Music, Memory, Doing The Right Thing

Photo Jhong Dizon

Early this summer, I watched residents from Sunrise Senior Living present a choral performance organized by the Levine School of Music. The choir was made up of people like my friend Miz N., all residents of Sunrise with varying levels of medical, physical, or mental disability.

Clearly, I wasn’t expecting a Carnegie Hall-worthy performance from the singers—although they were very much in tune. But I had no idea how moved I’d be watching this choir perform—with passion, dedication, and joy. And I couldn’t help but notice that as the music began, some of the residents seemed to light up! They reminded me of a YouTube clip that went viral some years ago, of Henry, an elderly nursing home resident whose eyes popped wide open upon hearing a piece of music from his youth.

It’s no wonder that clip went viral. Whether Henry reminds you of someone you know, or presents a hypothetical possibility in your distant future, his reaction is simultaneously joyous and moving.

Music, The Earliest Memory

It’s not surprising, really. The vast majority of us, the world over, have been sung to in infancy. After smell, music is probably one of our earliest concrete subconscious memories. Enter music therapy, and a pilot program like the Levine choir program, which is intended to be a more active way to engage residents, for whom it is all too easy to become passive, retreat into solitude, and rapidly disengage from the world.

Says Julia Reppucci, a music therapist and choral conductor who directed the choir I watched, “People remember singing. It’s adaptable and there is rarely a lifetime in which you don’t experience music.” Which probably explains why so many of the singers, like Henry, seemed to come a bit more alive, make eye contact, and seem happier as they sang.

It's funny, until it's bittersweet. And it can happen to any one of us.

Music and Memory

This is especially true of residents who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or struggle with memory. For them especially, the music helps lower inhibitions, allows them to be sillier, to be more themselves, and be more social.

“The music is the tool that increases their quality of life, helps them retrieve or make memories, and helps them work on whatever need they have,” Reppucci says.

And you could definitely see that during the performance. You could see some of the residents connect visually with the audience during much loved pieces like “Edelweiss” and enjoy themselves. Some memories might have been bittersweet––one singer, a recent widower, began to cry through “You Are My Sunshine”––but they are invaluable for a group of people who can be alone in their last years, and increasingly disconnected.

Fundraising To “Do The Right Thing”

So why don’t more organizations introduce music therapy? Clearly, programming costs money and arts organizations––rarely flush to begin with––have to be strategic about what kind of community outreach they can commit to or sustain. The challenge only intensifies for nonprofits.

Levine is able to offer music therapy programs like Sunrise’s because it was was fortunate and hardnosed enough to plan ahead for more earned revenue (versus fundraised income), says Lois Narvey, director of programs, events, and partnerships. This has allowed Levine to remain profitable, and as Narvey puts it, be able “to do the right thing” and offer meaningful, engaging programming for a community that can benefit from every opportunity to make friends and more memories.

Clearly, N and her friends did that the afternoon I watched them. So did their families and supporters, including this one.