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