It has been a while I didn’t go to play for the people with dementia. Before the summer, A., who always accompanies me for the visits, was very ill and the visits were cancelled. In July and August, I was busy abroad. It felt great today to be back to the essential of playing music for me: be part of somebody’s normal daily life, outside of concert halls and music festivals.
I can’t explain how priceless this experience is for me. It is not only a musical experience, but also a spiritual one. It feels like applying meditation, particularly compassion and Tonglen practice, to the patients. Their brains don’t function properly anymore and they are not able to meditate, but while listening to the shakuhachi, I hope they find some peace and quietness of the mind.
Hands – eyes – mouth – smile
Each time I go back after a while, the state of patients I already know has deteriorated. The first woman I played for was in an aggressive phase, A. told me. At the beginning, she was quiet and enjoying it, but suddenly, she tensed up and clenched her fist like she wanted to start a fight. A. was tenderly caressing her other hand to calm her down but she removed her hand, and there was nothing more we could do to make her relax again.
We went to another woman I already knew. I had difficulties to recognise her. I looked at the pictures in her bedroom – wedding, children, grandchildren – all her life now gone from her mind. The previous times I played for her, I hardly managed to make contact with her. She was always staring at the emptiness in front of her, I was not sure she even noticed my presence and heard the flute. Only once I remember, she reacted to the music and I was very surprised: I was playing in the living room for somebody else and when A. asked the patient if she wanted more music, it was her who answered with a clear “Yes”. Today, her blue eyes looked at me, looked at the flute and at me again. It was the only thing who seemed to be still alive in her. You can’t think to anything else while playing and looking at her in her blue eyes. I played and played, and it felt good.
Another patient I knew is a woman who likes to sing and used to hum while I played. Today, she had a big smile when A. told her we were going to play music for her. She kept saying that it was beautiful, and then started to open her mouth as if she wanted to sing: she inspired at the same time as me, her lips formed words, her mouth rounded in articulation… but no sounds came out of her mouth. Still, I got the feeling she sung along with me, silently, from the deepest part of her soul.
I also played in the living-room of one of the departments, for a woman with a blue cuddly bunny (or was it a dog with long ears?) and another one with a Ladybug which dots were little hearts. The woman with the blue bunny became very emotional when I played Omoide (Memories). She caressed the cuddly toy even more, like a little girl with a great sorrow.
There were also new patients. One was obviously not belonging to this department, and A. explained afterwards that there was a shortage of rooms in the department where she should be staying. It was beautiful weather outside, and she was sitting in the patio the sun with another patient, enjoying the unusual warmth of October in The Netherlands (22ºC!). She asked for my name, the name of my flute (whereas more of the patients of this department can’t articulate a proper word anymore). She loved the sound of shakuhachi and deeply immersed herself in the spirit of honkyoku. It is also nice to get such reactions from time to time.
The last – and new- patient was a man, sitting outside in the sun with his wife, who was visiting him. I found the wife actually quite agitated but I can understand how difficult it is for the family to see the loved ones deteriorating like this. I think the shakuhachi was also good to calm her down a bit. Our visit gave her the opportunity to chat a bit and tell about their daughter who used to play the recorder, flute and piccolo. It was obvious that the sound of the flute was bringing back nice memories to her and maybe to her husband as well. He did his best to express himself but what he said was incomprehensible. Better not to insist in this case I thought, it must be very frustrating for the patient. So I played another piece. At the end, the wife offered us some chocolates. Another patient, who was sitting in the living-room where I played just before, had accompanied us. She listened happily to the shakuhachi, enjoying the softness of the autumn sun, and ate her chocolate with satisfaction.
Small pleasures of life.