Sometimes I am surprised by their openness to me. It is as if having my guitar in hand is like having a key to their secret garden they let me into. We enter into a very private place together as we share important memories from the soundtrack of their lives.
I'm thinking of Thelma (not her real name) and how she transformed from a appearing to be very quiet and untrusting to completely open and singing with the most heart felt abandon. When I saw a picture of Jesus on her wall, I decided to sing, "Amazing Grace" and she said it was her favorite song. She sang loudly and with the conviction of a professional singer even though she insisted after I complimented her, "I can't sing, I just love music!." Her love for music was so apparent. She went from being listless and detached when I entered the room to vibrant and joyous as we sang through some of her favorite songs.
Next I visited Johnny who was having a birthday. He seemed a little down (I suppose being in a nursing home is not the most uplifting place to be on one's birthday) and he mentioned he liked "dark" music. I immediately thought of the song, "House of the Rising Sun." As soon as I started to sing this, I could see the song struck a deep chord inside him. He closed his eyes and swayed to the music. He had an expression of being in a very deep and private place. It led us to a conversation about how life can change for some people by being in the wrong place at the wrong time or hanging out with the wrong crowd. (which is what "House of the Rising Sun" is about). He was so open and vulnerable with me that it was such a privilege to feel he trusted me as he would a close friend, even though I had just met him.
Last night I had another very uplifting session with Shirley, an elderly woman with dementia. I have known her now for over 4 years and only recently she started opening up to me. When I started to see songs that she recognized and hummed along with, I made a point to play more from the same genre and era in hopes to connect more with her. It turns out we spent nearly one hour with me playing the guitar and her singing along songs from, "Clementine," "Over the Rainbow," "You Are My Sunshine," and her favorite one that made her laugh was, "Heart and Soul." Many of you would not recognize the lyrics but if you ever took piano lessons, this would be very familiar to you. Shirley loved this song so much we must have sang and played it over a dozen times. This is amazing to me because if I talk to her, she will look down and will not engage. When she is not sitting down, she roams the halls looking down and rarely speaks or engages with anyone. But last night she sang and laughed and her whole demeanor was so light and happy. I cannot stop thinking of her and the fun we had together. I got up this morning and wrote down the melodies to 7 more songs to play for her next time.
Music is so much more than "entertainment." It is a powerfully healing and connecting force. It is a bridge to bring back joy to those who lives seem devoid of it most of the time. It is my work and I love it. Thank you for reading!
The picture above is one I took at the park nearby while I stood in a butterfly bush snapping away. It can be hard to photograph a butterfly because they are never still very long. How fitting, I think, as happiness can also be something that does not stay if you try to catch it.