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Feature Story

Mateo Messina and the LUMA Guild: Harnessing the Power of Music

Rishi Nair and brother; LUMA Guild members; and Mateo Messina with child

“I had the privilege of attending one of Mateo’s concerts and it is such a memorable way to honor our patients and their families. I am grateful to the members of the LUMA Guild for their creativity and steadfast support over the years – together they have raised $580,000 for pediatric cancer immunotherapy research! The incredible generosity of our guilds improves the lives of our patients and their families.”
– Dr. Michael Jensen, vice president, Seattle Children’s Therapeutics

Music for healing

LUMA Guild members

The LUMA Guild in 2019 following its benefit concert at Benaroya Hall. The evening featured the Northwest Symphony Orchestra, Sleeping at Last, the Seattle Ladies Choir and Kira Iaconetti, a Seattle Children’s brain tumor patient and musician who helped bring Messina’s work to life.

From the first day Mateo Messina pulled up a bench to the hospital’s piano and began to play music with patients, magic happened. The Grammy-winning composer and Guild Association board trustee began volunteering in Seattle Children’s playroom in the late 1990s, just as his music career was taking off.

“A little kid lingered by the piano and I asked him if he wanted to sit down. I put his fingers on the key of C an octave apart and I played along. We started playing a duet and his face lit up,” Messina says. “It was like we had a great hello moment and I said, ‘Let’s write a song.’ That has been the exact hello I’ve had with 99% of the kids I work with at the hospital. When they say they don’t know how to write a song, I tell them we can write about whatever they’re feeling. People often find it easier to share things in their heart when it’s in the form of a song. It’s cathartic.”

In 2003, Messina formed the LUMA Guild (originally the Symphony Guild) to raise money for uncompensated care in honor of all the patients and families he holds dear. To date, Messina has written and premiered 21 symphonies as benefit concerts for Seattle Children’s. His past guest musicians have included rock powerhouses like Heart and Alice in Chains as well as pop stars like Imogen Heap and Five for Fighting. The LUMA Guild has raised a total of more than $2 million for uncompensated care and cancer research!

Starting in 2010, Messina began inviting patients to join him on stage to share their talents. The first was Amy Ogmundson, a Seattle Children’s cancer patient from Ferndale, Washington, who sang at the guild’s 2010 benefit concert at Benaroya Hall a month after completing cancer treatment. “We wrote a song together and it was so beautiful and impactful,” Messina says.

Sadly, Amy’s cancer returned – and, three years later, she passed away at the age of 26. “When she was in her last days, I was amazed that she asked to talk to me. There have been so many close relationships I’ve formed with patients and their families around music. I cherish these relationships because they are about building a community.”

Messina likes to tackle subjects in his symphonies that leave people walking away inspired, thinking about something they have never considered before. That’s why he invites patients and specialists like cancer researcher Dr. Mike Jensen to speak – because there’s no better storyteller than the child who is receiving care or the provider who is dedicated to finding answers.

The composer’s appreciation for Seattle Children’s reached a new level four years ago when his newborn son had a respiratory illness. The ER closest to Messina’s home directed him and his wife straight to a place he knew well: Seattle Children’s.

“I was so grateful because the hospital is a familiar place and I felt more confident knowing such expert caregivers would be helping our little boy get better,” he says. “We felt a great sense of support from the community at Seattle Children’s. Our son is 4 now and thriving!”

Messina appreciates the community rallying behind LUMA Guild’s virtual fireside chat fundraiser in December, which raised more than $10,000 for uncompensated care and cancer research.

“People crave giving back, especially having a chance to help children in our community and I love giving them a chance to be part of something,” he says. “We’re only here on this planet an average of 78.8 years, so you can spread yourself thin or you can focus. By focusing on Seattle Children’s, I can have a lot of impact and that feels good.”

Patient Performer Draws on the “Superpower” of Music

Rishi Nair and brother

Rishi Nair (right) and his brother perform at multicultural and meditation programs around the world.

Rishi Nair was 8 in 2009 when he had the life-changing experience of performing in Mateo Messina’s “The Symphony of the Superhero.” Rishi was born with kidney failure, and his mother donated a kidney for his transplant in 2006. Although he lives in Birch Bay on the U.S.–Canada border, Rishi says he will continue as a patient of Seattle Children’s, which he calls a second home and family, “for as long as they will let me.” Rishi continues to learn new instruments and is a student of the Khayal form of Indian classical music. He shares this about his LUMA Guild benefit performance:

“Mr. Matt and I composed a piece called I Am, which incorporated singing and the linking of cultures through music. For me, even at that time, the most powerful thing about music is that it could create a bridge. It was a bridge that transcended language, barriers and everything that divides humanity. It could heal, it could unite the world.

“For the composition, Mr. Matt asked me to incorporate three of the many instruments that I played and loved: the Australian didgeridoo, the hulusi from China and the tabla from India. The piece introduced the superpowers of these instruments: how they could bring joy into people’s hearts, how they could make the trees dance ... and we ended with singing: ‘I am an instrument too. I am Rishi.’

“One of the most powerful moments of creating this piece was Mr. Matt sitting on the piano bench in the Seattle Children’s playroom. He looked into my shining eyes and asked: ‘Rishi, if there was one thing that you could tell the world, what would it be?’ I thought for a moment, thinking about how my life has been saved. And I answered: ‘Everyone should live a good life.’ And that message ends the piece.”