Robert Romero planned to spend his 52nd birthday on a fishing trip. Instead,
the Anaheim resident was laid up in a hospital bed, recovering from surgery
to remove a tumor on his kidney doctors had discovered by chance.
Romero’s wife was secretly scrambling to have balloons and a cake
brought to his room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. Then came a surprise
she didn’t plan.
Robert Stone walked in carrying a curved case, its leather rubbed bare.
He pulled a 73-year-old German violin from the green velvet lining, settled
the instrument under his chin and raised the brown bow.
Out came a soft but upbeat rendition of “Happy Birthday,” which
Stone shared a day before his own 76th birthday.
“That is therapeutic,” Romero said, smiling as he thanked this
stranger who shared his first name and nearly shared his birthday. “You
could definitely see the advantage of that.”
At least once a week, Stone spends a couple of hours wandering the halls
at St. Joseph, looking for an audience.
Sometimes he’ll be in the surgery ward, sometimes in oncology. Whenever
he sees a patient awake, he’ll knock gently on the open door and
ask if he can play a song for them, taking requests for everything from
worship songs to show tunes.
Stone started the tradition three years ago. He’d read an article
about music therapy, with a growing body of research that shows music
can help reduce anxiety, manage pain, improve moods and speed recovery
“Most of us know that music speaks to the mind, emotions and spirit
in ways that sometimes words and visual images cannot,” said Johanna
Shapiro, director of Medical Humanities & Arts at UC Irvine. “Increasingly,
physicians recognize the potential of music to contribute to the healing
of patients and choose to incorporate music therapy into patients’
Stone was retired from working in the senior care industry and looking
for a way to give back through music. He’d been impressed with St.
Joseph when he’d visited friends there in the past. When he called,
he learned the hospital’s previous music therapist – a harpist
– was no longer there. So Stone took the gig.
Putting the audience to sleep isn’t most musicians’ goal. But
during Stone’s first tour at St. Joseph, he stopped to play the
Irish ballad “Danny Boy” for an elderly patient. He noticed
the woman close her eyes, which patients often do as they take in the
music. Then one of the nurses peeked in the room.
“The nurse said, ‘I think she’s asleep,’”
Stone recalled. “‘We’ve been trying to get her to sleep
Most of the time, he said, his playing has the opposite effect. “People
cheer up,” he said. “They just come to life.”
One elderly Latino woman had been a stoic patient, lying quietly without
complaint. As Stone played “La Cucaracha,” the woman began
to sway in her bed. Her son said it was the first time he’d seen
her smile in days.
A 94-year-old patient who was nearing the end of her life asked for gospel
hymns in honor of her husband, who’d been a pastor until his death
a decade earlier. The woman started to sing along as Stone played, tears
streaming down her weathered cheeks.
Stone first played for Theresa Ballard, 58, during her hospital stay in
March 2014. When the Santa Ana resident had to come back for an abdominal
hernia and stay through Christmas, Ballard said she was relieved to see
Stone walk in wearing his navy blue hospital volunteer shirt and carrying
his worn leather case.
“He was just an absolute breath of fresh air and made everything
so much more bearable,” Ballard said.
She was back at St. Joseph on a recent Monday, with a fever and some complications
from her Christmastime surgery.
Ballard closed her eyes and hummed along as Stone played “Somewhere
Over the Rainbow” and “Amazing Grace.”
“You can feel his heart in the music,” she said.
Stone took up the violin when he was 9, inspired by solos he heard during
radio programs such as “The Voice of Firestone.”
He was 10 or 11 when he got his first request. His dad wanted to hear “Tennessee
Waltz,” so Stone learned to play the country standard.
Stone started taking lessons in school. He took private lessons until he
was 18, always relying on a mixture of reading music and an ability to
play by ear.
He regularly performs today with Tustin-based Praise Symphony Orchestra
and at his Santa Ana church. And the grandfather is now teaching himself
to play classical guitar.
That instrument might have lent itself more easily to accommodating the
rare request he got from St. Joseph patient Gaston Bastanchury of Garden
Grove: country western music.
Stone dug deep into his repertoire, pulling out the theme from “Bonanza”
and Roy Rogers’ “Don’t Fence Me In.” A man walking
down the hall took notice, whistling along as he passed.
Then Bastanchury asked for some Johnny Cash. Stone thought for a moment,
then played “Folsom Prison Blues” for the first time. And
79-year-old Bastanchury beamed.
A song is a simple thing, Ballard acknowledged. But, she added, “Sometimes
that’s all it takes to make a difference in how you’re feeling.
“If more people volunteered their time like this,” Ballard
said, “more people would get healthier a lot faster.”
Contact the writer: 714-796-7963 or
DREW A. KELLEY, CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER