In Their Own Words

From participants in Humans in Harmony’s programs:

—In the foster care setting, we witnessed first-hand the ability for medicine to heal. We were invited to dinner at the foster home, where we met the eight girls who received our personalized songs. The home was equipped with old stereos and VHS players; the walls furnished awards, trophies, and children’s artwork. But underlying this seemingly warm home were tragic histories of trauma and neglect. In fact, more than 80% of these girls were sexually abused. Two of these girls even witnessed the murder of their own mother.

Listening to the songs over dinner with the foster girls was simply life-changing. One of the girls had memorized all the lyrics to her song. Closing her eyes, she began singing and swaying her arms: “You’ve got to be yourself, you’ve got to love yourself, be loud, be proud…”. She emotionally welled up and bashfully excused herself. Her clinician later informed us that she requests for her song to be played daily. Most touchingly, she uses it as her “calming down” song.

We were at a loss of words. Nothing philosophical or data-driven could trump the feeling of our amazement. Words could not truly encapsulate what was so obviously proof that creative song writing had a medically relevant importance.

Alex Vu, Columbia Medical School Student

—Last Summer, the members of my Pancreatic Cancer Support Group at New York Presbyterian Hospital were visited by a group of Health Profession Students from Columbia University – members of an organization called “Humans In Harmony” who have a passion for drama, music and the performing arts.

…In short – this amazing group of young people came to our meeting to talk to us, interview us, then went away to write a song for each one of us. My songwriter wasn’t able to be at the meeting so one of his colleagues interviewed me, took detailed notes and said that she would sit down with him and tell him my story.

The September meeting – the students returned and I finally got to meet my song-writer Mike, a second year medical student from Canada. We went off to a quiet corner of the unit and I got to see the expressions on his face as I told him the full story of my survival and my dedication to bringing love, hope and hugs to current pancreatic cancer patients and their families. He handed me a pair of ear buds and he played the song that he had written and recorded for me. By the end, I was in tears, hugging him. The smile on his face was magical – we both realized that in music, somehow he had managed to “capture” my spirit.

We went back to the meeting and all the songs were played. Laughter, joy, a celebration of life …. And the tears when they played the song that had been written for LB, a much-loved member of our Group who had passed away just a few days before the meeting.

We have just received our copies of the songs. My song “Better” is truly a gift. My heartfelt thanks to young “Doctor Mike” and all the wonderful members of Humans In Humanity. I have been going to almost every monthly meeting for over 5 years, what you did was so special. You gave us something more than just a song, you gave us your love.

Thank you.

John Whitley, Pancreatic Cancer Support Group, New York Presbyterian Hospital

Week 2: Brainstorming, Storytelling, Song Structure, and Lyrics

The room we’re in is really loud, even though most of us are meeting for the first time—which, well, speaks volumes. 

At Isabella Geriatric Center this week, we packed one room with 24 community members (10 nursing home residents and 14 AHRC participants, who are adults with developmental disabilities), along with 12 Music Corps members placed at these organizations.

Music Corps member Natalie kicked off the session with the theater exercise Do Like Me. We all gathered in a circle and each person chose a hand movement to represent themselves. One member strummed an imaginary guitar, another waved her hands in the air, and the rest of the group copied every movement. There were laughs and smiles all around.

Humans in Harmony intern Gideon gave an introduction to lyric-writing and song structure: thinking about rhyme, song structure, how to get ideas out and free-write, and centering a theme. Humans in Harmony intern Ann also shared her own method of songwriting, based on a songwriting course she took in college.

After the presentation, we broke out into groups of five, which were mostly based on the internship placements of Music Corps members. Staff members from AHRC and the Isabella Center also helped facilitate  discussions and lyric-writing.


There was an ease of conversation, of intensity and dedication of eye contact, of group sharing and participation, and of smiles and laughter. Some were starting to sing together in chorus, while others were having conversations about personal interests or ideas for verses.

Music Corps member Chadley loved working with her group, whose members are part of the band Zulu P: “They really loved talking about their mission, which was that they just love the sense of family in the group and making their audience happy.”

