Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Red River Ensemble brings student musicians together to perform for hospital patients

Mackenzie Coleman
Violinist for the Red River Ensemble Practice their piece on Sept. 13, 2023. The orchestra meets for practice on Mondays at Dell Seton Medical Center.

After five decades as a professional musician, teaching conservatories and playing with established orchestras, Mark Bernat and his wife moved to Iowa City in 2008, where he found a disappointing lack of musical opportunities. 

“Since I left the big cities with lots of musical activities like New York, New York, Seattle and Atlanta, there wasn’t that much access for me to do much work,” Bernat said. “So we got together and created a program at the University of Iowa hospitals and clinics.”

The program in Iowa, which consisted of an orchestra made of hospital workers, university students and ordinary citizen musicians, played for hospital patients for 12 years before Bernat relocated to Austin. Bernat decided to continue the program at UT, where it operates under the name Red River Ensemble, a volunteer-led orchestra that performs twice a year for hospital residents at Dell Medical Center. 

“First (I) started out just (to) kind of keep myself busy,” Bernat said. “I started performing a little bit at the hospital. I started getting some volunteers at the hospital, and gradually it grew to the point where I had a substantial budget, where I would bring in professional musicians from all over the country.”

After moving to Austin, Bernat brought the idea to campus with the same openness to curious volunteers as in Iowa.

“Most people would not believe it, but we have absolutely no auditions,” Bernat said. “The only thing is before people show up, I just say you have to own an instrument, you have to be able to read music. (The volunteers) all love (playing) music. They understand what we’re doing, and we bring it to a pretty high level.”

This approach to recruiting results in a wide variety of UT alumni and others who help prepare performances at the Dell Medical Center Atrium, with a mixture of random discovery and semi-active recruitment to keep the ensemble’s numbers up.

“Mark was actually doing a performance at the Norman Hackerman building on campus, and I just happened to be studying there that day,” said Abby Hall, neuroscience senior and ensemble member. “By pure happenstance, I said, ‘Oh yeah, I play the cello.’ He said, ‘Well, we need a cello for the Red River Ensemble,’ and I ended up here.” 

It might seem tough to juggle the obligations of student and everyday life with weekly rehearsals and independent practice, but Hennah Hajari, psychology sophomore and ensemble member, said balancing the commitment proves easier than expected. 

“The ensemble has always functioned in a very consistent way, members can shift and change sometimes,” Hajari said. “People get busy so it’s always been pretty informal. If you have a conflict and you can’t do it for a semester, they’re chill with that.”

Above all else, the commitment to providing hospital residents with beautiful music pushes members to try do their best for every performance — big or small.

“It’s a nice thing,” Hajari said. “(The hospital staff) walk by and record us. It’s nice to bring them some joy … It’s nice to see (the patients) walk by, smile, and maybe sit down for a few minutes and listen.”

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