A dose of music

Restored thanks to Lahey Clinic doctor’s love of playing the piano, a Steinway extends its healing powers

Lahey Clinic visitor Jim Cleveland has a song request for Dr. David Freeman during a recent session on the Steinway piano in the hospital’s lobby. Lahey Clinic visitor Jim Cleveland has a song request for Dr. David Freeman during a recent session on the Steinway piano in the hospital’s lobby. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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When Dr. David Freeman began working at Lahey Clinic in Burlington a decade ago, he noticed a beautiful Steinway grand piano sitting on one side of the cafeteria. Freeman, a rheumatologist and amateur pianist, asked around about the classic instrument, which seemed to be forgotten.

After Freeman’s inquiry about the piano, which been bequeathed by a former patient, the hospital won a grant to get it rehabilitated and ready to play. Freeman suggested moving the piano to the hospital’s busy lobby, often filled with patients and their families, some anxiously waiting for news.

With that began a noontime tradition, the doctor in a white coat and a bow tie sitting at the piano, playing for patients, staff and passersby.

“I play whenever I get a chance at lunch hour,’’ Freeman said. “I don’t think I’ve hardly missed a week in 10 years.’’

Freeman, who lives in Newton, and some regularly scheduled volunteers play the piano during the week, but sometimes the music is spontaneous, a hospital employee or a patient sliding onto the bench for a few songs.

Pat Zagaria, a 77-year-old retired piano teacher from Wakefield, plays every Monday morning. After he played “What Child is This?’’ just before Christmas, a man sitting on a chair nearby walked over to tell Zagaria how much he enjoyed his music.

“It’s calming, it’s just wonderful,’’ said Steve Zulon, a Whitman resident who was waiting for news about his father-in-law’s heart surgery. “It just makes a difficult day a little easier.’’

When Freeman sits down at the piano, he studies the lyrics of the song he is playing, trying to express the words through his music.

“The style that I play in has gradually evolved as I get feedback from the people in the audience,’’ he said. “I play it more slowly. I’m much more conscious of the individual phrasing. I’m much more conscious that every song tells an individual story, and I try to tell that story in music.’’

During the past decade, Freeman has developed his repertoire for Lahey, and carries a binder labeled “Resource Materials in Rheumatology,’’ which is packed with musical scores. One recent morning, he played “Tenderly,’’ a well-known favorite of Rosemary Clooney, “So in Love’’ by Cole Porter, and “House of the Rising Sun,’’ a folk ballad made famous by the Animals in the 1960s.

Freeman took piano lessons as a child, and never stopped playing. He combined the loves of both his parents: His father was a doctor and his mother a pianist. Freeman has long played in nursing homes and assisted-living centers, including a regular stint at the Falls at Cordingly Dam facility in Newton.

As a doctor, Freeman said, he believes in the soothing power of music, and he notices that he feels calmer after a session with the baby grand. Sometimes he sees patients do a double-take to find the doctor who just examined them playing the piano in the lobby.

“It’s a lovely old Steinway grand piano,’’ he said. “That, I think, is part of its appeal.’’

Every Monday morning, Zagaria slides onto the piano bench and begins playing. He was looking for volunteer work when he walked through the corridors of Lahey a few years ago.

“I knew they had a nice piano here,’’ he said. “So I came and asked the receptionist, ‘How can I get to play this piano? Is it is something that I have to get permission?’ They said, ‘No, anybody can play the piano.’ ’’

He started playing three years ago, and eventually became a regular on Monday mornings from 10 to noon.

“In two hours, I play about 40 songs,’’ he said. “I don’t stop. I just go from one song to another.’’

Zagaria said he also pays close attention to the messages in his choices. “I don’t want to play songs like ‘There’s No Tomorrow,’ ‘I’ll Never Smile Again,’ ’’ he said.

“I do play something uplifting, ‘Put on a Happy Face,’ or something like that.’’

He revels in the praise from listeners. One day last month, a woman silently handed him a note. “Thank you. . . This was just what I needed right now,’’ she had written in part.

Just before Christmas, a woman and her daughter asked him to play “Silent Night,’’ one of his favorite songs. He obliged.

“They sang it in another language,’’ he said. “They came from another country. It was the most beautiful thing. Everybody clapped.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

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