Carolyn Surrick, poet and viola da gamba player in the Ensemble Galilei, has never been to war.
But along with her fellow musicians, who played Irish and Celtic tunes for seven years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Hospital in Bethesda, Md., she has witnessed the toll of war, not only on the badly wounded, but also on families and communities.
Based on that experience, Ensemble Galilei has joined with veteran NPR war correspondents Neal Conan and Anne Garrels to present “Between War and Here,” a program that combines music, poetry and memoir to explore “honor, courage, loss and hope.” A limited tour of churches on the East Coast will bring them to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill on March 31.
“Walter Reed isn’t a concert hall,” said Surrick, 59. “We played in the corner of the hospital lobby while people were having lunch. Patients or family members or staff would stop or sit a little away from us or hide at the top of the stairs or the balcony, sort of looking.”
Despite the unusual venue, she found the experience “magical.”
“Music transformed the space from a hospital to a beautiful hotel with music in the corner,” she said. “It was not only how people could hear the music in the back of their mind when the front of their mind was struggling, but music also somehow transformed the space.”
It also relieved anxiety.
During that time, a study conducted by a Walter Reed psychiatrist had the musicians play two hours in the morning, then asked listeners to complete response forms on how they felt before and after a performance.
“He found that people came to the hospital full of anxiety, but after the music they felt, ‘Oh, it’s going to be OK,’” said Surrick, of Annapolis, Md.
From the onset, their playing led to revealing conversations.
“On the first day there, I met a wounded soldier and asked him what had happened to him. And he told me exactly what happened, literally and very graphically,” Surrick said.
Although Surrick is not a music therapist, she believes the calming music contributed to that transparency.
“In circumstances where you’re not sitting across from someone and they’re asking, ‘Tell me how you feel,’ you can really create an opening for people to actually tell you how they feel,” she said. “You’re not one of their practitioners and there’s no judgment anywhere and we became just one of the guys.”
To honor and share the stories of those she met, Surrick published a book of poems titled Between War and Here in 2011. Some of those poems are included in the show.
“Each story is like a postcard, letting people on the outside see what I was able to see on the inside,” she said.
The poems are “less about battle and more about process.”
“One of the cool things about soldiers is that they’re very task oriented,” said Surrick. “In this case, their task is healing — how they have to go to their appointments and rehab and get prosthetics. It’s about how they’re moving forward in that process. And how it affects their families.”
She also observed how much the music helped soldiers express emotions.
“Many wounded soldiers are locked down emotionally. Music can break that boundary. They’re as surprised as any of us when all of a sudden, they’re super emotional about something because they haven’t been able to be emotional about anything except being mad,” she said.
Anecdotally, a few soldiers shared with Surrick – who gives them CDs and copies of her poetry book – how the tunes played by the ensemble helped them to cope with their medical conditions.
“We had one guy with terrible headaches. When we saw him, he was wearing blue glasses that people who have headaches and brain injuries wear,” she said. “He was in awful shape and could barely see.”
He took the CDs home with him.
“The next time we saw him, he looked incredibly better,” Surrick said. "He told us that he listened to our CDs before he rose in the morning. ‘I don’t even take medicine anymore,’ he said. ‘The music calms me down.’ ”
Others reported how listening to the CDs helped them sleep.
“We’re the only group that takes pride in putting people to sleep,” Surrick joked. “Our music really makes you tired.”
Although Surrick admits that the topics covered in Between War and Here can be intense, she said the music can cut the anxiety.
“There will be some story that is really hard to hear, then it will blossom into a fully realized piece of music that somehow gives your heart a place to rest so you don’t feel traumatized by these things at all. The music makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I can walk on. It’s another day.’ ”
For Surrick, who notes how few people outside the military have been affected by ongoing wars, the performance appears particularly relevant.
“After the program, people want to talk,” she said. “Veterans who might be initially worried about it, leave affirmed. People who don’t have military families feel stuff they may have never felt before. It crosses over the many political divides we have in this country – people who are Fox News people and NPR people – they're all there together.”
“Playing in a concert hall, the sound may be better, but if I had to choose where to play, I’d choose this.”
Between War and Here will be performed on March 31 at 3 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. For tickets and more information, visit www.EGmusic.com. All performances benefit the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.