Julie Leven brings classical music to homeless shelters

Through Shelter Music Boston, Julie Leven brings live music to residents that feeds their souls and makes them feel 'elegant.'

Courtesy of Julie Leven
Julie Leven founded Shelter Music Boston, which performs at homeless shelters and other venues around the city. 'Everyone in these shelters needs their soul nurtured in some way,' she says.

When Julie Leven and her musician friends prepare to play classical music at the Kitty Dukakis Treatment Center for Women in Boston, they noticed that everyone looks tired.

Discussion and therapy sessions take place right before Ms. Leven and her fellow musicians perform. The sessions can leave the women at the center drained.

But once the music starts, that changes. “It's like watering a flower,” she says. “They come to life.”

Leven, the founder, executive director, and artistic director of Shelter Music Boston, performs at the Kitty Dukakis Treatment Center for Women and the Shattuck Shelter –  both in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood and both part of the organization hopeFound – once a month with two other musicians. They play classical arrangements on the violin and viola in a conference room at the Kitty Dukakis Center and in the common area at the Shattuck Shelter, a homeless shelter for men and women.

Leven is a violinist, a member of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, and a member of Boston Baroque, the professional ensemble for Boston University’s Historical Performance Program. She was inspired to start the nonprofit organization Shelter Music Boston in May 2010 after hearing about a similar program in New York.

Violinist Julia McKenzie and violinist Rebecca Strauss play with Leven at the shelters every month. At their first performance, Leven says, she was bowled over by the interest the women took in the music  – and their attentiveness.

“They were extremely responsive,” she says.

At every monthly session Leven and the other two musicians also discuss the history of the music they’re playing and encourage the listeners to share their thoughts about the music. They stress that there are no wrong answers. Some words come up frequently in listeners’ responses – “hope,” “I feel happy,” “calm,” Leven says. She's never had anyone say they didn’t like the music.

Certain musical selections seem to prompt specific feelings in the listeners.

“People often comment on feeling very elegant,” Leven says of listeners who hear Mozart. The women say they feel like they’re wearing a beautiful gown in a ballroom, she says. Staff members have told her there are fewer fights at the shelters after the performances.

But performing at shelters can provide some unique challenges, Leven adds. One night an intoxicated man walked back and forth while she was playing a violin solo and knocked over her music stand.

“I just told the other listeners, 'Well, I guess I have to start over,’ ” she says. “And everybody just smiled.”

The fact that she and the other two musicians keep returning has played a large part in winning over their audiences, Leven says. “We are back every month. That consistency has been a huge aspect of the success of this program.”

The trio plans to perform a series of concerts at Rosie’s Place, a women’s sanctuary in Boston, in February as well as starting monthly performances at Boston's Pine Street Inn, a shelter with many programs, in February.

In order to get more training in running a nonprofit organization, Leven has enrolled as a student at the Boston University School of Management.

Cindy Cummings, a friend of Leven’s and a fellow member of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, once played with Leven as a guest performer at a shelter. She was amazed by listeners’ reactions.

“I felt uplifted by the audience, because they were totally attuned to what we were giving them,” Ms. Cummings says. She was surprised how responsive the listeners were to the classical selections, a genre of music she would have expected them to regard with disdain.

“They're not like, 'Eew, it's not what I usually listen to,' " Cummings says. “They're very open.” She would love to perform with Shelter Music Boston again, she says.

Meanwhile, Leven's ultimate dream is for the program to spread nationwide. It could work well in any city, she says. “Everyone in these shelters needs their soul nurtured in some way.”

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