For sick children, hope, healing, and friendship comes with a song
Thirteen-year-old Zak “Zippy” Huot aspires to perform on Broadway one day. So last summer he was thrilled when, over a Zoom meeting, he learned that some Broadway actors would perform songs for a musical for which he wrote the lyrics. Zak could barely contain his glee as the actors, who’ve had roles in “The Lion King” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” introduced themselves over Zoom.
In 2020, Zak wrote his first original song, “Noodles!,” while at a summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. The songwriting exercise was hosted by Hear Your Song, a national nonprofit co-founded by two Yale alumni — Dan Rubins ’16 and Rebecca Brudner ’16 — that is dedicated to empowering children and teens who have serious illnesses and complex health issues by engaging them in collaborative songwriting.
Zak’s second project with Hear Your Song, “The Adventure of Zippy Junior,” tells the tale of a zebra from Africa named Zippy Junior who is adopted by someone from the United States. Anxious to meet his new family, he takes the wrong plane and ends up in New York City. He is cast in the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” but gets kicked out of the show when his beeping GPS becomes a nuisance. But all’s well that ends well: Zippy Junior happily finds his new family.
For Zak, who has an immunodeficiency disorder that requires weekly treatments, the opportunity to perform in a video-recorded version of his own musical (he plays Zippy Senior, the zebra’s adoptive dad) with a cast of theater professionals was a high point in his young life.
Rubins and Brudner founded Hear Your Song when they were both Yale sophomores. They started with a small group of undergraduate volunteers who worked on songwriting projects with children at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital and the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center in Yonkers, New York.
At the time, Rubins was an English major singing with the Yale Glee Club and participating in campus musical theater productions. Brudner, a theater studies major, won the Louis Sudler Prize for the Performing Arts during her senior year in recognition of her talents as both a vocalist and a dancer. The two wanted to bring some fun, connection, and creativity to ill children and teens by having them write lyrics for a song that they and other musically inclined Yale student volunteers could then collaborate on by composing and performing the music for the youngsters’ pieces.
“I was always wishing that there were more ways for musicians to really come together on campus and share their talents,” said Rubins. “I was looking for a way to do that on a community level.”
During frequent trips to Yale New Haven Hospital and periodic travels by train to the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center, Rubins, Brudner, and other Yale student volunteers worked with young patients at their bedsides, inspiring the children to create songs on any topic they wanted.
“We would carry a little keyboard or a guitar or a violin with us to facilitate as the children were coming up with their lyrics,” said Rubins. “Then we would bring the song back to campus and schedule recording sessions, for which we would recruit musicians for the different instruments the kids wanted.”
By the time Rubins and Brudner graduated, Hear Your Song had collaborated on some 50 songs in a process that was driven by the children themselves: they wrote lyrics, chose the style of music (from pop to grunge to country to rap), and offered their ideas for instrumentation.
“We use the word ‘empowerment’ because we really want to ensure that kids who often have so little power and choice in their lives because of their health needs are given as much control in this creative situation as possible,” said Rubins. “We want them to feel that their voice matters every step of the way and that they are being listened to.”
After graduating from Yale, Rubins became an elementary school teacher and Brudner began a career in musical theater, performing in shows across the nation. The Yale chapter of Hear Your Song continued its service to children until COVID-19 hit, making in-person hospital visits impossible.
Nonetheless, the pandemic inspired Rubins and Brudner to use the challenging time to transition Hear Your Song into a national nonprofit.
“After talking with our Yale chapter leaders and just reflecting on the needs of kids with serious illness during a time of extreme isolation — especially for immunocompromised kids — I was thinking how there was really no space for kids in that situation to tell their stories,” Rubins said. “So by the end of summer 2020, I decided to leave my teaching job and focus full-time on expanding Hear Your Song beyond Yale.”
A ‘kid-driven’ initiative grows
Since 2020, Hear Your Song has grown into a national organization with six undergraduate chapters (Arizona State University, CUNY-Hunter College, Dartmouth College, Smith College, Wellesley College, and Yale) and additional volunteers — including many Yale alumni — all over the world. Working mostly virtually, it serves children through its partnerships with three major hospitals (Montefiore Medical Center, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and Yale New Haven Hospital); numerous camps; a couple of schools; and nearly a dozen nonprofits. Hear Your Song recently also began piloting in-school programs for kids with autism.
The results have been exciting. More than 250 children have written their own musical compositions in just the past two years with support from Hear Your Song. Some of these young songwriters also record their own vocals and play instruments for their songs.
As part of the shift toward remote volunteerism during COVID, the Yale chapter began focusing its work with children and teens who are in psychiatric inpatient care at Yale New Haven Hospital, according to Jack Softcheck ’22, who is co-president of the chapter with Lydia Lee ’23.
Softcheck, an ecology and evolutionary biology major who is a member of the Yale Glee Club and a performer in campus musicals, said that he was attracted to Hear Your Song because its process is so “kid-driven.”
“If you look at the Hear Your Song YouTube channel, you’ll see songs on topics ranging from the periodic table to donuts,” he said. “Some are more serious, poignant, or heartfelt songs about the more difficult issues that the kids are going through. The kids make requests for a whole range of instruments and a whole spectrum of genres, and in our collaborations, we just take it where it goes, knowing that something really great will come out of it.”
More than a dozen Yale students are actively engaged with Hear Your Song, brainstorming song ideas with the youngsters, singing, playing instruments, or helping with musical and video production. They record the songs at various campus venues, from residential college recording rooms to the music studios in Hendrie Hall.
