Music Therapy

It was a hot summer afternoon in Marin City’s Manzanita Child Development Center, but the 36 kids gathered in the stuffy recreation room did not seem to care. They were listening to singer/songwriter Ira Marlowe strumming on his six-string and singing about Pepe, the Mexican jumping bean. “Have you ever seen a Mexican jumping bean?” Marlowe asked the wide-eyed children. “Maybe in Mexico, inside a burrito?”

There was more clever stuff. “If you were a ghost,” Marlowe sang, sounding much like the late folksinger Harry Chapin, “how would you know what scares people most?” “You’d go to Haunting School,” the kids shouted back in unison with smiles on their faces and laughter in their voices. And an observer couldn’t help thinking that smiles and laughter were not that prevalent in the hardscrabble lives led by many in Marlowe’s multicultural audience.

This was Marin’s Bread & Roses at its finest.

“To sing is to love and affirm, it is to coast into the hearts of the people who listen—and to tell them that beauty exists,” said legendary songstress Joan Baez. In 1974, her sister, the late Mimi Farina, launched the nonprofit Bread & Roses. Its mission: to share the joy and healing power of music and other live performances with confined individuals throughout the Bay Area. Its slogan: “Hope and healing through live music.”

And that motto is hardly an exaggeration. In the last year alone, on a budget of less than a million dollars, Bread & Roses produced over 600 performances for nearly 28,000 individuals of all ages and ethnicities. “Our performers appeared in detention centers, convalescent homes, hospitals and homeless shelters,” says Cassandra Flipper, Bread & Roses’ executive director for the past 10 years. “With the help of 1,400 volunteers, we regularly serve 115 facilities in eight Bay Area counties.”

Basic concept: Agencies like those listed above are selected by Bread & Roses to receive uplifting performances involving music, dance, magic, humor or a combination of many talents. In turn, Bread & Roses calls on one of over 350 previously auditioned acts and individual performers eager to display their talent(s) without payment as a public service. “The magic is in the match between performer and audience,” says Flipper. “And that is where the expertise of our producers really shines.” Bread & Roses—the title of a 1912 poem by James Oppenheim—has a 15-member board of directors and its work is made possible through individual donations, fundraisers and foundation grants.

Recent efforts: This May, four girls from San Domenico’s Virtuoso Program—playing viola, violin and cello—performed classical music at the Cedars of Marin, a facility in Ross offering a high quality of life to those with developmental disabilities. Then in June, Johnny Kerns, an inspiring clown, had 68 youngsters laughing, dancing and singing at Canal Family Support’s annual end-of-school party at the Pickleweed Recreation Center in San Rafael.

To get involved: call 415.945.7120 or go to