|Bill Tapia is 103 years young, and still plays the ukulele.|
Late this morning I packed my ukulele and harmonicas into my car and drove into town to sing for the Catholic Charities’ Alzheimer's group.
I found a room filled with a group of about twenty people, a mixture of Alzheimer’s patients and volunteer caregivers, seated in chairs arranged in a "U."
One lonely-looking empty chair—my stage—stood by itself in the middle of the open part of the U.
It looked, at first, as if it would be a tough audience. The patients' eyes were, how shall I say this, vacant? Many of them sat staring into their laps; I couldn't even see their eyes. Some of the volunteers avoided eye contact with me. The person who invited me to come warned them not to expect too much—I'm a kindergarten teacher, not a musician/performer.
I've learned to fight fire with fire. Go straight at the fear. “No, problem,” I told myself. “I’m a kindergarten teacher." There aren't many audiences tougher than the one I usually sing for. I unpacked my gear, introduced myself, and launched off into about 45 minutes of singing, playing ukulele, and howlin’ out tunes on the harmonica. Kids songs, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley songs, and, of course, a Hank Williams tune or two.
It turned out that songs that work for short-attention-span kindergartners are perfect, perfect! for Alzheimer’s patients. Songs aimed at the heart with simple words, great melodies, and lots of repetition.
Before long the patients and their caregivers came to life, like droopy houseplants given the water they need to stop slouching. They joined in singing, clapping and stomping their feet.
We had a great time. Some patients danced! By the time we got to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” my failing voice was almost lost in the crowd. In the third verse the audience is supposed to shout “Hooray!” and throw a fist into the air. They did better than I ever thought they would. They were shouting, "HOORAY!!" as loudly as any roomful of five year olds.
Music works magic. You would not have guessed that anyone in this room was touched by senility. Too many smiles. Too much music. Too much magic.
I’m coming back in two weeks for an encore performance.