By Ray Downs
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The performance space at Chesterfield Villas is on the ground floor. Reichard double-parks the Celebrity and carts in his gear. He sets up next to a grand piano at the elbow of the L-shape room. The bright, sunny space looks like an empty hotel restaurant. Somewhere the Beatles' "Love Me Do" is playing. The Super Bowl is three hours away, and the activities director is encouraging people to come down, which bodes well.
Reichard recalls a show he did a few weeks before at one of the Delmar Gardens facilities. "I walk in and the guy says, 'Well, we got a group of baton twirlers.' The first thing that comes into my mind is, 'Why do they book this stuff so tight? Either call me and get rid of me, or get rid of the baton twirlers.'" But the show was beautiful, he says. "I thought, 'God, what a crazy event this is going to be what an aggravating afternoon.' And it was just great."
By 2 p.m. a good 30 people have come down. Reichard sits on his stool and says, "I'm Ron Reichard. Thanks for coming down on Super Bowl Sunday." He pulls a tattered piece of paper from his pocket, his handwritten set list, which contains about 50 numbers.
He begins with "My Blue Heaven," and the words float out of his mouth; he captures his audience immediately. When he sings, he tilts his head back a little bit, like he's singing toward the sunset. He finishes the song with a hearty laugh and starts strumming the next. A minute into it, though, the fire alarm begins to screech. Ron looks up, shocked. People start shuffling toward the front door.
Reichard puts his guitar in his case and follows suit. "Unbelievable," he says with a frustrated shake of the head. "You just knew something like this was going to happen." The group is nearly to the door when the alarm stops. Reichard lets out an audible sigh and returns to the microphone.
Within a few songs, his voice has warmed up. Despite the occasional interruption of firemen looking for the source of the alarm, Reichard is unfazed. He sings of green velvet landscapes and wrap-around skies of moonlight blue, his rich smoky voice sustaining notes like a church organ.
When he kicks off "A Dreamer's Holiday," listeners ride along as though his voice has sprouted wings, accompanied by his softly strummed guitar: "Climb aboard a butterfly/And take off on the breeze/Let your worries flutter by/And do the things you please."
One woman in front sits alone, blank-faced. Even when she danced with a partner to "King of the Road," she seemed bored. But when Reichard starts "It's Been a Long, Long Time," the woman suddenly brightens and starts harmonizing in pitch-perfect tone. "Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again," she sings, "it's been a long, long time." It's like Reichard flipped a switch in her brain, and she's twelve years old again.
That isn't too far from the truth, says Cynthia Briggs, head of the Music Therapy Program at Maryville University. "Long after we've lost a great many of our skills, including language and a lot of other communication skills, we can still sing with words." Lyrics are memorized and stored in the brain differently than language. People can have damage to the language centers of the brain, yet still have lyrics embedded in their musical memories.
This music becomes an important tool for family members. They can sing with Grandma when they've lost the ability to talk with her. Briggs describes it as "pulling families in, and using music as a way keeping them engaged when they're feeling like, 'I can't talk to Mom anymore.'"
When a certain melody tickles a certain neuron, magic happens, says Jack Jenkins, adjunct professor at Maryville and licensed music therapist. Someone hears their favorite song, he says, and their heart rate rises, which dispatches more blood to the brain.
"The brain and synapses start firing, which releases endorphins," explains Jenkins. "Endorphins then start everything kicking in, and you get rush of adrenaline. Once that kicks in, we're up. We're not hanging out in the wheelchairs any more."
More often than not, the music that triggers the explosion, adds Briggs, is the music heard in adolescence. "The group that is in homes now are between 70 and 90, and they were doing '40s big band Glenn Miller and, later, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day."
As the years progress, says Briggs, the baby boomers are going to push that era out of the community rooms. Nursing homes will relive the British Invasion, then arena rock. Jokes Briggs: "We'll have to get everybody fake lighters to hold up. Will we have music therapists writing raps for older people?" she wonders. "'I've lost my hearing, I've lost my gait.' It'll be an interesting rap."
In essence, Reichard's music career faces a similar fate. "When it's over, it's over," he says. "I'll probably be over when it's over, so I don't worry about it. These days, even people who are 70 go back to rock & roll. It's not going to be long, and they're going to want to hear Elvis songs."