Songs of my Youth

Author: Laurence Brooke

My grandpa passed away the Saturday before my first classes as a graduate student began at UNCSA. I woke up to an early morning message from my mother to our family group chat, and while the news was expected, it was a reality I had not yet embraced. He was a smart, hardworking man with a generous heart and a smile and joke for anybody who crossed his path. I went to my first ArtistCorps training that day. When I told him, about a month prior, that I had been accepted into this program, he had been immensely proud of me. His love of music had been a very public one. The radio was always on in his truck (country music, exclusively), he would make up little songs and dances whenever the muse struck (in public mostly), and he was a firm supporter of anybody who chose to pursue music in my family. Music was a shared experience for him, one that offered a chance to connect and commune. He knew better than I what community engagement could look like with music as my medium, and that day at training I heard his jokes come out of my mouth as I met my colleagues for the year for the first time.

My service has taken many forms in the last three years. As a violinist and violist most of my time has been spent on the instruction side of things working with prekindergarten children. This year I have had the privilege of serving seniors with dementia with Music Between Us, and it has been some of the most rewarding and emotional days of service I have experienced. My first day at the Williams Adult Day Center (WADC) was bittersweet. It was the return of in-person service for ArtistCorps and it had been over a year since I had been physically in front of the people I was supposed to be engaging with. Gone was the computer screen, the zoom, and the isolation–– suddenly I was in front of an audience of people who had lived through so much more than just these past few years of a pandemic. And here they were, having to live out their final years in masks and having to observe social distancing without being able to understand why.

On that training day in 2019, I never imagined that I would be playing guitar and singing for a roomful of folks who could be my grandparents. My repertory consists of things I learned when I was little: folk tunes and gospel songs mostly, and a few country standards thrown in for good measure. The same country standards that I sang with my grandfather in his truck as we drove down the coast of California. I often remember that first day back in-service because while I was singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, under my mask I was thinking of all the pandemic had changed. All the folks who had lost their lives, and all the families who had been impacted because of it. Then, selfishly perhaps, I thought of how I did not get to sing with my grandpa before he passed. I came home from that first session and wept.

The impermanence of life is not something most of us enjoy facing but it became impossible to avoid doing so when COVID arrived. This type of service also has a tendency, for me, to bring thoughts of our mortality. It has become a bit of a skill to leave those thoughts at the door when going in, and instead focus on enjoying the time we spend together. Getting to serve at WADC is absolutely a privilege but it can be hard going every week and seeing some folks become ill and unknowingly sit through their last session with us. Everyone treats the Music Between Us team with such love and kindness that they all feel like family, and losing family is hard. Thankfully, I have a team that helps me remember to be mindful and have a positive presence in the room. 

Working with the two extremes, the beginning of life and the end of it, has been eye opening and a lesson in how common the experience of music is. In my Pre-K service, the team teaches the little ones melodies and songs that they might carry with them until they are in the later stages of life. Songs that will bring fond memories, I hope, as aging runs its course and things are forgotten. The children always love singing and making noise––is one of the best ways to control the chaos. On the other end of the spectrum, folks at the adult center might be withdrawn or unengaged but the moment they hear a song they recognize they join right in. They might not remember where they are, or why they are not at home, or why they are holding an egg shaker or even what an egg shaker is––but they remember their songs. They remember the music. 

March 18, 2022