Freeing the Voice Within: The Healing Art of Songwriting

Article excerpt

"You help humanity to be themselves by putting a lilt on it."

-D. H., age 87

Songwriting with elders diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias is one of the most rewarding and surprising musical adventures I've experienced in my 20-year career as a performing songwriter. As founding director of Songwriting Works in Berkeley, Calif., I have collaborated with hundreds of elders from across the spectra of physical and mental ability, cultural origin, educational background and economic means. We've composed dozens of songs and have had the good fortune of singing them for international audiences in live performances, on recordings and on film. Music unifies us. We come together to share our love of song and discover what is possible when individuals find and lift their creative voices in community.

It is a spring day at an Alzheimer's day center. Twelve elders are gathered for a songwriting session, seated opposite a large chalkboard. I'm in the middle, colored markers in hand, guitar at the ready, facilitating discussion. As we reminisce about holidays, family vacations, honeymoons and adventures, the conversation turns to Hawaii. "Ah," one woman says, her face lighting up. She has been quiet and apparently disoriented for most of the hour and is speaking for the first time. She talks of the beauty of that place and how much she loves it. I pick up my guitar and sing her words back to her. Listening intently, she breaks into a grin. "I don't know who said that," she says, "but I sure do feel that way." We sing together with the group, weaving the chorus and threading our stories into verse.

The voice is humanity's original instrument. Everyone has a song to sing. The ability to compose music and share one's song comes as freely to children as it does to birds. However, in most consumer-oriented cultures, those whose gifts appear exceptional at an early age are encouraged while creative expression for the majority goes untapped. We are divided into lauded specialists and appreciative listeners, "serious" performers and "dabblers," who carry their early love for music-making deep inside, despite accumulated hurts or resentments about not "having what it takes to make it."

The good news is that the voice within is rarely stilled. It pops out in the car, hums in our ears, sings in the shower and chimes in any place where it is given permission and made welcome. Creativity and musicality persist as we age. Those who have had the pleasure of singing with elders discover favorite songs can enliven them and open treasure troves of memories. Singing awakens the body, engaging breath, heartbeat and all the senses. Songs can be lifelines in troubled times, and a means to celebrate joys as well as sorrows.

In my experience, the benefits of making music increase when the songs one sings are one's own. In 1990, when I was asked to develop music programs for adult day and residential care centers, I was eager to transcend the well-documented realm of sing-alongs and give elders access to the powerful experience of composing and performing their own memorable songs.

"I've never sung before in my life, and now I'm singing."

-E. N., age 90

The initial programs of Songwriting Works were designed to serve groups of 20 to 30 frail adults with diverse physical, mental and cultural needs. English speakers and immigrants fluent in other tongues, lifelong singers and musical novices, mentally alert folks and elders diagnosed with early and mid-stage Alzheimer's disease were invited to swap stories, improvise music and voice their truths for an hour each week. The model proved successful and works equally well with active elders, psychiatric patients, social workers and intergenerational groups involving those from age four to more than 100.


Showing respect and beaming enthusiasm, the ideal facilitator for a Songwriting Works program is an outgoing, multitasking musician who is skilled in improvisation and consensus building and who enjoys group processes. …