Virginia Symphony Orchestra engages dementia patients in music making

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Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Generations in Unison” program brings music to the elderly, specifically those with dementia, and engages them in music making. (Courtesy VSO)
Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Generations in Unison” program brings music to the elderly, specifically those with dementia, and engages them in music making. (Courtesy VSO)

Virginia Symphony Orchestra violinist Lesa McCoy Bishop has one quartet concert that stays in her mind. It wasn’t the concert itself that sticks with her, but a member of the audience.

He was a resident at Warwick Forest Retirement Community in Newport News. After hearing the VSO quartet play “Servicemen on Parade,” he recounted his own days as a musician.

“He said with great clarity that he used to be a musician,” McCoy Bishop said. “Then we packed up our instrument cases, I saw him, and he didn’t remember talking to me. For that small amount of time, we had him.”

Capturing the man’s attention, however fleeting, through music, was the goal of the musicians that day.

They are part of VSO’s “Generations in Unison” program, which takes music to the elderly, specifically those with dementia, and engages them in music making. They’re not passive members of an audience. They’re given drums, rhythm sticks and tambourines to use as they play along with the quartet. They also sing along for certain songs.

The program, which was inspired by a similar program at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, launched in May and they’ve had two concerts—both at Warwick.

They’re on break for the summer, but they are planning to come back in the fall, and play public concerts that are open to everyone in communities throughout the Hampton Roads—not just those in assisted living facilities.

Playing to the power of music

Music has been recognized for its healing power since Biblical times—when David played the harp for Saul to ease his troubled soul, said Becky Watson, a Norfolk-based music therapist who owns Music for Wellness and also works with the VSO.

The modern roots of what is now called music therapy in the U.S. began in the 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II.

“Veterans came back with a lot of pain. Nurses found that if they sang to them, it helped them with their pain,” Watson said.

More recently, music has been recognized as beneficial to the brain. It helps reverse conditions such as aphasia, language impairment caused by stroke. In neurologist-writer Oliver Sack’s best-selling “Musicophilia,” Sacks details several clinical cases in which music helped cure patients, or provide temporarily relief. One such man had memory for only seven seconds at a time—except when listening to music.

On that same note, VSO musicians are making a positive impact on dementia patients’ lives. “The best thing about music is that it activates the entire brain,” Watson said. “Music cannot heal dementia, but it can enhance quality of life.”

McCoy Bishop knows that first hand. Her mother had Alzheimer’s disease. “She’d appear to be in a daze, and you’d play Johnny Cash, and all the sudden, she’d come out of it,” McCoy Bishop said.

When her mom fell into a coma, McCoy Bishop played music—and her mother opened her eyes and looked around the room.

“Immediate memory is non-existent,” McCoy Bishop said. “But other memories are deeply embedded.” And music triggers those memories.

Gershwin, Sinatra hits with audience

Watson and the musicians carefully select music that audience members can relate to. They begin with a strings-only piece—Haydn’s “Sunrise Quartet”—a peppy introduction that sets the stage for the upbeat mood of the hour-long concert.

Then the musicians, or volunteers—usually music therapy students from James Madison University or Old Dominion University—hand out drums, tambourines and rhythm sticks to people in the audience so they can play along.

“It’s not a stuffy concert,” said Christy Havens, VSO’s director of orchestra activities. “Classical music has a lot of rules. We’re just making music together, and there isn’t one right way.”

They play a lot of classic American tunes including Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Westside Story, the Sousa March, Yankee Doodle and America the Beautiful.

There have been several retired military members in the audiences, McCoy Bishop said. “Sometimes they automatically stand and salute.”

“This generation loves to sing,” Watson added.

Cellist Rebecca Gilmore said participating in the concerts is very rewarding to uplift peoples’ spirits. “I don’t know how it will affect them long-term, but short-term, it gives them some activity, and a sense of purpose and enjoyment,” Gilmore said.

For both Gilmore and McCoy Bishop, playing in the concerts is also cathartic. Gilmore was very close to a grandparent with dementia and McCoy Bishop recently lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease, and her sister was recently diagnosed with it, too.

“It’s a great way to give back,” McCoy Bishop said.

Widening their reach

Apparently, word traveled fast about the concerts at Warwick, as the second concert was much more widely attended than the first, Watson said. Now the goal is to have a community concert that’s open to the general public, she added.

“People are living a lot longer, and not everyone can afford fancy assisted living centers,” Watson said.

McCoy Bishop would also like to give concerts that also target or engage caregivers, who often need a break.

“I love the fact that we get out of the concert hall and reach people who can’t get to a concert hall,” she said.

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