One Christmas, I was hired to sing carols at a nursing home. I was a full-time musical theatre performer, but out of work and needing any job. I took my small Irish harp and entertained a half-dozen residents at a time in several locations around the building.
Unlike singing on a large stage with a faceless audience sitting in the dark, these few, frail people stared vacantly. I started singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and suddenly, like wilted flowers, they seemed to bloom with new life. Their sagging bodies physically changed. Shouting out the lyrics of the old holiday song, they sat up singing with pure joy. For the first time, I realized that music could be much more than just entertainment.
That night changed my life. I applied, auditioned, and was accepted into NYU’s Music Therapy Master's Degree program.
At the same time, I started working full-time in a nursing home. One of my patients was Jenny, a beautiful, gracious woman who had suffered a series of debilitating strokes. She had trouble speaking, was in constant pain, and heavily medicated. She often lay in bed, sobbing quietly. The entire staff was kind and consoling, but nothing seemed to comfort her. One day I tried something very simple. I took my small harp to her bedside and quietly sang the folk song, Kumbaya. After singing a couple of conventional verses: “Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya ... and Someone’s praying Lord, Kumbaya ...” I improvised,“Someone’s hurting Lord, Kumbaya, Someone’s hurting Lord, Kumbaya ...”
Her eyes popped wide open.She nodded frantically and grunted, “Yes! Yes!” Suddenly, she believed that I understood her pain. I kept singing as she smiled, and cried, and repeated, “Yes! Yes!”
Later, I ran senior centers for the well-elderly. One center member was 67-year-old Bill, crippled from polio and waring leg-braces. He had never attended academic school, but only a trade school where he learned to grind eyeglasses and make costume jewelry.
When I met Bill, he was shy and bored. He had little musical ability, but enjoyed singing in my chorus, and playing in the musical improvisation sessions. Unskilled musicians love improvising music that has never been played before. There are no wrong or right notes. No judgment!
After about a year of improvising, Bill and a few other center members came to me saying that they wanted to play, “real music.” They wanted me to start a band. I was shocked, but intrigued. I carefully explained that playing “real music,” meant they actually had to learn to play musical instruments, practice technique, take corrections, and learn the right notes. They were still adamant. I agreed and the band was formed.
I had a few gifted vocalists at the center, including three former WWII band singers. They were only interested in singing. The members who came to play in the band were not musically talented. This was a challenge. Using the band as accompaniment for our chorus, I arranged simple xylophone, recorder, one-hand keyboard, and percussion parts, and taught the members one by one.
Bill played the bass drum. He loved playing and his self-esteem grew. He became so proud of himself; he volunteered to teach a jewelry-making class. Before long, his class was a highlight of center activities. He had about a dozen elderly students. We were all buying and wearing his simple, attractive designs. His jewelry sales made money for the center, and he was suddenly a very important guy. If Bill had never tried playing a drum, he might never have gained the personal confidence to teach a jewelry-making class, rediscover his old passion, and create a product that benefitted so many.
Juan was eighty-one, intelligent, well-educated, and very shy. Hetold me he wanted to learn the guitar. He had trouble making his stiff joints adapt to guitar technique, but he persevered. After months of disciplined practice, he learned to play a few first-position chords beautifully. Eventually, I had an instrumental ensemble of violin, recorders, keyboards, banjo, harmonics, concertina, percussion, and guitars. Juan got great joy from the music-making and socializing with the other players.
After a couple of years, he told me that he was a Berlitz-trained Spanish teacher, and volunteered to teach a class at the senior center. Both his beginning and advanced level classes became so popular, he attracted new students to the center. If Juan had never studied guitar, he might never have gained the personal confidence to teach a Spanish class.
Learning a new skill can rekindle passion in an old one. Sharing a passion, can ignite passionate joy in others.