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One note at a time

A volunteer’s time at the Long Term Care ward lifts spirits on both sides of the piano bench

I started volunteering in the Hôtel-Dieu Long Term Care ward expecting to be depressed. I envisioned encounters with rank body smells and dementia, and some death-related experiences. I pretty much got all of this and more. The first day I arrived a corpse under a sheet was wheeled not-so-discreetly past me, I soon became familiar with all manners of stench, and my definition of sanity was broken and rebuilt as I met people in every stage of senility.

My job at the ward was to brighten the place with my carefree youth, and more specifically, my piano skills. Every Thursdays I volunteered for an hour, playing for an audience of five to 15 patients. For those who have played music competitively, play once in a place like this and a concert hall will never be the same. The Long Term Care ward may not be the most glamourous place to perform, but there, the most stumbling performance garners exclamations of joy, truncated sonatas are greeted with riotous applause, and truly excellent concerts invite tears and runny noses.

It took me a while to get those tears I now cherish so much because I made the mistake of playing Mozart, whose music tends to be light and emotionally removed. I chose his lightest, brightest pieces, thinking darker music – the melancholy Chopin, and stormy Beethoven – wouldn’t fly in such a place.

After a few weeks as a volunteer, I got an unexpected request. A patient wanted to hear Chopin’s funeral march. The song is as depressing as it sounds. Feeling slightly ashamed, I played it complete with plodding chords and mournful melody – only to receive exclamations of joy.

The patients’ responses encouraged me to test the waters. I turned to Beethoven, selecting sonatas he wrote towards the end of his life, most of which are emotional odysseys, treating issues like damnation and salvation, life and death. The following week as I played one of these, half-way through the first movement of a four movement sonata, I heard sobs. Looking across the room, I spotted the source: a 96-year-old woman whose face was covered in huge tears.

Playing at the hospital made me realize that I had found Beethoven’s true audience. It’s not a silent group of intellectuals stiffly poised in an austere concert hall, but a noisy mishmash of the sick and dying; it is not people at the height of their cognitive powers, but those losing them. Maybe because they saw their own struggles reflected in his music, maybe because the good things in life seem more valuable close to death, those patients intuitively connected to Beethoven’s music.

There is healing in this catharsis. Recent studies, such as one looking into the effect of music therapy on neurological patients, conducted at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in the U.K., have shown that music therapy can speed the recovery of neurological patients. A Stanford study found that music therapy helped older adults overcome depression by improving their engagement with and responsiveness to their surroundings, emotional expressiveness, socialization, and overall quality of life.

Helping people by doing something you love gives you a feeling something like a drug rush. So, although when I started playing for the sick I expected doom and gloom, I soon began to look forward to hospital Thursdays. Whether I arrived cold, stressed, sleep deprived, or grumpy, I invariably left afterwards with what can only be described as a high that lasted for hours.

If you play music – be it classical, jazz, or neo-ambient trip hop – I suggest that you visit these hospital audiences at least once. Aside from getting to perform in front of a rapt audience and enjoying some head-swelling praise, you might come to the same, life-changing conclusion that I did: humanitarianism is tragically underrated.