Sara Kapinos, a nurse at Bridgton Hospital, plays her violin at the hospital on Wednesday. Kapinos, who has been playing violin for 35 years, will participate in a virtual concert arranged by Carnegie Hall featuring healthcare workers from across the country. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sara Kapinos thought her big-time performance career ended when she stepped away from classical music and settled into nursing. But then celebrated violinist Joshua Bell asked her to join him and other musicians from around the country to perform as part of the National Virtual Medical Orchestra.

After an inadvertent delay, she said yes. At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Kapinos, 39, will be among a dozen musicians, who are also doctors, nurses and medical residents from across America, performing with Bell in Music as Medicine, a virtual concert featuring Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” presented by Carnegie Hall in New York. The orchestra was formed in the spring as a way to help frontline healthcare workers cope with the pandemic.

In an interview Wednesday, Bell said he brought the musicians together out of gratitude and because he wanted to create an event to distract them from the daily stress of their medical work. “This past year, I have been feeling very grateful that I have escaped, so far, getting sick, and of course, it has been hard for us artists in many ways. We cannot do what we do and perform for the public and travel the way we used to, but I feel incredibly lucky,” Bell said. “Watching these doctors and nurses put themselves on the front line, you feel helpless not being able to contribute and grateful for what they are doing. How they go to work everyday and face it, it is very impressive.”

Sara Kapinos performed professionally across the United States, Europe and South America before she became a nurse. Courtesy of Sara Kapinos

It hasn’t been easy, Kapinos said. It’s been a stressful year, and she is straight-out busy every day. “But I am coping OK. I have good days, I have bad days. I have been known to be crabby, but music helps,” she said. “When in doubt, bring out the violin.”

The concert is described as a platform for medical heroes to showcase their musical talents. Bell, who organized the concert, will be a featured soloist. Throughout his career, he’s come across many healthcare professionals like Kapinos who are also musicians. Kapinos, who lives in Bridgton and studied classical music at the Juilliard School in New York, is specialty team lead in the operating room at Bridgton Hospital, which is part of the Central Maine Healthcare network.

Before she became a nurse, she performed professionally across the United States, Europe and South America. She comes from a family with a rich musical heritage. Her great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Knopf, was famous for making exceptional violin bows in the late 1800s. He also made violins, and Kapinos performs with one of his instruments today. The composer Louis Spohr was her great-great-great-great-grandfather.

A mother of six, she gave up her career in music to focus on her family, and took up nursing because, “I like to make people feel good, and that is something that nursing and music have in common.”

She no longer tours but still plays, and often performs for patients to help with their recovery. This year, she has spent considerable time playing for people hospitalized for COVID-19. “With COVID, our patients are alone and isolated, and music is a way to connect on a profound level,” she said.

Bell saw a TV news story about Kapinos’ use of music to help patients heal and contacted her through his agent to ask if she would participate in the National Virtual Medical Orchestra earlier in this year. The funny thing is, Kapinos missed the message. Bell’s agent sent it through social media in the spring, after the story aired on WMTW in Maine and was picked up by stations across the country.

“But apparently I am not very technology-savvy, and I didn’t see the message until August,” she said. “I didn’t realize Instagram has a message function. So I wrote back and said, ‘This would have been a dream come true.’ ”

It wasn’t too late. The National Virtual Medical Orchestra scheduled a holiday concert, and this time Kapinos answered the message.

“I am just a nurse and I live in the backwoods of Maine, and never would have dreamed,” she said. “But dreams do come true. I thought I was done with the big scene, the Carnegie Hall scene, many years ago. To have a chance, now that my kids are older, to pursue this again is excellent. And with this connection to medicine I didn’t have before, I think I found my calling and the real meaning and purpose of my work.”

Kapinos has long considered Bell to be among the finest violinists in the world. To share the stage with him, even a virtual stage, is an honor and accomplishment she never imagined.  “He is just tremendous. When you watch him play, he is so full of passion. It’s not just the notes, it’s how they’re executed,” she said. “He is one of the most emotional, passionate players you will see. To watch him is just breathtaking.”

Bell said the medical musicians are the stars of this show. His contribution was organizing the event. “My worry about doing this is that it is going to look like I am giving them a gift playing with them. That is not the case at all. This is meant in the spirit of joy, and there are not a lot of ways to express my appreciation,” he said.

Pre-pandemic, Sara Kapinos shares music with a patient at Bridgton Hospital. Courtesy of Sara Kapinos

When she recorded her part for the the Vivaldi piece, Kapinos tried to channel Bell and play with passion and emotion and tried not to worry about perfection. She recorded her part in early December and sent her digital file to the orchestra so it could be edited in with the others. She will hear the full piece Thursday night, assuming she does not get called in to work. Because of staffing situations related to COVID-19, she is on call nearly every night.

Bell said he was pleased with how the performance turned out and impressed with the talents of the musicians. He is eager to meet them when the pandemic ends, when people can travel and gather and share music in person. “I hope I can meet them all. It would be fun to get together and do this in person,” he said. “After the pandemic, I think the whole world will realize how much the arts are needed. It’s something that brings us together, when it has been such a divided year.”

Bell and Kapinos share musical lineage. Both attended Meadowmount School of Music in Westport, New York, though not at the same time. She has played since she was 4, and flew to New York on weekends to study at the Juilliard School. As a freelance musician, she toured the world playing with quartets, ensembles and orchestras.

Kapinos, whose maiden name is Kimball, grew up in Waterford and graduated from Oxford Hills in 2001. In Maine, she studied with Ronald Lantz of the Portland String Quartet and played with the Portland Youth Symphony and Portland Community Orchestra. She enrolled at the University of Southern Maine to study performance, but left school when offered the opportunity to work as a touring musician, which she loved. She got to see the world and perform for presidents in the United States and elsewhere.

But it’s an unsettled life and full of risk, so she came home to Maine to focus on her family. One day, she parked her car next to what is now Maine College of Health Professionals in Lewiston and thought, “Maybe I should stay local for a change. I have always wanted to be a nurse.”

She earned her associate degree and became a nurse. She is currently enrolled at St. Joseph’s College in Standish, where she is working toward a master’s in nursing with a focus on leadership. Sharing music with patients allows her to combine her careers, for which she is grateful. “It’s a blessing to be able to do the two things I have always wanted to do, all in the same day,” she said.

Kapinos is a big proponent of music as therapy. Music activates the limbic system, which consists of subcortical structures in our brains that affect emotions and memory. Music can help reduce heart rate and blood pressure, as well as oxygen demand, a key concern with COVID-19 patients, she said. “We are hardwired for rhythm and hardwired to distinguish music from noise,” she said. “Classical music has a profound effect on our minds and bodies. Without a doubt, it is a great way to connect and engage with patients, and it is medicine.”


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