Shakuhachi and dementia: how it started

April 2014

I’m starting a volunteer job in a dementia care home, playing shakuhachi for the people in their bedrooms (individual visits) and during a massage activity (small group). I’ve never done that before and don’t know what to expect. I’m told that the goal is to connect to the patients, in one way or another, to reach them through the music. All kind of emotions can occur. “Don’t insist if they don’t want it or if it’s not the right moment, and don’t take it personal if they react negatively.” That was my formation for this job. Let’s do it!

Individual visits

For the individual visits, I’m guided by an retired nurse’s aid, A., who used to work there and comes back as a volunteer for this activity. She still knows a lot of people, and takes some of the patients to the mass on Sunday. She loves music and always has the right little word, attitude, smile, tenderness… She is the professional there, without her it wouldn’t go so well. And because she is retired, she can take the time to enjoy the music and the moment. It gives a very relaxed atmosphere to our visits, that surely the people can feel.
Most of the patients we visit lie in bed in their bedrooms, but some of them are regularly brought to the lounge of the departement. When this happens, A. takes care to get me more audience with asking the other patients if they want to join and listen. So it becomes a mini-concert, a pleasant moment of being together, that the nurses can also enjoy while taking a little break.

Massage activity

Such a relaxing moment, taking place in the chapel of the institution, with a superb acoustic. I’m playing, the patients are getting massages, the goal is that they relax.
M., who is organising it, is a very cheerful young woman. The audience is a small group of 4 to 8 people, some lying in bed, some coming in wheelchairs, some (the young ones) just walking in and sitting on chairs.

This is what I wrote after my first session in April 2014:

Sunshine through the stained-glass windows
In the silence following my music
A blackbird sings

The sounds of the flute
Fills the empty space
Up to the sun rays

From a kind of “background music feeling” I had at the beginning, has my music turned out into a concert. The patients are listening, interacting, relaxing, enjoying, singing.
M. asked me to record a CD so she could play it in her departement to calm down everybody. I’m not that far yet!


I first wondered how the Dutch elderly people would react to Japanese Zen-traditional music. I even took my Western transverse flute to the first massage sessions to play classical music as well.
Very rapidly, I noticed that the shakuhachi was much more powerful than the flute. I tend to think it is related to the instrument itself, but I must admit too that it is related to my personal connection to each instrument. I  definitively have a different mindset when I play classical music and when I play shakuhachi music. This experience turned out to be an eye-opener for me about my own relationship with the different styles of music and flutes I play.
So I play Japanese music, freely, from old-traditional honkyoku’s, children and folksongs to modern pieces and improvisations. The most important is not what I’m playing but how I’m playing it. Sometimes I switch in a middle of a song if I notice it’s better for the patient. It’s a dialogue, I can play 5 times the same song to 5 different patients, it will be 5 different stories. While playing, I’m listening carefully to them, following my heart and my intuition.
My best reward is when they start to sing. They don’t know the music, but sometimes it awakens something in them and they start to repeat what I’m playing, or sing a kind of accompaniment. The dialogue becomes duet. What happiness!

Zen experience

Being in the present moment with the patients feels to me like a Zen experience.
When it goes “wrong” – they don’t like it, they don’t want it -, it is accepting the way it is, without attachment, judgement or frustration.
When it goes “well”, I know that the memory of it won’t last long, it’s all about enjoying the present moment.
A. uses to ask  the patient after I played if he/she liked it and would like more. Once we got this answer: “what music? she hasn’t played yet!” A few seconds after I played was the memory already gone… and yet, this woman was visibly enjoying when I was playing.

It’s also being prepared to all kind of reactions you don’t normally get in a concert hall. Reactions that don’t necessarily mean what they in our world mean: when she likes something, a woman can’t stop nervously laughing, another starts to cry, another starts to kiss, another (man) sticks his tongue out at you with a big smile, etc. It teaches me not to stop at the surface or appearances, but to open my mind and get inspired.
It’s also very good for the concentration!! Not being disturbed by anything occurring while playing and yet staying connected to the environment.

Like after a meditation session, I always feel refreshed when I leave the patients to go back home.

Related posts:

Waterlelie 2017

15 thoughts on “Shakuhachi and dementia: how it started”

  1. It is my experience as well that it is the energy and what intentions you put in the music what makes the difference , especially in this kind of settings
    beautiful story a good work
    thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is beautiful… I also used to volunteer in elderly homes, playing piano and/or other instruments, often together with friends. It is so rewarding and fulfilling for all persons involved and it makes me sad that COVID has now put all this on hold… 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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