Another Corps member pointed out the role of family in her group’s ideas about support and giving back: “Family is incredibly important to them, particularly relationships with siblings. It seems that what is most important to them about these relationships is the sense of support, care, and togetherness they feel when with family. Many of them express desires to be able to help their family in the same way their family helps them, a sense of mutuality in care.”

After about 30 minutes of workshopping in small groups, we gathered together to share what we had created. One group sang a completed verse, another read their newly written lyrics, and others shared what they had learned about each other. Our community members are equal parts performers and storytellers.

At the end of the session, Music Corps members gathered around a small table and Gideon opened up the group discussion with a prompt for reflection: “What did you learn about your community members?” 

We spent about five minutes writing. Music Corps member Sebastian opened with the thought of connecting to those who were different yet shared so many similarities and skills: “Each one of them has complex interests that are not only limited to music but also many other facets of life, including religion and ideology.”

Others discussed the songwriting process: how it was easier to write for a form of connection but also the difficulties of respecting the story without imposing upon it. One Music Corps member working with geriatric residents reflected, “Sitting there speaking to them, I imagined such vivid and full lives, and could almost see scenes from the years gone by.”

During this session, we learned that the most enriching parts were the ones that couldn’t be planned: the natural interactions that happening during the theater exercise, the shouts of encouragement during the presentation, the flow of smiles and movement during the group workshopping, the excitement and sharing of the sharing, and the conversations during the reflection.

So we’ve gotten off to a great start, and we’re excited to see how our songwriting projects evolve and get personal in the next few weeks. Seeing us all in groups and the ways that people laughed and came alive was one highlight of many.

As Director of Arts and Community Outreach Darinka Vlahek nicely summed up at the end of our session: “Everybody feels liberated to create stuff.”

Week 2 (June 18) by Erica & Amy

Week 3: Lyrics and Melody

Artists, producers, and writers take years to successfully collaborate on a song, so our eight-week project at Humans in Harmony is no small task.

Our collaboration this week started with the Lemon Tree icebreaker. We each went around in a circle handing an imaginary lemon and identifying the absence of something we wished for in our lives at the moment. 

Humans in Harmony intern Gideon then gave a presentation on how to begin writing a song, two common methods being starting with a melody or starting with chords. He found some cool online resources and programs to help us create and edit our songs.

Next, Music Corps members Nyokabi and David showed samples of how they’ve written songs in the past. They’re both experienced songwriters, so we’re lucky to have them. David began with an introduction to music theory and Kabi helped us improvise a melody to some existing chordsdifferent methods, with pros and cons each.

We then broke out into groups to continue workshopping our songs. One group focused on building on the verses and choruses they had worked on last time.  Despite some shifts in group members and absence, they still picked off from the last theme of “my family, my inspiration”. Zulu P continued to their rounds of freestyling, but with recordings and beats on GarageBand.


Among the Music Corps members at the close of our session, a free form conversation took place where the students discussed how they planned to work in the next sessions with their group. 

Music Corps member Sam, who’s working with a gospel choir, said that “During our first session they were very encouraging for Sakari and I to share our singing with them, and likewise, they were excited to share their singing with us.”

Building on a previous conversation about how to go into community settings from a learning perspective rather than a helping perspective, Chadley explained that she had learned a lot from Zulu P members: “Working with and collaborating with Zulu P honestly makes my job so easy. They are very open to just trying things and our ideas out. Today, we kind of just facilitated what they already know how to do.”

Music Corps member Kabi, who’s also working with Zulu P, added, “Listening is a big part of collaboration and them letting out their thoughts – and ours too – has created a welcoming atmosphere of collaboration. Another thing is talking about artists that we all love, such as Kendrick Lamar! Sharing things in common shows that we understand each other, and when people feel understood, this is when collaboration and teamwork thrives.”

As interns and outsiders to these longstanding programs, many of us came in thinking that we would be there to facilitate collaboration. Our workshops show us that our community members teach us how to collaborate, too. We’re excited to be in a group of teachers and students, facilitators and participants, in our exciting and rapidly developing projects.


Week 3 (June 23) by Amy & Erica