1.05.2011

A Neuro Christmas

Dr Ken Hastings doesn’t look much like Santa Claus, but he shares a few of his more important traits: he has a beard, he is jolly, and he brings joy to others at Christmas. He is, in fact, much slimmer than Santa and he has a very different day job. Hastings works as a researcher in the neuromuscular research unit at the Neuro. Hastings’ passion, next to understanding the molecular biology of muscle cells, is music. “I’m an amateur musician,” says Hastings. “I don’t have any training, but I just love music.” His love of music led the researcher to join the Neuro Cosgrove Choir (named after its founder, Dr Bert Cosgrove) some 25 years ago. “I still remember the first practice I had,” says Hastings. “The choir director said: ‘We’ll sing, “Deck the Halls,” and you’ll be a tenor.’ When it came time to sing, I sang the melody that everybody knows. He said: ‘No, no, no, no! Each voice has a different part. You have to learn your part.’ That’s how I learned about harmonizing.”

Hastings learned how to harmonize so well that 12 years ago he took over as choir director. Every Christmas he gathers together a group of fellow researchers, technicians, students, doctors, neuro-psychologists, and pathologists to practice a small repertoire of carols that they perform at the Neuro’s Reitman lunch (an annual Christmas lunch for the whole staff, given by the Reitman family) and on the wards at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Neuro.

This past year’s iteration of the Choir got together on a Monday evening before the holidays to share some food and a glass of wine before making their way around the wards. The mood was cheerful with a slight touch of pre-performance jitters. There were those, like Janet Arts, who had been singing with the choir since 1975, one year after it was founded, and who had only missed one year of caroling in over 30 years, and others who were singing with the choir for the first time. There were no obvious correlations between occupation and participation, except for the two students from the music and neurosciences lab, and an unexplained strong showing from the transcranial magnetic stimulation lab at the Royal Vic.

After the food and a little bit of singing to warm everybody up, Hastings gathered his guitar, a green Santa hat, and his carolers and went to find some patients to sing for. Outside the Intensive Care Unit at the Neuro, he reminded the group that they needed to keep the volume down for the ICU patients. Once inside, he gathered the choir behind him in the hallway, just outside a patient’s room. Wedged in next to shelves of supplies, the group looked expectantly towards their leader. Hastings sounded a note, nodded, and they broke into a hushed version of “Silent Night.” In the quiet of the ward, the song filled the hallway. A face peeked around a pulled bedside curtain. The nurses listened but continued to go about their business. It was only when Rosalind Sham, a second-year neuroscience student at McGill, started to sing a solo of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” that all activity seemed to stop. Something in her voice lent a sacred tone to the song. As the singers made their way around the ward, several had tears in their eyes.

A couple of floors down, rousing versions of “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” and a Hanukkah song had the nurses dancing. “How do I join the choir?” one asked. In the epilepsy ward, patients and visitors applauded. “They sing well,” said someone, approvingly. On yet another ward, a young woman pulled out her phone and filmed a short video of the singers. “Will we be on youtube?” one of the carolers asked. “It depends how good you are!” joked the videographer. As the evening came to an end, Hastings thanked the Choir. “It was a very good year,” he said.

posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 7:50 PM   0 Comments

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