The Music of the Mind: A Diverse & Unique Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital Concert Series

by Gabriel Nathan, M. A. Ed.

There is much that has been written about the intersection of behavioral health treatment and the creative arts.  For decades, certified music, art, dance & movement, and drama therapists have been working with individuals with mental health challenges in ways that enhance and complement the more traditional therapeutic modalities the “medical model” has to offer.

At MCES, patients attend a wide variety of psychoeducational and recreational groups every day of the week, from 9:00am-9:00pm.  These groups can range from Fitness Walking to Suicide Prevention, Coping with Anxiety to Learning Forgiveness, to Trauma and Medication Education to Creative Writing.  While the days on the inpatient unit are filled with opportunities to learn, share, gain insight and feedback, once a month at MCES there is an opportunity to experience something special, outside the realm of what is traditionally thought of as “treatment” or “therapy.”

In 2014, two foundations, The Clayman Family Foundation and the E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation both awarded MCES grants to fund a year-long concert series on MCES’s inpatient unit.  The notion of having performances for individuals experiencing inpatient treatment is not new, but it has rarely been formalized to this extent, supported by philanthropy, and attracted a such a diversity of talent:

LoewySusanna Loewy is a twice GRAMMY-nominated flutist and educator who lives in Philadelphia.  She has performed with Peter Nero & the Philly Pops, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Louisiana Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.  Susanna played at Carnegie Hall in 2013, premiering the new works of three contemporary composers.

Susanna’s June 25th concert was her second time back at MCES, and she performed a variety of works from classical to contemporary.  Susanna had performed a Valentine’s Day concert at MCES on February 13th.

MCB2The Merion Concert Band was established in 1977 with the aim to “foster and promote music and the interests of music in the community.”  Since that time, it has grown to become one of the most popular bands of its kind in the area, producing a well-attended annual concert series and attracting professional musicians to play alongside their amateur performers.     

On July 10th, over forty members of the Merion Concert Band played an unforgettable twilight concert in the MCES outdoor courtyard for dozens of enthralled patients and staff.  It was a night to remember.

Nicole Zell 3 (2)Nicole Zell is a singer-songwriter and a mental health advocate, making her a natural choice to perform at MCES.  She has performed in a variety of venues over the last five years, and hosts a radio show called “Soundstage” on WCHE-1520 AM Radio.  Nicole is a member of the Chester County Suicide Prevention Taskforce.

Nicole’s emotional hour of music in September was compelling and revealing about some of her personal struggles, and her music, words, and thoughts resonated with the patients and staff in a powerful way.

Deirdre Flint @ MCESDeirdre Flint was born and bred in Philadelphia, and her music is a blend of hilarity and sincerity.  One minute, she can make you howl with laughter at songs mocking Facebook, bridesmaids’ dresses, or being flat-chested, and the next you could be crying as she sings about the memories of her grandmother’s house.

Also a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia School District, Deirdre Flint’s songs are instructive in nature: about how not to take oneself and one’s world too seriously, about how laughing in the face of adversity can be an essential coping skill.  Deirdre’s unique, funny, and down-to-earth performance at MCES filled the cafeteria with laughter and applause for this one-of-a-kind singer-songwriter.

Staines & Zell (11-21-2014)Bill Staines is perhaps one of the best-known names in folk music today.  He has recorded twenty-two albums over his 40-year career, and travels over 65,000 miles annually, playing at 200 venues nationwide.  Bill has performed on national radio shows “Mountainstage” and “A Prairie Home Companion” and his songs have been featured in several major motion pictures.

On November 21st, Bill Staines traveled from his home in New Hampshire to MCES to perform a set of some of his most memorable and well-known songs for an appreciative audience of staff and patients.

Nicole Zell was warmly welcomed back to MCES to play an opening set for Bill Staines.

The Norristown Chorale has been singing in and around Montgomery County since 1977, performing two main concerts annually for the benefit of the community.  They have performed with the Ambler and Pottstown Symphony Orchestras and have presented Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. 

On December 17th, 50 members of the Norristown Chorale filled the MCES gymnasium with the glorious sounds of Christmas, singing a mix of traditional carols, hymns, and popular songs about the Christmas holiday—a special, heartwarming treat for those who had to be hospitalized so near to Christmas.

Opera North, Inc. is the oldest African-American opera company in Pennsylvania.  They produce and perform new works, full-scale productions, concerts, and educational outreach engagements.  Their director, Leslie Burrs, is deeply invested in connecting with the mental health community.  Opera North, Inc. recently collaborated with the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental disAbilities on a video project documenting mental health recovery.

Soprano Iris Fairfax, baritone Dan Lickteig and accompanist Pasquale Montenegro of Opera North, Inc. performed a pleasing blend of opera, operetta, and musical theatre pieces for an attentive and engaged audience in January.

Doc Gibbs & Cachet IveyDoc Gibbs performed at MCES on February 16th, along with dancer and instructor Cachet Ivey.  Doc brought along with him percussive instruments from around the globe and had patients performing with him and with each other.

What, to the casual observer, looked like a simple box or a George Foreman grill, Doc Gibbs was able to turn into expressive, tuneful instruments that had people up and moving to Doc’s rhythms and Cachet Ivey’s infectious moves.

Doc Gibbs has performed with Erykah Badu, Wyclef Jean, Grover Washington, Jr. and many others.  He was also the bandleader on the “Emeril, Live!” show from 1997-2007.


Individuals receiving inpatient behavioral health treatment have the same need to experience creativity, artistic expression, and enjoyment of culture as anybody else.  Unfortunately, for many with mental illness diagnoses, access to the arts is severely limited by myriad factors, and inpatient hospitalization is an obvious disruption to an individual’s ability to experience arts and culture.  Through the generosity of the Clayman Family Foundation and the E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, we are able to bridge the gap between culture and treatment and offer high-quality performances to our patients and staff, and let the music continue.