Every year for a decade with Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership, seniors have directed social action projects that educate our youth, reshape our political and social structures and healthcare systems, assess how we interact with the digital world, and more. This year, with mentorship from Skye Cleary, adjunct lecturer for the Athena Senior Seminar, students Saskia Ghosh ’21 (anthropology), Madison Murphy ’21 (American studies), and Mae Viccica ’21 (political science) produced The Harmony Series for their senior seminar theses. The musical series, posted throughout the month of December 2020, consisted of three publicly available virtual concerts, featuring Barnard and Columbia student-musicians, for senior-living communities in New York City.
“Our project aims to curb the negative effects of COVID-19 with music,” Viccica said, “and that makes me excited and upbeat in this challenging time.”
The idea for the concert came to Ghosh over the summer, as she worked on her senior thesis about the relationship between aging, climate change, and COVID-19 in East Harlem. Ghosh said that after seeing a Facebook flyer for a virtual music festival, “I thought it would be lovely to create a virtual concert series especially for senior citizens, who are one of the hardest-hit groups during this pandemic.”
Once Murphy and Viccica were on board, the three started planning the project on the first day of their Athena Senior Seminar class. “Saskia, Mae, and I connected through our shared concern over seeing young people not taking the precautions needed to ensure the most vulnerable in our society remain safe in this pandemic,” Murphy said.
While orchestrating a concert with college students could have been challenging, they credit Cleary’s supportive mentorship through Athena for giving them the tools of empowerment needed to turn 15 total video submissions from 30 performers into 25-minute concerts that they published to YouTube every Friday, from December 4 to December 18. Featured are a diverse pool of talent, like Columbia’s oldest, all-male a cappella group, the Kingsmen, and the classical violin duo Alison Kahn ’21 and Nathan Bishop, a teaching artist based in Clinton, New Jersey.
“I’m thrilled with how Madison, Saskia, and Mae have worked together as a team to launch The Harmony Series, as part of Athena’s Interdisciplinary Senior Seminar,” said Cleary. “It’s an innovative, joyful, and heartwarming solution to a serious problem of human engagement and connectivity that affects elders — some of the most vulnerable and often overlooked in our community‚ especially during this difficult time of COVID-19.”
In this “Students Share” feature, Saskia Ghosh, Madison Murphy, and Mae Viccica spread their holiday cheer by sharing the concerts with the entire Barnard community and reflecting on what they learned by coming together to support others.
A Passion Project
Saskia Ghosh: I grew up performing piano, violin, and Irish dance in nursing homes from a very young age, so I’ve always been aware of the impact that music has on seniors, especially when performed by young people. Yes, music itself uplifts spirits, but it’s more than that. Speaking from my experience both as a performer and now as a creator of this series, audience members feel the delight and exhilaration that the performer feels with their art — it’s a shared emotion. During the pandemic especially, I think it’s important to harness this youthfulness and joy and direct it toward those who appreciate it the most.
Mae Viccica: When Saskia told me about this idea in August, I was instantly drawn in because it’s such a hopeful project. I wanted my Athena Senior Action Project to be meaningful and something I am passionate about. I love working on it because it feels like a thoughtful and valuable contribution to our community and beyond; the intergenerational aspect of the project is definitely powerful.
Madison Murphy: I’ve been excited to work on such an impactful project. Through the joyfulness of music, I’m hopeful that our project can help inspire a culture of care.
I learned that the loneliness we feel right now is universal and that organizing something like this, an idea as simple as a virtual concert, brings immense joy to everyone involved.
Overcoming Production Challenges
Viccica: For me, the biggest challenge was securing student musician participation. I coordinated the student musician outreach and communication, so I was constantly sending emails and following up with potential performers. I was very persistent, sending weekly emails to anyone who had expressed interest and trying to get them to commit. The key was to just keep asking over and over again, because many people were interested but just needed another ask or reminder to commit.
Murphy: The three of us quickly realized that we lacked the video editing skills necessary to make our vision for The Harmony Series a reality. Thanks to guidance from Barnard IMATS and funding from the Athena Center, we were able to hire a video editor. Olivia Treynor ’23 has done incredible work, and we’re so lucky to have her on the project team. It’s definitely been difficult trying to virtually coordinate everything between four people, with all of us in completely different geographic locations. But we’ve all been great about maintaining consistent virtual communication between one another, and I’m so thrilled with the final product.
Ghosh: I was in charge of securing partnering senior homes. Since staff members are especially overloaded due to the pandemic, it was challenging to maintain communication with some homes that initially expressed interest. However, since this video is open to the public, those that didn’t respond are still invited to view our series!
Viccica: I learned that the loneliness we feel right now is universal and that organizing something like this, an idea as simple as a virtual concert, brings immense joy to everyone involved. It was really encouraging to hear from the musicians that they loved the project and were very happy to join it. We all feel the same way right now, but we don’t have to stay disconnected just because we can’t meet in person. We can still form relationships and share experiences virtually. That realization made me feel like the work we’re doing was meaningful and valuable.
Ghosh: It was lovely to see the immediate and genuine excitement from both seniors and students about this project. I already knew that Barnard and Columbia students have a strong culture of care, and I was pleased to learn that it only takes a few small steps to spread this care to our surrounding community.
Murphy: I realized that there was a desire among the senior-living homes across New York City to engage with us students, and likewise, many student artists were eager to engage with local senior citizens as well. In our videos, we’ve included personal messages from students, as well as their emails and social media handles, and we hope that our project can spark long-term relationships!
Mentorships With a Mission
Viccica: Professor Cleary’s assignments helped us refine our mission statement and structure our budget proposal. We received a project grant from the Athena Center, which we used to compensate Olivia for her video editing work and to purchase branded merchandise to send to our partnering senior homes.
Murphy: Additionally, Barnard IMATS helped us hire Olivia. The Athena Seminar helped guide our project from the start, and our classmates were encouraging and supportive all the way through. Each week we would work on a different part of our project, and the class format allowed us to receive feedback from our classmates, professor, and guest speakers, all of which was valuable in further developing our project.
Click here to watch all three concerts in The Harmony Series.