Healthcare clowning has always been close to my heart. Over the years, I’ve watched some programs begin working with adults and eldercare populations.
Eldercare clowning is especially close to my heart because of my experience with my mother, Florence Gordon. Mom played the piano at church. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom playing the piano at church in my hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee. I would sit in the pew during church services and watch mom as she would take a few steps from her seat to move to the piano. Mom’s seat was always close to the piano, so she didn’t have to walk far. Sometimes, at unexpected moments the spirit would move, and there would be an additional need for music during the service. She was always there with something to play.
Mom always said that she didn’t have much musical training. I doubted that. I think she knew more than she gave herself credit for; that said, her ability to play by ear and her sense of service in doing the work spoke volumes.
Years later, her physical and mental health declined. Eventually, we decided that she should move to a senior facility close to me in Georgia. She was in her late 80s when she made the move. Time had taken a toll on her physical. She was older now. Arthritis in her hands made it hard to play the piano.
There was a piano on her floor at the facility where she lived. I knew that she still loved music. One of her favorite activities was to watch videos of her favorite gospel singers. That said, for my selfish reasons, I wanted to hear her play the piano, not listen to others play music on a video. So, I would go to the piano and asked her to play a song. She would grumble a little, saying that she wasn’t in the mood. Then, after more encouragement and prodding for me, she would once again walk over to the piano to play.
First, she would sit down at the piano and look at it as if it were an old friend, someone she once knew but hasn’t seen in a long time. Her eyes would scan across the black and white keys. Then she would move her frail fingers along the keyboard, trying to recreate the music she once played. Her fingers would touch the keys, and I would hear a few chords and the beginning of a familiar melody. However, these sounds would quickly go away. Even if she could remember how to play, she couldn’t get her fingers to move as she wanted. She looked up at me with frustration and said, “I just can’t do it anymore.” My encouragement and prodding stopped. I didn’t ask her to play again.
Instead, I decided to play for her and the other residents at the facility. I have fond memories of sitting in the corner at the piano on her floor. I would pull out my iPhone with its song apps, and I would find songs I liked. Using the phone, I had a full selection of songs to choose from. I would find something that would be familiar to her and the other residents. Then I would play the music. After playing for several minutes, I would turn around and see that a crowd of residents gathered around me at the piano. They heard the sound of the music, and they wandered over to the piano. They appreciated that someone was there playing music for them. It was not pre-recorded music coming from a video and played over a loudspeaker. It was an actual person playing an instrument for them. Mom passed away over five years ago. I am grateful to have these memories.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of entertaining more eldercare residence with Good Medicine Productions.
Thanks to Kristie Koehler Vuocolo at Good Medicine Productions, I was able to finally apply some of the clowning experience I’ve had in an elder care setting.
What surprised me was how the residents responded to our virtual visits. I was in Atlanta talking with and sometimes playing music for the residents in Ohio. It helped that the artists at Good Medicine Productions were so welcoming and accommodating when I began working with them. Kristie talked me through the character relationships and routine structure the team created. It was great to have a common artistic language and understanding of our characters and the form of our routines. With Good Medicine, I finally had the chance to try my new character for this population, Willy Crooner. This type of artistic structure made me miss the clown work that has been paused since the Covid pandemic.
I was amazed to see how well the residents responded to us on their iPads. Frankly, I didn’t know how this elder care population would react to the virtual visits. I was amazed at how easily they responded to the characters on the screen. And, they enjoyed the music.
I started to see a pattern, a common reaction to the music. I could see the residents recognize the songs we would play. For this work, as Willy Crooner, I played the baritone ukulele. I played “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.” As I was playing, I’d see the residents singing with us. I would sing the line “You said you was high class, well that was just a lie….”. They would sing along with me. Sometimes singing louder than me. Other times they would sing with me, inaudibly mouthing the words of the song as I sang. The residence would tell me they liked the “Elvis song.” In my mind, I just sang a “Big Mama Thorton” song (the goal is to please the audience. If they liked the music, that’s what matters most.)
Over the past few months, I had the pleasure of doing this work with these senior citizens. Each time I would do this work, I would think of my mother, Florence Gordon. She was a great woman who shared her love for music with me. I’m grateful.
I look forward to continuing this work both virtually and in person.
You can hear piano playing and singing by my mother, Florence Gordon, at this link here.
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