Students Create Project That Engages Local Hospital Patients and Nursing Home Residents

Meera Bhatia ’23 and Emily Nixon ’23 visit local hospital and nursing homes, commissioning and premiering a piece by Jeff Scott through the Gletherow-Young-Deppman Project Award

June 4, 2024

George Rogers

Two student musicians pose in Mercy Hospital lobby.
Oboist Meera Bhatia ’23 and flutist Emily Nixon ’23 meet in Mercy Allen Hospital's lobby before going off to perform for patients.
Photo credit: Jacob Strauss

“It all kept coming back to how important it was to have important people around you—people that cared,” says Grammy-winning composer and Associate Professor of Horn Jeff Scott, describing the essence behind Meera Bhatia and Emily Nixon’s community engagement project as well his commission, Two Orchids.

The project all started in March 2022 as the brainchild of Monument, Colorado native and fourth-year oboist and English horn player Meera Bhatia. At this time, Bhatia had an unexpected visit to the emergency room at Mercy Allen Hospital and underwent abdominal surgery that resulted in a week-long hospital stay and months of formal recovery. 

“As I was lying there in the hospital bed, I reached for the only thing I had in the moment—music,” Bhatia recalls. She describes skimming through recordings of oboe pieces until eventually coming across Augusta Reed Thomas’s Song Without Words, which “provided the only few minutes for that eight-week period where I was not in pain or worried about the future.” 

For Bhatia, this experience was transformative and helped her realize that music can be a tool for hope, strength, and emotional validation. 

Experienced in community engagement through the Ninde Scholars Program, Oberlin Community Music School, and Conservatory coursework, Bhatia set out to give back to the same community at Mercy Allen Hospital that provided her crucial emotional and physical support during moments of distress. 

“In her darkest hours, the first thing she thought about was to give back,” Scott says about Bhatia. “The first thing was, ‘how can I say thank you in a grand way? To the people who took care?’ That's the first thing she thought about. And that really spoke so much about who she is as a person.”

In the spring of 2023, music education professor Jody Kerchner identified an overlap between Bhatia’s initiative and Aloca, Tennessee native Emily Nixon’s ’23 interest in music therapy. Both pursuing the PACE (Pedagogy, Advocacy, and Community Engagement) Integrative Concentration, Bhatia and Nixon joined forces and began preparing for their visits. 

“I loved Meera’s vision for the project and very much wanted to be a part of it and help out in any way that I could,” says Nixon. “Meera and I met for coffee toward the end of the spring semester and shared with each other our interest in bringing music to Mercy Allen and the greater Oberlin community, and she graciously let me join in.”

A bulk of their preparations consisted of applying for the inaugural Gletherow-Young-Deppman Project Award, which is reviewed and awarded through the Bonner Center for Community Engagement Learning, Teaching, & Research. The award allows recipients to utilize prior coursework and explore professional interests through direct and practical community engagement work. Bhatia and Nixon’s proposal described their project in depth: meeting with three to four patients for 30 minutes, asking what kind of emotion they want to hear reflected musically, playing corresponding portions of larger works, and discussing the listener’s experiences afterwards.

A crucial element of their proposal was the use of funds to commission Jeff Scott to write a piece commemorating the project and “all of the stories told in the common room of the Mercy Allen Hospital as a tribute to Oberlin community members.” Upon receiving the award in May 2023, the two students began meeting with Scott not only to workshop the piece, but also to develop a deeper connection with each other and better understand what the project should represent. 

Scott explains, “I really wanted to find out what they considered to be important, especially when I'm being commissioned to write something. I like to know what people value. In the conversations, we talked about everything—parents, vacations, brothers, sisters—and it all kept coming back to relationships. It all kept coming back to how important it was to have important people around you—people that cared,” says Scott. “So when I set about writing the piece, and I was thinking about the hospital and the home for the aged, I thought, ‘Boy, how important are relationships when you're isolated in that capacity?’”

Throughout the composing process, Scott met with Bhatia and Nixon several times to workshop snippets. “It's not something I usually do,” he says, noting the uniqueness of the project even for him, “I usually might send one draft and then finish the piece, but it's such a personal piece, and it wasn't only for two musicians—I really wanted it to be for them.”

students in common room at Welcome Nursing Home with applauding residentsThe piece, titled Two Orchids, is a duet for flute and oboe and symbolizes two women of advanced age with a strong bond. One is more melancholy and reflective, and the other is a prankster who keeps her counterpart from getting overly serious. The work is divided into multiple sections by subtitles that indicate the women sharing various stories and recalling different memories. The inscription on the piece is “To honor the stories of resilience found at the edges of our collective consciousness.” 

Following the initial proposal, Kerchner suggested visiting Welcome Nursing Home, which was incorporated into the project’s final form. From November 2023 to March 2024, Bhatia and Nixon made two visits every week: one to Mercy Allen Hospital and one to Welcome Nursing Home. During these visits, the two instrumentalists played duets and conversed with listeners about music, culminating in two separate premiers of Scott’s Two Orchids: Mercy Allen Hospital on April 19 and Welcome Nursing Home on April 21.

group shot of Oberlin faculty, hospital staff, and student musicians
Mercy Allen Hospital staff supported Bhatia and Nixon, attending the premiere of the piece inspired by the students' interactions with patients. Oberlin faculty Jeff Scott and Jody Kerchner also attended the performance.

“Everyone, regardless of what stage of life they are in,” says Bhatia, “should feel part of the Oberlin community. And it is our hope that, through this project, more people feel seen as part of the community.” It was a point emphasized in the artists' proposal, which they described as a “symbiotic alliance" between them and the patients and staff at Mercy Allen Hospital and Welcome Nursing Home.

Oberlin students, faculty, and Mercy staff and patients alike rejoiced in the success and positive reception of the project, which left an indelible impact on Mercy Allen Hospital and the broader Oberlin musical and cultural community. “People recognize it as the notes that were written by someone,” said Scott, “but it becomes something really, really special because you're putting you into it.”

In May 2024, Bhatia, Nixon, and Scott met in the Conservatory’s Clonick Hall for a formal audio and video recording session of Two Orchids that will be made available to the public soon.

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