Former GVSU faculty member receives national music award

By Theresa Mueller | 8/20/17 10:16pm

GVL / Courtesy - Martin Hogan Diane McElfish Helle
by Martin Hogan and Martin Hogan / The Lanthorn

Despite fulfilling residency and a position as a violin instructor at Grand Valley State University for 26 years, former faculty member Diane McElfish Helle is far from fully utilizing her gift of music in the Grand Rapids community.

McElfish Helle has spent her life exercising her gift of music, not only through instructing and performing, but also through impacting lives in the medical setting through the Music for Health Initiative (MHI). It is McElfish Helle’s dedication of service to the community that recently gained her the national honor of the 2017 Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service.

Before establishing herself as an instructor at GVSU, McElfish Helle knew she wanted to teach. She claims that for any musician, teaching is simply part of fulfilling the gift.

“It’s part of the music experience; it is meant to be passed on,” she said.

During her years at GVSU, McElfish Helle taught and played in residency, while simultaneously performing as a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS). In 2007, she left GVSU, but only to add to her accolades. 

McElfish Helle’s role in the community did not strictly follow the strings of the violin; she spent years volunteering with her church at local hospitals. During visits, McElfish Helle noticed simply talking to patients took a lot of energy from them, causing family members to stress out. Eventually, she found herself in a hospital room, violin in hand, instructing patients to “just close (their) eyes and listen.”

With the skills of a musician, McElfish Helle asserts herself as part of the healing profession. She understands “the arts make us feel whole, and developing the arts helps people.” Witnessing the power of music in the hospital, she decided she needed to apply it to the community.

As a member of numerous committees within the GRS, McElfish Helle and fellow musicians continuously question ways in which the symphony can give back to the community. With McElfish Helle's recent revelation of music’s healing, the symphony began to look to the medical community.

McElfish Helle knew the symphony needed to take advantage of the location and thought “(Grand Rapids) is a regional medical center—we should do something.” 

Rather than wait around for someone else to make a suggestion, McElfish Helle took a lead on reaching out to the medical community. Fellow GRS musician Barbara Cobrato recalled, “Diane saw a need for service, and she provided it.”

In 2012, Spectrum Health responded to GRS’s proposal of music’s remedial use. The symphony began working with music therapists, studying ways the symphony’s high-quality music could benefit those in poor health. The symphony members continued their work with music therapists, and in 2013, they officially received funding from Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation, which opened a multitude of doors for the symphony and marked the birth of the MHI.

With the support of Perrigo and Spectrum, MHI began defining what the symphony means in the 21st century. By collaborating with Spectrum, music therapists have enabled MHI to display music as scientific. 

“Music is real medicine, not just an activity,” McElfish Helle said. Additionally, she claims the mission of MHI is not only for patients, but for families and health care providers as well.

MHI consistently works to enhance the lives of those impacted by poor health by creating soothing, meditative and personable performances. Traveling beyond the walls of concert halls, musicians from MHI find themselves performing 50 live sessions a year, as well as recording more than four hours of music to be played in hospital rooms.

McElfish Helle’s innovative role in MHI has never been overlooked. Being more than appreciative of her leadership, Corbato claims McElfish Helle “spearheaded the role as leader; she brought Music for Health together by dedicating herself to it.” 

Additional members from GRS and MHI knew McElfish Helle deserved greater recognition, leading to her nomination for the Ford Musician Award.

“Diane saw a void in the community and worked hard to fill it,” Corbato said. “It made sense she should be nominated.” 

McElfish Helle was honored with the award at the League of American Orchestras' 72nd annual National Conference this past June.

“The award was given to me as an individual, but I am just the face,” she said. “It’s the program, the symphony and partnerships. The program is nothing with just me.”

With national recognition of MHI, McElfish Helle hopes “people will know what a symphony can be—it is for them.”

Additionally, her hopes lie in future generations understanding what music can be, including students at GVSU. Whether studying music or medicine, each has the gift of healing, and none are bound by what is taught in the classroom.

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