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Traveling bard, musician and art teacher helps kids in hospitals take center stage

Emmy Bean’s bedside lessons give patients “a chance to be a kid, and not a kid who’s sick.”

Emmy Bean is accustomed to the spotlight.

Between performing in numerous theater productions and singing with the folk trio 80 Foots Per Minute, the 39-year-old Logan Square artist/musician has been a familiar fixture on Chicago stages for almost a decade.

But at her day job as a musician-in-residence at Children’s Hospital University of Illinois and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, Bean is content to stay in the background and help sick kids take center stage.

Most days, she’s sort of a traveling bard-meets-music teacher who lugs around a cart full of drums, ukuleles, keyboards and other musical instruments to those struggling with various illnesses and ailments.

“A lot of [children] just recognize me as ‘The Instrument Lady,’’’ said Bean.

She’s one of 10 multidisciplinary teaching artists from Snow City Arts — one of about 200 hospital-based arts programs in the U.S. Founded in 1998 through a grant from Ford Motor Company, the Chicago non-profit organization partners with four local hospitals and provides 1,300 pediatric patients a year with one-on-one bedside lessons in the visual and performing arts that qualifies as school credit.

“There are always kids who need music and art in their lives in a very primary way,” said Bean. “When we’re able to show up in a hospital for kids who really just wish they had a guitar, or want to write a story or draw a picture — well, we give them a chance to be a kid, and not a kid who’s sick.”

The mission of Snow City Arts’ teaching artists is to provide a lesson that doesn’t necessarily feel like one. That’s why they’re called “workshops.” There is no script, no rigid curriculum to follow and a lot of improvisation happens — especially considering they usually don’t know the patient and privacy rules prevent them from knowing why they’re in the hospital.

Emmy Bean, with Snow City Arts at Rush/UIC, for the hardest working voices series, Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times
Emmy Bean, with Snow City Arts
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“I might start by introducing something I’m personally working on or we might take let them take the lead. I might say, ‘Hey, you love to draw horses? Let’s draw some horses.’”

Sometimes it’s the student driving and sometimes it’s the teacher driving — but usually, it’s kind of a collaboration of both.

Bean then tries to use these jumping off points for deeper opportunities for learning. Drawing horses, for instance, might lead to a discussion of drawing techniques or artists who are known for horse-themed art and using that as inspiration for further creation.

“We’re always focused on what’s the most creatively satisfying and educational project we can do together,” she said.

Though Bean’s focus is music, not all workshops are about teaching a child how to formally play an instrument. She’s also helped patients make puppets, choreograph dances using silhouettes and make short films. She recorded and mixed T-Pain inspired hip-hop tracks with a boy and his mother (who provided backup vocals). With another boy, she collaborated on a song called “Anagram Jam” that involved singing and playing drums over improvised lyrics involving anagrammed names.

“Transforming a hospital room into an art studio is hard to do with doctors coming in and out and parents stressed,” said Veronica Stein, Snow City Arts’ program director. “But Emmy has a wealth of knowledge and she’s got a talent for providing so many entry points for a student to learn and seamlessly integrate facts into a lesson. It’s great.”

Performer for Chicago theater companies, too

Working for Snow City Arts has also had the unintended effect of expanding Bean’s own artistic repertoire.

A native of New York, she moved to Chicago shortly after touring with the puppet play “Mrs. Wright’s Escape” in 2007. Since then, she’s written songs and performs for 80 Foots Per Minute and worked as a performer or musician with companies like Theatre Oobleck, Curious Theater Branch and The Neo-Futurists.

Much of her work is already experimental but making art with kids has increased her comfort level with improvisation.

“Some of the most artistically satisfying and inspired moments I’ve had are in the course of improvising in workshops in the hospital,” she said. “Students will discover something that they can make something that they never thought they could because they weren’t thinking too hard about it.

“The same goes for me.”