In Conversation with Patil Harboyan

Alumna and faculty member Patil Harboyan talks about her Healing Notes initiative and how music and community go hand in hand.

With Healing Notes, the sound of music fills the hallways of the Cedars Cancer Centre at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).  

This incredible initiative was started by versatile Montreal-based Armenian pianist Patil Harboyan (BMus'02, MMus'04) in 2020. Patil is a performer, chamber musician as well as faculty member at the Schulich School of Music who saw an opportunity to offer some respite through music for those in the Cancer Center. 

As the MUHC is a teaching hospital, Patil thought it made sense to have a program such as Healing Notes which could serve to teach students who are outside of the medical field. Borne of personal connection, Healing Notes has had an immediate impact for listeners and players alike. Since its launch, many Schulich students and professional musicians have played weekly concerts for staff, patients, and their loved ones. 

We reached out to Patil over email to learn more about the program, community connection, and things she’s learned along the way.

How did this project come about?  

Healing Notes was a project that had been brewing in my head and my heart for quite a while. While completing my DMA at Stonybrook University in New York, I had the opportunity to play my doctoral recital program for patients of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo where my future husband was training at the time. It was a very emotional and humbling experience for me. I remember one patient came and put her hand on my shoulder while I was playing. At the end of the piece, she told me it had helped her feel things again. It was also very educational; I was in an emotionally charged environment, in direct proximity with those for whom I was playing. There was no spotlight blinding me and I was not playing for an audience in a dark hall. It was just me, the music and people seeking some respite through music (and a few IV poles…).    

Years later, I had the opportunity to visit the Cedars’ Cancer Center at the MUHC to support a close family member being treated for a tumor. The facility had just been built, but like all new constructions, was still developing its soul. I approached Jeff Shamie, the CEO of the Cedar’s Cancer Foundation with the idea of bringing music to the Cancer Center. He was immediately supportive. A group of MUHC physicians had recently completed a triathlon and donated the funds collected towards the purchase of a baby grand piano for the Cancer Center. I offered to build a program that would integrate both professional musicians and performance students from Schulich. The logic behind this being that since the MUHC is a teaching hospital, it can also serve to teach students who are outside of the medical field. We launched Healing Notes in early 2020 but had to stop a few times because of pandemic restrictions. Since March 2022, the weekly concerts have been back on regularly.  

What has the response been to the program? 

It’s been wonderful. We have patients who change their appointments to Tuesday so they can attend the concerts before/after their treatments. They say the music helps them relax and takes them to a world where there is no pain or worry, even if for just an hour. Sometimes I see patients moved to tears as they listen, others just close their eyes. I’m especially happy that family members are finding value in these concerts to recharge their batteries. I know what it’s like to accompany your loved one through cancer. Caregivers tend to be forgotten. Hospital staff seem to be enjoying the music as well. Administrative personnel, orderlies, nurses and doctors show up, some have their lunch as they listen. The most frequent comment I get is, “we needed this badly!”.  

As for the participating musicians, they find it to be an enriching experience, where they can practice their artistry in a non-conventional setting. Some have already returned to play more than once for us, which is already a very positive sign, I believe! For many students participating, it has also been great practice before recitals, exams and competitions!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in building this program? How were you able to address them?

It’s been an opportunity for me to learn about so many practical aspects of delivering a musical program that I’m not usually involved in in my own performance career. For example, the first challenge was trying to find a way to maintain the piano. We had to adapt to the constraints of a health care facility and could not have a damp-chaser on the piano, due to wiring not being compatible with the circulation of wheelchairs and stretchers. We opted to tune the instrument more often and use a cover that goes to the floor. I also had to work on communicating the new program effectively, while being mindful of norms in place within the institution.  

Finally, I had to develop a plan to make sure funding would be available to support the program. I’m very lucky to have a wonderful team that has been supporting me every step of the way at the Cedar’s Cancer Foundation. They’ve fully embraced the idea that music has therapeutic value, and for that I am grateful! I should also add that the Booking Office at Schulich has also been a pleasure to work with. 

