When Jamma Etter of Winston-Salem recently got her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Novant Health Medical Group vaccination site at Hanes Mall, she was greeted with classical music.
She spoke of what it was like being in the former Sears department store.
“When you first walk in the facility, the first thing you hear is the violins and the music that they provide,” Etter said of Winston-Salem Symphony musicians.
Then “you get a glance of folks who have dedicated their time to give you music, to kind of soothe any jitters you may have, to also kind of calm your nerves if you’re nervous about getting the vaccination.”
Local musicians have been playing at the vaccination site at Hanes Mall and at the Forsyth County Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccination site the past two weeks to provide music for the community.
Novant Health has a partnership with Winston-Salem Symphony to bring music into the mass vaccination clinic at Hanes Mall for a total of 20 weeks. Winston-Salem Symphony musicians are performing twice weekly.
In addition to its large vaccination center at Hanes Mall, Novant Health has another large one in Charlotte, as well as pop-up centers with partners to take vaccines into neighborhoods. But its vaccination center at Hanes Mall is the only one currently offering music.
Jeff Lindsay, the chief operating officer for Novant Health, said that having music at its vaccination center at Hanes Mall is more than about people getting shots in their arms.
Lindsay said the vaccination center is “really about healing and hope, getting people back to the things that they love doing and the places that they love doing them. So many of those places have been shuttered over the last year and people have missed that. We think it just makes sense to have music at our vaccination center because it can be so healing.”
He said the vaccination center at full compacity can handle up to 7,000 patients a day.
“But we didn’t want it to feel like an assembly line or a vaccine factory,” Lindsay said. “We wanted it to feel like the remarkable experience that we want our patients to encounter no matter where they come to Novant Health.”
In addition, the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County has teamed up with the Forsyth County Health Department to bring musical performances to the health department’s COVID-19 vaccination site at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday now through March 31. Performers will receive honoraria from The Arts Council’s Artist Relief Fund.
Chase Law, president and chief executive of the arts council, said the arts council staff has been in talks with community leaders and thinking about how to reopen amid COVID-19 and lift up artists and arts partners and their programs.
Law said they thought, “Wouldn’t it be so cool to have an artist out here at the vaccine site and be able to not only bring joy, hope and a little peace while people are getting vaccinated but also be able to provide a little entertainment and expose and introduce the arts and the talents we have in our own backyard to new audiences?”
She added that a lot of artists have been out of work throughout the pandemic.
“It’s very important to get artists back to work, and this is the start of that,” Law said.
Joshua Swift, Forsyth County health director, has said he hopes having music on site for the vaccinations will create a welcoming environment and give local musicians a place to perform.
Denise Price, Forsyth County assistant health director, said many staff and visitors have shared positive comments about the musical performances.
“For most, this is the first time they have experienced live music in over a year,” Price said. “We are grateful to the arts council and symphony for gifting us with their performances.”
Musicians Solomon Caldwell and Chi Sharpe have played at the fairgrounds site.
Sharpe, a percussionist, did a solo act playing West African music — specifically from Guinea — on a balafon, a gourd-resonated xylophone.
He said people who were getting vaccinated started tapping their feet and nodding their heads.
“It was a festive mood,” Sharpe said. “I haven’t seen people in a festive mood in a long time.”
He said people didn’t come for the music.
“They were there to try to live,” he said.
He said he was happy to be there and would welcome the opportunity to perform again at the vaccination site.
“What would the world be like without music?” Sharpe said.
As far as the impact of COVID-19 on his livelihood, he said, “It hurt. Big time. The carpet was pulled from under you. Everything had to shut down.
He said he has done virtual gigs in recent months, but his last concert engagement was in February 2020.
Caldwell, who recently played on bass as he and two other musicians performed mostly jazz music, said it was enjoyable to watch people’s reactions.
“Some people would watch and give us a thumbs up or maybe applaud,” Caldwell said.
He said a few people getting vaccinations thanked the musicians.
“Even the workers were saying how it was a joy to hear music and change up their routine for the day,” he said.
Since the pandemic, Caldwell, who graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in May 2020, has primarily been doing small pop-up gigs outdoors.
“Jumping from school into this new COVID environment was definitely a shock for me,” Caldwell said.
Suzy Perkins, a violinist, and Alex Johnston, a cello section member, both for the Winston-Salem Symphony, have been playing at the vaccination site at Hanes Mall in a string quartet.
Perkins said it has been a nice opportunity to provide music for people who are getting vaccinated, as well as the workers and volunteers at the site.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that that was something that we could do as a possibility,” Perkins said. “We’ve had limited playing this season.”
She said symphony musicians have gotten several nice comments, such as when a worker thanked them for providing a nice atmosphere.
“One person getting a shot came over and said, ‘Thank you so much. I was really nervous today, and this is just what I needed,’” Perkins said.
She said symphony musicians were not able to do performances for a long time because of COVID-19, and even now, they perform in small groups.
“It has had a huge financial toll and impact on us,” Perkins said. “We are fortunate that the symphony was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan and give us some assistance.”
She knows of musician friends across the country who have had to get other jobs just to keep food on the table.
Johnston called it an honor to play at the vaccination site, especially with her colleagues.
“Everybody there was just so appreciative of us ... and it was really nice for us to feel like we were bringing some joy into people’s lives,” she said.
Johnston, who is also assistant principal cello for Greensboro Symphony, said she has been fortunate to also have a job as a nanny, but many of her friends’ jobs are performing and teaching as musicians.
“I still struggle to lose the income that I was used to having with a mortgage and everything, but I’ve managed to get by because of this other job I have.”
She got her vaccine on her birthday, March 14, at the fairgrounds site.
“Best birthday present ever,” Johnston said.