movement or an art project.

Eventually the person will join in and will take that creativity and make it their own. You can see these things happen. It’s like someone joining in singing with you. Or you’re drawing something and all of a sudden they say, “Oh, can I do that?” It’s that kind of moment. They become part of the creative process.

And really the hardest part for all of us is the closure. How do you say goodbye? How do you end what you are having such a good time doing? But it does have to end at some point. We would always leave them with materials to continue creating with and we would promise to come back. We were in the shelters almost every day.

PIO!: What’s the first activity you used with people in the shelters?

JCG: We began a journeying wall. This was to facilitate expressions of where you’ve come from, where you are now, and where you are going. We put out mat board and all kinds of art supplies—even collage-type materials. People could put on the mat board whatever they were moved to do that would add to the journeying wall. Some people drew. Some people wrote stories or poems.

For instance, one of the pictures shows two grasping hands and it says, “Gonna be alright.” We collected hundreds of poems and quotes that would just tear your heart out. We added some of the images from the walls and we are publishing them in a book.

PIO!: How can people get this book?

JCG: It is titled Beyond Katrina. It can be ordered on our Web site at We’re selling the book as a fundraiser for people who’ve lost everything in the hurricanes. Proceeds will go to help hurricane victims in Louisiana rebuild their lives. We didn’t censor anything. There was fear, there was anger, there was gratefulness, and hope. It’s really very powerful, and I hope it’s something that can be used in future situations like this that come up.

One of the poems says, “Life is like a flower. It buds and blooms and fades then comes alive again.”

PIO!: I bet that words like these on the journeying wall could be used to create songs.

JCG: We actually used music and guitars quite a bit. For about a year now I’ve been working with a group called Guitars in the Classroom, a nonprofit organization (and a CMN member) out of Santa Cruz, California, teaching teachers how to play guitars and bring them into the classroom to teach curriculum. These are people who’ve never touched a guitar in their lives. A person can pick it up very easily. I saw it happen at the CMN National Conference in the workshop that Ingrid Noyes and I led on Guitars in the Classroom. That organization enabled me to bring guitars into the shelters, and we actually taught some of the kids to play. They picked it up very well. You should have seen their faces when they realized they were playing the guitar! If they were very little, I would sit in front of them and just press the chords with my two fingers and they would strum.

And I did lots of sing-alongs. We also made instruments like little shakers out of plastic eggs, and then we used them in the sing-alongs.

PIO!: What advice would you give other people who want to get involved?

JCG: I’m a member of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, which was founded in 1991. Their whole purpose is to try to get the arts into healthcare facilities, whether it be hospitals or nursing homes or whatever.

The Arts and Healthcare Initiative opened whole new doors for me. I have literally cut my travel schedule as a professional musician in half. I love the work I’m doing with Arts and Healthcare so much.

The most important thing to remember if you’re going to use your music to make a living is that you must diversify and adapt. There may not be enough work for you to travel just as a performer or even teaching and performing. For people who have compassion in their hearts and understand how music and the arts can help somebody heal, this is really something to look into.

It’s not impossible to start something like this in your own hometown. Our Arts and Healthcare Initiative is unique in that we are run by our regional arts council. But many hospitals have some sort of established arts and medicine programs in them. I would encourage all CMN members to check in their hometowns to see if something already exists and how they can be a part of it. You can expand what you’re doing in music into the healing and healthcare field. Talk to hospitals. Find out if they already have a program. Go to rehab facilities; the people in these facilities are there for a very long time, and they can look forward to your coming once a week. Always go on a regular schedule. Never be late and always show up. Listen and react in musically appropriate ways. Try songwriting. We’ve done a lot of that.

There’s so much you can do. We have people who crochet cats and we give them to cancer patients and preemies. We have activity books for critically ill children. We have women who make something we call “happy hearts.” They are tiny plush hearts that we give out to families waiting for surgery. Almost every time I give them to families, they burst into tears, because somebody cared. Somebody cared to sit with them for a minute and listen. Just something as simple as this shows so much compassion.

We have a rolling art cart. We can also roll a keyboard down the hall and into a patient’s room and put a keyboard on a bedtray for bedside music. We can teach people how to play a guitar. I also play Freenotes a lot in the hospital. They are pretuned instruments that look like a section of a vibraphone. One is called “The Wing.” They come in different scales; the one I have plays a G pentatonic scale. Patients can play any note and it will sound like it belongs there. I’ll walk down the halls playing it and if someone peeks out, I’ll go into the room.

PIO!: How can members of CMN help your current efforts?

JCG: Many people in CMN have already helped us with the shelter effort by sending donations so that we were able to get more art supplies and many of them donated CDs and tapes so we would have music to use. People can send monetary donations or gift cards (especially gift cards to art and music stores) to Arts Council, Attn: Judy, 1101 Fourth St., Suite 201, Alexandria, LA 71301. And of course, they can order Beyond Katrina, our poetry book.

If people had more music and arts in their lives, their lives and our whole world would be different. Unfortunately, most of our school systems still don’t get it. If children had the chance to express themselves creatively, there would be virtually no discipline problems. Below the sixth grade we have no arts in our public schools where I live. I worked for twenty years to write grants as an individual artist that would pay for me to do residencies in the schools, and that’s all the arts they got. Now one of my missions as a volunteer is to try to bring children’s performers into our town each year. We have them do a public concert and then they are required to go into the hospital, too. By the way, I do all the booking for my arts council for children’s performers. CMNers traveling to the Louisiana area, please let me know.

PIO!: Will you share more from the words of your journeying wall and your book?

JCG: One of the things I noticed right away being in the shelters was that as bleak as the situation was for people, they were all so hopeful. They always knew it was going to get better, and they appreciated people helping them. One of the people wrote on the wall, “Through the darkness we only see light.” Many of the other quotes, poems, and images in the book are so vivid that you almost relive the moments with them.

Sarah Pirtle is the author of Linking Up: Using Music, Movement and Language Arts to Promote Caring, Cooperation, and Communication and three other books. She was a principal founder of CMN and the first editor of Pass It On! She has created seven CD recordings, and she teaches in Creative Arts in Learning at Lesley University.