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Interlochen students use medical equipment to -- literally -- put their hearts on stage

Interlochen Center for the Arts

When artists listen to the heart, they’re usually looking for emotion or inspiration. No stethoscope necessary – certainly not an echo machine. Until now.

Students at the Interlochen Arts Academy have been jammin’ along to the beats of their own hearts, thanks to some pretty sophisticated medical equipment. Next week they’re putting on a show that blends the traditional artist’s notion of heartache with a very physical representation of their healthy, and normal, teenage hearts.

Heart & Art is live at Interlochen's Phoenix Theatre next week, and the show will be webcast Friday, February 20th.

Find the webcast link and other show information here.

Hitting the stage

Credit Linda Stephan
Singer-Songwriter Julianna Shamel, 17, practices her original tune "Mr. Manipulation" for the upcoming performance of Heart & Art at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.



When 17-year-old singer-songwriter JuliannaShamel hits the stage, her heart races.

“Oh my gosh it beats out of my chest,” she says. “Because it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, everybody’s watching you.”

Generally, musicians like Julianna are taught to ignore that natural metronome pounding in the chest – so they can stay on beat with the music.

Adding the heart

But what if the heart were the metronome?  

“What we wanted to do was to see how different sounds coming from the heart could function as a musical instrument,” says Cardiologist Brian Jaffe. He recently took some healthy Interlochen jazz musicians to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. He dressed them in hospital gowns and hooked them up to an echo machine.


Video courtesy of Niki Conraths.

The machine interprets the blood flow and translates it to sound, not the beeps you typically think of with a heart monitor. It’s lower frequency and more fluid.

Hooked to the machine, the musicians were told to improvise.

“It was really cool because we were following the blood flow in this one young man’s heart, and, when he got more excited, his heart beat sped up and the blood flow increased and the other guys just followed along,” says Jaffe.

We all felt it in the room. But, of course, we couldn't explain it. -- Niki Conraths

Interlochen Comparative Arts instructor Niki Conraths says there was a moment at the hospital where the heartbeat from one student synched with perfectly with his friend improvising along on double bass.

“It felt like they were uniting,” she says. “We all felt it in the room. But, of course, we couldn’t explain it.” 

For Conraths it’s the part that can’t be explained that is most interesting, as her students look at the connection between the physical body and the soul of their artwork.

What I may see

Haley Jennings, a senior at the Interlochen Arts Academy, was struck in that experiment by the differences found in each of her friends’ heartbeats.

“Maybe one would have a little bit more ‘buh-boomp, buh-boomp buh-boomp,’” she mimicks. “And I’d be like, ‘Oh, it goes perfect for that personality of the person. It was really interesting. You wouldn’t expect (that) from an organ that’s there specifically for a purpose.”

A multi-media show next week features a beat poetry performance called the “Bad News Jam (hear it in our audio story).” There will also be a live jazz improve featuring heart, as the echo machine makes a rare appearance outside the hospital.

Concert-goers will also be treated to a display of student heartbeats, translated from sound to image, and silk screened in vivid color.

There will also be songs by student singer-songwriters, including Bella Nanni. Her music is featured in the video below, which was produced by freshman comparative arts student Adlir Linsemann.


An early version of this story listed the wrong medical equipment. An echo machine will be used in the performance. We regret the error.