I am sitting in a hall with glass windows overlooking the Alps. In front of me are 16 musicians from the Orchestra Solidarite of the Resonance Foundation in Barcelona, the Spanish branch of the foundation created by my friend and colleague Elizabeth Sombart. The audience of about 300 is made up in equal part of severely disabled adults, young and old, many in wheelchairs, and their minders. We are in a special facility where severely disabled people are looked after.

The conductor introduces each instrument: the violin, the alto, the viola cello and the contra bass. There are several musicians playing the same instrument, but one gets up to give a small demonstration of the sound and tone of each as it is introduced. The conductor then introduces the short pieces to be played and the concert starts. The noises that could be heard before the music start to quieten down. The faces, many agitated and tormented, start to relax. Some people start rocking to the music.

This could have been the concert I recently attended at Lausanne’s most prestigious theatre, the Centre Paderewski, named after a great Swiss composer. The orchestra is playing with the same concentration, attention and respect. They are not dressed casually as in rehearsals but, in spite of the humidity and heat, are dressed formally, with the women in black dresses and the men in black trousers and white shirts. The conductor is in a formal suit.

After four short pieces all noise has ceased. The piano is wheeled to the centre, Elizabeth walks to it, bows to the audience and with the orchestra, launches into the third movement of a Chopin concerto. The minders are visibly losing their watchfulness and tension. There is a palpable calm taking over the room.

Resonance performs over 400 times in five countries every year – Switzerland, Romania, France, Spain, Belgium and Lebanon. All these concerts, save two dozen, are for audiences of people in prison, hospices, old age homes or facilities for the mentally disabled. Students who study at Resonance’s centres do so on condition that they will perform for free and with absolute dedication at these concerts. This, and musical excellence, are the two aims of the foundation. Caring for society’s less privileged, and an understanding of the healing power of music, are drummed into young musicians until it becomes a part of their DNA. The orchestra playing just now has no member older than 24, and most are still in college. At the centre for prodigies in Romania, children of five are shown the true meaning of giving back to society, of spreading music to ease pain, a way of transporting to another world those trapped by circumstance, to free them even for a few moments.

The concert has now been on for 40 minutes and I see smiling faces where there were scowls. We come to the end and the clapping demands an encore.

I have the chance to chat with the young musicians. “Yes, we perform practically every Sunday, and it’s great to see the effect the music has on various groups. After this it would be difficult to play only to concert audiences.”

Although I come from a country where we traditionally sing to our unborn children, I still cannot imagine music being used as a strategy for healing on a national scale, nor musicians giving so much time and respect to society’s most vulnerable. It truly is impressive.

Author: Mallika Sarabhai is the director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of the Arts in Society.

Image: A violinist plays his during a festival in Spain REUTERS/Felix Ordonez.