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New Program Aims to Fill Hospital Halls With Music

Professional musician launches music program to bring joy to hospital patients, families, staff, and visitors

Reviewed by: Mark Bernat, Director of Music Services
Written by: Lauryn Gerard and Erich Pelletier

A closeup of two cellist's hands drawing their bows across the instrument.

Jamming out to your favorite tunes can provide a great source of pleasure and entertainment, but research also suggests that listening to music can benefit your overall health and well-being. Music has been shown to elevate mood, reduce stress, relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression, ease pain, improve memory, provide comfort, and more. The mental and physical effects of music can be powerful and are often wide-ranging, so much so that filling the halls of the Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas with music has become a new initiative of the Dell Medical School and UT Health Austin.

Mark Bernat, Director of the Dell Medical School Red River Ensemble, is featured with his cello.

Mark Bernat is a Juilliard-educated double bassist and former member of the Israel Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony. He has taught music at the Oberlin Conservatory, The University of Texas at Austin, and Emory University. Bernat recently joined the Dell Medical School as the new Director of Music Services to establish a music program that brings together amateur musicians from across the university to provide musical entertainment in the atrium and waiting areas of the Dell Seton Medical Center.

In addition to winning several national and international performance awards, Bernat has published transcriptions for double bass, performed solo numerous times internationally, and has solo and orchestral recordings to his credit.

“I’ve been studying music since I was five and have been a professional musician since I was 15. My wife, now a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Neuroscience, was also a cellist, and our two children are currently studying music professionally at Juilliard. I honestly had no idea how powerful music really was until I started doing this work,” says Bernat.

“My wife and I moved from the University of Iowa, where for the past 12 years, I’ve been doing what I came here to The University of Texas to do, which is bring music and other performances to the hospital and community free of charge. My goal is to build a program that brings together faculty, staff, and student musicians from across the university who are interested in playing music together to deliver concerts to the patients and visitors of the hospital,” explains Bernat.

Bernat often performed on his double bass in waiting rooms and at nurses’ stations at the University of Iowa and has experience organizing an orchestra consisting of amateur musicians. Over 50 staff, faculty, and clinicians from around Dell Medical School, Dell Seton Medical Center, and UT Health Austin have volunteered to join the nascent Red River Ensemble. “It’s amazing how many musicians we have here,” says Bernat. “It seems like every other doctor is a musician.” The orchestra will be a central component of an ongoing effort to bring a range of live music to the hospital’s spaces.

With a new Kawai baby grand piano now placed in the ground floor atrium of the Dell Seton Medical Center, public performances kicked off Monday, February 28, 2022. David Bernat, Mark’s son, violinist and doctoral student at The Juilliard School, joined Elias Dagher, Bard College Piano Fellow, in performing nearly an hour’s worth of selections from composers, such as Viktor Kosenko, Béla Bartók, and Robert Schumann.

Bernat hopes to schedule midday concerts in the hospital atrium approximately twice each month and plans to feature a range of performers and musical styles. Building connections with The University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music means that student musicians from the main campus will have opportunities to play, gaining important public performance experience and credits toward their degree requirements. “Whether it’s a pianist, a string quartet, or a singer, anyone can play as long as they have some level of qualification,” shares Bernat. “We will have a variety of music. Classical, mainly, but I want to try and bring in all sorts of Latin-inspired music as well. The hospital serves a whole host of patients, so we don’t want to limit it to one genre of music.”

“This music program not only provides entertainment to hospital patients and staff, but also serves as a creative outlet and hobby for the amateur musicians who are also oftentimes the doctors and nurses providing care to patients every day,” continues Bernat. “I’ve found our volunteers to be extremely passionate about this work and being a part of the program often benefits them as well.”

“I never imagined I would be doing this type of work, but it has been extremely rewarding. I get to create music and build lasting relationships with other musicians all the while making an impact on the lives of people who may just need something uplifting to help get them through a difficult time in their life. The connections we make with people are very special,” says Bernat. “In the past, we have had people come up to us afterward in tears, thanking us for reminding them of better times or for helping them to briefly escape their current difficulties and pain.”

If you are interested in joining the university orchestra, you can contact Mark Bernat directly via email at mark.bernat@austin.utexas.edu.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.