The Cedars Cancer Centre waiting area, like any other hospital waiting area, is not exactly a fun place to be. Even though it’s spacious and modern, the people there probably wish they were just about anywhere else! Most are waiting for cancer-related tests and treatments, and many are anxious, exhausted, and – literally – sick and tired of being there.

Healing Notes

Musician Tong Wang at piano with Healing Notes initiator Patil Harboyan

But, every Tuesday at noon, for one hour, the atmosphere gets a little bit lighter, as the sound of live music fills the air.

“Healing Notes” is the brainchild of Patil Harboyan, whose husband is a surgical oncologist at the Cedars Cancer Centre and who is a classical pianist herself. Several years ago, she noticed a baby grand piano in the waiting area of the hospital in Buffalo where her husband (then fiancé) was completing his fellowship, and it occurred to her how nice it would be if someone was actually playing it. “The administration gave me the OK to play, and I ended-up playing an entire recital, for an hour and a half,” says Harboyan.“It turned out to be an incredibly touching and rewarding experience that left a lasting impression on me.”

Fast forward to 2018: Harboyan found herself in a different hospital waiting area, this time at the Cedars Cancer Centre. The MUHC had just recently moved into its brand-new building on the Glen Site, and she was accompanying a family member to cancer treatments. “The waiting area was big, bright and clean, but totally stark and silent. The artwork wasn’t even on the walls yet,” she recalls. “But what I also noticed was an unused space that was the perfect size for a piano!”

So, Harboyan put together a detailed proposal for the Cedars Cancer Foundation, which involved hiring musicians from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, where she still teaches. “I knew the science behind the benefit of music, and I had experienced it first-hand myself back in New York,” she says. “Plus, I couldn’t help thinking: The MUHC is a McGill teaching hospital, where medical students gain on-the-ground experience, so why not also use it as a place for McGill music students gain on-the-ground experience?” she explains.

Healing Notes

Guitar player Steven Cowan

Interestingly, it turns-out Patil Harboyan wasn’t the only person who wanted to bring the healing power of music to the Cedars Cancer Centre at that time.

In 2016, the idea of buying a piano for the Cedars Cancer Centre occurred to a group of Cedars physicians, who wanted to do something to improve the patient experience. “A bunch of us had started competing in triathlons together, and we decided to solicit donations from family, friends, and the hospital community to raise money,” explains Dr. Tarek Hijal, who is now Director of the Cedars Cancer Centre’s Radiation Oncology Division. “We competed in triathlons and Iron Man races from 2016 to 2019, and we were able to raise over $15,000.”

The good news: They had raised enough money to buy a good piano. The bad news: They had no idea who was going to play it!

That’s when a fortunate stroke of serendipity occurred, as Jeff Shamie, President and CEO of the Cedars Cancer Foundation, had just enthusiastically accepted Patil Harboyan’s proposal.

“Patil met with me and proposed the idea of organizing a weekly concert for Cedars patients,” says Shamie. “The timing was perfect. On the one hand, we had the money to buy a piano, and on the other, we had someone who was ready to run a music program!”

A donor came on board to help pay the musicians’ fees, and “Healing Notes” was born. The first concert was held in January 2020. It was sidelined a couple of months later because of the pandemic but came back in full force in October 2021.

Most weeks, the musicians are students from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, where Harboyan teaches. Other times, the music is provided by Schulich School of Music professors or other professional musicians. Most often, the piano is at the heart of the concert, but there are also duos, trios and quartets showcasing a variety of stringed and wind instruments, and even the occasional guitar soloist. “There’s something for everyone to enjoy. They play classical, jazz, and popular music, and we always make sure it’s uplifting and light,” explains Harboyan.

Healing Notes

Pianist Leah Lee and violinist Jérôme Chiasson

Music helps people relax and provides a temporary escape from what they’re doing or thinking. It can also evoke all sorts of great memories and feelings. And, it has even been shown to reduce anxiety and blood pressure.

“Our patients are experiencing both physical and psychological pain because of their cancer,” says Dr. Hijal. “The concerts give them a little break from the stresses they are living. I’m happy to know that we’re helping them find moments of peace and happiness while undergoing their treatments.”

“Regardless of who’s playing and what instruments are being played, the effect is the same: the feeling in the room is completely transformed,” says Jeff Shamie, President and CEO of the Cedars Cancer Foundation. “It’s magical. People start smiling, staff members and hospital visitors come over to listen, and everyone gets to forget their disease and their troubles for a little while.”

And, it turns out that “Healing Notes” is as good for the musicians as it is for Cedars patients and staff. “It’s an invaluable experience for the students, because it gives them an opportunity to learn how to play in a totally different environment, with lots of distractions, and an audience that’s always changing,” explains Harboyan. “But it’s also extremely gratifying. The patients and visitors almost always come up to thank the musicians and ask them questions when they’re done. Some even make requests! The students really enjoy it, and they almost all ask to come back.”

“I’m very proud of this program because it embodies our mission to care for the whole patient, and not just treat their disease,” adds Shamie. “If we can provide leading-edge cancer treatment and care, and, at the same time, bring a bit more joy and serenity into the lives of patients, caregivers, visitors, healthcare professionals, and hospital staff, then we know we’re on the right path.”

To learn more about the Cedars Healing Notes Program, and to find out how you can support it through a donation, visit the Cedars Cancer Foundation website at

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