Friday, May 29, 2015

Songs without words

I am an Arts Fusion Specialist  with the Alzheimer's Association which brings interactive music/art activities to seniors with dementia and Alzheimer's. I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to encourage participation in my music sessions.   Sometimes I look out at the participants and think, "I don't think they are capable of participating." This was the case the other day when I saw the residents in their wheelchairs nodding off after a few songs.  But I decided to give it a try anyway.

Here's what I did. First, I passed out egg shakers and told them we will form a "merry band" and they will play along with me on some uptempo songs. I started them off with a rhythmic beat and they shook their eggs along and I played, "Hey Good Lookin' What You Got Cookin'?" and a few other songs. To my surprise, they woke right up and smiled and enjoyed playing along. Next, I got out my djembe (drum) and played a rock 'n roll beat and they jammed along with me. The next part is what surprised me the most. I went around to everyone and asked them if they'd like to play my drum. I didn't think they'd do it but each one of them took a turn at it. I held the drum as each one played a "song without words."   After the first gentleman took his turn I said, "let me see if I can do what you did" and I imitated his rhythmic beat. A big smile and nodding -I got it right and I went around to everyone and did the same.

For those with dementia, words can be hard to find. Although most them them can recall words to old songs. Even so, I've found that drumming can be a lot of fun for them as we all have rhythm as I told them and then sang the song, "I Got Rhythm."

After that successful session, I made my way over to a friend's 3rd grade classroom and talked to the kids about my bionic ear (cochlear implant). It has been over 6 years since I was implanted and I actually forget at times how much it has changed my life. It was a nice reminder that we can never take anything for granted. Thanks for stopping by and reading my stories.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

You bless us too

One of my favorite places I play for people is a nursing home in Madison county that is run by Mennonites. It is always inspiring to be there because the people who work there radiate such genuine kindness.  It is how I would like to be in the world more often and I really do try to be but there are times I might be down about something or tired or something prevents me from feeling my best.

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far and so that made me feel fatigued. It's a  long drive (30 miles) to this nursing home and during rush hour traffic, so I had to psyche myself up for it. I was greatly rewarded for my efforts, as you will see.

As a therapeutic musician, sometimes it can be a challenge in that people see my music offering as a performance. At this nursing home, I usually sit in the middle of a big circle and play soothing instrumental guitar music. This is for "sundowning" time when folks are anxious and the music is to help calm them. Often times they applaud when I finish playing a piece and listen attentively. That is very nice but I would prefer they fall asleep. (therapeutic music is opposite to a performance)

Yesterday I had the inspiration to ask if there were residents who stayed in their rooms that I could play for one on one. It turns out there was someone who was bed ridden and I went to play for him for awhile as his eyes drooped and I could see he was about to fall asleep. Next I played for Ms. B. who is generally pretty agitated and the music appeared to calm her too. After that, I did play in the big circle until one of the nurses asked me to play for another resident who was set apart by the window in a corner crying.   This is what I do best-one on one playing. I was so happy to feel I was being more useful (and not feeling like I was "performing"). On my way out that evening, I told one of the nurses I really enjoyed coming there and it inspires me. She said, "You bless us too." That was such a compliment. I drove all 30 miles home smiling and feeling good.

Check out the view across the street from this place pictured above. Just beautiful!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Keeps the music inside

It has been a challenging time for me as I recently went to visit my mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's and lives far away. It is never easy to see anyone suffer, much less my mother. I always find that my work really helps me during such times. We all have some kind of challenge or battle going on whether or not it is visible or apparent to others. I find that my work playing for patients at the hospital is the most helpful for me at this time since it allows me to do something for others.

The other day I had this vision of a big Grace Bank that we can all contribute to. At times feel overwhelmed with all the suffering that goes on in the world and helpless to do much about it all. But I can do what I can and however small it may seem, it is contributing to the greater good. So imagine then if we all had something, a gift, a skill, ideas, gestures, money, whatever you have to give. Each day we make a small contribution to the Grace Bank and those in need of some healing, peace, grace in their lives can take from this "Bank."

Yesterday I played for a patient at the hospital who was in Palliative Care. This is a place where many of them are likely not to go home. They are hospice patients who are being kept comfortable until they die.  This woman sat peacefully as I played and closed her eyes.  I envisioned her taking in the melodies I played as she breathed in. I was aware of trying to fill the room with beauty and peace and healing. When I finished, we chatted a bit about where she grew up and such. She had such a serene expression on her face as if she were at peace with all of life. I was happy that perhaps my music contributed a little to her peace (and to the Big Grace Bank out there somewhere)

As i got up to leave, I asked her if she wanted me to close the door on my way out. She smiled and nodded yes and said, "It keeps the music in." I imagined her room like a big music box where she could recall the melodies I played whenever she wanted. I left feeling uplifted by her and what we shared.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Jammin' through ethnic sounds

The other day I played at a club house with a colorful bunch of people.  It's a place with a game room and card tables and such set up but all of the action happens outside on the back patio. This is also where everyone smokes cigarettes. I'm not a fan of smoking but I hardly notice it once we get singing.

