The Healing Power of Heart and Soul

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The Healing Power of Heart and Soul

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by Marlene Lambert

Each year, these volunteer performers bring over 500 shows from a variety of musical genres to 100 facilities along the Wasatch Front.

lambertI never met my grandmother. I was fully two years old before she passed away, but my mother never brought me to meet her mother. In the early 1960s, children were not allowed in hospitals, let alone the psychiatric ward, unless they were ill themselves. In fact, even adult visitation was restricted. Instead of dying surrounded by her family, my grandmother died in the arms of a nurse who was bathing her. I think she didn’t want to die alone, and took the opportunity to have a little comfort on her way out. But in those days, the isolation of a psychiatric hospital was the only option for a woman with dementia.

I never met my grandmother. I was fully two years old before she passed away, but my mother never brought me to meet her mother. In the early 1960s, children were not allowed in hospitals, let alone the psychiatric ward, unless they were ill themselves. In fact, even adult visitation was restricted. Instead of dying surrounded by her family, my grandmother died in the arms of a nurse who was bathing her. I think she didn’t want to die alone, and took the opportunity to have a little comfort on her way out. But in those days, the isolation of a psychiatric hospital was the only option for a woman with dementia.

My grandmother loved to sing. It’s probably genetic-Carrie Gruber was a grand niece of Franz Gruber, who composed the holiday classic, “Silent Night.” I blame that gene for my own musical ability. Growing up, every car ride involved singing, harmonizing, and making up our own rhymes when we couldn’t remember the original words. My mother, a music teacher, always led the symphony of voices, with Dad chiming in, too.

While some of my siblings (I have many) have professional careers in music, others, like me, have kept it at the level of a hobby. Making a joyful noise is its own reward, whether or not I get paid for it. So, when I first heard about Heart and Soul, I knew it was for me.

Heart and Soul is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the healing power of live music and performing arts to people who can’t get out on their own. The idea of music therapy can be traced back at least to Plato, but arose in large part after World Wars I and II. Although its value is certainly recognized by the broader medical community, music therapy continues to be supported largely by volunteer organizations such as Heart and Soul.

The organization was founded in 1994 by Janna Lauer and her brother, Doug Jenson. Like me, they were raised by a mother who loved to sing. Verla Jenson played piano and violin, and led her kids in song everywhere they went. One of their favorite piano duets was the 1950s hit “Heart and Soul.”

In 1993, Verla moved to an extended care facility after suffering a series of strokes and a broken hip. Struck by the dismal atmosphere inside the nursing home, Janna and Doug wanted to do something. Janna, then a member of the band Cactus Swing, brought her musical pals to the nursing home to play a few of her mom’s favorites. She was amazed at the positive response.

Doug was familiar with a Bay area organization called Bread and Roses, founded in 1974 by folk music icon Mimi Fariña. He nudged Janna to start something similar in Salt Lake City. Janna gave Mimi a call, got a few pointers, and, with a little help from her friends-and soon-to-be board members Sue Gorey and Judith Christensen -Heart and Soul was born in 1994.

Doug would recruit performers for Heart and Soul from the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association (IAMA) Unitarian Coffeehouse. He approached Gene Sartain, who agreed to give it a try. “It seemed like such a compassionate thing to do. Sometimes one or the other of my sons would perform with me,” Gene said. “We would play at the young men’s prison. Doug would introduce us and tell the audience a joke…what a delivery! He knows how to tell a joke.”

Gene continued, “Some of the care facilities smell like urine, and the food looks terrible. As years passed, I started to see myself in the audiences. I began thinking, I hope somebody comes and plays for me someday. Now I look forward to playing. It brings great satisfaction. And it has sprouted ideas in my head for more kinds of service.” Sartain is now a board member for Heart and Soul.

In the fall of 1994, I responded to an ad Doug had placed in the local IAMA newsletter soliciting performers. I have been performing almost monthly ever since. I’ve witnessed a woman who had lost her capacity for regular speech to a stroke break into song with “Harvest Moon.” What effect might such a number have had on Carrie Gruber? Would she have enjoyed, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Mack the Knife” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” the way these audiences do?

Nearly every Heart and Soul show I play ends with a few choruses of “You Are My Sunshine.” This song is like magic. I have witnessed an immigrant woman, who barely knew English, singing along to this tune. Just last month, at a west side nursing home, a woman who seemed to be sleeping through the whole hour began to move her lips slightly, then lift her head and sing along to this song, blue eyes finally staring at me with a vitality that brought tears to my own eyes.

I used to imagine my grandmother in the audience, but that tends to bring tears, too, which is not conducive to singing. Still, it is largely for her that I participate with Heart and Soul. I wonder how differently Carrie Gruber’s last days might have been had someone been there to sing with her.

Marlene Lambert is president of the Board of Trustees for Heart and Soul. She and Roz Newmark comprise the “Iliotibial Band,” a duet of jazz, original, and old favorite melodies.

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