The enduring power of music

HURON — The video is somewhat shaky. It was taken, as many are these days, with a cell phone, but the contents of the video are priceless.
It is video of a woman, a resident at SunQuest HealthCare Center in Huron who suffers from dementia. She sits quietly in her wheelchair, until a set of headphones is placed over her ears. She immediately sits up a little straighter and in a few moments she begins singing. Tentatively at first, but with growing confidence, the words to “Amazing Grace” come through. It draws tears from one of the young people witnessing the event.
The reaction is the payoff of several months of interviews, research and more done by a group of high school music students, their teacher, Laura Petersen, and Laurie Solem, the administrator at SunQuest. Petersen’s students created personalized MP3 players for residents at Solem’s facility, to see if music that was familiar to those residents could reach them.
To say that the response has been amazing may sell it short.
It is the power of music personified.
Where it began
“I saw a video on Facebook,” said Petersen last week. “There was a video where music was played to a person with dementia and it made the person just light up.”
Petersen did a bit of research on the phenomenon and found that studies had shown that music, particularly music tailored specifically to the individual had been shown to connect with patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
“I pitched the idea to the kids that were in Tri-M and they were very enthused about it.” Petersen’s next call was to Solem who had been doing a little research on the same type of program.
Tri-M is a music honor society, which began in the 1930s. Huron’s chapter began two years ago.  “Nationally, Tri-M members contribute more than 750,000 hours and upward of $1 million to causes that they care about,” Petersen said.
This past winter, the HHS students offered singing telegrams for Valentine’s Day and dedicated the funds raised to the project. They purchased 10 MP3 players and over-the-ear headphone sets for residents at  SunQuest.
Solem and her staff selected residents who were in various stages of dementia. Then the students got to work.

Gathering information
Petersen said that she put students in pairs - two students for one resident - and they planned their first interviews.
“Really, the kids could have been overwhelmed,” Petersen said. “They had to go in an try to find out about their assigned resident; what they liked in music, primarily. In some cases, the resident didn’t speak and the kids relied on family for insight into their person.”
Petersen said that it was a nice day when she and the students walked to SunQuest for the first interviews. “The staff said that sometimes weather can really affect the residents’ moods, so we were fortunate that the first interviews took place on a bright, sunny day.”
She said that the walk back to school was filled with positive reports from each student. “They came back even more enthused,” Petersen said,” but agreed that they would feel better if they could meet with the people again. In some cases, a third interview was needed.”
After another round of interviews, the students had learned more about their assigned person and had a plan on how they were going to proceed.
“We expected that some types of music would be popular based on the age group of the residents,” Petersen said. “And some of it was right on, but some surprised us.”
So what was most popular? Frank Sinatra won in a landslide.
“And hymns, everyone liked hymns,” one of the students said. Musical favorites gave an insight into the person’s childhood and life. Spouses, and children helped with the fine tuning.
In addition to ‘Ole’ Blue Eyes’ and ‘Amazing Grace,’ other requests were very specific. “There were a lot of Johnny Cash fans, particular “Jackson,” Petersen said. And one person with Irish heritage was really intent on Daniel O’Donnell.”
One resident, who had played in a band in his younger days had an affinity for big band music, particularly “Little Brown Jug.”

Making the gift
When the students had their MP3 loaded with music, they made another return trip to SunQuest for the reveal. “I picked MP3 players that were bright blue, so that the residents would be able to see them easily,” Petersen said. “And over-the-ear headphones accommodate those with hearing aids.”
The students all had similar experiences when they presented the loaded players.
“We had the Irish woman,” one of the students said when the students were asked to share their experience. “When we started ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ she started singing along with it. She had not been very vocal at all before, but she just seemed to wake up when it played.”
“Our woman wanted only hymns,” another student said. “Her father had forbidden her to go to dances when she was younger. She said he told her that was how girls got pregnant!”
Everyone reported that when the music began there was a near immediate reaction. Residents began tapping their hands on tables or arms of chairs - Sinatra’s “New York, New York” got people moving. Some began swaying in their chairs, in time to the music.
One of the residents had a hard time believing that all of that music could be contained in something that small. “He kept looking at it and shaking his head,” his student said.
“One of the women who requested ‘Jackson,’ really responded,” Petersen said. “There is a verse where June Carter Cash kind of gets gravelly and growly on her solo. When the resident heard that, her face changed. It’s like she was singing along.”

The other side
Solem said she knows studies have shown that music helps residents feel better. “We have music playing here and we have had different people and groups come in an perform for the residents,” she said. “But it is all pretty general.”
She had seen new research that showed how residents had responded to individualized music, similar to the video that Petersen had seen on Facebook. “Mrs Petersen actually called me last spring, to begin the program in the fall, but things were busy in the fall and didn’t happen right away.”
She credits the students for taking on a project that would be outside of the comfort zone for many in their age group. “That takes a lot, to come into a situation with unfamiliar people who can be difficult to relate to. But they did it and did a wonderful thing very well.”
Since the residents got the players, Solem said that they are becoming more comfortable with them. “A couple of them ask to listen to their music and staff makes sure that the others have access to the players as well. Every day it gets better and they’ve only had them about a week or so.”
Solem said that she has hopes to be able to provide players to all the residents at some point.
“The response, from residents, families and staff has been amazing,” Solem said. “We’ve seen a lot of tears - happy tears.”

Moving forward
The majority of the HHS Tri-M students will be back next year and are enthusiastic about continuing the work. Petersen has resigned her position at the end of the school year and will be leaving town, so it will be up to the students and whoever replaces her to make it happen again.
“It is so amazing,” Petersen said, “and we have said ‘amazing’ a lot, but when you see someone who doesn’t speak, or is in the late stages of this disease and sleeps most of the day, suddenly seem to awaken and become more interactive, what else would you call it?
“Music has such an effect on people,” she continued. “You could see the veil lifted and for a period of time the person that is locked away inside was able to come through again. It is so powerful.”
The power of the impact that the students made was apparent when one of the residents bid farewell to the students who had filled the MP3 for her.
“Will you come back?”