Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Healing Power of Music

Or not. On Friday, I went to the Jewish Home as usual and nobody was there waiting for me. There was some misunderstanding as to the time, so while the nurses went off to bring people there, I decided to warm up with some Bach Partitas. By the time I was on the second, some eight people had gathered and suddenly, in the midst of the Prelude, I heard a ear-piercing, blood-curdling scream from one of the residents. Naturally, I stopped played and asked, “Are you all right?” and she replied, “I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE!!!! NO MORE PIANO!!!!” So much for the soothing comfort of music. 


A nurse came and wheeled her away and I thought, “Let’s try a little Mozart. A slow movement.” Perhaps the Bach was just too busy and dense for her and she felt overwhelmed by the barrage of rapid notes. Or she simply was in pain or having a bad day. But it was a good reminder that music isn’t always what’s needed in the moment. Though it’s pretty darn close.


From Mozart I moved on to jazz standards and there was a woman close by mouthing all the words to each and every one, with a look of such sublime happiness. After I played, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” she said, “That was my husband’s favorite song.” Luckily for me, most of the 80 and 90 year-old folks here really know these songs from the 30’s/40’s/50’s and some old enough to associate them with their younger self romances or marriage or night out dancing or washing dishes listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra singing them on the radio. So besides the aesthetic pleasure of songs artfully crafted, there is an extra dimension of being recalled to other times in their lives, some cellular memory of bodies more vigorous and pain-free, of hearts held in the throes of young love or a slowly maturing deeper love. A familiar soundtrack to happier times.


My job is to play a wide variety of music and styles to be able to tap into a large range of human feeling that different rhythms, tempos, keys, scales, themes and lyrics can evoke. I’m always aware of when we need some contrast, moving from a ragtime piece to a waltz to an opera aria to a march to a jazz ballad. It’s also fun to choose songs based on what’s happening in the world. As Friday was the first day of autumn, I played Autumn Leaves and Autumn in New York. Also September Rain and September Song. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a nod to a few smoky days in San Francisco from the Oregon wildfires. When Tony Bennet died last month, I of course played I Left My Heart in San Francisco.Music as commentary on or affirmation of what’s going on outside.


As I get to know the people, I also remember their favorite songs or pieces. So on Friday, I watched Rose spring to life and sing along to her favorite, Moon River, Steve perk up when I played Alfie, Lori start to tear up (while smiling) when I began to play la Paloma.Though I haven’t played to a full house in Carnegie Hall, I can’t imagine a performing venue more satisfying than to try to play the particular songs that have particular meanings for the people listening. 


And back to my screaming audience member (which, incidentally, triggered yesterday’s blog that included “The Primal Scream” and deserves another entry as to how babies and elders are connected), I remember a woman named Betty some years back who also spoke up loudly while I was playing, “Someone get me out of here!” I talked to her and found out she was from Georgia and started to play Georgia on My Mind and after that, I was her favorite. And always told the group, “This one is for Betty” when I played it in future gatherings.


Because of the time misunderstanding, I ended up playing longer than usual, over an hour and a half of constant music without pause. When I finally stopped and walked out, I noticed my primal screamer was sitting in the back, having come back to listen. Perhaps music really does have a healing power. 

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