Megan Reich has been playing flute since she was 11. The University of Minnesota master's student, now 24, is still eager to learn new music, master new techniques and be introduced to new venues.

That's how she found herself in a situation that she had never anticipated: standing in the lobby of a medical building, playing for patients on their way to and from appointments with their doctors.

"Ever since I was in high school, I played with orchestras, wind ensembles, done solo recitals. Always in a setting where I'm in a concert and concert stage playing for an audience," Reich said. "But I've never been in an environment where I'm part of a background, but still providing music for people just in their everyday life."

She is part of the U's Music Outreach in Healthcare Settings class, which began last fall. Led by Dr. Michael Silverman in cooperation with the university's medical school, students in the class play individually in the University of Minnesota Health Clinics and Surgery Center lobby in Minneapolis for an hour each week.

David Garcia, who brought his mother to the clinic for an appointment, said the music enriches lives.

"I get happy listening to the music and how students are so dedicated to their arts," he said. "I was just listening to the sound and how it carries and how talented the young lady is, so it really surprised me."

For other patients, the music is a relaxing part of their wait for appointments or rides to go home.

"It couldn't be anything better. It's so soothing," said patient Bessie Engstrom. "I don't get to hear it very often, so I like it."

Performing for patients gives Reich an opportunity to immerse herself in the music and the experience it creates for others. She can interact with the listeners, including children who come up to the hear the music and watch her perform. Sometimes she will encounter a youngster who is seeing a flute for the first time, one of Reich's favorite experiences.

"That freedom for the audience, I think, is really important because I believe that music should be something that gives people the space to experience and process their own emotions," she said. "And I feel like this type of context really provides for that."

A little less scary

Music can help people connect, making a health care setting seem less intimidating, said Dr. Stephanie Misono, director of Lions Voice Clinic in the Department of Otolaryngology at the U.

"Health care environments can often be kind of sterile and impersonal," she said. "And having live music be part of the environment, socially, I would like to think would make that environment feel a little bit more welcoming and a little less scary and a little less of all the things that can be so hard about needing to be a patient somewhere."

The class meets twice during the semester, along with students meeting three times individually with teaching assistant Sonia Bourdaghs. Reich was so impressed by her experience in the class that she signed up for it a second time. Not only does she get a chance to see the impact her music can have, but the class has helped her feel more comfortable playing in public and engaging with the audience.

"There can often be the feeling of a wall between the stage and the people seated in the audience. But here, that wall's a little bit blurred," Reich said. "I found it even more rewarding the second time around to really be present and engage as much as I can with those listeners who are coming up to me and saying thank you and really paying attention to that two-way interaction that happens."

Reich said the class has taught her the importance of playing in nontraditional venues and providing live music to those who might not otherwise have access to it.

"I always want to be putting myself in environments where I'm challenging myself as a performer," she said. "And I'm also very much drawn to the idea of music as something that can be healing and something that can help people go through those stresses of their everyday lives."

Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.