Before we go inside, viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick touches my arm. With serious eyes and concern in her voice, she lays out the facts: Most of the people I’m about to see have been injured horribly. On some, the scars will be invisible; on others, all too visible.
Her message is implicit: Don’t freak out. She tells me this not for my benefit but for the benefit of her audience, the residents of Walter Reed’s Mologne House, where she and sister Ensemble Galilei musician Ginger Hildebrand are about to perform. The soldiers injured in the Iraq and Afghan wars will be stopping by to see a show, not become one.
Setting the Stage
The hour-long drive from Surrick’s home in Crownsville to Mologne House is light and breezy. As she navigates her tiny Mercedes — packed with musical equipment, CDs, chocolate and people — she describes her daughter’s first solo plane trip and recommends that Hildebrand send her violin to New York, where an old-world master craftsman will clean and tune it to perfection.
No one discusses Mologne House or the upcoming performance. It’s old hat after 18 months.
When the car stops at the gates for an ID check, the guards smile at the duo in the front seat and let them take the short cut.
When Surrick dreamt up playing at Walter Reed, she thought it would be simple.
“As musicians you practice all the time,” says Surrick, who tours professionally with Celtic group Ensemble Galilei. “We’re pretty good. It seemed like a waste of time to practice for myself when I could practice for others and make their lives better.”
The decision was the easy part.
“The hard part was getting permission,” Surrick says. “I called four numbers and I didn’t hear back. I decided to stay by the phone until I heard back.” An eventual call to the chaplain’s office led to Mologne House.
General manager Peter Anderson allowed Surrick to set up a weekly performance in Mologne House’s lobby. Walter Reed’s less-critically wounded live at Mologne House, an outpatient hotel for soldiers who do not need around-the-clock care.
“It looks like a hotel, but everyone there is missing limbs,” Surrick explains. “There are a lot of blown-up people.”
Mologne House boasts an opulent lobby with golden drapes, floral arrangements and carved wooden railings that lead up a dramatic staircase. Behind a front desk, men and women in pressed white shirts and red vests answer phones and greet people. At the lobby’s sliding front door, crowds surge in and out, some on crutches, some in wheelchairs and some leading small children by the hand.
With a location, Surrick needed accompaniment. She asked Ensemble Galilei members Ginger Hildebrand and Sue Richards to join her.
“I’m going to be perfectly honest with you and tell you that I didn’t understand what this was all about,” Hildebrand says. “I said yes, unequivocally and without having to think about it for a second because I love playing with Carolyn.”
Richards, who couldn’t come to this concert because of a teaching engagement, also agreed.
In a corner of Mologne House’s lobby, Surrick and Hildebrand struggle with overstuffed chairs to create a crescent of seating for anyone who wishes to listen. They set up music stands and lay out instrument cases. Though Hildebrand can play only one at a time, she puts both violin and guitar in view, in case a soldier wants to play.
On a coffee table, the women stack their CD, Above and Beyond, and bars of chocolate. Everything is free.
Once the table is arranged to their liking, the women begin to play. The music rises over the din of the lobby. Some people pause to listen, others breeze by. No matter the noise or distraction, Surrick and Hildebrand play on.
Knowing Your Audience
As a little girl walks by, the duo shifts from Bach to the ABC song. Unimpressed, the little girl walks away.
“We should do SpongeBob,” suggests Ginger.
“I refuse,” says Carolyn.
With that, the two go back to Bach.
“Sometimes people sit and listen, and sometimes they walk by,” explains Surrick.
The musicians had to get used to both the loud environment and their audience.
“In the beginning, you sort of had a choice to make: Are you there for you or are you there for them?” Surrick relates. “If you’re there for them, you can’t spend time agonizing for them. Our job is to make their life better, not to be shocked.”
“It’s not something that bothers me at all,” Hildebrand says. “There’s so much respect for what these people have been through and who they’ve done it for that you can’t be wigged out for very long about it.”
Their music, warm smiles and free chocolate have earned them welcome.
“They really are wonderful, and it’s really made a difference for the troops,” Peter Anderson says of the weekly concerts. “It gets them to talk, and it’s very relaxing for them. There’s a lot of healing qualities in music.”
After almost two years of performances, the musicians have collected hundreds of war stories.
“The cross-section of people who have been injured in this war is as broad as any cross-section of society,” Surrick says. “We met a woman who had a choice of going to West Point or Julliard. She chose West Point. She had a spinal chord injury in Iraq. She told us, I don’t care if I walk, if I never turn my head again. All she wanted was to do this [Surrick holds her hand aloft], so she could play her violin again.”
Surrick and Hildebrand went into these performances with the hope of lifting spirits. What they may not have considered was the emotional toll each performance exacts.
“We’ve had some really hard days,” Surrick says. “There was this one day when this woman with three girls [about] 10, seven and five walked past us four times and never saw us. They were so consumed by worry, and you know that their dad was there somewhere, and they didn’t know whether he would ever be okay.”