For the past two years, Yale students who applied for the Yale Glee Club Service Through Music Fellowship have used the fellowship to support their work with Hear Your Song, according to Jeffrey Douma, professor of conducting at Yale School of Music and director of the Yale Glee Club. The fellowship allows a graduating student, or one taking a year off from academic study, to work on a project combining music and public service. Jake Gluckman ‘21, who composed music for songs written by children as a Hear Your Song volunteer while at Yale, just completed his tenure as the program’s inaugural program fellow, and Softcheck will soon take over that role.
“I have enormous admiration for Dan and Rebecca and all of the students who have followed them as leaders of Yale’s chapter over the years,” said Douma, who has served as the faculty adviser for Hear Your Song since its inception and is a member of its board. “Their mission is as simple as it is transformational: to harness music’s power to uplift and to heal, and to unleash the incredible potential for creative self-expression inside every young person regardless of whatever challenges they may be facing in life. And they carry out that mission with so much openness and generosity of spirit.
“Seeing the organization grow despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic has been nothing less than inspiring.”
A ‘boost’ for budding songwriters
In his role as program fellow, Gluckman enjoyed being able to participate in songwriting sessions with children. For his senior thesis at Yale, he wrote a musical called “My World” about his brother, who has autism. He loves watching the budding songwriters have inspirational moments as they are creating their songs.
“There’s always a moment when a kid realizes that their story is valuable and that we as volunteers are recognizing its value, whether or not it is about their illness. And once that light-bulb moment clicks, I see the songwriter blossom,” said Gluckman. “… It’s so important for the kids to feel that their lives and the part of their lives they want to spotlight deserves a chance to be heard, especially since a lot of their life is taken up by their illness.
“So whether a kid wants to write about their challenges or noodles, the fact that they get to choose that, talk about it, and have it be the spotlight, is something I love.”
Thirteen-year-old Zak Huot, in fact, wrote his song “Noodles!” about his love of pasta. It is one that Softcheck says often comes into his head at random moments.
“I just love that song,” said Softcheck, who collaborated in a songwriting session with Zak for “The Adventure of Zippy Junior.”
Many of the children, like Zak, continue their participation in Hear Your Song after writing their first composition. Jazlyn, a 14-year old from Massachusetts, wrote her first song, called “California Winds,” last year and just completed her second, “Bedtime Story.” In a recent Zoom-recorded session with Hear Your Song volunteers, staff members, and other young songwriters, she described how her first song was inspired by Brudner asking her what she enjoys doing. She answered, “manifest and meditate,” a phrase which gets repeated in “California Winds” and is her favorite line in her song.
Alex, a 19-year-old who first engaged with Hear Your Song at the age of 17, just recently led her first sessions with the nonprofit as a volunteer. Now a student at Texas Tech University, she described in a Hear Your Song video how she wanted her composition, “I’ll Find My Way,” to be a “triumphant” song reminiscent of songs in the musical “Hamilton.” The song — for which she wrote the lyrics, melody, and sang lead vocals — captures some of the health challenges she has been through and the coping techniques she’s learned along her journey. She now wants to use what she’s learned to help others.
“One of our dreams is to have songwriters come back as volunteers and also to start new communities by starting new chapters of Hear Your Song,” said Rubins.
In a Hear Your Song video, 10-year-old Violet said that she wrote her first song, simply titled “I Am,” as an affirmation she can use when she’s feeling insecure or troubled. Accompanied by an adult volunteer singer, she also sang her own vocals as she reminds herself: “I am strong/I am sunshine/I am beautiful/I am brave/I am fierce … I am generous/I am funny/I am unique/I am Violet.”
“When I play something like Violet’s song ‘I Am’ for someone unfamiliar with Hear Your Song, I am always struck by how immediately invested they are in what we do,” said Brudner. “I don’t have to do much work — the songs speak for themselves. Because of that, Hear Your Song’s expansion from a small community of Yalies to a national nonprofit with volunteers and participants from all over has been amazingly natural.”
Sofía Campoamor ’20, a singer and composer who became the first female member of Yale’s Whiffenpoofs, started volunteering for Hear Your Song in her first year at Yale and now serves as the organization’s music director. After graduating from Yale, she spent a week as a volunteer songwriting session facilitator at Camp AmeriKids, one of Hear Your Song’s partner organizations.
“During college, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness myself, and over time came to understand on a personal level how healing music and lyric were in my own life when dealing with health challenges,” said Campoamor. “I am especially inspired by the community Hear Your Song is able to foster as it continues to grow.”
Zak’s mother, Heather Huot, said her son’s involvement with Hear Your Song couldn’t have happened at a better time.
“[The years] 2020 and 2021 were rough for kids,” she said. “Hear Your Song has given him opportunities beyond what I could have imagined for him. The organization stepped in at a time when we were isolated, and when Zak needed a boost.
“There are so many kids who may feel isolated and alone and could benefit from this great organization.”
On Thursday, May 12, Broadway stars will sing songs written by participating children in Hear Your Song at 7 p.m. at Feinstein’s 54/Below, 254 W 54th St. in New York City. The performance will also be livestreamed. In-person tickets range from $45 to $90; tickets for the livestream are $25. Performers include Zak Huot and other child songwriters, plus Tony Award nominee Liz Callaway from “Anastasia”; Amanda Jane Cooper from “Wicked”; Erin Davie from “Grey Gardens” and “Diana”; Henry Gottfried ’14 from “Waitress”; Mel Johnson, Jr. from “The Lion King”; Janine LaManna from “Sweet Charity” and “Seussical,” and a host of Yale alumni volunteers. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Hear Your Song. For tickets and information about how to support the organization and get involved, visit the Hear Your Song website, which also features songs by the young songwriters.