In the fluorescent glow of a hospital room, where it always looks like dusk, it can be difficult to discern the hour, the day of the week, even the season of the year.
But on the fourth floor of Rex Hospital on Wednesday, when brothers Wyatt and Carter Coleman let loose carols from their violins, everyone knew it was Christmastime.
As the tunes traveled down the hallways, nurses smiled, visiting family members poked their heads through doorways, patients perked up and asked: What is that sound?
“They’re amazing,” said Melissa West, a pulmonary nurse who has worked at Rex for four years and has heard the brothers during several of their annual visits. “It just brings peace to the whole floor.”
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The boys – they were just boys then – started their seasonal serenade eight or nine years ago, when they were sitting around their house just a couple of miles from the hospital. It was Christmas Eve, or maybe Christmas Day. No one remembers for sure.
The twins had started playing violin at age 4; Carter first, followed a few months later by Wyatt, who didn’t want his brother to have all the fun. Their mom, Lin Coleman, had enrolled them in the Suzuki violin program at Meredith College, which through private and group lessons can teach children to play an instrument before they can read.
As they grew and got better, they played together and in small groups. Their mother, who home-schooled the boys, had taken them to a nursing home to play for residents. The residents couldn’t get out to hear live music, Carter recalls, but lit up when it came to them.
“Seeing their faces,” he said, “they were so grateful for it.”
The boys already had worked up some Christmas songs for the nursing home crowd, and when they found themselves with nothing to do on the holiday that year, someone suggested they take their instruments over to the hospital and see whether anyone would like to hear them play.
That first time, they stood in the hallways outside patients’ rooms and began the graceful caress of the bow on the strings. They knew that anybody stuck in the hospital on the holiday must be really sick, and they didn’t want to disturb anyone who needed to rest.
From room to room
As they played, small crowds gathered. Patients who were able shuffled over to their doorways or stood in the halls to listen. Visiting relatives of those not well enough to get out of bed motioned to the brothers, inviting them into one patient’s room, and then the next.
It’s not like playing in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, where the twins have performed. It’s not like performing with other musicians, such as the string quartets and philharmonic groups they joined as older teens.
But the boys say there is something really sweet about the way live music sounds in the hospital’s tiled corridors and in the sterile rooms where patients lie waiting to feel better that has brought them back every year. It has become as much a part of their holiday tradition as the annual trip to Krispy Kreme for doughnuts and then driving around looking at people’s Christmas lights.
The hospital does what it can to welcome the holidays. The Rex Healthcare Guild, a volunteer group started in 1936 by wives of hospital physicians, gives away teddy bears, distributes hundreds of poinsettias to nurses’ stations and other places where visitors can see them, and stuffs the gift shop with chocolates and glittering angel ornaments.
Nurses who have them wear holiday-themed scrubs. Grounds crews string white lights in the trees in the courtyards and hang wreaths from light posts. The cafeteria serves turkey and dressing.
But the brothers’ music is different; it has the power to transport listeners to other places and better times. For a while, the sound of their playing cancels out the noise of medical monitors, the public address system, televisions left droning.
“If I was ever sick enough that I had to be in the hospital for Christmas, I would want someone to come and do that for me,” Wyatt says. “It’s easy to feel forgotten.”
The boys are 21 now, juniors at colleges 1,300 miles apart. Wyatt is in Texas, at the University of Houston, Carter at Ohio’s Cleveland Institute of Music. They don’t get to play together much anymore.
Where music takes them
Mary Atwood looks forward to their musical reunion each Christmas. As the hospital’s nursing supervisor, she has made it her job to identify a few patients each year she knows will welcome the sound of strings. She starts the brothers out in those patients’ rooms, and then they go where the music takes them.
Sometimes they stay for several hours.
They have worked up a folder full of Christmas music with at least a couple of dozen tunes. For some songs, they have more than one arrangement.
Right now, Wyatt says, “Silent Night” and a nontraditional version of “Jingle Bells” are his favorites. Carter likes those too, along with “What Child Is This?”
“We get a lot of requests for that one,” he says.
“That one is so beautiful it makes people cry,” says Atwood, who has worked at Rex for 32 years.
The brothers are humble about the gesture, which they say is easy enough for them, and uplifting.
“It’s nice bringing joy into people’s lives, even if it’s very brief,” says Wyatt.
For some who heard it, the memory likely will linger for a long while.