Often comfort is beyond the reach of their music.
“Sometimes I find the relatives’ pain harder than the soldiers’ pain,” Surrick says. “Because they care so much about something they can’t do anything about.”
“I really do think that if it was your son, and he lost a leg, that your son wouldn’t really fully grasp the hugeness of that for years,” Hildebrand says. “I think the family members, for whatever reason, I think they get it quicker.”
Still, sympathy is not their job. Mood-elevating music is.
When their frequent listeners requested that the duo perform at night — to aid sleeping — Surrick gave out Ensemble Galilei CDs.
But the soldiers didn’t want to listen to a six-person Ensemble; they wanted to hear the three women who gave their time every Friday. Bowing to their wishes, Surrick, Hildebrand and Richards recorded Above and Beyond, a CD of the soothing classical and Celtic music that they perform weekly. Soldiers and Walter Reed employees can pick up copies at each weekly performance.
The Benefits of Repetition
“We get a lot of offers from groups wanting to come and play,” Anderson says. “We look at them really carefully because we want to make sure folks are doing things for the right reasons. This isn’t about them; this is about giving back.”
Surrick’s Ensemble passed Anderson’s scrutiny with flying colors.
“We’ve had a lot of rock bands come, one-time performances or once a year,” Anderson says. Unlike headlining rock bands, Surrick and company display commitment. “Every Friday, if they’re in town they’re here. People are waiting for them.”
When Surrick and Hildebrand met Wasim Khan, he was being pushed in his wheelchair by his brother. An RPG — rocket propelled grenade — had devastated Khan’s right side.
Today, the 32-year-old Army sergeant walks with a limp.
“I’ve been here since 2003,” he says. “It took me that long because you go through a surgery, right, then you go through recovery, then you wait for another time.”
Khan has undergone 35 surgeries to correct damage, including brain trauma. On his long road to recovery, he found solace in the weekly performances.
“Whenever I get a chance, I come down here and listen to the music,” Khan says. “I have their CD. I put it on my iPod.”
He says the music is a way to find peace during physical therapy, surgeries and bouts with infection.
“When you’re stressed, listen to the music and just feel free,” Khan says. “Before I go to sleep, I listen. It’s very comforting.”
Soon, Khan will have to rely on his iPod for comfort.
“I just got done with my last surgery in March,” he reports. “Two months and I’ll be out. Because I can’t do what I used to do, they’re medically retiring me.”
Khan is one of many stories the musicians have seen turn toward success.
“Sometimes when you first see these guys you think wow, that’s the way they’re going to be,” Surrick says. “Later you see them walk again.”
Playing by Ear
A man stares nervously at Hildebrand’s guitar. With a warm smile, Hildebrand asks if he would like to hear something.
“I was actually going to ask if I could play your guitar for a second,” he says, touching his hand to his head repeatedly. She hands him her Japanese classical guitar without hesitation and makes room for him beside her.
He plays haltingly at first, then with more confidence. The women clap and ask for an encore.
“It’s called the Spanish Romance,” he says as he fiddles with chords. “I never learned part two.”
“That was really nice,” Hildebrand says. “Do you have a guitar you’re playing?”
“Not here. I have one at home.”
“Where’s home?” asks Surrick.
“New York City,” he looks up for the first time. “I was in the classical guitar ensemble in high school, rocked for a little bit and kinda let it go. But I miss playing a lot.”
“You should have a guitar here,” Hildebrand says.
He smiles at the women and touches his hand to his forehead.
“Have a great day, ladies,” he calls over his shoulder.
This is a common scene for the musicians, who are always glad for soldiers to try their instruments. Typically, it’s the guitar.
As they pack up, there’s no fanfare and only a few sporadic claps from the front desk. But the duo was able to make two little girls smile and got a guitar into the hands of a man who missed his instrument. Overall, a pretty good day.
These little moments confirm Surrick’s belief in the healing powers of music. She’s there to “make it seem like not such a hospital one day a week.”
As Surrick stuffs the last cases into the tiny Mercedes trunk, she explains why this weekly appointment is important to her.
“The first soldier I met had his leg blown off by an IED [improvised explosive device] when he was in a truck. I said do you want to try to play my instrument? He said Yeah!
“He’s in this wheelchair with one leg, and of course the viola da gamba takes two legs, so I held my feet under the instrument so I could steady it and it would rest up against his one foot. As he rolled away, he turned around, looked back at me and said this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
That was the moment Surrick understood what she could do for these men and women.
“It was such an easy thing for me to do, to give to him, compared to what he had given to us,” she says. “I had wondered if this was an important thing to do, or even worthwhile. That was the answer.”
Purchase Above and Beyond at Art Things in West Annapolis. The $15 cost supports printing new CDs for the troops and Operation Warrior Fund.