Prize-winning sophomore helps heal others with gift of music

He’s only a sophomore, but Jourdan Urbach has already changed the lives of children around the world, using his passion for music to do so.

A violin virtuoso who has been compared by New York critics to Paganini, the Yale student has won more than two dozen awards and scholarships in recognition of his humanitarian leadership, and was just honored with a 2010 World of Children Award — called the “Nobel Prize® for Global Child Advocacy.” This latest distinction recognizes Urbach for his work on behalf of vulnerable children, particularly for raising $4.7 million to fight neurological disease by performing his proprietary benefit Concerts for a Cure. One of just two international recipients of the annual award, Urbach was feted during a two-day ceremony in New York City in early November.

The World of Children Award includes a $20,000 grant to Children Helping Children (CHC), a non-profit organization Urbach founded when he was only nine years old to raise money — via benefit musical performances called Concerts for a Cure — to fund innovative music therapy and neurological programs in hospitals internationally, and to help children needing neurosurgical, neurological or other medical care. He is especially excited about the honor because it will fund a children’s ward in Ghana that will serve children from that country and neighboring Togo, create a music delivery system and visiting musician program for the pediatric bone marrow patients at Mott Children’s Hospital at University of Michigan Health Systems, and help fund an Arts for Peace/Arts for a Cure documentary and recording project.

Urbach recently spoke with the Yale Daily Bulletin about his philanthropic endeavors and the role music plays in them. Here is what we learned.

A question leads to action: Urbach began playing violin when he was just shy of age three. He loved music, but at a young age he also developed a fascination with science and neuroscience. While working on a school project when he was seven years old, Urbach read “Gifts of Time” by the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Epstein. He requested an interview with the doctor, who practiced in Urbach’s home state of New York. Epstein not only granted the interview, but he took his young fan on a tour of the intensive care unit (ICU) at Beth Israel Medical Center. There, Urbach saw children in treatment for or recovering from a range of neurological conditions.

“I asked Dr. Epstein what I could do to help these kids,” recalls Urbach, who then aspired to become a neurosurgeon. “He said, ‘Why don’t you use your music?’”

A way to cure: Urbach came up with the idea of inviting students from the Juilliard and the Manhattan Schools of Music to donate their time by performing monthly for young patients in hospital playrooms. He and other musicians later started performing at the bedsides of non-ambulatory patients in the hospital.

The first benefit concert he organized, at his Long Island high school, far exceeded Urbach’s expectations.

His goal was to raise enough money to buy a piano for the neurosurgical ICU at Beth Israel, where a young pianist was a frequent patient. He was thrilled to discover that the concert also earned enough to start a fund that eventually allowed a dozen indigent children with brain tumors — some from abroad — to have surgery, performed by Epstein. The event marked the start of CHC’s highly successful Concerts for a Cure, benefit musical performances that raise money for neurological research, hospital pediatric music therapy programs, and international organizations working to eradicate neurological disease.

“From that point onward I realized how powerful fundraising through music could be,” says Urbach, whose non-profit since has funded pediatric clinics in Ghana and El Salvador; created and expanded groundbreaking music therapy programs at hospitals throughout the country (including the creation and support of the largest ‘music therapy and pain management’ program in the United States at Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, serving 5,000 inpatients a year); paid for cochlear implants for 1,000 children at the Children’s Hearing Institute; and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Foundation and other non-profit organizations (including support for pharmacological research and peer counseling for teens with MS), among other charitable causes.

The power to move: Urbach recalls seeing the benefits of music for hospital patients years ago, when he performed on his violin for a young patient who had recently undergone neurosurgery. The girl had been unresponsive since her operation, but began moving when she heard Urbach’s music.

“I will never forget that,” says the violinist. “People have a visceral response to music. I’ve seen kids who have just had tumors removed stand up on their bed and start conducting when they hear music.”

The Yale student says that he doesn’t view his philanthropic work as an extracurricular activity but, rather, as a personal responsibility.

“Growing up, it was ingrained in me that giving back to the community is not something you should do but something you must do,” he explains.

Site unseen: While Urbach doesn’t perform at all of the Concerts for a Cure he organizes or see firsthand those that CHC has helped, the Yale sophomore says his non-profit is successful, in part, because he operates a “tight ship.”

“If I could fly to Ghana or El Salvador to see the clinics being built and meet the people CHC is helping, that would be wonderful,” he says. “I keep in close touch through email and by phone with every hospital and/or organization I’ve served. The scholarships I receive from eminent international organizations like World of Children also have months of extensive vetting to ensure that each of the winners’ projects are being run in a responsible way around the world. But the fact is that to make personal visits to all of these places would cost thousands of dollars, and that’s not a loss I or my organization can take. So I end up sacrificing ‘face to face’ time with the people or organizations CHC supports. That is not, however, where I draw fulfillment. I am fulfilled by knowing that I was able to take some initial funding, invest it intelligently, multiply it sometimes tenfold through my Concerts for a Cure and change lives for the better; and I am fulfilled by knowing that this is just the beginning.”

A path chosen: Urbach worked during his freshman year in the laboratory of Stephen Waxman, professor of neurology, but he has since decided to forego a career in medicine and medical research to focus on music performance and philanthropy. He is also a highly regarded composer on campus who has written original scores for plays for the Yale Dramat and for upcoming plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre and Yale School of Drama. He composed and performed an original film score for the short film “Elah and the Moon,” which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 and, last spring, at the Cannes Film Festival.

As a violinist, Urbach’s concert career has included sold-out performances at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center. He was presented as classical music’s “Rising Star” at the Ventura Music Festival under Maestro Nuvi Mehta and was also named the 2009 “Artist Ascending Winner” — an accolade previously given to such noted musicians as Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Daniel Barenboim and Mischa Dichter.

How to heal: Despite the demands of his already-hectic schedule, Urbach also found the time to found and direct the International Coalition of College Philanthropists, a council that links college-age philanthropic entrepreneurs at campuses across America to promote collegiate social action and charity through unified annual grants. It currently has 25 chapters.

As a composer and artist-in-residence for the United Nations Arts for Peace Council, he is also exploring the role of music in foreign policy.

“I’m wondering how we can use our most powerful, visceral arbitrator to resolve some of the most epic conflicts of our time — Israel-Palestine, North Korea-South Korea, India-Pakistan — as well as some emerging ones,” comments Urbach. “I do believe that music has the power to heal, and I am working towards a future under that assumption.”

— By Susan Gonzalez

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