In December 2008, violinist Yuan-Qing Yu’s 5-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. What followed were months of helping her child deal with the intense treatments, and endless trips back and forth to Lurie Children’s Hospital, then Children’s Memorial Hospital.
“During the three years of treatment, I went through a very dark period. When I finally felt emotionally strong again, I wanted to be useful and give back,” Yu says. “Instead of being consumed by something negative, I wanted to do something positive.”
That’s when Yu and her friends formed a chamber music ensemble that would play music in hospitals, as a way to lift the spirits of other patients and their caregivers who were going through similar struggles.
Yu’s fellow musicians — clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom (a cancer survivor himself), cellist Kenneth Olsen, and pianist Winston Choi — founded Civitas in 2011. The group decided that giving back to the community in this way would be a core part of its mission.
In fact, the members chose the name Civitas — which means “citizenship” in Latin — to reflect their passion for using music as a way to impart shared responsibilities in the community.
Since the group formed, they have performed more than 20 concerts at Lurie Children’s Hospital, sometimes on the oncology floor for the children undergoing cancer treatment, and other times in the Crown Sky Garden for anyone who wishes to take a moment to listen to the music. The ensemble also frequently performs at the Family Life Center, where the programs are broadcasted live through the in-house television system.
Yu says Lurie Children’s Hospital has great facilities to help the children cope with their time in the hospital, such as video games, art projects and more. But parents do not have as many opportunities to find distraction from the stress and to help them get through the long stretches of waiting in the hospital.
That’s why Yu thinks bringing music to the hospital is a great way of helping both the children and their parents cope. “If the parents and the kids sit down together to listen, they have shared experience through music,” she says. “For them, it’s a brief moment of escape from what they have to face.”
Also, sometimes classical music can give parents the opportunity to reflect and get in touch with some of their emotions. Yu remembers one woman who listened to Civitas’ concert and wept the entire time. “I think she wanted to have that moment without having to talk,” Yu says.
This year, Civitas has decided to broaden its reach by offering free concerts in retirement communities and other health care facilities.
On May 11, Civitas performed a concert for residents of The Breakers at Edgewater Beach, a senior living facility in Chicago. The group performed excerpts from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Glinka’s Trio Pathetique, Mucyznski’s Fantasy Trio, and Rabl’s Quartet in E-Flat, and then they answered questions from the audience.
Many of the residents, some of whom were confined to wheelchairs or used walkers to get around, clapped vigorously and yelled out “Bravo!” after each piece. “Many cannot go out to the symphony anymore. We want to be able to bring classical music to them,” Yu says.
On May 12, Yu and Olsen performed at Lurie Children’s Hospital with the fellows from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where they performed selections from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, Mozart’s Horn Quartet and a piece called “Tunji and the Giant.”
On May 22, Civitas is scheduled to perform a third outreach concert at 7 p.m. at the Ronald McDonald House, located at 211 E. Grand Ave. in Chicago. The Ronald McDonald House offers housing for families whose children are admitted at Lurie Children’s Hospital and who live too far away to commute daily to and from their homes.
“After they have been taking care of their kids, they can come back to rest and have for a moment for themselves,” Yu explains.