COVID Performers: Students put on virtual concerts for seniors

Posted on Wednesday, July 22, 2020

 Heidi Li, left, and David Zheng, right.

Heidi Li, left, and David Zheng, right.

Loneliness and isolation are two of the devastating side-effects of the pandemic, with seniors and people living with physical or mental health issues being particularly affected. To combat this, two medical students started COVID Performers, an initiative which pairs volunteer student musicians with long-term care homes, palliative care facilities, mental health centres, and other healthcare institutions across Canada, so they can perform virtually for individuals or small groups.

University of Ottawa alumnus David Zheng, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 2018, and Heidi Li, an MD 2021 candidate at the Faculty of Medicine, studied biomedical science together and co-created the volunteer performers program.

“The goal is to expand therapeutic recreation programming through arts and music to combat social isolation from imposed social distancing measures,” says Zheng. “These live performances range from piano, flute, guitar, violin, cello and singing performances, to simply having conversations with the residents.”

They have partnered with 11 institutions across British Columbia and Ontario so far, including the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre and the Élisabeth Bruyère Residence in Ottawa’s Byward Market. Over 100 volunteers perform on a weekly basis, and they’re always looking to recruit more musicians.

Here’s what a few uOttawa students had to say about their experience as a volunteer.

Yuchen Dai, MD 2023 candidate

I did my undergraduate degree in music, in violin performance, and I presented short virtual concerts for the residents living in senior homes and long-term care centres across Ontario.

I have been very fortunate to play for a fantastic audience! They seemed to really enjoy the music and the short anecdotes I shared with them between numbers about the background and history of the pieces and their composers.

I think this is a great project started by my medical-student colleagues. With social distancing restrictions, I know people of all ages have not been able to interact with their loved ones and participate in social and cultural activities in the way they used to.

This is especially true for many of the residents living in senior homes and long-term care centres. COVID Performers provided me with a platform to easily share my passion for music and the arts with a very welcoming group.

Although it is important to spend time practicing alone, at the end of the day, what I love doing is performing and interacting with people through music. On top of this, I am able to help bring some entertainment and artistic activities to the lives of our most vulnerable population during a difficult time. It is really a win-win for everyone, I think.

Portraits of Yuchen Dai, left, and Stephanie Skanes, right.

Yuchen Dai, left, and Stephanie Skanes, right.

Stephanie Skanes, MD 2022 candidate

I have been involved in music throughout my life and have learned of the profound impact a simple song can have on listeners. My grandmother suffered from dementia and spent her final years in long-term care, and my sister is a recreation therapist, so I have a great appreciation for the importance of leisure in patient care. It broke my heart thinking of patients who, because of COVID-19, had little available recreational activities and no ability to engage with their community.

The COVID Performers initiative is a fantastic opportunity to not only give the gift of music, but also to show patients that although we cannot be physically present, we support them, and they are not alone. Through this initiative, I signed up to virtually sing and play guitar for patients in various long-term care facilities and hospitals in Ottawa.

Although seeing the patients smile, and occasionally hearing them sing along, was reward enough, each performance was followed by tremendous gratitude from patients and staff. I feel truly blessed to be able to bring a bit of normal to these residents’ lives in this difficult time and am grateful to be involved in this wonderful initiative.

Portraits of Yannick MacMillan, left, and Trisha Kandiah, right.

Yannick MacMillan, left, and Trisha Kandiah, right.

Trisha Kandiah and Yannick MacMillan, MD 2022 candidates

When we heard about the COVID Performers initiative, it sounded like a great way to bring joy and positivity to the vulnerable elderly population at a difficult time. We both had experience playing music at seniors’ homes in the past, so this opportunity was a great fit for us. Our first performance was for residents at the Mount Hope Centre for Long-Term Care in London, Ontario. We sang a few well-known songs from the 1960s and played some classical solo piano pieces.

It was wonderful to watch the residents singing along, smiling, and enjoying the music. The nursing home staff also appreciated the performance and thanked us for getting involved. COVID Performers was a great way for us to help decrease social isolation among seniors in assisted living communities, but also a great way for us to keep sharing our love of music with others, at a time when most traditional musical ensembles cannot rehearse or perform. We are looking forward to giving more performances through this initiative in the future.

COVID Performers is still looking for volunteers! If you would like to participate, please fill out this form. For any questions about the program, please send an email to

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