Of all the things I’ve missed during the COVID quarantine—family gatherings, movies, hugs—I think I’ve missed music the most. Oh, I have quite the CD collection and so recorded music has remained part of my day, but Pandora is no substitute for live music and especially choirs. I believe the universe still owes me a full-throated Hallelujah chorus.
I recently met an elementary music teacher who lamented that there would most likely be no musical concerts at school this year. Can you imagine no children on stage belting “Up on the Rooftop”? My talented son-in-law is a choral conducting doctoral student at Indiana University. He was talking recently about what COVID could mean for choral ensembles. Imagine that the concert halls and auditoriums that normally stage over 50 concerts a year may be quiet or reduced this semester at one of our country’s largest music schools—as singing, like laughter and boisterous talking, can transmit germs.
It’s quite a propos that singing is so contagious because, after all, isn’t music itself? Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Indeed, music undergirds our personal stories; sound sustains us all the days of our lives, for we know that hearing is the last sense to go. I have been fascinated by studies that reveal what an impact music can make on Alzheimer’s patients. According to Dr. Jeff Anderson, associate professor in Radiology at the University of Utah Health, “People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety…. We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”
This explains why music is so therapeutic to those with dementia. I know that we played music in the last days of my parents’ lives on a continual loop. And I know that my aunt’s passion for music was as powerful in the last years of her life as the 90 years prior.
To me, my Aunt June is synonymous with music. She sang in the choir and played piano and organ for her church for over 50 years. I recall visiting with her as a child; my mother had taken up piano lessons again along with me, and the three of us would look at the latest piece June was working on. At the time I didn’t understand why June was taking organ lessons, as she was already a virtuoso, but now I appreciate the fact that she was a life-long learner, always with new music to explore.
June had the innate ability to play by ear; if you hummed a few notes, she could jump in and accompany you. My dad referred to her playing as aerobic, because June’s hands would dance off the keys: She was something to behold. At our house one evening when my youngest daughter was a toddler, June began to play our piano, and Emmy came from the opposite end of the house, gravitating toward the music. She stood there, hanging on to the edge of the piano for balance as she swayed back and forth to the music.
When June had to move into an assisted living facility and, specifically, the dementia wing, her devoted sons brought her piano to the common room. Once the piano arrived, it was touching to watch the residents emerge from their rooms as June started to play. They were drawn to those melodic strains that evoked fond memories. When my mother and I visited June, I often took one or more daughters with me. They loved her and hearing her play as much as I did.
During some point in the visit, we would ask June to play and inevitably the residents would appear. June always asked for requests; at that point she couldn’t recall the names of the songs, but if we hummed a few notes she would remember. Music massaged the synapses in her brain where words couldn’t. One old man in particular would sit in the armchair closest to the piano and request “Old Rugged Cross.” Each time June began to play it, he broke down in sobs. I always wondered what the song triggered in him: memories of a family funeral? Time in church as a little boy? When the song was over, he would say, “Play it again.” June would roll her eyes and begin again.
Once she whispered to me, “He irritates me.” I don’t know if it was because she sensed that he was farther down the dementia path than her and she was fearful of her own future, or because she didn’t like the tears, or perhaps because she was itching to tickle the keys with Scott Joplin. At any rate, after the third time of “Old Rugged Cross,” she would turn to him and say, “That’s enough.”
One day when we were there my daughters were singing with June at the piano. After a few bars, June stopped, looked one girl directly in the eye and said, “I think that’s too high for you. Let me change it.” And she did. This bright woman who had lost so much of her ability to remember, to function independently in the world, could still transpose music. The musical sinews of her brain were as sharp, as precise, as when she was a young woman, and she could still communicate her love to us through those magical, nimble fingers.
Music doesn’t just evoke memories; it instinctually ties us to the people we once were. It prompts tears when we need to weep and puts a spring in our steps when we need to rise. Familiar hymns and songs from our childhood make us feel loved and safe because they return us to a time when unconditional love and wide-eyed wonder were ours. Music speaks a universal language of hope—one that is ever kind, always uniquely ours.
About music, Keith Richards said, “if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.” It was surely in June’s bones. I miss her playing piano for me, and I miss church services with choirs and soloists that make my heart skip a beat. I guess I’m like that old man, desperately wanting to “play it again.”