Cathy Free
January 09, 2017 11:38 AM

Classical music has gone to the dogs in Sarasota, Florida, and the audience loves it!

At some point in the future, you couldn’t blame Natalie Helm if she was tempted to stray from the classics and launch into a lively rendition of “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” on her cello.

But she knows there would be a small price to pay.

“The goal is to help calm dogs down and help them to relax,” says Helm, a concert cellist who recently started volunteering her talents to soothe homeless pets at the Humane Society of Sarasota County in Florida. “If things got rowdy, the dogs might get a bit too energized. I don’t mind a few howls — I sort of expect them. But for some dogs, rock ‘n’ roll could be a little overwhelming.”

That is why right before Christmas, Helm, 29, a new cellist for the Sarasota Orchestra, decided to stick with Bach’s Cello Suites and subdued holiday favorites like “O Holy Night,” when she sat on a folding chair between two rows of kennels to serenade about 30 dogs for the first time.

With the concert declared a tail-thumping success, she now plans to return to the shelter to deliver encore performances as often as possible.

“She has a gift and we were so grateful that she shared it with our shelter pets,” Christen Benson, executive director of the Sarasota shelter, tells PEOPLE. “She enriched their lives.”

A dog and music lover who grew up in Louisville and moved to Sarasota when she was hired by the city’s symphony orchestra in October, Helm says the idea to perform at the Humane Society was spontaneous, after she performed with her newly formed Upward Notes charity ensemble at area nursing homes and homeless shelters.

Marta Shenker with Rescued Nose Photography

“I’m a firm believer in giving back any way I can,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m just getting my life started, so I don’t really have money. But I have time and I have a talent. I also love dogs. So when I visited the animal shelter, I thought, ‘Hey — why not?’ “

Pets at Sarasota’s Humane Society are already exposed daily to classical music, since it’s piped into the kennels to help produce a calming effect. 

“They seemed very appreciative to have a live performance,” says Helm, “although there was one hound dog who wanted to howl along at first. He finally settled down and laid down on his bed to listen with the other dogs. I could really sense they were enjoying it — there was a great feeling of peacefulness that spread quickly through the kennels.”

“It was truly amazing to witness the transformation in our dogs once she began playing,” adds Bensen. “They were mesmerized and not one dog barked the entire time she played. It showed us that music can affect dogs positively, just like humans.”

Because the cello is considered the closest sounding instrument to the human voice, “people have always been drawn to it,” says Helm, “and it makes sense that dogs would love it, too. The tone and the sound is very comforting and brings out emotion.”

Helm is considering playing some romantic pieces in February for Valentine’s Day — probably something by Brahms or Rachmaninoff. And for a future concert, she admits she might be tempted to tackle “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens.

Marta Shenker with Rescued Nose Photography

“There are so many possibilities — I hope to perform at the shelter for as often as they’ll have me,” she says. “As a bonus, because they try to move dogs out into homes quickly, I’ll always have a new audience.”

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Helm has also performed for cats at the Humane Society. A few curled up at her feet, but most dozed through the concert or yawned with looks of indifference.

“Don’t get me wrong — I love cats,” she tells PEOPLE. “But when it comes to music, the dogs seem much more appreciative.”

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