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Music Therapy Hits High Note With Community Choir

Every Thursday evening for an hour and a half, the performance hall at Virginia Tech’s Creativity and Innovation District comes alive with the sound of music.

Classic rock ‘n’ roll songs resound as members of The Beat Goes On, a community choir that includes individuals with dementia and their caregivers, prepare for its public debut. The group’s first concert is slated for April 29 at 5:45 p.m. inside the Creativity and Innovation District. The event is free, and the concert is open to anyone in the community.

Joanna Culligan, instructor of human development and family sciences at Virginia Tech and the Engagement Center for Creative Aging’s therapeutic program manager, is the choir’s director.

Culligan and Patricia Winter, the choir program’s co-director, are music therapists. They have worked together for nearly seven years to understand how music improves quality of life for people living with forms of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, and their caregivers.

“One of the things that happens a lot is that people start to isolate, and they don’t engage in a lot of the things that they used to do,” Culligan said of people who experience cognitive change.

“We were just talking about it, and we were like, ‘Let’s make a choir that really includes everyone,’” she said.  “’Let’s have it open. No audition — people can come and sing and just experience joy and music making.’”

That conversation began in 2023. Earlier this year, the center received a grant from Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology that enabled Culligan to start the choir. Community members and students were invited to participate. They spread the word through flyers and online platforms. There are about 30 choir participants.

“Everything is really intentional with the way that it’s been designed and the way that we’ve set it up,” Culligan said. “We specifically have time for socialization before people come in to sing. It might look like it’s very casual, but it’s all very intentional and planned.”

Culligan is passionate about finding new ways for people with dementia to participate in research. Aside from the important social benefits that the program provides, the choir also is an opportunity for Culligan to measure the impact that music has on a person’s well-being.

Members of the choir wear watches during rehearsals that monitor heart rate variability to measure their stress levels. Culligan and her team will analyze the data to determine how heart rate variabilities compare while singing and during breaks. Participants also are asked to fill out a form before and after each rehearsal describing how they feel. The team will use the data to analyze how the choir impacts individual well-being.

“There’s a lot of laughter that happens and a lot of joy in the room,” said Tanner Upthegrove, immersive audio engineer for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. “I think aligning those events with the data we collect will tell an interesting story.”

Winter said she has watched many members of the choir go from timid and not knowing any of the words to singing along and tapping their feet, a feat that many don’t expect from people with dementia.

“People with dementia can learn to do new things,” she said. “They can learn the words to a novel song. They can participate in these activities.”

Still, she and Culligan stressed that lyrics will be available for the choir during the entire show and that even if some participants don’t sing, they are still embraced as part of the community.

“We are also hoping that due to this release of pressure by not needing to know the words, it is a safe place for them to come together and experience music and joy,” Culligan said.

Morgan Price-O’Brien is a caregiver for her father, Joseph Price-O’Brien. Since joining the choir, Morgan Price-O’Brien said she has seen a positive change in her father’s demeanor. Her favorite part has been watching him “open up” and “enjoy himself and interact with people.”

Debbie Wallace is a member of the choir along with her sister, Betsy Williams, who has dementia. She said the experience has been a fun one, and she hopes the public shows up for the concert to support the group’s hard work.

“I’ll not say that all of us can sing, but we make a joyful noise,” she said.

Culligan hopes this year’s concert will be a springboard for the future, and that the choir will become a permanent fixture in the community.

“One of the overarching goals that we have at the Engagement Center for Creative Aging, through all the work that we’re doing here, is really to destigmatize aging and dementia,” Culligan said. “We want people to feel comfortable interacting with older adults because they’re just people.”

Violet Zaleski, one of the project’s co-investigators and a former nurse aide at the center, recently graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise.

“These individuals love, love, love talking about what’s going on in our life and just interacting with younger adults,” Zaleski said. “They absolutely love that.

“I truly believe that I was guided in this path to just interact with older adults, and I think a lot of college students are missing out if they haven’t yet,” she said.

Winter said she envisions the choir becoming a “fabric of communities.”

“I would love it not only to be a thing that we do here in this community, but I’d love to see it move into Roanoke,” she said. “I’d love to see it move into Richmond. I’d love to see it become a movement of people singing together, no matter what it is that brings them together.”

During the concert, the audience will be invited to sing and dance along to the classic rock tunes such as The Kiki Dee Band’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me.”

Former Marching Virginians band director Dave McKee and his band, Off Our Rockers, will provide background music for the concert. The band is composed of retired community members.

“It’s a great opportunity to see the fine work that they’re doing here,” said McKee, who plays drums for the band. “And to understand how music does make everybody feel better and enjoy life more. I think that’s important. Music truly is the universal language, right?”

By Kelsey Bartlett

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