On the third Thursday morning of the month, a group gathers at the Center for Living to take their medicine. The medicine is music, and the occasion is the Music and Memory Cafe, part of the center’s Supportive Day Program.
The healing power of music has long been recognized as an effective form of therapy, going back to the Greeks when philosophers Plato and Aristotle lauded music as a therapeutic tool. Today, the power of music is validated by medical research. It is used in targeted treatments for asthma, autism, depression, and more, including brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and stroke. According to the Autism Foundation of America, “music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function. and coordinate motor movements.”
“There’s just something about music — particularly live music — that excites and activates the body,” says Dr. Joanne Loewy, founding director of Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, whose work is part of a growing movement of music therapists and psychologists who are investigating the use of music in medicine to help patients dealing with pain, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. “Music very much has a way of enhancing quality of life, and can, in addition, promote recovery,” she says.
Live music is best, according to Dr. Loewy, and “live” is what Andy Herr and the Seven Hills Band delivered — with heavy audience participation — at a recent Music and Memory Cafe. Herr, a versatile Island musician and Charter School teacher who began studying classical piano at the age of 3, played mostly banjo the day The Times visited, accompanied by guitarist Jerry Twomey and percussionist Gary McGivney. The Seven Hills Band is composed of adults with other abilities who participate in the Seven Hills day program. All together, this group provides the kind of music rarely forgotten, music that inspires audiences to tap their feet, sing along, and move around a lot. It’s music that brings back memories, such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Jamaica Farewell” — that bit of calypso made famous by Harry Belafonte’s refrain “I had to leave a little girl in Kingston Town.”
For the Seven Hills group, the Music Cafe is a much anticipated monthly outing, according to program director Jonathan Thomas. “Our group loves attending Memory Cafe. The concerts are one of our favorite activities. Music is such a great form of therapy, and brings joy to all involved. The participants in our program love to sing, play different instruments, and dance. It’s wonderful to see folks of all ages enjoying the music, and seeing the joy in their faces when they hear their favorite songs from another era.” Among the Seven Hills musicians was tambourinist Mark Baird. The audience couldn’t get enough of his “I’ll Fly Away,” demanding encore after encore of his rendition of the 19th century hymn.
Among the crowd in the newly renovated Center for Living building were members of the center’s Supportive Day Program, which daily delivers exercise, arts, music, yoga, drama, games, and special presentations by local artists, topped off by a family-style lunch cooked by an in-house chef. Friends and family were there, as well as the many volunteers upon whom the center depends.
Once the beat started, Center for Living staffer Linda Vancour took to the floor. Known as the “dancing queen,” Linda served as the signal for everybody to join in, able-bodied or not. The wheelchair-riding Richard Cohen appeared to attract the most dance partners of the morning, and did some remarkable moves with the center’s staffer Katie Viera. Second runner-up for number of dance partners that morning looked like frequent volunteer Paula Martin, who told The Times she “wouldn’t miss it.” Martin is one of those whom Katie Viera explained were the volunteers and family members who drop by to dance and enjoy the event: “Anyone is welcome.”
“Our Music and Memory program does so much for a person’s mood and well-being,” explained Supportive Day Program supervisor Mary Holmes, M.Ed, M.Sc. “We have seen it creating benefits for many years. For us, being able to open our doors to the community and spread happiness is central to our mission of living our best lives now. There is this added exhilaration we all feel, everyone who comes to the program, that we can be doing this super-fun stuff, singing and dancing, together again.”
The Music and Memory Café welcomes anyone from the community who struggles with memory issues or has a disability. There is no charge for the café. Founded in 2015, the cafe was piloted by a group of volunteer professionals with the help of a generous grant from Mary Wagner, a seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard.