Reigniting Memories & Forging New Moments: A Former TC Student Uses Music to Build Bonds

Tania conducting during a concert of the Unforgettables Chorus. (Photo credit of Fotis Papagermanos, ETA IMAGE)

What do you think of when you hear a familiar song? Does a vivid memory play before your eyes? How do you react to the lyrics? Do you start singing and hope those around you will join in? The ability of a song to forge connections and evoke recollections is potent no matter your age or the genre of music you listen to. Music reaches beyond the ledger lines of the treble and bass staves, reaching into the depths of our subconscious mind in ways both proven and yet to be discovered. Under the direction of co-conductors and directors Dale Lamb and former TC student Tania Papayannopoulou with an M.A. and an Ed.M. in Music & Music Education, the Unforgettables Chorus is a choir for dementia patients and their caregivers where music is used for this very purpose: as a tool to reignite memories and re-forge emotional ties.

The Unforgettables Chorus was founded as a pilot study in 2011 at New York University’s Comprehensive Center on Brain Aging. Though previous research studies have been conducted to test the effects of music on memory loss, an essential element of the Unforgettables Chorus makes this music group unique. As co-conductor Tania says, there are a lot of programs “where they have people sing that have dementia, but not a lot of people thought to include the caregiver of the loved one as a special part [of the study.]”

The caregiver, whether a friend, spouse or family member, is required to attend rehearsals and concerts along with the singer who has dementia, not as a chaperone but as an equal participant and choral member. “It’s crucial to have the family member,” Tania explains, “because the family member is somebody who is a caregiver to the person with Alzheimer’s and goes through a very difficult time throughout the week to take care of the person. . . . They come to enjoy themselves, to let go of stress, to enjoy singing, enjoy learning singing, enjoy learning about new literature, and sing old literature: good old beautiful songs.”

“They also get to share,” she continues. “If it’s a couple they get to sort of go back, it’s like they reminisce and sometimes you see them look at each other’s eyes, they hold hands, like they remember something and the caregiver takes a breath. . . . The reason why the program started was of course for the person with Alzheimer’s to benefit from memory exercises and body, movement and rhythm exercises that really stimulate the brain, but also for the caregiver to have so many benefits from it.”

While benefits of music lessons have long been enumerated in pre-college classrooms, the emotional benefits for the individuals as well as music’s role in strengthening personal relationships are undeniable when observing this choir. One of the many reasons participation in the Unforgettables Chorus has become so pivotal for its members is the opportunity to make forge social bonds that the act of singing together provides.

The caregiver and loved one, “they get to share a moment which is very crucial because this disease brings them apart,” Tania describes. “It separates them, the person with dementia withdraws, not only memory-wise but emotionally because you start forgetting and getting upset that you are forgetting and getting frustrated that you are forgetting. Then once you are in stages 4, 5 and 6 [of dementia], you forget that you are forgetting.”

Not only do the caregiver and their loved one have moments to reunite through singing, the entire choir has become a close-knit community in the three years since the first rehearsal. “Everybody feels at home,” Tania says of the choir members during their rehearsals. “As a matter of fact, everybody calls each other family.”

A major reason the singers feel so comfortable rehearsing for a live performance before a public audience is the equal and non-judgmental atmosphere that both conductors strive to create for the choir. “There’s a huge stigma outside [for dementia patients],” Tania describes. “But we definitely diminish the stigma down to zero when they come into the room. . . . Everybody’s equal and everybody’s really enjoying themselves as if there’s no problem whatsoever.”

The Unforgettables Chorus rehearse together for thirteen weeks before each concert and their rehearsal sessions include vocal exercises reminiscent of a typical choral group. Breathing and bodily exercises are led by the conductors as warm-ups, often working on rhythmic, vocal and other inclusive activities. Challenging passages from their current repertoire are also broken down and practiced in depth until everyone is comfortable singing them through.

A favorite warm-up for the group is more of an imagination-engaging, storytelling experience. “I have collected some experiences from all kinds of choral conductors and I do this thing that they love,” Tania confides with a smile. “I create an image so everybody gets up, and we do things like we’re walking through the woods slowly and we breathe heavily . . . we create this whole picture where the body will go through certain singing exercises . . . they love it!”

Though the concerts are a beautiful result of the choir’s efforts and the dedication of the co-conductors, the rehearsals and the benefits during these weekly rehearsals are the true focus of the Unforgettables Chorus project. “The concert is an important part, but the process is what we concentrate on, not the product,” Tania explains. “Because the process is so good the product is so good. It comes from the heart. People that are so in it, so into it, so passionate about it, they want to work hard; they can’t wait to come back to rehearsal.”

The concerts and progress of the choir as a whole are definitely a positive product of this rehearsal process. In 2011 Tania and Dale started by leading their singers in familiar songs from Broadway and The American Songbook, but their performance repertoire now spans almost 200 songs. Each member is encouraged to become a soloist for the sake of giving everyone an opportunity to experience their moment in the spotlight, but solos are often performed in a variety of sectionals and all solos are assigned on a voluntary basis. The singers are also encouraged to submit recommendations for concert material. Whether during their current concert season or the next, the conductors make sure that each request is honored.

New singers are not auditioned in a traditional sense, but Tania emphasizes the importance of mutual respect that is expected of all members. “We haven’t turned anybody away,” she muses, “but we are careful when we meet people to make sure they belong in the group in terms of understanding that there is love and care and respect, and we want people to feel they belong.”

Though the Unforgettables Chorus is no longer part of an official research study, the medical benefits from singing together with each other and their caregiver have proven noteworthy as  documented by the participants. Many caregivers report getting to reduce the medication their loved one was taking since joining the choir.

Tania also emphasizes that the social and emotional impacts have also been highly positive: “for the person with dementia it helps them to feel included because they are beginning to withdraw emotionally. So first of all they feel they can belong, they feel that their identity is recognized again, because you lose your identity with memory loss. So you feel like you’re included in something, that you accomplished something.”

Co-conductors Tania and Dale are the biggest advocates for the Unforgettables Chorus, both filled with pride and affection for their choral family. “I love this group,” Tania beams. “I love that I can make people smile and make them happy and offer them a little gift that they take home throughout the week . . . I find these people to be my family away from home that I take care of. What better thing to do? It represents my personality and I also can do something special for other human beings.”

The 13th concert of the Unforgettables Chorus will be held on Saturday, December 6, 2014 from 3-4 PM in the St. Peter’s Church Sanctuary, 619 Lexington Ave. at 54th Street (please enter on 54th Street between Lexington Ave. and 3rd). Admission is complimentary and everyone is welcome to attend!

Contributed by Alyssa L. Foster, A&H Staff Writer

Notes:

- Official Chorus website at the NYU Lagone Medical Center:

http://aging.med.nyu.edu/research/chorus

- The Unforgettables Chorus Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Unforgettables-Chorus/358246257595663