Connecting Through Song: My Music Vs Experience

By: Arielle Zellis  |  May 15, 2016
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Music Vs_Arielle Zellis

The song “Dayenu” never meant that much to me. Repetitive tunes and slightly bland lyrics don’t really captured my love for music. Yet, one moment before this year’s Pesach suddenly made this well-known song mean the world to me.

As the vice president of Stern’s Music Vs, many opportunities to bring groups of Stern students to sing and dance with the elderly, are sent my way. This year we began visiting elderly individuals in Midtown. Early on in the year, a man had reached out to our Music Vs chapter about visiting his mother, Mrs. Shapiro, who has dementia. Since she lives within walking distance from Stern, we began to plan weekly visits to her. Suddenly, this 92-year-old woman had various students visiting week after week to attend sing-alongs in her small apartment.

Singing songs such as, “You are My Sunshine,” “Lecha Dodi,” and “These are a Few of My Favorite Things,” we hoped to bring out a personality that had long ago been held hostage by dementia. However, early on in our visits, Mrs. Shapiro did not participate. Sitting deep in her wheelchair, not making eye contact, she was as still as a statue. But I was determined to continue our Music Vs outings, hoping to somehow connect with her through music.

Week after week, I finally reached out to her frail hand while we sang “Doe a Dear,” and within a moment she had firmly grasped my fingers, holding tightly, moving my hand in different directions. I realized this woman who had been lost to her disease had suddenly responded. Not only did she brighten up from our dancing, but her mouth slowly grew into a beautiful smile. After the excitement settled down, I told the the students that next time we would try to get Mrs. Shapiro to sing along with us.

A few visits before Pesach, we walked into the darkly lit room as Mrs. Shapiro looked our way, smiling. We put down our bags, took her hands in ours and decided to sing Dayenu. As we closed our eyes, jumping around with excitement, a small raspy voice began to sing. Mrs. Shapiro sang Dayenu with heart and emotion, as if she was determined to express her inner spiritual self. In those moments when we stopped to let her have her solo, she beamed. Glowing with personality and happiness, Mrs. Shapiro ended the song by loudly singing “Day-dayenu and that’s the end of the song!” I was about to take my hand away from hers when she brought it up to her mouth and gave me a kiss. “Now sit, ” she said, “and calm down.”

I was speechless as I watched Mrs. Shapiro continue to talk, showing us a side of her that I had yet to meet. We had connected with someone who’s dementia had ultimately left her non-verbal and extremely low functioning. Yet, through singing Dayenu, we had woken her up.

This past week began my eighth month visiting Mrs. Shapiro. Music Vs has become a way for me to show various Stern students the powerfully positive benefits music can have on the the elderly. Each time I would come to Mrs. Shapiro’s apartment with new students there would be a lot of nerves as the students were unsure of what to expect. Yet, each time we left, someone would break out into excited conversation about how special Mrs. Shapiro truly is.

If we only look at a person from the outside it is hard to really make a connection. Maybe someone looks uninterested or unreachable, and we decide that we are just not going to be the one to say “Hello,” first. Yet, the moment we turn away is the moment we dismiss the honor that each person deserves through acknowledging their presence. Mrs. Shapiro, lonesome in her wheelchair every week, waits for us to come visit. Her son thanks me in beautiful emails that portray his appreciation to Music Vs for continually “waking” his mom up and connecting with her through song.

Mrs. Shapiro deserves visitors. Everyone does. Music Vs allows me and all the other students who have participated this year to give back to elderly individuals like Mrs. Shapiro: those who have lived their whole life, giving to the world and now need the world to give a little back to them.

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