Two years ago, while packing for winter break, Dan Rubins ’16 had a small epiphany. Without prompting, hours of brow-beating or soul searching, Rubins thought, almost out of nowhere: “What if I started an organization that partnered with children’s hospitals, and kids wrote lyrics and we set them to music?” He dropped his half folded t-shirt, then darted to his phone. He shot off texts to a number of friends and right away his friend from freshman year, Rebecca Brudner ’16, responded. Rubins drafted up an outline of the organization and its goals, and just like that, “Hear Your Song” was born.
Hear Your Song precisely matches what Rubins envisioned while packing for winter break: It is a team of Yale students who have established partnerships with several children’s hospitals in the area. The children write lyrics to songs, about whatever they want, set to whichever tune they want. Then, Yale students involved with Hear Your Song come together to put the lyrics to music and record it.
Though the patients come up with the original ideas for songs, aides at the hospital work with them to brainstorm lyrics. The children tell their helpers what they like or dislike about the lyrics: If they want to change the song, make it faster, slow it down, or cut something out. After edits, the aides send the lyrics to Brudner and Rubins, who turn the lyrics into a song.
Rubins and Brudner are the co-presidents of the group, which now boasts a seven-person board and a number of musician volunteers. They have partnered with two hospitals, Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital and the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center in Yonkers, New York, a residential center that serves children with severe mental and physical disabilities. In the coming years, they intend to expand the organization to other universities around the nation.
They started small, though — in the beginning, Rubins and Brudner were the only members. With their idea, they approached the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center, where Rubins had a connection. When he was in fifth grade, Rubins’ teacher decided to start a buddy program with Elizabeth Seton, which at that point was in Manhattan. Rubins was paired with a girl about his age, who was a permanent resident.
“It became really important for me, it helped form the kind of projects I wanted to do,” said Rubins. When they returned in February 2014, his buddy from fifth grade wrote their first song.
Hear Your Song is not the only organization using music to better the lives of hospital patients. The wave of music therapy has swept the country, and the effects are, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive. According to studies completed at University of California San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, playing or listening to music can immensely improve several psychological and physiological characteristics, from emotional support to fine motor skills to neurological rehabilitation. This form of therapy has had resounding success with child patients.
Most of the children at Elizabeth Seton are non-verbal or have linguistic impairments. While Hear Your Song does not work to cure these patients’ physical disabilities, they provide a different kind of therapy: they encourage the children to defy their impairments. They prove that even the voiceless can sing.
“It’s amazing,” said Rubins. “That feeling when you see a kid think, ‘Wow, I can write a song!’ That’s what we want to let them know, that they can.”
Since those early days with a keyboard, violin and a single patient from Rubins’ fifth grade class project at Elizabeth Seton, Hear Your Song’s humble endeavor has grown tremendously.
Erin Krebs ’16 is the publicity chair of the group. According to her, some members of the organization have recorded over 40 songs in the past two years. However, though they have expanded and made a tremendous positive difference for many children, Krebs still says, “We are still a bit of a hidden gem at the intersection of the theater and art worlds.”
The group has no admissions process. While they do tend to attract mostly those students who are musically inclined, anyone can join for as long as they want, whether it’s for 40 songs, or four.
“No one does this to put this on their resume, or to feel better about themselves. People do this because it’s infectious, you have to believe in it,” Krebs added. And it’s hard not to believe, hearing the stories of the children whose songs they bring to life.
Brudner recalls that she had one patient at Yale-New Haven who, in addition to being hospitalized had a very difficult home life. Brudner was surprised that she was very open about talking about it.
“She was so brave, and poetic. I really realized how privileged I was to be [there],” she said. “I saw how much people need these resources, these educational and creative resources.”
Rubins, too, has his fair share of anecdotes. He was once with a girl who only spoke Spanish, so all her lyrics were in Spanish. They were going over the song when her mom walked in. They asked the girl who she wanted to sing the song for her; she said her mother.
“So we recorded her mom and then she took a video of it,” said Rubins. “It was really amazing to help create that connection.”
For Rubins, Brudner, Krebs and anyone who wanders into a recording session for Hear Your Song, the whole point lies in the joy of helping someone else find creativity. In the wash of obligations inherent in a Yale schedule — Krebs worked on seven shows last year, while Rubins is the president of the Glee Club and Brudner acts in the theater and sings in multiple campus groups — it’s hard to find time for oneself, let alone giving to others. Nevertheless, they have managed to create a group that has brought joy to those in need of a smile and a song.
According to them, their magic is in the music. “Throughout history,” said Brudner, “music has been an extremely important outlet of emotion. It works for us because it’s an important part of our lives, it’s connective and helps give us insight into what the kids are going through. And it shows the kids that something beautiful can be brought from their words. That they can be creative too.”
By listening, by taking the kids’ lyrics, giving them the same recording respect they would give a Yale musician, the members of Hear Your Song tell these children that their words matter. They show them that people outside their families, friends and caregivers care and believe in their abilities. Through the magic of music and its inherent joys, they provide an emotional respite from physical maladies.
On Friday, Feb. 5, Hear Your Song is holding a concert in Sudler. Head over and have a listen. You’ll be doing more than you know.