Habitually, I mostly play piano on the weekly Friday visit to the Jewish Home for the Aged and occasionally sing while playing. But inspired by Austrian Orff teacher Christine Schonherr, who works with elders in Salzburg, I did something different today. Instead of starting with Bach, Ragtime or a jazz standard at the piano, I sat close to the residents with my guitar and led a Singing Time like the ones I do each day at school. A simple folk song repertoire with recognizable tunes and words they can sing along with—Home on the Range, Oh Susannah, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and the like. And then motions. She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain could be a physical therapist’s anthem, with up and down, side to side, circular, midline-crossing, different body parts motions. Not to mention the mental acuity to remember a sequence in reverse. The engagement was palpable and the folks very happy to be moving as they could and singing.
And then my partner-in-crime Laura Ruppert, again inspired by Christine, brought peacock feathers and handed them out. The residents used them like conductor’s batons as I played John Phillip Sousa marches, Johann Strauss waltzes, Offenbach’s “Can-Can.” And then I asked the folks to close their eyes while Laura and a few other visitors circulated amongst them tickling their hands and arms with the feathers while I played The Moonlight Sonataon the piano. I looked up from the printed score and saw a roomful of blissful faces.
Then Laura sang Offenbach’s Barcarolle and Gounod’s Ave Maria, filling the pin-drop silence of the listeners. One women had such an expression of sublime joy on her face as the notes washed over her and erased all symptoms of time’s passing. From there, another singer joined us as we swung our way through some jazz songs—Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man, Heaven, Somebody Loves You, Alfie, Get Me to the Church on Time. For that one-hour of singing, listening, moving, conducting, from folk to classical to jazz, with some sensual peacock feathers thrown in, we were in a church filled with more spirit that just about any church I’ve ever been in—except perhaps, one with a Gospel Choir. But even that doesn’t have the range of emotion that we led out.
And just the day before, I led a preschool singing time with 80 kids in which we reviewed the songs we had sung throughout the year, just one short verse of each. We counted the songs while we sang and came up with 30 songs in 25 minutes. And at least another 30 that we’ll get to next Singing Time. And my heart-throb moment in that was a 4-year-old belting out Free at Lastwith such her hand on her chest and such passion in her face.
As someone who sang very little the first 20 years of my life, I’m astounded that this has become just about my favorite thing to do and that I’ve learned to do it so well. My gift is to almost effortlessly pluck out the next song from a storehouse of some 500 and more and find the one just right for the moment. One that comes from the one before and leads to the one ahead. No papers to shuffle, no books to open to find the score, no i-Phone to look up the lyrics, just all (well, almost all) at my finger and tongue’s tip. Like any human being, I’ve made some dubious and bad choices in my life, but learning these songs and how to share them is not one of them! Perhaps the best choice I ever made.
And then I get spontaneous messages like this one from 5-year-old Ripley to confirm that I got it right: