When you’re self-employed your income is more directly connected to your initiative than is someone’s with a contract or tenure. There can be great satisfaction in having control over your own hustle, or marketing in today’s more genteel parlance. I’m not used to having offers drop into my lap unconnected to the aforementioned hustle, but recently something did.
The Greenwood Senior Center, a bustling place up the street from me, approached me about starting a choir for people with ESML–early stage memory loss. I went in for an interview and found myself immediately attracted to the idea. Getting people singing– particularly people who aren’t sure they can sing—is what I do best.
We nailed down dates and I came up with a description and some tag-lines. I thought for a long time of what to call this choir because I thought ESML Choir lacked pizazz. I played with the idea of immediacy, of now, the present. Present Tense. I didn’t like the tense part. Future Imperfect. No, that was definitely heading the wrong way. I finally came up with “All Present: a song circle for people with ESML.”
After that, with hundreds of songs at the ready, there wasn’t a lot to do until I knew who my singers were. The circle filled up immediately on paper. I had names, ages, and voices. Most of the participants were in their 70s so that gave me a window of what music they might have in their long-term memory.
I went through stacks of music and picked out a handful of standards like “It Had to be You” and “As Time Goes By.” I put together a list of popular and folk songs that had repetitive phrases: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Que Sera Sera,” and “Clementine.” I tapped a few well-known rounds. I figured out the easiest vocal keys to pitch the songs in, keeping things within the ten notes between B and D because most voices can manage that range in some octave. I got out my guitar, which I haven’t played in 15 years and started developing some callouses.
About a week before the first class, a kind of panic set in. I felt the same sort of thing the first time I was a camp counselor and before I began student teaching in college, and certainly before I first taught watercolor painting on that damned cruise to Alaska. My college-roommate Mary-Ellis called it “the shakes.” “You just have the shakes,” she said in her calm, low voice before I set off for camp. I can still remember how comforting her words sounded to me. When I tried to say them to myself the week the song circle began, though, my voice was two octaves higher and didn’t sound comforting at all. Nor did it help to shame myself as in: you are an adult and founded a community choir and have directed it for 22 years and get a hold of yourself, for god’s sake.
So ironically, there was a lot of future anxiety and nervous energy building up in the week before the first session of All Present. The morning of the first sessions I packed up my guitar, my lists, and my music. At the last minute, I threw in my Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook, a tome that weighs about five pounds. I added a huge bottle of water, throat spray and my cough drops as I was in the midst of a beastly head cold.
I met the singers. Now I had faces. We made name tags and I chatted with them and their caregivers. They sat and waited quietly, docilely: eight men and six women. I didn’t know what to expect but I had come with plenty of experience in ways to help people get started singing. I’ve had voice students —voice students—who only managed to start peeping after weeks of coaxing. I’ve had choirs on which I had to perform the miracle of raising the dead before I could get the work-night rehearsal started. I just had never worked with people with early stage memory loss. I passed out song-sheets.
In fact, nobody needed them. I started us off with “You are My Sunshine” and they just about took the roof off. It was as though they had been holding it all in, not just while I fussed around with the name tags, but for months, for years. They knew everything by heart and they knew verses not on the song sheets. When we sang “Goodnight, Irene,” someone remembered the harmony line from when he had sung Barbershop and the sweetness of the sound made me tear up. Their faces relaxed into their own nostalgia, their own associations, and their own feelings.
I moved to the piano and we sang standards and half of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook. Then I moved back to the guitar because they had already forgotten that we’d sung “Goodnight Irene,” “Daisy, Daisy” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We sang everything a second time. For an hour and half we sang. I couldn’t stop smiling and they gave it right back to me. I can’t remember when I have enjoyed myself so much.
We’ve had our second session. I think they remembered who I was and what we were doing there, but I’m not sure. It’s hard to know what someone with early stage memory loss remembers or how they remember. They might not remember with their memory. They might remember with their hearts.