The other evening I was watching a small group of musicians and noticed how well they were observing, listening to and following each other. I was at the Spitz Charitable Trust Summer Party. The charity brings musicians into nursing homes and day centres, playing live music for and with older people or residents, many but not all with dementia. I first came across them when they played for my mother, who had dementia and spent the final six months of her life in a nursing home they visited.
At the party, the Spitz had invited three of the older people they had previously worked with – Henrietta, Silverton and Victor – to play or sing with them during the evening. All are in their nineties. On each occasion a member of the Spitz team escorted them to the microphone, ensured they and the other musicians were comfortable with the chosen tune, and gave them a rousing and affectionate introduction.
Whatever the tempo, the musicians were highly attuned to the pace, needs and personality of their older companion. There was a gentle attentiveness that continued throughout each piece, as they responded easily to pauses or changes. Sensitively they were able to follow or guide the tune to its natural ending, allowing the soloist to take their well-earned applause from families and guests.
I was particularly aware of this for several reasons. It reminded me of the musical overtones in the hands-on sessions in our Alexander training. Under the eye of an experienced teacher, we practise with fellow students, observing ourselves but also responsive to others. Becoming a trio or quartet, the teacher leading, we work in the moment or from memory. We follow the verbal instructions by ear, while fine-tuning our capacity to listen with hands as we work on colleagues. Each of us takes a turn in the spotlight, the dynamic of the group changing subtly as we perform. As with musicians, we have to pay attention – if we don’t, or over-concentrate, the rhythm is lost. And we can’t hurry the pace or work too slowly either. Nonetheless, somehow we all reach the end together.
The evening also brought to mind that musicians from the Spitz had visited my mother in her nursing home just three weeks before she died. I wasn’t present, but they captured her reactions on a short film, and I’ve seen the difference their singing made as her capacity dwindled – she is alert and able to speak, rising to the occasion, and brought to life one last time by the power of music. Watching the group playing live at the party with their older soloists, I recognised the attention musicians working in care settings must demonstrate in their playing – a desire to connect or bring people out rather than showcase their own talent, a delicate sensitivity to the needs and forgotten skills of older people or those with dementia, coupled with flexibility, humour, tact and attentiveness.
Finally, I remembered with sadness the slow and subtle duet I played with my mother as she approached death in those last six months. We both knew she was dying, but didn’t need to speak of it. I observed and listened to her, and knew her part was coming to an end. She was often unable to talk, or kept her eyes closed, but listened to my voice as I chatted or read to her. There were long pauses or silence where only our hands made contact, and I tried to still or stay with her tremor.
In the days before she died, she kept her eyes and lips tight shut, unable to see or say anything, but still listening for her cues, the insistent melody unfamiliar but not unwelcome. I followed her as far as I could, the music stopped, and she was gone.