Musicians of Mercy: Columbia violist finds a way to help the suffering

On Jan. 12, 2010, Robin Fay Massie sat transfixed in front of her computer, as images of dusty and bleeding Haitians wailed in grief, crying out for help, and food and water.

“I started crying,” Massie says of her reaction to the catastrophic earthquake that struck the Caribbean island nation. “Then I was furious. As an artist, there’s a need to have your voice heard.”

Massie, a Columbia resident and professional violist with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, remembers thinking, “What could I do? I can’t give money, I can’t go there, but I do have my music.”

Within days, she and fellow musician Heidi Daniels, a Virginia resident whom she met as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, organized a benefit concert for Haitian relief. Six weeks later, 70 musicians from all over the mid-Atlantic region donated their time and talent to play in the free concert, given at Old St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Baltimore. The audience, about the same size as the orchestra, donated $1,300.

As people all over the world sent help to Haiti in response to the tragedy, a wider, deeper plan unfolded in Massie’s mind and heart.

Between the sounds of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Brahms’ Second Symphony, she heard the call of compassion and knew she had something greater to accomplish.

What emerged was Musicians of Mercy, an organized effort to bring professional, classically trained musicians together to help the hurting.

“You’d be surprised how many fabulous professional musicians want to help,” says Massie, including conductors Joseph Jones of New York and Gordon Green, whom she met at Peabody Institute in Baltimore. “And there’s never a shortage of need or disasters, sadly.”

Four concerts later, and with more than $10,000 raised, the musician is searching for a board of directors to guide her mission to extend mercy through music. Like her concerts, which include an ambitious repertoire of two hours of classical music and a little jazz, forming a nonprofit has its own challenges, including finding people who will commit to overseeing the effort.

Right now, Massie is a one-woman show, organizing venues, finding musicians, determining which agencies through which to funnel donations, all while traveling to Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York and Richmond to play her viola in orchestras and chamber groups. She also tutors high school students in her parents’ home, where she and her 4-year-old daughter live.

“I’m the type of person that always feels like I have to be doing something,” says Massie, smiling broadly. She wears a bracelet of four intertwined leather bands, imprinted with the words forgive, freedom, seek wisdom and plant peace — messages she says she tries to live by.

Massie started playing the violin at age 8, but it was under the tutelage of former Oakland Mills Middle School orchestra teacher Deborah Stotelmyer that the adolescent discovered the viola and her musician’s voice, she says.

“It’s a deeper, richer sound than the violin. I even talk like a viola,” she laughs. As a student at Howard High, she played in the school’s orchestra and all-county and all-state orchestras. In her senior year, she was selected for the All-Eastern Orchestra and played at Carnegie Hall in New York.

“I cried the entire time,” she recalls. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a professional musician.” But recently the 30-year-old is asking bigger questions of herself. How does she help people but still support her family? How much time can she devote to this effort?

When the earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan in March, Massie says she felt a confirmation of her mission.

“God gave me this gift. What am I going to do with it? I can fill a concert hall just to make people smile, or I can help people live better,” she says. “I can’t wait for someone to give me the opportunity to do what I want. I have to create one.”

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