The MS Chorus, directed by Mark Nabholz
in a choral lament for victims of Alzheimer's
disease and for their families at Woodland Hills
Baptist Church, October 27, 2017, with extended
comments by Timothy Coker
Sing Anything, the title of this
program,derives from the astonishing response to music by Alzheimer
patients when they are encouraged to sing. Videos of this process
were shown in Dr. Coker's lecture, and it was like magic to watch
the otherwise almost completely unresponsive victims wake up, singing,
and chatting joyfully. It doesn't matter what is sung - hence the
title. But more about that below.
The MS Chorus opened the musical part of the program with "When
Memory Fades", by Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle. The lyrics, poetic
and powerful, and in a moving musical setting, were sung with great
feeling by the MS Chorus. The first line laments thus:
"When memory fades and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused."
Next we heard from Tim Coker about music and the brain. Shown above is
Auguste Deter, whose disease, "a presenile dementia," was first
described, in 1906, by the German neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer,
hence the name "Alzheimer's Disease".
By that time it was already
known that different functions were localized to different areas of
the brain, but this concept was difficult to study; for example, in 1861,
French surgeon Paul Broca's conclusion that a specific area of the left
frontal lobe was responsible (in part) for speech was based on
the coincidence that he had two aphasic patients with similar head
injuries, and that he had access to both their brains by autopsy.
It was not until the
early 20th century that X-rays could provide an image of the brain
in a living person, but that technique was mostly sensitive
to metal objects such as bullets. In the last half of the 20th
century, however, imaging techniques became ever more revealing,
right up to the present day, when it is now possible to visualize
a subject's brain in detail and see which areas "light up" during
specific activities, such as singing.
Dr. Coker's talk, which included projected slides of texts, photos,
and videos focussed on music and the mind, and findings that suggested
that the response to music remained intact through most of the gradual
loss of other functions during the Alzheimer's disease process. This
was shown in a video of one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever
seen or even imagined: an elderly jazz musician with advanced
Alzheimer's was brought into a room in a wheelchair. He would not
respond to any stimuli, and appeared more dead than alive. Then music
was supplied to him through earphones, and he began to sing and talk,
as if he had woken from the dead, and, most impressively, he seemed
happy - even joyful. It was pure magic. And I wished to God that I had
had this information in 1989 before my own mother died in the
Alzheimer's unit of a local nursing home.
At the end of his talk, Dr. Coker dropped another welcome bombshell - at
least for me. I had long known that a special bonding takes place when
congregations sing together, especially when everyone sings the same
word on the same note at the same time. That kind of bonding also
happens - often more intensely - between choirmembers, especially
during a capella singing (and also among the members of
a barbershop quartet). It has been shown that such communal singing
raises the levels of the hormone oxytocin, most famously known as
the hormone that enhances bonding between a mother and her newborn
child. Actions that raise oxytocin levels include touch, warmth, and,
apparently, matching one's own voice with that of others so that
the sense of individuality is lost when a group sings as with one
voice. I have long advocated for communal singing and can now
argue that the result will be a bond just like the one between mothers
and children. It would have been very rewarding if the large audience
had been given the opportunity to sing something together with the
chorus - "Auld Lang Syne" would have worked, but our current culture
discourages this practice so thoroughly that it rarely comes to mind.
The concert closed with the MS Chorus and orchestra performing "Alzheimer's
Stories", a 3 part work with music by Robert S. Cohen and text by
Herschel Garfein. I had some initial skepticism about "Part I.: The
Numbers". The first three lines were
"Here are the numbers. 1901. 1906. 1911"
"Here are the numbers. 1901: patient diagnosed. age 51.
1906. patient died. age 55. 1911. condition named."
I have always been wary of putting prose to music, although I do
realize that it is not always easy to tell one from the other. The
music here I heard as mostly orchestra - highly rhythmic.
As part I. progressed, however, I began to realize that the opening
lines were repeating the history of Auguste Deter, the patient shown
above. The music was appropriate and having the text
printed in full helped a great deal.
In Part II the text consisted
of various patient stories. The music, episodic because of the text,
was quite consistent within each episode. The story that began
"speaking of boats...! When I was in the Navy oh! we raised some hell!"
was set to a jaunty brass section that seemed perfect for that line.
Next was "Part III. for the Caregivers." This last part made the work
complete, for it is likely that everyone present had been touched
by Alzheimer's, many as primary caregivers and others more remotely.
Again the musicians rose to the occasion, with a passionate rendering
of the touching score. It is worth repeating the first four lines
"Find those you love in the dark and light."
("It was brief but she knew me; she looked at me and knew me.")
"Help them through the days and nights."
"(As he died his arm lifted and his fingers looked like dancing.)"
and the last line as well
"Love and music are the last things to go. Sing anything. Sing."
This production featured welcoming remarks by Melanie Christopher,
Sr. M. Dorothea Sundgeroth, and Cara Mund (Miss America 2018), and was
cosponsored by the Dementia Care Network. Timothy Coker, the former
chair of the Millsaps College Music Dept also directed the Millsaps
Singers for a number of years.
Glenn A Gentry