“The Music Worked Magic,” Ensign, Feb. 1987, 38–39
Our family was supposed to arrive at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital that Friday night so we could be ready to sing by 6:30. We couldn’t find all our costume accessories, there wasn’t time for a supper together, and Dad was late getting home from work. No one was really in the mood to sing. It would certainly have been easier to stay home and watch television, but we had made a commitment. Tonight was duty, not pleasure.
At 6:15 we drove up in the dark February night to the two-story building at the edge of a huge complex of buildings. Only two cars were parked in the lots.
A smiling therapist waited for us as we lugged our violins and electric piano up the flight of stairs. She gathered us around her in the hall.
“Most of these men you’ll be singing for are old, and they are all sick,” she told our girls. “They are sitting in special chairs called Geri-Chairs. They may not act as though they are listening to you when you sing, but they enjoy music. They probably won’t clap for you.”
We’d sung in many nursing homes and retirement high rises, so age was nothing new to Erin, age twelve, Marni, age ten, and Courtney, age seven, but this was our first venture into a hospital. We trailed down the brightly lit corridor, following the therapist. In rooms on each side of the hall, we saw motionless men lying in beds. Some slept, some stared vacantly, some were surrounded by tubes.
We entered a large, open room where several Geri-Chairs were huddled around a television.
“We’ve got some special guests to sing for you!” the therapist cheerfully announced, flicking off the television.
They didn’t groan, but we could see they wanted the television back on. Aides hurried in to move the wheeled chairs into a semicircle. We set up the piano and found ourselves in a spot about eight feet wide and five feet from our audience.
About fifteen men sat around us, their pale, bare legs protruding from green hospital gowns. There were no smiles. Most eyes were open, but not focused.
All the men were over sixty, with the exception of one younger man with dark, wavy hair. An older couple with their coats still on were visiting him.
Unnerved at the sight and the silence, the girls quietly removed their coats, got out their violins, and waited in a huddle.
In their Geri-Chair semicircle the patients watched us.
“You just start singing whenever you’re ready,” our guide said as she left to get more patients. The girls were anxious—they didn’t know whom to look at without appearing to stare. Finally, because we couldn’t think of a reason not to start, we began the rollicking song that lets our audiences get acquainted with us and helps us to gauge their reaction.
“Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money …” Only a white-shirted aide and two nurses answered our smiles. The patients watched us silently.
Our next number was a medley of patriotic songs. While we sang, nurses wheeled in more audience members. These patients were in regular wheelchairs.
We finished our medley and the aides clapped. Several of the wheelchairs were about four feet from us. One of the new arrivals, a small man in a red plaid wool shirt, moved his chair a few inches closer. Hunched down, with bottle-thick glasses and grey hair, he was totally alive. He was glad to be there. At last we had someone to smile at.
Launching into a medley of fun songs, the girls sang “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy …” Immediately our new friend began singing, too. We smiled at each other.
He clapped while we sang “Salagadoola, menchaga boola bibbiti bobbity, boo,” and when Marni started “Inka dinka doo” he couldn’t contain himself. “Jimmy Durante!” he shouted jovially.
That’s almost who he looked like, except for the nose. He started singing again and kept up with us right through “Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” and the finale, “Chickery Chick Cha La Cha La,” a real tongue twister. We had to work to get the words out, but he sang every one. He was beaming, and so were we.
The other patients, motionless before, began to respond to the music. Most of the faces were too tired to express life, but stick-like legs moved to the rhythm of the music. Arms moved, feet tapped, heads barely nodded. This had become an event.
The girls played their fiddle tunes, and most of the patients responded in the confines of their chairs. Still no smiles, but the involvement was there.
The friendly therapist put her hands on our new friend’s shoulders as we started to sing again and whispered, “Roy, maybe you shouldn’t sing so loud.” She wheeled him back a few inches. As she left, he wheeled himself back toward us.
He tried not to sing with us on “Commercials,” but when we got to “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,” he just couldn’t help it. He had to sing.
Roy’s whole body was alive with the music. The visitors in the back, still in their coats, were singing, with tears running down their cheeks.
The aides and nurses walked among the patients, hugging a shoulder, touching an arm.
“Sing with us if you want to,” I said to them, and off we went with “In the Good Old Summertime.” People crowded in the doors singing “Casey would dance with the girl he adored” and “Meet me in St. Louis.” The patients sang too, not out loud, but lips moved and eyes focused.
In his ringside seat, Roy sang every word. He literally twinkled. Then it was over.
We moved closer to Roy. “Thanks for singing with us,” I said. “You know all the words to some really hard songs.”
He wanted to say something, and he tried, but he couldn’t get the words out. As if choking, he tried harder, with no luck.
“Slow down, Roy.” The therapist had her hand on his arm. “You can do it.”
He relaxed and finally said slowly, “Are … are … they all yours?” pointing to the blue-costumed girls.
It was hard to believe that a man who could sing “Chickery Chick” without missing a beat could have such trouble talking. The music had unlocked him, and it had unlocked us, too.
We were elated as we said good-bye that night, walking around the semicircle of elderly friends, touching limp white hands. Their eyes asked us to come back. We promised we would.