Music: The Feeling, the Sound, and the Difference
My final project began as more of an exploration of musical possibilities, rather than a strict and structured project with a specific goal in mind. I had the opportunity to perform at my grandmother’s senior retirement home in Exeter, New Hampshire over the Thanksgiving holiday. The “performance” lasted a little over an hour, and was an interactive conversation between the dozen or so audience members and myself. When I started, I knew from personal experience that it would be intrinsically impactful, and at the very least, I hoped to learn from the residents what music meant to them.
I played a handful of movements from Bach cello suites that I was currently working on, as well as Christmas carols that got called out by the residents. For the carols, I was joined by Cassandra, a resident, on piano, as well as some of the residents who sang along. Cassandra claimed she didn’t know how to play the piano, but every time I’ve visited the center since my grandmother moved there around six years ago, she always plays something, and the carols were no exception. I learned from a nurse that Cassandra has early onset Alzheimer’s, as does my grandmother.
After playing for awhile, alternating between the Bach and the carols, I asked how they felt about the two contrasting styles, and which they preferred. I got a wide variety of responses, but I was more intrigued by the reasoning behind those responses. About a week after the performance, I called my grandmother to ask more questions about the experience, and the other residents’ feelings about it. She told me, “Having watched you learn to play and grow your whole life, I would much rather witness your own expression without being distracted by my own participation,” explaining why she preferred the Bach. In contrast, Mary, a fellow resident and good friend of my grandmother’s, disagreed and defended the carols, explaining ““I have never played an instrument, but I always sang growing up, so I loved singing along and being able to do it with you…your pieces have no words, so we didn’t get to be involved.”
I found her reasoning very compelling, and discovered that there may be a psychological explanation behind it. Because she has known the lyrics to Christmas carols for most of her life, she subconsciously clings to the nostalgia, and her past that she unintentionally associates with these lyrics. In The American Journal of Psychology, Krystine Irene Batcho explains that older adults are especially more likely to be continuously nostalgic because it helps them adapt to the ‘discontinuity’ of life. She claims that nostalgia can be a very powerful form of personal therapy: “…one can remember without being nostalgic, and one can be nostalgic without remembering; Nostalgia therefore can be thought of as the emotional force that enables certain types of reminiscence to serve distinct psychological functions,” (Batcho 362).
While I could physically see that some residents just lit up during the Christmas carols, I had no idea that there was more than just outward happiness at play. Building off of Batcho’s analysis, William Fitzgerald both celebrates and challenges the ways in which music goes beyond just sound. He claims that music is feeling, embedded in “the quality of the performer’s sensibility, an authenticity that transcends the mechanical demands of the instrument, so that the expression often occurs in the form of his/her feeling.” My grandmother’s feedback on my playing went along exactly with what Fitzgerald was saying. When I spoke to her more after the weekend I spent there, she continued to express her interest in watching me express my feelings through performance. She said that the Bach was her favorite not only because of its beauty and musical complexity, but mostly because she could tell it was my favorite to play.
From this project, I learned much more than I expected to about the drastically different ways in which music can affect people, especially senior citizens. I knew that on a basic level, there were no down sides to playing for the residents and that they would enjoy it in some manner. What I did not anticipate was the complex and deeply rooted reasoning for their interest and passion, and learning more about these aspects of music have made me more aware in how I emotionally approach my own music. I am looking forward to searching for deeper meaning and intention when I approach a piece of music, and I am also excited to see if having this awareness changes my playing itself.
Fitzgerald, William. “‘Music Is Feeling, Then, Not Sound’: Wallace Stevens and the Body of Music.” SubStance, vol. 21, no. 1, 1992, pp. 44–60. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3685346.
Batcho, Krystine Irene. “Nostalgia and the Emotional Tone and Content of Song Lyrics.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 120, no. 3, 2007, pp. 361–381. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20445410.