A member of Public Harmony plays at a nursing home in Cambridge, Mass. on Feb 25, 2016. Courtesy Public Harmony

Public Harmony unites music and community service through perfomance

Tufts social outreach and music group Public Harmony is hosting a Spring Showcase in the Sophia Gordon Multipurpose Room tonight from 8:30–10 p.m. The free performance will be the group’s first on-campus event since their creation last spring.

“We became TCU-recognized this fall, and we’re a student organization that unites music and service. We bring student musicians into the community to perform at venues including assisted living facilities, shelters and Tufts-area communities, with the purpose of increasing access to live music where opportunity is limited while also giving members the chance to collaborate and perform,” sophomore Marissa Birne, one of Public Harmony’s co-presidents and founders said.

The group was created by Birne and co-president Anthony Benja-Athon, a sophomore, and started out as just 10 student-musicians who wanted to explore the intersection of community service and music.

“During that first spring, our pilot group performed twice at St. Francis House, Boston’s largest day shelter, and once at the Women’s Lunch Place, a women’s shelter in Downtown Boston,” Birne said.

The group originally consisted of only 10 students with cello, voice, piano and guitar all represented as part of the music’s repertoire. Since then, Public Harmony has expanded, and after being recognized as an official group on campus, there are now over 60 members who regularly participate in Public Harmony.

Public Harmony’s sound has become increasingly diverse as the group has grown, ranging from classical to contemporary music played on an array of different instruments. The group is now looking to further expand their audience to the Tufts community, as much of their focus has so far been helping communities outside of the university.

“It’s going to be very laid-back, an opportunity to learn more about what Public Harmony does, hear some great music and support friends,” Birne said. 

Sophomore Coral Yang, one of the featured performers, said she was excited about the chance to share the group’s music with Tufts and hope that people will be able to get to know the performers through the showcase.

“[I want people to] know that this organization exists, and there are a lot of talented people that are giving back to the community,” Yang said.

Normally, Public Harmony performs at locations like shelters and assisted living facilities in the greater Boston area, helping to bring live music to places where it’s usually inaccessible.

“It’s a group performance as well as an individual [one] for the students, and the impact is that we get to reach people who have no access to live music, whether that’s for socio-economic or mobility issues,” Benja-Athon said.

Many of the elderly people Public Harmony serves are unable to travel, and people in shelters often can’t spend money on concerts. The group provides a free and engaging solution to these problems.

“Music has a really great impact in ways that sometimes other forms of community service can’t … Music is the universal language,” Benja-Athon said. 

According to Tony Nguyen, the club’s music director, there are many small moments that make the student experience worth it. When performing for elderly people who live in assisted living, Public Harmony will often choose older songs the people there may know, helping to bridge the gap between the students and the elderly.

“When we go to assisted living facilities, I love to perform songs that the people know. There are a lot of nonverbal Alzheimer’s and dementia patients that as soon as they hear the music of their childhood immediately light up and react. Some even tap their feet, which to me is the most amazing experience, that someone that is usually silent and inactive becomes so empowered,” Nguyen said.

Public Harmony is typically very well-received when they perform, with positive interactions between students and community members another highlight of the performances. According to Benja-Athon, performances sometimes feature sing-alongs in assisted living facilities and occasionally audience performances as another way to engage with community members.

“We get a lot of questions … and spend a lot of time afterwards talking to people. It’s a very equal space,” Benja-Athon said. 

Birne noted that while Public Harmony does hold mini-auditions each semester for interested members, they welcome anyone who is interested, with the auditions serving to help them get a feel for each individual student.

“We don’t make any cuts, but it just gives us a chance to think about how they will best fit into the group,” she said.

Students can attend as many performances as they want each semester as part of the group’s mission to provide a low-stress environment focused on making music.

“[Music] brings together people into a mental space where they’re all feeling a similar emotion. It’s that shared experiences that makes me really happy to perform,” Nguyen continued.

Today’s performance is the last event Public Harmony has planned for this year, but they’re already thinking about possible performances next semester and plan to return to the organizations they’re familiar with while also expanding their student base and outreach.

“We’d love to continue to be a welcoming, open space for Tufts musicians. I think there are a lot of people who want to keep making music after high school, and Public Harmony offers a fun way to do that while also giving back,” Birne said.

A full list of the featured artists for Friday’s performance can be found on the official Facebook page for the event, “Public Harmony Spring Showcase.”

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