Play On: Free Spirit Conservatory Offers New Music Program

Jan Morgan-Swegle, Leland

What is it about music that touches us so deeply? Hearing a song can take us back in time. We hear the music of our youth and we are invigorated. We hear a song that holds a sad memory and we feel pain. Music is a part of us as much as our hearts and souls.

The Free Spirit Conservatory of the Arts has developed a new program to tap into the power of music for those who may need it the most. The Hope, Healing and Joy initiative works with area hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living and senior living facilities to provide quality, therapeutic music to senior citizens.

Program director, Gene Viviano, described Hope, Healing and Joy as a win/win/win, saying, “We match the talents of our musicians with the needs of the community. We pay the musicians a set hourly rate, the facility gets the benefit of our services at no cost and the residents enjoy therapeutic music that can help lower their stress level and relax. We play the type of music that the facility Activity Director suggests will have the most positive influence on their residents.”

The idea of music therapy for senior citizens through Free Spirit Conservatory came from Mike Rogers, Director of the Conservatory. He was living in Utah playing in a band and was introduced to the Heart and Soul program ( who have been doing music therapy for the past 30 years.

The Heart & Soul program has served over 28,000 people in senior centers, hospitals, centers for children with disabilities and other related facilities each year. Their mission is to make the world less lonely through music. Mike liked the concept and it seemed to be a perfect fit for the mission of Free Spirit Conservatory.

It was like the program was meant to be because after moving to this area, Mike learned that one of his neighbors, Gene Viviano, had been volunteering his time and talent for over a year by going into hospitals, nursing homes and retirement facilities to offer not only music, but music therapy to seniors who might be depressed, alone or ill. Mike and Gene teamed up to make the idea a reality.

It wasn’t long before Gene was meeting with senior living Activities Directors from all over Brunswick County to get the program going.  Recalling the times that he played at senior focused facilities, Gene said, “The real motivation for me was the wonderful response I got from people listening to me play.” He continued, “Their response made me ‘heartstrung,’ people would smile, clap, sing along and just enjoy the effect of the music I provided. And that’s what this program is all about. A small ‘get away’ of time for people who need it the most.”

Gene said, “Besides teaching, one of the main objectives for the Free Spirit Conservatory is to provide an artist with a means to earn money for their time and talent.”

Like many non-profit organizations operating in the world today, one of the biggest challenges they face is funding; and while Gene is asking area residents and businesses to donate to this very important initiative, he said, “Even when people realize how important the program is, often they can’t or don’t donate funds. New programs are competing for the same dollars with wonderful organizations that have been around, helping people for a long time.”

Ever the optimist, Gene has set up a “Go Fund Me” page ( and he has been applying for local grants from businesses and organizations that support the arts.

The next step to get the program going is fundraising. There will be events at Free Spirit Conservatory that will help fund Hope, Healing and Joy and he has found support from the Knights of Columbus in Shallotte and Seaside United Methodist Church.

Hope, Healing and Joy has a diverse group of talented musicians. Most play piano, some play violin, the harp, alto sax and even the ukulele.  There’s even a guitar player who only plays hymns.

The entire staff at Free Spirit Conservatory work tirelessly to illustrate the importance of music. They teach, they donate musical instruments, they are open to new ideas that help others achieve their dreams of creating and performing. Mike Rogers, Jeff Saunders, Lea Saunders and Jennifer LaDue and now, Gene Viviano, will make this new program successful so our seniors smile again even if it’s just for a short time.

We tend to live in the moment—not thinking of a future without our spouse or the family home. But one day, many of us could experience what those that are served by Hope, Healing and Joy are now. The winds of maturity, responsibilities and a new family unit may blow our children far, far away and we could be alone.

But there will always be music. “If music be the food of love, play on,” Shakespeare said. Keep the music playing on by going to the Hope, Healing and Joy website at, or call Gene at 910-880-0064, to find out how you can help, or let him know where there is a need for music therapy. Gene is looking for musicians to join the Hope, Healing and Joy family so if you would like to share your talent and make some money, please let him know.