By Emily Rice
I have always liked to sing, it has always been a joyous and meaningful activity. When I was little it was mostly at church or at school. As I grew up, I continued to sing, but never fully grasped the importance of music until I reached college.
I entered a college music program and learned all of the mechanics of music, theory, and technique, but felt less joy. Upon completion of this degree, I realized that I really liked singing, but not singing for an audience hall. I began to search for an answer for how to use this new degree and how to put the joy of music back into singing.
I came across the option for a minor in gerontology, which seemed like an odd accompaniment to a music degree, but my advisors were accepting and let me pursue this minor. Through further education and getting involved in the aging studies courses, I found an amazing way to connect with people that I had been using for years: music. I realized that my joy of music came from sharing it with people, not just for an audience in a professional setting.
My minor took me to a nursing home facility where I completed a mini-internship. At this site I was able to participate with the activities department and spent a great deal of my one-on-one time with older adults. My supervisor brought up the idea of singing songs for the people in the facility, and then it began.
I had the experience of singing for a man who had Huntington's Chorea, a condition I knew very little about, besides the jolting "chorea" movements that he displayed at all times. Involuntary movements, the nurses told me. I asked this gentleman if I could sing for him. He indicated yes, so I began to sing what I knew: hymns. As I began to sing I noticed the gentleman began to stop the involuntary and jolting movements and was stilled by the music. Soon after I stopped singing, the jolting chorea movements returned. I knew something important happened in that moment, but I did not understand why singing would eliminate an involuntary behavior.
After a tearful discussion with staff, I was told that what had occurred was uncommon. This gentleman typically did not have relief from his chorea movements, and never would. His only respite would be death.
This was a formative moment for me as an individual and as a gerontology student. I realized, at perhaps a new level, how important communication is and how different ways of communicating result in different outcomes.
I came to social work from an interest and longing to understand people and the way in which individuals communicate. My musical education encouraged me to be a performer for the masses, but my love of music took me to a different place. I found myself not caring for the concert halls, but instead the small patient rooms and community eating areas of nursing homes and end-of-life facilities. Singing for one instead of one hundred became my concert hall, my joyous moment, and reminded me of why I loved to sing.
When I was little I think I knew that music made other people happy, but it also made me happy to share a piece of myself with someone else. My childlike innocence re-appeared in my post-professional training and transformed my life forever.
As I write this, I am preparing for an intensive weekend class in my last semester of my Master of Social Work program. As I reflect upon my experiences I feel lucky to be in a place where I can contribute to a population in a way that allows for rich conversation, sometimes without speaking.
Emily studied music at the University of Montana with Dr. Kimberly James and gerontology with Cindy Garthwait, MSW. Emily is in her last semester of the MSW program at the University of Wyoming and will be graduating in May 2014. Emily has had the privilege of being on the Diversity, Difference, and Equity Committee and to work with Dr. Diane Kempson, the chair of her final project. When not participating in MSW activities, Emily enjoys participating in her local parish choir and children's educational activities. Emily has enjoyed her studies at the University of Wyoming and having the opportunity to study in an advanced generalist setting. Emily hopes to move to rural Montana in the future and work with older adults.