As a Therapeutic Musician, usually I play for patients while they passively listen to the music and relax to the gentle sounds. However, on rare occasions I get to make music with my patients, which takes the experience to a much higher vibrational level of healing. Sometimes we sing together but in the following case, my patient was a harmonica player, not a singer.
Kevin* was referred to me by our hospice team for Therapeutic Harp sessions to help with his anxiety associated with dementia. I was told at that time that Kevin was a musician. Bristol Hospice recognizes the benefits of live, bedside harp music to calm patients and family members in our music program. In my experience, people with musical talent are especially receptive.
Kevin lived in an assisted care facility. The first time we met, I found him sitting in his private room watching tv. Well, the tv was on; whether he was watching it or not was debatable. On the table next to his bed was a large harmonica. I didn’t know much about harmonicas at that time but when I asked Kevin about it, his face immediately lit up with a big smile. He said he had been playing harmonica since he was 3 years old. His older brother had one and when his sibling left for school, Kevin “stole” the harmonica and has been playing one ever since. He was proud to relate he is self- taught and plays by ear.
I started to play an unfamiliar Celtic tune on the harp for him to initiate the musical relaxation session. But Kevin did not want to relax to my music, he wanted to play music with me. I had never had this experience before so I stopped and asked him what song he would like to play and he said, “Anything in the key of C because that is all this mouth organ can do.” He said he couldn’t remember any songs by name but if I would start playing something popular, maybe he would remember. I began with “Amazing Grace”. He cocked his head and listened briefly and then informed me he recognized the tune although couldn’t remember the title and I was playing it in the wrong key. It took some trial and error but I was able to transpose the piece into the “right” key and we were able to play our first harp and harmonica duet: Amazing Grace, key of C major.
The next time I came to play for Kevin, he was sitting in the lobby of the facility with the other residents waiting for dinner. I had planned to go to his room as we had done previously but several of the other residents asked us to stay in the lobby and play when they saw my harp. Kevin agreed to play with me in the lobby so we began the first of our pre-dinner performances for the residents. The fact that we didn’t always play the “right” notes or finish at the same time didn’t bother anyone. The happy sound of Kevin’s harmonica and the beautiful tone of the harp brought joy to everyone in the lobby, especially Kevin.
As soon as someone recognized a tune we were playing they would call it out, which began a game of “Guess That Tune” for the residents. Occasionally, someone would join us by singing along, which added to the fun. At the end of each session, Kevin would whisper to me, “Not bad for an unrehearsed first time effort. Maybe we should practice a bit next time.”
Kevin’s hospice nurse was in the audience one afternoon and told me after our performance that he was profoundly moved by the transformation Kevin went through simply by bringing a harmonica to his lips and making music. “It was like Kevin came to life!” the nurse said. “I can’t believe the change in him just by performing music.”
Kevin and I routinely performed at the facility every other week, same time, same day, before dinner and entertained the residents with our music. Kevin’s family was visiting him at one of our sessions and they were amazed at Kevin’s musical talent as well as the change in his demeanor when he began to play. “It’s like he got younger in front of our eyes!” his relative exclaimed. “I didn’t even know he played the harmonica,” she added. “I’m going to try and organize a family jam session with him,” she promised.
In order to understand Kevin’s musical transformation, I should describe his before and after effect. Upon arrival at the facility, I would see Kevin sitting in his wheelchair across the lobby, withdrawn and isolated. He had slight hearing loss, poor eyesight and memory loss which made participation in the group verbal activities and games the facility organized difficult for him. His face would be blank with a flat affect. I would greet him and ask him if he would like to play harmonica with me, and he would smile and begin searching for his harmonica. It usually was in his room on his table, not in his pocket. After retrieving it I would ask him what he wanted to play. He would respond, ”I can’t remember any music except the Yale Fight song and a good old Baptist hymn, Love Lifted Me”. I would encourage him to play his songs for us and then we would all clap, which tickled him. After his solos, he would turn to me and say, “I can’t think of any other songs. You play something. I’ll join you if I can remember it.” I knew the songs he would remember and could play on his harmonica so I would begin on my list. Within 4 notes, he could usually join in and we would play together. Often, Kevin added interesting harmonies and counterpoint to the melody. When we finished and everyone applauded, he would whisper to me, “Not bad for a first time effort”. At the end of our session when the residents begin wandering into the dining room for dinner, Kevin would look at me and say, “Maybe next time we should practice before we perform,“ and then he would ask “Who are you, dear? And I would always say, “ What a great idea. My name is Heidi and I work for Bristol Hospice and I’m here just to play with you.”
“Oh, how nice!” he would respond and then I would wheel him into dinner and depart.
Kevin and I played together every other week for almost a year before he passed away, rather suddenly, as I know he would have wanted it. While his family sat at his bedside during his transition, I stayed outside his door and played all of our favorite songs to help him on his journey.
*Kevin is not the patient’s real name, which is changed to protect his privacy.