The Brain on Sight Singing #GlenCampbell #Illbeme #alzheimers

I've taught choral music to public school middle school children since 1989.   

In the early years, I couldn't figure out how to teach my young beginners how to take the notes and symbols off of the page and sing with accurate pitch and rhythm.

One day at a time...

One failure at a time...


I figured out ways to awaken the brains of my beginners.  

I saw it in their eyes.  

I see it in their eyes still as I help my own 342 beginners that I will teach on Monday morning in the Atlanta Area Public School where I teach.  

So, when I felt my own father disappearing, I knew.


My two siblings and I decided to get him an iPhone for Christmas in 2013.  During the winter of 2014, I worked with him to help him learn to use his new phone. 

I repeated the same things over and over, and he couldn't remember.

It soon became clear to me that his brain was going to sleep.

Time passed.

He came to visit in the spring of 2015 to see my middle school children do their spring musical revue.  

I felt him disappearing even more, and I became sadder.

Three months later, I mentioned my observations to my two older siblings.  It was at that time that our journey together began as we worked to see if the world of medicine could confirm what was happening to our father.

It's January 17, 2016, and they are still working on an official diagnosis.

...but those of us who are close to our father are clear that his brain has changed.  

They can call it Dementia...Frontal Lobe Dementia...Alzheimers....or whatever the latest diagnosis/buzz word is when the brain atrophies and stops functioning as it once did...

...but we know.

I watched "I'll be Me" recently.  It's Glen Campbell's honest and open documentary of his journey through of the many diseases of the brain that people face as they age.

I came away from watching the movie more steadfast in my observation that music awakens.  

I've known that since I started singing as a child.

It keeps us awake, and it was apparent in this beautiful film about the legendary pop culture figure.

I am not a doctor.  I am not a PhD.  I don't research in the academic sense.

Yet I do...each and every day when I face my eager beginners daily.

When I started teaching, I wanted my young beginners to understand how to take those dots off the page and turn them into music, and I knew it would take kinesthetic, aural and visual means so that is the way I taught them regardless of their background and intellectual ability as assessed by standardized tests.

I research daily as I watch the brains of my young students awaken when I help them take those symbols off of the page and sing correct pitch and rhythm without the one-on-one training that the children who are from the most affluent families can afford.

My own personal belief is that Glen Campbell kept singing and remembering his music despite the atrophy of his brain because he loved it and because he wanted to remember.  

...All the rest?  He forgot.

And now, as my father's brain is going to sleep...

I will use the skills I've learned with my middle school beginners as I've tried to awaken their brains to help my own father keep his own brain awake because, selfishly, I want him here with me as long as I can have him.

Until then, I will go into my classroom tomorrow and work to awaken the brains of my young singers.

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  1. Replies
    1. I wanted to add to my earlier fb comment: I think using interactive music activities with those suffering brain issues like dementia helps them so much because they can enjoy the moment, the present. The past was elusive and like swiss cheese, especially in my father's case. My mom just went dim, like someone just turned the light switch slowly to dark. Both were musicians and the memory-laden music of their vibrant years is what enhanced their waning years. I will keep you and your family in my prayers. God be with each of you. This is an important and instructive time for all of us as we accompany our elders through this passage.

    2. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It's going to be an unforgettable, life-changing journey without question.

    3. Blessings as you journey on. Life is hard. I hurt when I see the struggles of others, yet I am amazed when I see those struggles birth change for good in our world. I can see you will use this as a catalyst for good. The beauty in life lies not in the easy, but in the dark struggles that birth new light. Shine your light.

  2. Dale - thanks for working with the young ones so beautifully and for sharing about your father. I work with a group called Music Mends Minds in Los Angeles. We put together a group of people suffering from Dementia, Parkinsons, etc. and created a band called the 5th Dementia Band. We rehearse twice a week and put together two concerts a year. The members have varying degrees of cognition and varying degrees of musical ability but I will say that the experience has improved their lives, their thoughts and brings together an unlikely group of people to play music together. There is much dedication, love and joy. Check out the website. It speaks to early music education bringing better life many years later and that making music improves the quality of life hands down. Blessings, Katheryne Levin

    1. Thank you so much for being in touch. I am so glad I've shared this and to hear from others who are experiencing it in their lives.
      Because I see how music wakes up the brains of my students each day, I have no doubt of its power.
      I love the name of the group, and thanks for letting me know about it.

  3. I think your blog is very interesting I all ways like to sing, I go to a performing acts club wish has sinning acting and dancing.

  4. Thank you for your elegant tribute to your father and to music. I encourage you to find more resources on music and dementia through or your local music therapy community.

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  6. My mother had dementia and died 18 months ago now but during the three years I helped my sister look after her we used music a lot. Not only to listen to and remember but to comfort (I sang to her in her bed before sleep), we sang together familiar songs and she joined in with glee, we sang as we walked along, and we sang instructions to her. The sung instructions were the most amazing things - sometimes when we asked her to do something she didn't always understand but when we sang the instruction with a familiar tune (eg there's a hole in my bucket) she would respond. It also brought much needed fun and joy to the day. Music and particularly singing uses all parts of the brain and we need to fire as much of the brain up as possible when helping people living with dementia. Keep on singing and also remember that he is always there. No matter how much the disease takes over - he is always in there, you just need to find him.

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