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Prolific volunteer brings warmth and music to University of Minnesota Health hospital, clinics

75-year-old John Anderson has logged more than 750 volunteer hours playing the piano for our patients, families, and staff.
John Anderson began playing piano in University of Minnesota Medical Center after his wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.

In 2012, John Anderson discovered a piano outside a waiting room at University of Minnesota Medical Center.

His wife, Jeri, had been diagnosed with lymphoma earlier that year, and John was at the hospital to support her as she received chemotherapy. The piano, located in a hallway near the East Bank hospital’s Gold Waiting Room, was unoccupied.

So John, a former associate dean at Carlson School of Management and a lifelong pianist, sat down and began playing.

“We were frightened during that whole thing,” John recalled. “I resorted to music. I found that playing piano was incredibly consoling to me.”

John’s first session wouldn’t be his last. As his wife’s treatment stretched over weeks and months, he found himself returning again and again to the same piano. But John wasn’t the only one who found solace in his music. Over time, he began to realize that his playing was also helping the people around him.

“The crying would stop and the shaking would stop and I was just amazed by that,” John said.

John began to understand the difference he was making when a doctor paused in the hospital hallway one day to sing along to one of John’s songs. Afterward, the doctor approached John. “He was a palliative care physician,” John said. “He was treating dying patients. [He] would stop by the piano after patient visits…to regroup his own composure.”

Eventually, Jeri’s treatment was successful and her cancer went into remission. The couple no longer needed to visit the hospital on a frequent basis. But John never forgot about the piano and the other patients and staff he had met.

In 2016, he volunteered to be a pianist at University of Minnesota Medical Center. Now, he volunteers in an official capacity at the hospital and at the University of Minnesota Health Clinics and Surgery Center twice a week—often playing four or five hours a day.

Volunteers play an essential role in our hospitals and clinics. Click here to learn more about our volunteer programs—or sign up to become a volunteer.

Musical performance isn’t new to John. He began taking piano lessons in third grade, later taking part in church and neighborhood performance ensembles. Once, he nearly quit college in order to sing with a touring group, but was talked out of the idea by his parents. Since then, he has made a point of continuing his musical practice. While traveling in his role as a Carlson School of Management professor, he would occasionally perform at international hotels. Over the years, he has also given casual performances at friendly parties or gatherings.

But John believes playing in a healthcare environment is fundamentally different from performances in any other setting. The key, he said, is to always remember that you are there to help others around you. Music in a hospital or clinic should be thoughtful and consoling, and it should be delivered with a caring touch, he said. That’s why John occasionally takes requests from patients who have stopped to listen, and always lends a sympathetic ear if it seems like someone just needs to talk.

It’s these personal moments that keep him coming back.

“I found that piano music is simply magical,” John said. “It warms the hearts of the piano player and listening nearby, whether patients, family, medical staff or visitors.

“The stories that I’ve heard here, I’ll never forget them in my lifetime.”