During work hours, Sheila DeBastiani is a supervisor and educator in the invasive cardiology unit at WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina, supporting a busy service line that touches patients of all ages and all walks of life.
Fittingly, however, when she’s not on the WakeMed campus, DeBastiani is still touching hearts, although her instruments of choice are musical, not medical. A talented performer on the bass, guitar, and ukulele, and a self-described “dabbler” in mandolin and dulcimer, DeBastiani shares her gifts with audiences throughout the broader community, not only as a performer, but also as a teacher.
“I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13, and I picked up ukulele about four or five years ago,” she said. “My husband got me one for my birthday, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. If I want to play something more reflective or more serious, I stick with the guitar, but if I want to have fun, I play the ukulele.”
Like any musician, DeBastiani has her influences, and when it comes to the ukulele, there’s none greater in her life than Jake Shimabukuro. In 2010, the Japanese-American virtuoso told CNN that the ukulele is “the instrument of peace,” and that if everyone played it, the world would be a more harmonious place.
“I bought into that,” DeBastiani said. “I’ve given several people ukulele lessons and they’ve done quite well with it. It’s trans-generational. It’s a pretty easy instrument to play, and you can sit down with someone for a half-hour and they’re able to play a song.”
When DeBastiani was first learning how to play the ukulele herself, she didn’t know anyone else to play along with, so she decided to try to recruit some compatriots through her worship community at the St. James United Methodist Church of Raleigh, North Carolina. After posting in the St. James newsletter and church bulletin, about five fellow congregants took her up on the offer. They ranged in age from seniors to children, and after a little while, the circle expanded to include folks from beyond the church itself.
Retirees and working-age people, grandchildren and grandparents, siblings and friends; they all came together to play. The universal appeal of the instrument and the scope of its reach soon became evident to her. The way that people stuck with it and continued to play thanks to her tutelage was “something that’s very humbling,” DeBastiani said, and she has more than a few stories of what those efforts have done for her students.
“When you’re teaching somebody, you don’t really know the impact that you’re having on them,” DeBastiani said. “One of my young friends started out, a sophomore in high school, and he and his mom did ukulele camp with me. From the ukulele, he transitioned to the guitar and the bass guitar.”
“When he delivered the message at church, he said he’d always liked music, but never thought much about playing until he started with the ukulele. He said the reason that music means so much to him is he found his way to Christ on Thursday nights in the music room, and started out with the ukulele,” she said.
“The takeaway from that is everybody experiences things in different ways,” DeBastiani said. “Whenever you reach somebody, you’re able to reach them, through whatever barriers they might have, through music. It’s really humbling.”
At 13, DeBastiani herself was taught guitar by a fellow parishioner at her church, and she has repaid that gift at St. James UMC by educating a dozen or more teenagers in the youth praise band there. To her, the lessons are a part of ministry, so she never charges for them; the only catch is that her students must agree to perform in the church band.
In her own practice, DeBastiani plays for pleasure about an hour a day, and more when she’s rehearsing for a gig. A fan of folk rock, she claims James Taylor, Joan Baez and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as influences on her performance. In addition to playing, she enjoys singing and musical arrangement, and her own repertoire includes “Will You Remember Me,” “Drift Away,” “Make You Feel My Love,” “Teach Your Children,” and as a native West Virginian, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
There’s also a point at which her musical and professional lives have intersected, and it began some 13 years ago when the WakeMed vice president of heart and vascular services asked DeBastiani to coordinate performances of Christmas music in the building lobby to give patients and their families an infusion of holiday cheer. It’s grown so much since that in 2019, she booked 30 different performances there in the course of two weeks. Players hailed from the facility itself as well as from throughout the broader community of musicians in Raleigh.
The 2020 season was much scaled-back because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – only stringed instruments, and only two to three performances per day – but that tradition that comforts so many of their patients remained intact, “this year of all years, when we need more than we normally do,” DeBastiani said.
“It’s my most favorite thing about my job,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to offer to our patients and their families.”
Despite the pandemic, DeBastiani has continued her lessons with the teenagers in her church group, albeit over FaceTime. It’s important for her to mitigate the risk implicit in in-person gathering, but for her it is even more important to keep them connected via performance.
“I really have grown to care very deeply for these people and I wouldn’t want to do anything to put them in jeopardy,” she said. “I meet with them on Thursday nights, and I like that. By Thursday, you’re kind of tired from the week, and being able to play music revitalizes you.”
“I just want them to know that somebody out there cares,” DeBastiani said. “They’re going through a ton, and somebody cares.”