Music to My Ears

Malik Muhammad as a high school student created the Music to My Ears – A Balm from Bronzeville (TM) program. He was encouraged to continue this program, incorporate stress management data, and seek funding for the project, through the Nobel Project, led by Dr. Ruby Mendenhall from the University of Illinois. The Nobel Project seeks to get students interested in computer science and other STEM fields through workshops and interacting with faculty, staff, students and resources from the University of Illinois. The Nobel Project also seeks to help students who are underrepresented in the university. It also brings in Nobel Prize winners to help students learn from them. Malik’s story of innovation ties to his long history of working in the music field and his goal of helping others who are in stressful jobs.

Malik explains how is experiences inspired the creation of the “Music to My Ears” program below:

Music has always been a passion of mine. I have been enrolled in A Touch of Classical Music plus School for years. I currently play violin in the Hyde Park Youth Symphony String Orchestra (HPYS) which was led by Dr. Lindsey Wright, who is now at Yale University Music Department. HPYS is directed by Tim Corpus and brings together diverse students from the south side of Chicago and beyond to provide a high-quality orchestral performance experience and a training ground for the next generation of performers, educators, and advocates for music and the arts. Last year I enrolled in their Chamber Music Program and was chosen to perform in their String Quartet during the Spring Concert. This experience showed me the power of ensemble music to help soothe and heal audiences.

I also rehearsed with the Chicago Philharmonic at their Side-By-Side Community Concert Holiday Edition ( Getting to know these expert musicians was eye-opening. The experience showed me how much you learn playing side-by-side with professionals. At the same time, I competed for a music fellowship at the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative (CMPI), which is directed by James Hall. The mission of CMPI is to identify and develop gifted and motivated orchestral students from underrepresented backgrounds for acceptance into top-tier conservatory, college or university classical music programs in preparation for careers as professional musicians. After two years of auditioning, I was selected to join the 2021 cohort as a fellow ( CMPI has a relationship with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and offered the opportunity to enroll in their music composition program. Civic Fellows Joe Bricker and Hannah Christiansen taught me contemporary performance and compositional techniques and helped me develop my own musical compositions. “Softly Blue (Suddenly) Grey” was the title of my piece and it debuted on the Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s Online Concert Program, ‘Chicago from Scratch!’ This experience showed me how to convey my own emotions through composing.

Lessons from these experiences: (i.e. the power of ensemble music to soothe, learning how to convey emotion through music, realizing how much you learn performing with professionals), led me to write a proposal to serenade overburdened staff at hospitals, health clinics and schools. When my mom caught COVID-19, I learned first-hand how much work-stress hospital and health clinic staff were under. When I returned to school, I found my teachers with the same stressed-out look. My thought was to serenade them using a string ensemble similar to what I learned at HPYS. I was accepted in the Health Professions and Recruitment Program (HPREP) at the University of Chicago-Pritzker School of Medicine where I learned more about healthcare. I also enrolled in The Nobel Project to learn from Professor Ruby Mendenhall, Associate Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation, at Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Her Nobel Project serves as a Dream Incubator and College Pathway Program for marginalized students. It seeks to align students’ dreams and genius with STEM applications and careers like computer science. In her program, I received a Nobel Laureate Letter of Recognition for Outstanding Contributions from Dr. Richard J. Roberts (1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine) and Dr. Robert H. Grubbs (2005 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry). It was Prof. Mendenhall that challenged me to come up with a health innovation. (

I met her challenge and wrote a proposal to use classical music as a ‘balm’ for overburdened staff at hospitals, health clinics and schools. Encouraged by Prof. Mendenhall and with the help of my Dad, I entered this proposal in the Carle of Illinois Medical School Health Maker Lab’s Health Make-A-Thon. This competition was for health innovation proposals. I became their youngest awardee with my proposal, “Music to My Ears-A Balm from Bronzeville (TM)” ( Prof. Irfan Ahmad and the HealthMaker Lab awarded me $10,000.00 to develop a pilot project based on my proposal. My Dad and I developed a pilot project where we provide customized stress management packages for staff at hospitals, health clinics, schools and businesses, using real-time stress data we gather from staff to make evidence-based classical music selections, that we perform live, in staff breakrooms with professional string ensembles and youth musicians. Staff wellness, performance, retention and burnout, along with youth work readiness, and artist unemployment are problems we help to solve. Since we launched we have serenaded employees in their staff breakrooms at 2 schools, 2 health clinics and the cancer unit at Carle Hospital. All of the staff at each of the sites said it helped them, and asked that we come back. Since I rehearsed and performed side-by-side with a professional ensemble at each of these sites, I gained work-readiness, performance experience, and a professional network I can use when I become a professional performer.

My Dad and I competed again in Health Maker Lab Tournament of Champions-Shark Tank. We hoped to gain enough funding to continue to perform for staff at health clinics, schools and hospitals. We did not win. We also competed at the University of Illinois Gies Business School 2nd Annual Illinois Social Impact Pitch and Venture Showcase. We did not win there either. We are still in pursuit of funding, mentorship and partnerships. I continue to pursue my passion in music. Most recently I was accepted in the competitive summer music camp at Interlochen Academy of the Arts, with a Merit Award. I am very much looking forward to that experience. As you can see my musical journey has led me to many different experiences, so I never underestimate opportunity. Whenever I have one, I try to take full advantage.

Watch Music to My Ears in action:

  • Carle Illinois College of Medicine – Dr. Ruby Mendenhall who started the Nobel Project is the  assistant dean for diversity and democratization of health innovation at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Malik has also partnered with Carle Hospital to pilot his program.

Contributors: Malik Muhammad