Skip to content

The Healing Power of Music.

September 5, 2011

Text and images by Brandee Nichols.

Meg Rider is busy making sure everything is in place for this evening’s live music performance.

The second floor conference room of Magee Rehabilitation Hospital is nearly empty, save for the single volunteer parked in front of a nearby television, watching the Phillies game. Filled with empty chairs that will soon be filled by patients, family members and volunteers, the evening’s musical guests set up for their sound check.

Rider, Community Programs Coordinator for Magee, converses with the two performers, members of the folk band Digging Up Earth, about the best way to bring music to patients who can’t leave their rooms.

“Whatever the patients want!” Julia Lebonitte, 23, responds enthusiastically.

As bandmate Allison Coulter, 22, sets up her microphone stand, Rider walks through halls to promote tonight’s performance.

Originally scheduled as a rooftop concert, the executive decision was made to move it inside due to the overwhelming heat outside.

A patient and family member waiting by the elevator overhear chatter about the concert and they are eager to attend.

“We’re planning on it!” the family member tells Rider.


Magee has seen a variety of live music performances this year in the cafeteria during meal times as well as on the Center City building’s rooftop, which boasts amazing skyline views. Opera and Irish singers visited, and an Elvis impersonator put on a show.

The performances are part of Magee’s informal music therapy program. The idea is that music can help people heal – by taking their minds of their ailments, and by inspiring them to move, sing and/ or dream.

Sometimes, the shows are with larger audiences. Other times, the musicians enter patient’s rooms and perform at their bedside.

Rider loves the idea of these intimate sessions, having more of a one-on-one experience between musicians and patients. Inspired by Musicians on Call, the 12-year old national program that has musician volunteers performing in hospitals, she is hoping to continue these performances on a regular basis.

“We’re hoping to possibly partner with them at some point,” she says. “Or maybe even just create something on our own. We have some musicians and talented people who want to give back.”

Digging Up Earth, here tonight for their third time, may become the new house band at Magee, appearing once per month.

“I just think they have great music,” Rider says. “But they also have great personalities. They’re very warm and caring. They bring a brightness and a calmness to anybody’s room that they visit.”

With sound check complete, Lebonitte (above, left) and Coulter stroll through the halls of Magee to play songs for the patients who can’t attend the concert.

With ukuleles in hand, they make their way down the hall, stopping to play songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun.”

“It’s nice, it’s nice,” says patient Hubert Brown, 86, as he flashes a grin at the performers. “I like it.”

Recovering from bilateral knee surgery, Brown has some music experience as well. He sings in a group called The Stillman Specials. The a cappella group is made up of five friends from five different churches. They’ve been singing gospel songs together for the past twenty years.

Lebonitte and Coulter’s effortless harmonies gently echo through the hallways, into the rooms of the recovering patients. More and more people wander into the hallway, and the performers make stops in random rooms.


Lebonitte and Coulter have known each other since grade school. They did musical theater together at the Moorestown Arts Advocacy Council in New Jersey. In high school, however, the two lost touch.

“We didn’t really talk for years, and then she just called me,” Lebonitte says. “That’s when we moved to California together to work on the farm.”

The pair traveled across country for a yearlong internship on a farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, near Sacramento.

“It was inspiring, the kind of work that we did,” Coulter says. “Breathing the air. Making your lunch from the food that you were growing.”

While in California, they started writing a cappella songs together. They soon began to sing and write with Kevin Dunne, guitarist of Nice Nugs and a Half, as well as sing backing vocals for a reggae band, Zuhg. Along the way, they both learned to play the ukulele.

They didn’t officially form Digging Up Earth until they returned to Philly last October. Then, they spent their time busking on the city’s lovely streets, which led to their first regular gig.

“We were just playing and a woman came up to us and wanted us to play music for her kids,” Lebonitte recalls. “So she got all of her neighborhood together and we would have music hour with all of the kids every Tuesday morning. It was awesome.”

Last spring, they started playing for crowds in Rittenhouse Square, educating as well as entertaining them. This fall, Digging Up Earth will give music lessons to children at Little Bar in Bella Vista.

“Like a school of rock for little kids,” Coulter adds excitedly.

Magee came into their lives when Lebonitte’s mother was a patient. Her father suggested that they consider playing here for the patients. So, they got in touch with Rider.

Lebonitte and Coulter both wanted to be music therapists at some point in their lives. Coulter even briefly studied music therapy at Berekely College of Music in Boston.

“I know how it feels to be affected by music,” Lebonitte says. “Hearing certain types of music just uplifts you.”

“It’s really nice to see the patients smile,” Coulter responds.


After roaming the halls like acoustic candy stripers, the duo make their way back to the conference room where they’ll hold their concert.

Digging Up Earth, joined by their upright bassist Dan Cunha, take to the stage, providing the patients and family members with a much needed break from the daily stresses of being a patient in a hospital.

Brown, making the trek from his room to the conference room, takes it one step further and joins the duo on stage for “This Little Light of Mine.” The octogenarian’s eyes light up as he sings, and afterward, he hugs Lebonitte and Coulter.

They move from Bob Marley to Weezer, and mix in a few of their original songs. They end the night with an encore performance of “Here Comes the Sun” leading straight into “You Are My Sunshine.”

When the performance ends, patients and other guests bombard the musicians with gratitude and praise.

“You guys are great,” one patient says. “When are you coming back?”

Read about the beatboxing doctor here.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: