Opera Saratoga Songs by Heart connects music and memory


It’s a happy coincidence that Opera Saratoga is launching Opera Saratoga Songs by Heart during Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.

Opera Saratoga began planning the program with the Songs by Heart Foundation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Katrina Fasulo, director of development for Opera Saratoga. Through interactive singing and therapeutic techniques, Opera Saratoga Songs by Hearts aims to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease throughout the Capital Region.

The company had hoped to launch in 2021, but residential care centers had strict restrictions amid rising numbers of delta variant cases, delaying the program’s launch to this year. Now, Opera Saratoga has officially launched the program, making it the first opera company in the nation to do this kind of memory care work.

“We’re thrilled to finally launch this,” said Amanda Robie, General Manager of Opera Saratoga.

The first session of Opera Saratoga Songs by Heart is free for centers so they can see the program in action. After the demo session, centers can decide to continue the program and book regular sessions, which Fasulo says is priced on a highly subsidized sliding scale with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, OPERA America, the New York State Council on the Arts. and private donors.

Grants, however, do not fully cover programming costs, and each has a matching element. With many care facilities managing tight budgets – Emily Becker, director of development for the Songs by Heart Foundation, said some facilities in the organization’s national network can only allocate $200 per month for all activities – the Donor support will be essential for Opera Saratoga Songs by Success from the Heart.

“To bring this (program) to the level where it really achieves the optimal impact for residents, it has to be regular,” Fasulo said.

Becker and Songs by Heart Foundation staff music therapist Jenny Cook flew in from Chicago to train the Saratoga Opera musicians on how to lead the 45-minute sessions. Gathered around a table at Peregrine Senior Living in Shaker’s lobby before a demo session, Opera Saratoga musician Tiffany Dzembo talked to Becker and Cook about the music she learned after her first session of formation (Doris Day, Julie Andrews and Frank Sinatra), and the three gathered around electronic tablets to discuss how to create an engaging set list.

“For people with dementia or different memory issues, earlier songs tend to work better for interaction and songs,” Cook said.

The session at Peregrine Senior Living began with rearranging the 13 resident chairs from a typical hearing configuration to a semi-circle to encourage more resident engagement.

“If we’re just performing, there’s always a well-defined gap between the audience and the performer,” Cook said. “We try to combine the two to make it very collaborative.”

Once the residents were settled, Becker, Cook, Saratoga Opera singers Dzembo and Angelina Valente and pianist JP Hubbs, dressed in royal purple polo shirts embroidered with the Songs by Heart logo, walked around to meet each resident and learn a little more about his musical tastes. Swedish folk songs weren’t on the set list much to the chagrin of one resident, but another was delighted to hear songs from the 1960s make the cut.

To celebrate the sunny and balmy fall day, the session kicked off with “You Are My Sunshine.” A handful of residents were up there, singing at full volume and clapping, but many were more hesitant. They would quietly sing to themselves, avoid eye contact or gently nod their heads along with the song and listen. Midway through the song, Becker would help guide a resident’s applause to match the rhythm of the song, and everyone sang the final chorus at varying volumes.

The session continued with familiar songs such as “Blue Skies”, “Home on the Range” and “America the Beautiful”, the trained soprano voices of the hosts mingling with the voices of the residents. The Songs by Heart playlist was designed to encourage physical engagement – the stomping and clapping of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” was enthusiastically received – and the hosts focused on one-on-one relationships with each resident to build trust.

“You can see the smile on their faces as you work to include them,” Dzembo said.

Halfway through, visiting family members opened the door to the memory care floor which, when not opened by an employee pressing a special button, set off a deafening alarm. The alarm briefly interrupted “My Favorite Things,” but that didn’t derail it — every resident was able to follow Dzembo’s direction to restart the “cream-colored ponies” verse without confusion or hesitation.

“Music is in every part of our brain,” Cook said. “When we do programs, particularly focused on memory care, it’s really healthy for the brain.”

The programs also benefit caregivers, Becker said, such as the two family members who came to visit a resident. Although the resident was reluctant to participate, the fact that his family sat next to him singing “LOVE” and doing the zipper choreography demonstrated by the hosts for the closing number “Zip-A-Dee -Doo-Dah” encouraged him to get involved. The program gives family and friends a way to connect with loved ones without the pressure of a conversation, Becker said, which can be difficult for someone with memory loss.

“It’s a safe space for them to engage with each other,” Cook said.

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