Could you share a memorable moment with us?  

Recently, we had our first piano/oboe duo at Healing Notes — both very talented Schulich students. As they were playing, a patient came and sat right across from the oboist. After a few minutes, she had her eyes closed, her hands put together as if in prayer, and was rocking from one side to the other. I could tell music was making a difference. It’s all I needed to see… this is what Healing Notes is about.  

How does music fuel your sense of community?  

Music and community go hand in hand. One of the notions I teach my students is that we don’t play for ourselves while performing, but rather for everyone around us. We practice for hours on our instruments not to just perfect the delivery of music, but also to make a difference with the music we play. It’s our voice. We sometimes forget that music has such a crucial role and purpose in our community. Music is everywhere around us and in every aspect of life, yet it tends to get overlooked. One of the main reasons I hold Healing Notes so close to my heart is because I found a way to make music accessible to a group of people in the community who are vulnerable. I can’t operate or give chemotherapy, but I’m able to help them feel less pain through music, remind them that their lives and feelings are greater than cancer. That’s what inspires me to keep going with this wonderful project.  

What should every student leave Schulich knowing?  

That you can always come back and do another degree in this wonderful place! 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?  

I moved from Lebanon right after high school to attend McGill. It was a new beginning for me in every sense of the word and I had to adapt very quickly. One piece of advice I would give myself, if I were to relive my university years again, would be to enjoy more and take advantage of all the opportunities that university life has to offer.   

Could you share 3 things you love about making music in the community?  

  • Bringing people of different ages, race and social standings together in one place, beyond barriers  
  • Creating a dynamic between musicians and audience  
  • Being able to introduce various cultures through music, especially to younger generations in the community  

What’s next for Healing Notes? 

Now that the concerts have been going steady since the spring, I’d like to work on ways to make the concerts accessible to patients in more secluded areas of the Cancer Center, such as patients in the chemotherapy treatment rooms. Infusions can sometimes last hours, it would be great if we could break their solitude.  

Is there a piece of music or composer that you could play on repeat?  

Brahms chamber works! 

How can someone get involved with the program?  

As I mentioned, the musicians participating at Healing Notes are Performance students from Schulich and other music departments alongside professionals.  

Students studying in Performance who would like to get involved can contact me at patil.harboyan [at] so that we can discuss the possibility of participating, schedule and repertoire.  

Those who are interested in supporting this project financially can do so by donating at Cedars Healing Notes Fund 

Five circles with musicians. From L to R, violin and piano, oboe and piano, double bass and piano, solo guitar, piano, violin and cello

More about Patil:
Described as “a musician of exceptional intelligence who stands out whether playing chamber music or solo” (Gilbert Kalish), Patil Harboyan is a Montreal-based Armenian pianist who leads a versatile musical career as a performer, chamber musician and teacher. 

Patil holds a Doctorate in Musical Arts from Stonybrook University, where she studied on a full scholarship. Recipient of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec and winner of various competitions, she has appeared in solo recitals and chamber music concerts throughout North America. Patil has collaborated with some of the best musicians of our time, such as Kimy McLaren, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Aline Kutan, the Fibonacci Trio and members of the Fitzwilliam Quartet. Chamber music is at the core of her life as a musician. She is a founding member of the Ararat Trio, which had its debut appearance at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, in 2007, as well as the Trio de l’Île which performs regularly throughout Quebec. Her recording with cellist Heather Tuach called Music from Armenia (Divine Art Records) has been described in Gramophone, the prestigious music magazine, as a “delightful disc of discoveries”. The duo presented the programme of the recording in concert at Carnegie Hall in 2015. 

Parallel to her performing career, Patil is also an active pedagogue. She is often seen on jury panels for various music competitions. She currently teaches at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. 

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