Many of the people I know from my five or so years of coming there but there were also a lot of new faces. Since there are a lot of people of color there, I chose to sing songs by black artists.  Those who never saw me before quickly dropped their guard as soon as I started singing, "My Girl" by Smokey Robinson. Just about everyone stopped their conversations and joined in. Next I sang, "Stand by Me," followed by, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay."   Soon I was taking requests which ranged from Beatles, "With a Little Help from my Friends," and "Yellow Submarine," to Marvin Gaye's, "Heard it Through the Grapevine," and Cat Steven's "Moonshadow."

Later, Roberto asked me, "Do you know any Latino songs?" And I started playing a Latino-like chord progression and improvising lyrics sung in a Latin beat, "Ev-ry bo-dy got some-thing- to - sayyy sayy ya ya .." Roberto starts laughing and laughing. Next thing I know, Joe starts in riffing off of me and making up lyrics and singing and improvising. Roberto keeps on laughing and starts drumming on the table. Then Susanna joins in beating on an old coffee can.  I kept on playing my Latino song and we played around like that for quite some time. Finally, when it was time to go a guy named John said, "That was the most fun I've had in a long time!" 

Sure was... I can still hear that song we made up in my head. I wish we could have recorded that!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Fellowship of the Guitar

I often meet people in my work who once played the guitar but can no longer do so because of an illness or injury.  Yesterday I was asked by an activities director to spend some one:one time with a man named Raymond who used to play the guitar but due to a spinal cord injury, he cannot move the right side of his body.

There is something about people who play(ed) guitar. There is a lot that we share and talk about.  For instance just the make of the guitar is a topic that can bring up some interesting stories. Back when I was starting out, there were a few name brand acoustic guitars that most serious players sought to own. Names like Martin & Gibson for instance. Nowadays though, there are just as many private builders of guitars as there are players. One of my guitars was made here in Ivy, VA and a lot of people find that interesting.

Then there is the way we learn guitar has changed so much over the years and since the internet. Back when i was learning in the 70s, if I wanted to learn a song, I'd have to purchase a whole book or sheet music for that one song. Now, I can almost always find it online.  There are also many ways to learn online from Skype lessons to DVDs and such.

Not to mention then there are so many genres you can play on the guitar from country, folk, blues, jazz, classical, rock & roll. You can play with your fingers (fingerstyle) or with a pick. Electric/acoustic... and on and on, you get the idea.

It is always a good experience for me to meet someone who loves the guitar as much as I do. I cannot imagine not being able to play anymore. But I could see yesterday the spark in Raymond's eyes when we talked about his old Gibson and the country band he played in. We talked about my guitar and the woods it is made from.  I could see that talking about guitars brought him a lot of comfort and happiness. I know it can't be any substitute for playing a guitar, but at least I feel good that I was able to talk to him in a way others could not really understand. We guitarists have a kind of fellowship that only we understand. If you play the guitar --do you know what I mean? Here's to us!
Thank you, Raymond for helping me remember what a special gift it is to play guitar every day.

Friday, May 1, 2015

To Sit at the Welcome Table

Yesterday I gave a presentation on African American music of the Civil Rights Era at a local High School. I have such passion for this music and historic time period. I often say you can read a book about a given historic time but it would likely have been written by someone who was not there. A factual account with names and dates you are expected to memorize. Or you can sing the songs that were written by the people who went through those times first hand. Songs that grew out of their hardships and struggles.  These songs I taught expressed their outrage over the injustice and yearning for radical change in the nation. When you sing them, you can feel the emotions of the people and how it must have felt to live through their struggle.

Most of the songs are from the Negro Spirituals and Gospel traditions that were brought back during the Civil Rights Era and the words changed to express their new message.  Here are some of the songs we all sang; "We Shall Not Be Moved, " "We Shall Overcome," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "This Little Light of Mine,"

I think one of my favorites was one that is not as known but was sung by the Freedom Singers Gospel group called, 'I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table." The words are:

"I'm gonna sit at the welcome table
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, hallelujah
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days."

This song seems so simple but what a powerful message when you think that black people were not welcome in so many places. To declare, "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," was a bold thing to say back in the Civil Rights Era.

Other verses are "I'm gonna be a registered voter," "I'm gonna sit at the Woolworth Counter." For me these verses are so revealing. Can you imagine not being able to vote just because of the color of your skin? Do believe this happened in my lifetime?  And to think that black people were not allowed to eat in most restaurants (hence the Woolworth reference). It is just mind boggling.

We've come a long way since those times but as we see in the news, racism is not over. It is my hope  that in singing of the songs yesterday with young people, a seed was planted in their hearts. It is my hope they will stand up against injustice and continue the work that has been ongoing for many years now.