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It's Fun to Play the Piano ... Please Pass It On!
I'm cross-posting this in Pianist Corner and the Adult Beginner's Forum. Please forgive the cross-posting.
One morning a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this clip while I was looking for something else on YouTube. It is quite moving:
That happened to be the same day I was scheduled to tune a piano and play two programs at one of the Alzheimer's care centers. The place has two kinds of living arrangements--Assisted Living, and, Sheltered Care. I was tuning the piano in the Assisted Living side (an early vintage Cable grand in need of a lot of TLC), and the activity director came over to say "hi." I told her about the video clip and she said, "Oh, yeah! They just started doing that in the Sheltered Care side." Sure enough, when I went to the sheltered care side to play, I saw one guy wheeling his chair down the hall, headphones on, and singing like a lark!
I've been to the Assisted Living side to play about five times, now, and the Sheltered Care side three times. The difference in music preferences between the two sides is interesting. Assisted Living seems to likes the sedate, highbrow stuff presented concert style with a few peppy tunes thrown in for good measure. The Sheltered Care side can be a little chaotic and noisy (it's an Everett studio console over there, also in need of TLC), and a lot of the residents in Sheltered Care are in similar condition as Henry, but they really respond to the peppy stuff, presented party style. My first time there, when I started playing some Fox Trots and Charlestons, some of them got up to dance with their care-givers, or "arm dance and toe tap" in their chairs.
Yesterday, I was scheduled to play at the sheltered care side, again. One of the residents, Ruth, knows just about every pop song from the 30s, and 40s that I pull out of my satchel to play. She doesn't read music, but she doodles and noodles quite well at the piano. The last time I was there, she sat next to the piano, kind of facing me in her chair, and happily hummed and sang along to all the tunes. Yesterday, there was no chair by the piano, and when Ruth came into the activity room, she stood next to the piano where the chair was, and sang. I said, "Do you want a chair?" "Oh, maybe in a minute," she said. But I could tell she was kind of tired. So, I got up, and scooted the piano bench over to make room for her and said, "Have a seat!" So she sat with me at the piano, and we had a blast. She sang along, reading the lyrics from the page as best she could find them, and even turned pages for me.
Sometime during that hour, a flock of nurses descended and took residents' blood pressure and pulse and temperature. A nurse took Ruth's readings while Ruth was on the bench, and said, "Wow!" Ruth said, "Is it alright?" The nurse said, "More than alright! You're blood pressure is great when you're singing and listening to music!" In between songs, Ruth told me a lot of stories about her dad and their piano at home, and how he taught her to play. Actually, it was pretty much the same story every time between songs, but it was embellished with a different detail each time, too. (Common when talking to people with Alzheimer's... It's a repeat for you, but for them, it's a genuinely new thing to say or ask. I just smile and reply like it's the first time I've heard it... And, if I hear a new detail, I ask about it to keep the conversation going and see where it leads.)
I'm sharing this story by way of encouragement. I know many of you play at facilities like this from time to time, and I just want to suggest that your music and presence might be more profound than you may see from the surface of things.
Anyway, to quote from the video clip, above, music is "the quickening art." The mp3 player idea is phenomenal! And I submit that the shared listening experience with live music is different in a number of ways and no less important. If you've never played at a care center, guess what? They are sprouting like weeds, popping up everywhere, and I further submit to you that there is a niche and a need for people who can tickle the ivories and float some live music into the air. There is usually at least one dumpy, unserviced piano in the house (notice the piano in the background in the video clip? Bet'cha it's not in tune! ). If you get lucky, there's a nice one. The pianos I get to play range from an awful-sounding Wurlitzer console to a gorgeous Steinway L.
A nurse took Ruth's readings while Ruth was on the bench, and said, "Wow!" Ruth said, "Is it alright?" The nurse said, "More than alright! You're blood pressure is great when you're singing and listening to music!"
Great post, Andy! I think every one of us can identify with the power of music in our lives, and there is no expiration date on its effect. Henry seemed truly transformed after receiving the ear buds.
A good friend of ours and his wife took care of his mother for many years. The mother had been a school teacher and was also a pretty decent pianist, but developed Alzheimer's in her late 80s. Once the disease took hold, she recognized no one, except very occasionally her son. Fortunately, our friend maintained his mother's baby grand, and when mom would sit down at the piano, it was as though the Alzheimer's had vanished. She would immediately begin playing, beautifully and with great gusto. And you could place any score in front of her, and she would sight read it better than I ever could.
I think that no matter how much our bodies and minds may let us down, music seems to burrow deep in our souls. I would hope that those of you who play in retirement or nursing homes keep this in mind. It's not just another gig. The music you make may be triggering memories, and "quickening" those connections to a life that once was.
(Which means I need to start learning about MP3 players and ear buds. Load 'er up with Bach's B-Minor Mass, the double violin concerto, and the Chaconne, and I'll be ready for departure. )