A Personal Story…

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been raised by parents who see the value in music and who passed on the “musician” trait to their children. I always say that my voice came from my mom and my piano and guitar skills came from my father. I feel a bit slighted, however, on the latter, as I’m nowhere near the level of pianist that my father is. I’m perhaps a bit more than decent, but my father has always been one of those musicians who can hear a piece or watch it being played one time and then mimic it perfectly. He can modulate to any key, depending on what’s comfortable or whatever mood strikes him. He can improvise. He can write great music. He can publish great music. He can mix and record an entire CD from the spare bedroom. He can perform in a praise band. He can sing (though he doesn’t think his voice is much good). He can play the guitar. He can be the sole music leader and minister (he went to seminary with the American Baptist church and has ministered as a methodist as well). He can lead music at youth camps. He plays a mean rendition of “Rubber Duckie.” He’s pretty much a pro, in my opinion. And I think most people would agree. That is, if they met him a few years ago.

Dad had a major stroke two years ago, and in reality had been going downhill prior to the stroke. After discovering that he has a very rare and debilitating  neurologic stroke disorder (Cadasil), we’ve found that one large area affected was his ability to play the piano. Mainly due to troubles with memory, language (including the musical language), and neuro-motor ability. Sadly, there is no cure for the disease and its progression. I’ve watched him begin to lose the desire to play all those songs I’ve heard for 29 years, likely because it’s too painful to be reminded that he can’t remember how to do it. Then, I introduced him to Anne, my friend, who is also a music therapist.

Since beginning music therapy, Dad has been practicing pseudo-daily for his “piano therapy.” 🙂 Practice is something that doesn’t come naturally for him, because he’s never really had to do it. He took piano lessons only briefly as a child, before being told that he had the knowledge already and wasn’t going to learn much more from lessons. So, now he’s 58 and taking lessons. We music therapists understand, of course, that it’s not simply a “piano lesson” that dad’s receiving, but I don’t tend to correct him in this regard. I like that he’s enjoying his time at the keyboard again. In reality, music therapy is helping dad with the following: memory recall (his short term memory is not great, due to the strokes), maintenance of fine motor ability, cognitive retraining (many areas in the brain have “short-circuited,” in layman’s terms, and need to be rebuilt), and the like. While these areas are important, I feel that the most crucial task music therapy plays for Dad is this: it gives him a sense of worth, provides him with a “job” to do on a daily basis, and gets him back in touch with the love of his life: music. And also my step-mom, who sings with him. That part of his life has always played a significant role in their marriage, and in my and my brother’s relationship with him as well.

On a recent trip to Oklahoma, where Dad lives, I was given the task to assist in a music therapy “assignment,” as he called it. He and Anne are working on notating the melody lines to a song he wrote years ago; the first of many to be notated, at least that’s our hope. While I am able to sing and play his songs practically in my sleep, we came to realize that many of his songs are not written down. The words are, and in most cases so are the chords, but no melody lines. This will not do. The song they’re working on now, “Step Into My Spirit,” is one he wrote several years ago. The part in his “assignment” that he and Anne both needed assistance with was specific rhythms to part of the chorus. While I am more than familiar with musical notation, as is required and extremely emphasized when one has a degree in music therapy, it is not always the easiest thing to notate someone else’s song from memory. I sat at the piano for quite some time, playing the melody as I knew it approximately 100 times. At least that’s what it felt like! Then, I attempted to notate it to the best of my ability. Notating the appropriate number of dotted eighth notes slurred to dotted sixteenth notes in a swing rhythm is not my idea of “fun,” though I tried my best and knew that when I was finished it was at least further along than it had been when I got there.

Later, after Dad had practiced the Hanon exercises I recommended, he began playing his song. While it wasn’t up to his standards, I’m sure, it made my heart swell with joy. This was what I grew up with. When Dad was at the piano, he was his best self. Happy. Inspiring. Spiritual. And that’s what he was on that day, just like all the days in my childhood. My step-mom and I joined him next to the piano and sang along, I attempting harmony because I had no soprano voice (thanks to lovely Oklahoma air during allergy season). Tears came to my eyes because just a few months earlier I wasn’t sure we would ever have that experience again. At that time Dad had nearly stopped playing all together, and now look at him!

The last time we’d played and sang together was last May at my uncle’s memorial service. It was a difficult time, as are all occasions when loved ones have left us all too soon, and the added stress of playing was both honoring as well as slightly overwhelming. Dad hadn’t played in front of an audience for quite some time, and while he still “had it in him,” it was a bit rocky. Since then, he’s gone downhill quite a bit, so I’m glad we had that opportunity when we did. And, I’m hoping to do it again in the future, but that depends on Dad and the progression of his illness. In the mean time, I’m happy to report that he’s seeing Anne once a week and continuing to practice daily.

I plan to post one of his songs, “Imagine That,” in the next week, as I’ve developed it into a lyric analysis and songwriting intervention to use with my high level adult group. However, in light of recent events here in the Midwest (a tornado devastated 30% of Joplin, in southwestern Missouri), I’m attaching another song, one of 3 that we sang at the afore mentioned memorial service for Dad’s brother. “Hush Now” is a very simple but poignant song. I use the melody in music and relaxation, changing some words as needed or simply using a soothing hum or “ooo” sound. This recording is one that was recorded when Dad put together a CD of several of his songs, called “Songs of Promise.” He did all of the instrumentation via his Yamaha keyboard and soundboard, with my step-mom and I assisting with the vocals.  I’m also attaching our recording of “ Step Into My Spirit.” I hope you like them.

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About therapeuticharmony

I'm a music therapist with a private practice, Therapeutic Harmony, L.L.C., providing services to children and adults with disabilities in Barry and Lawrence counties, Missouri.
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5 Responses to A Personal Story…

  1. Thank you for sharing this! Practicing music therapy and then getting the opportunity to see our loved ones benefit from it is not something I’ve gotten to experience, but I can only imagine how it must feel for you to get to connect with your Dad on that level.

  2. Yes, Natalie, it’s pretty awesome. 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  3. Wow, Jess, thank you for sharing this! I’m sorry that your dad has been going through such a rough time, but it is so awesome that you’ve been able to help. It reminds me of the concept of musical health, too – when your dad’s musical health is improving, it reflects improvement in other areas of health, too. Thanks for sharing the music, too!

  4. Pingback: Imagine That | Therapeutic Harmony, L.L.C.

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