Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Still a Performer

Article: “Still A Performer”
Extracted from: Article Collection- Boston.com
Author: Linda Matchan, Globe Staff
Date: October 8, 2011
The news article, “Still A Performer,” which appeared on the Boston.com article collection describes the lasting impact that a lifetime filled with musical experiences can have on an individual. At 82-years of age, Naomi Kliman, regularly demonstrated her musical expertise through daily performances of a variety of piano repertoire. The former music educator and piano teacher of nearly 65 years still played “with vigor and passion”, despite her age, and also, exclusively by memory. Ironically, Kliman lives in an assisted living facility, within a unit for people with dementia. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and can remember very little from the last 50 years. Although her lengthy teaching career put her in touch with over 1000 students, when asked, Kliman says that she had 100. And, upon turning 80, she could no longer recognize her own piano, even after having played it each day of her adult life. Through the progression of the Alzheimer’s, however, one thing that has stuck with Kliman is her musical prowess and love for performing.
Within the facility that Kliman resides, the piano is located in a common area, but has had to be locked away when not in use. Due to Kliman’s incessant nature to play the piano constantly, it is important that it be out of sight, during times when the musical entertainment would be bothersome to the other residents. She automatically resorts to performing whenever she is able, which, according to John Zeisel, president of Woburn-based Hearthstone Alzheimer Care and cofounder of the Artists for Alzheimer’s (ARTZ), a nonprofit organization that develops cultural experiences for people with the disease, serves as evidence that sufferers can remember parts from their past including who they are. Zeisel believes that musicians with Alzheimer’s revert to activities from their past which gave them enjoyment and created their identity. 
Zeisel refers to the biochemistry that occurs when an individual engages in a meaningful activities, such as when Kliman performs music on the piano. These acts of enjoyment cause neurotransmitters to be released in the brain, and they become addictive behaviours, in order to continue on the high. Alzheimer patients and those who suffer from dementia search for skills that allow them to foster a connection to their past identities, and once they find them, they want to keep this association alive. Zeisel believes that it helps the individual to feel as though they are themself once again, as opposed to being a “sick person.” Kliman proved her past musicianship as she played, daily, for the residents at the assisted care facility where she resided, and despite her declining memory from off the piano bench, it is easy to see that some parts of this 82-year old are as sound as ever.
This article, depicting the untainted level of musicianship that an individual suffering with Alzheimer’s disease is able to maintain, holds promise in the growing field of research in music, health and medicine. Kliman’s ability to effortlessly perform classical music that was learned decades earlier, by memory, despite her inability to remember who she is or even recognize her own instrument, speaks volumes to how dementia affects one’s brain and memory. Through the study of individuals affected by Alzheimer’s like Kliman, who demonstrate the lasting skills of musicianship, researchers will be able to begin to map the areas of the brain that are most impacted by this disease. These understandings may then be useful to assist doctors with earlier detection of the onset of dementia, and may even be able to help slow the progression of memory loss within patients. The possibilities are vast.
John Zeisel, president of ARTZ, described patient’s sense of identity that resulted from engagement in activities that they used to enjoy, such as making music. The satisfaction and return-to-oneself that musical activities provide to patients supports the use of music as a means of therapy, in these situations. Monitoring the change in a patient’s motor skills, memory and cognition before, and after the musical experience could also lead to greater understanding of how our brains process music, and in turn, how music cognition influences other brain functions. Both music and medical disciplines stand to benefit from this research, as there seems to be a growing connection between the two fields.
Finally, when one considers both the release of positive endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain, in addition to the sense of self-identify that music brings to Alzheimer’s sufferers, one also begins to question whether music could be used to restore and retrain one’s brain, as the disease progresses. Knowledge about the cerebral areas to which dementia wrecks havoc, as well as those regions which control musical activities, could be used to help restore the broken connections or to assume control of the functions that have been lost through the disease. There is research yet to be done, and understanding to gain, however, one cannot argue with the definitive delight and relief that music brings to those with dementia.

1 comment:

Sarah N said...

On a personal note:

My string quartet performs quite often in homes for the elderly or for those with afflictions such as dementia. I've seen firsthand many times what a positive impact these performances have on the residents of these communities, even if they are not the ones actually performing the music. One particular performance comes to mind – we were getting ready to perform at a facility in Toronto, setting up our stands and getting our music out. There was a resident in the room, apparently she insists on being brought down to performances early. As we were setting up, she began hurling insults at us, she seemed very disturbed and angry. I had to remind myself where I was, because had some other audience member been saying these things to me I would have not been so patient. When all our preparation was done and our audience was in place, we began to play. Immediately the demeanor of this woman changed. A look of sincere happiness and appreciation came over her face, I thought I even saw a tear. She turned to the woman beside her and said our playing was the most beautiful music she had ever heard.

I find it extremely rewarding to do performances like this, not to mention the fact that it is a great way to get performing experience on whatever repertoire you might be playing. There is a fantastic organization in Ontario called the Health Arts Society of Ontario (HASO) which organizes performances like the one I just described. They pay the artists a small fee and take care of all the organization for the event. If you are a performer, or if you are a musician who would like more performing opportunities, I highly recommend getting involved with this organization. It will be very rewarding for everyone involved.