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Home » Recent News » Violinist Diane McElfish Helle Delivers Musical Hope to Patients

Violinist Diane McElfish Helle Delivers Musical Hope to Patients


Diane McElfish Helle, 59, of AFM Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI), is an accomplished violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony. From a family of pianists, McElfish Helle began playing the piano at age five, and then picked up the violin in fourth grade through her public school program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She discovered an immediate affinity for the instrument, and hasn’t put it down since.

It may be this background that created Helle’s desire to give music back to her community through teaching. She not only teaches students and faculty at Grand Valley State University, she also volunteers with fourth graders around West Michigan, bringing music to children in the same way that she found it. In 2011, McElfish Helle was awarded with the YWCA West Michigan Tribute Award for her teaching and for her music therapy-based health initiative.

She is also the regular host and lecturer of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s preconcert series, “Upbeat.” She serves on the boards of both the symphony and Local 56, where she has been a member for 35 years. She is incredibly active in labor and organizational issues.

“The union is the structure that connects us with one another, trains us in organizing ourselves, teaches us how to negotiate, and also brings support from the outside when we need it,” says McElfish Helle. “I became involved with the orchestra and negotiation committees once tenure allowed. We would not have livable salaries or good working conditions if we weren’t organized or didn’t know how to advocate for ourselves. It is as simple as that.”

McElfish Helle won the violin audition for the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1980, just two days after receiving her master’s degree from Indiana University. She says, “Semyon Bychkov had just become music director and I’d heard that both the city and the orchestra were growing; I thought it would be a good place to live and work as I was interested in growing and developing enterprises.”

Clearly, Helle was on-target. She’s been with the symphony ever since, and has become very involved with the Grand Rapids community. “When you join a symphony orchestra, you become a vital part of the whole artistic life of that city. It expands to include all the interactions you have with audience members, board members, student musicians, schools, and even your neighbors. You are musicians for your community in and out of the concert hall,” she contends.

However, McElfish Helle says that the most important performance of her career surprisingly occurred off-stage. “I particularly remember playing [Jules] Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thaïs in a congregation full of stunned people the Sunday after 9/11, and as I played, feeling hope enter the sanctuary like a tiny green shoot appearing in a barren landscape.”

McElfish Helle is perhaps most proud of her latest success, a health initiative that she heads in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Symphony and Spectrum Neuro-Rehabilitation. The program brings music therapy into the lives of patients suffering from chronic ailments. Helle and other musicians provide live chamber music to patients in one-on-one or group rehab sessions. This music-therapy program is different because it is musician-driven, rather than doctor-driven. Helle and the other musicians didn’t quite know what to expect going in. “We weren’t sure if we were even going to be playing!” says Helle. But they do play, bringing a touch of life and beauty into an otherwise sterile and clinical environment.

Helle’s program is uniquely results driven, she says, “Rather than duplicate a program from elsewhere, we built it around one central question: If Spectrum Music Therapy could have highly trained professional symphony musicians partner with you to do anything, what would you have us do? Out of this came a unique program, one that neither partner would have thought of on their own.” Music therapists and musician duos work together to plan and carry out group music therapy sessions three times a month for patients in all stages of recovery.

This type of music therapy has innumerable patient benefits. It stimulates certain neurological areas, including patients’ emotions, speech, and physical movement. It reduces pain and nausea, as well as stress and anxiety, and produces a profound feeling of relaxation and even hope. It gives patients something to hold onto and connect with, whether that is an instrument, the music, or the musicians themselves.

As for McElfish Helle, she says she loves seeing how music “works” physically as well as aesthetically. The music therapy program doesn’t just benefit critically ill patients. It also makes McElfish Helle and her fellow musicians feel good. They sleep just a bit better at night knowing that they’ve done a bit of good in the life of another person.

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