“There might be an appropriate place to teach old ladies how to sing, but is this it?” asked an administrator of a senior citizens’ center.
I’m a certified music therapist. At the time, I was leading music therapy groups and individual therapy sessions, while conducting a senior center chorus and band. That administrator was my boss. I had just told him joyous stories of three delightful elderly ladies who were singing in public, and feeling proud of themselves, possibly for the first time in their lives. All three had been told by grade school music teachers: “You’re a listener, dear: DON’T SING!” All three women had grown up, held responsible jobs, gone dancing with their husbands, raised children, but never again tried to sing.
Beth was now 82. Standing 5’2” in her flat oxfords, her badly combed wig pulled down around her heavily wrinkled face, she sadly told me her grade school teacher story: “You’re a listener, dear...”. I started teaching her how to sing. It wasn’t easy, but she worked hard. Now, she was able to sing short solos with the senior center chorus. The audience applauded and she beamed with pride.
Frances was 73. She had been a ballet dancer and had a wonderful sense of rhythm. She was nearly tone deaf, but had a loud, brassy voice. I carefully chose songs and transposed them into keys that exactly fit her speaking voice. She was able to belt those few notes like Ethel Merman. Audiences loved it, and she loved performing. Her children came to the shows and cheered.
At 61, Margaret was the group’s youngster. She was wheelchair bound with Multiple Sclerosis and acute asthma. Again, I carefully chose songs and keys to fit her limitations. I gave her a lot of individual attention, and now she was able to croon into a microphone.
All three women said their lifelong dreams had come true. They moved around the senior center grinning like Cheshire cats. I adored these women and was thrilled to have helped them feel good about themselves. I reported these wonderful stories to my boss, expecting him to be as excited as I was. Instead, he thought for a moment. “There might be an appropriate place to teach old ladies how to sing, but is this it?”
Discouraged, but never defeated, I took a job at a different senior center and continued my work.
One day, a short, white haired lady asked, “I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, but I’m seventy-eight years old. Am I too old to learn?” After a few months of lessons, Jane confided, “You know, learning music has changed my life.” She was a widow and had recently buried one of her children. She used to go home and sit in front of her TV, feeling sad and lonely. “Now, I go home at night and practice the piano. A whole hour will go by and I won’t even know it. I can’t wait to play 'All Of Me' for my grandson.” Jane also learned the recorder, and played simple musical parts I arranged for the senior center band.
Ted was 89, quite deaf, and highly intelligent. Some mornings he was late for rehearsal because he was trading online. Since losing his hearing, he thought his piano playing was over. I taught him to use a drum machine. Then, he was able to feel the rhythms and play with the band.
A sweet-spoken, painfully shy 74-year-old man came to my beginning guitar class. His arthritis made twisting his fingers and pressing the strings very difficult. Eventually, Carlos learned a few chords and played with the senior center band. Gaining courage from his musical accomplishments, he volunteered to teach a Spanish language class which become very popular. No longer shy, he became a charming host, welcoming new members into the senior center.
Eve was 80, and a New York socialite when she came to the center. She had been a classical musician and still loved performing. She generously taught other center members, arranged and transposed music for them. We were all dismayed when she suffered a massive stroke that left her unable to speak or play music. Her socialite friends quickly disappeared, but her senior center friends rallied, becoming a constant source of comfort and companionship.
There are dozens of similar stories, each one well worth the telling.
Every month our elderly singers, dancers, and musicians presented hour-long birthday party variety shows. The programs included large and small ensembles and solos. Every month they tried out new material and polished, well-rehearsed pieces. The performers kept dancing, memorizing, and laughing: three activities necessary for healthy longevity. What I started as an experimental music program, became an unprecedented success.
Every day, over a hundred people, aged 60 to 90+, came to the senior center to eat lunch, socialize, take exercise classes, hula dancing, Tai Chi, arts and crafts, lamp repair, bridge, Spanish, music with preschoolers, attend the monthly shows, and enjoy life affirming therapeutic music classes. It was not just teaching old ladies to sing. It was improving the quality of life, one person at a time.
Every few months, the senior center was threatened with closure for lack of public funding. NYC budget cuts forced us to downsize. Eventually, I was the only full time staffer in the building and had to cancel some music classes. Now most of my precious hours were taken up with supervising lunch, rolling coins and counting dollars donated by the members for their lunch and activities. I used to teach hour long classes in piano, recorder, guitar, and music theory, as well as giving beginners an extra hour at the end of each day. Eventually, the classes were combined into forty minute slots. Some days, twelve piano students, playing at different skill levels, using ear phones, shared electric keyboards. I did my best, moving from keyboard to keyboard, but forty minutes was not enough time. They needed and deserved more individual attention. There used to be time to coach singers on new material, and arrange elaborate sounding, easy to play, musical arrangements for the band and chorus. Now, we mostly repeated old numbers. The performers were no longer challenged to exercise their minds and bodies by constantly learning new lyrics and dance steps.
A NY Post article said that closing my senior center would save the city $45,000 a year. We served a hundred people, six hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for $45,000.
When the center closed, I procured a business license under the name Music Gives Life, learned to fundraise, and carried on. Performers from all my senior centers followed me, becoming the Show Stoppers. With funding from public and private organizations, we have been performing at health centers, social service agencies, schools, houses of worship, and public parks for more than a decade. Indeed – Music Gives Life.