Sept 2018 Feature: Sal Minutoli and Village Song

What is the nature of what you’re doing with Village Song?

It’s going in to work with a group of elders. Mostly memory care patients, which means that they have alzheimer’s, about 80%. Some of them also have dementia, severe stages.


What sort of training?

We did 7 or 8 full weekends of intensive training on Saturdays and Sundays from about 10 to 5pm. There was about a dozen people.


Wow, 12 people all learning to be teachers?

It’s not necessarily teaching, but it’s an OK word to use, more like facilitator.


How would you describe the difference between being a teacher and being a facilitator?

We’re not really trying to teach anything specific. The role in to engage the elders and to spend time with them. It does involve music, but it’s not necessarily trying to teach them any skills.


Since you’re not teaching music, then how would you describe the role that music plays? If it’s not for learning, then what is the experience?

It’s a musical experience overall. Music plays an important role. It’s mostly music. There is very little talking that goes on in a conversational way, especially due to the nature of the clients, some of them not being able to hold a conversation anyways. It’s very abstract.


The class has 3 main phases.The first is welcoming each other. I’m playing some calm background music and we’re just greeting each other as everyone comes in. We’ll try to talk a bit and connect to each other on a personal level. Then we’ll go straight into songs. I’ll play some familiar songs like I’ve Been Working on the Railroad or You Are My Sunshine, lighthearted songs.


Then we try to go into a deeper place, We get a little more serious with the songs and a little slower, that’s what we call “Deepening to the Core.” We’re trying to get to something like an emotional, meditative place. I’ll use a song like Amazing Grace, one that’s more somber, I could play a little flute or piano, Fur Elise worked well. This might also involve some chanting “om” or a simple mantra.


And it that where the class ends?

After that we bring it out. We bring the energy up with a drum circle and a more active chant. I often use an African call and response chant from Morroco that just has some simple phrases that we start to do with the drumming. Then we just let loose with the drumming in a more celebratory way. We call that the “Celebration Phase”, where were getting more active, standing up maybe even dancing around. Last time I got the flute and played some active flute, which seemed to work very well. I especially liked the flute drum combination, which is a very ancient combination, across cultures.


Then we just bring it back down and integrate with a little discussion, what we call, “Naming”, just one or two words to describe how we feel, any emotions or intentions for ourselves or others. This might be a good time for reflective songs like “Let it Be”.


How long does each class take? How many songs do you play?

1 hour and usually I’ll hit about 10 songs, so 3 or 4 for each of the main phases. We don’t do the whole song always, sometimes just the chorus. I sometimes do what they call an “Offering” which is when I play an entire song, with or without the elders participating.


What was surprising as you transitioned from the training ino leading classes on your own?

In the training, we were just working with each other. Although we got to practice the elements, there is no way to simulate the experience of having 10 elders in there with varying degrees of ability to participate. There were lots of things we were warned about, but that’s a lot different to know something might happen versus actually going through it!


One of the first things we were encouraged to ask them was where they’re from, but right of the bat many of them had no idea, so it ended up being very confusing, for both them and me. But I was able to tell them that it doesn’t really matter, we’re both here now, don’t worry about it.


What are some of the levels of engagement or participation do you see throughout class?

Some of them are asleep when they come in, and stay asleep the whole time. Or they might fall asleep in the middle, especially during the meditative phase. It is always interesting to have your audience just falling asleep! I just make a joke of it, saying, “That’s good that you’re feeling relaxed!”


What is it like going from working with elders to working with children?

It does shine a little bit of a new perspective on my teaching. I feel really grateful to be able to work with such a wide variety of ages. There’s something very special about the young children – there’s a lot of joy and silliness, and in some ways it’s very similar to the elders in their last stage of life.


I know you were very excited about this before your training and during training. How do you feel about it now?

I’m still very enthusiastic, although it is a lot heavier than the average teaching day, emotionally. I’ve already had someone in my class pass away, and she was the most participatory and engaged person. We know it’s always a possibility, but I definitely would not have thought that she was about to pass, versus someone that was in a wheelchair incapacitated and barely present. But that’s just part of the nature of the disease.


It is great to see that these sorts of programs are becoming more popular and widely recognized as having therapeutic effects though, for elders with these diseases.

We’re careful not to call it therapy, and even the word therapeutic can be problematic, but we try to use it in a different sense of the word. It’s almost like a shaman, in a way. I’m partial entertainer, in a way. There is a level of performance, so I can say I’m a performer. One of the things that important though is that it is not just entertainment. We’re specifically trying to do something different, to engage them to have a positive musical experience. We’re not going to push them too much, but we are going to offer to them several times throughout the session to engage.


I’m really looking forward to sharing this, and helping raise awareness of what it’s like to be involved with this sort or program. Is there any last thoughts you would like to share?

One does not need to be a professional musician to do this. In fact, I’m the exception. I was one of the only professionals in the group. Most of the other people have day jobs, or maybe are working in therapy but sing on the side. It’s becoming a movement! You only need basic skills on a stringed instrument, even ukulele. You only need 3 or 4 basic chords to make it work, and a little drumming. It’s not something for the elite or even with a major in music!

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