Bennington College students perform music, interact with Alzheimer's patients

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BENNINGTON -- Bennington College and the Southwestern Vermont Health Care's Centers for Living and Rehabilitation have teamed up to bring music from the students to the residents.

Cynthia Ellison, activities director for The Centers for Living and Rehabilitation, said that Bennington College music professor Michael Wimberly and his class first visited Southwestern Vermont Medical Center on Oct. 8, will continue to perform for the residents every Wednesday until the end of the semester, and will hopefully begin again in the spring with a new group of students. Wimberly and his eight students sat in a circle with residents who suffer from dementia (although all residents of the center were welcome), and played traditional African and Native American songs, as well as more modern music, such as Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" and Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va."

The group, who even took requests, playing "You Are My Sunshine," for a resident, played on a variety of different instruments, including drums, a bala (a West African xylophone), a flute, and a trumpet. The group focused primarily on getting the residents involved in the event, even passing out shakers to those who wanted to use participate. In between songs, Wimberly kept his audience engaged through constant interaction, from explanations of the histories of the songs, to questions about their favorite music, to jokes.

Prior to one song, after a mis-start in which the flute and the bala came in in different keys, Wimberly, laughing, said, "This is what happens in our classroom. We are always coming together and learning new things. We're always learning."

The idea for the partnership was born when Wimberly and SVMC director of planning James Trimarch met at an event at the Bennington Museum, and began talking. Wimberly then worked with Ellison and Salem Carriker of AmeriCorps VISTA to make it happen.

"It's bigger and better than we could have anticipated," said Wimberly, "and the response from the students has been overwhelmingly positive."

Trimarch said that he had spoken to one of the students after the initial performance last week. That student had noticed one particular resident, who began the performance very apprehensive, but by the end she was not only engaged and participating, but smiling.

On Wednesday, residents gradually warmed up to Wimberly's infectious smile, with more and more clapping or shaking along as the performance went on.

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Wimberly, who has toured internationally with artists such as Charles Gayle, William Parker, Sabir Mateen, Cooper-Moore, and Roy Campbell, drew laughs from the residents when he tried to play "My Funny Valentine" on the center's piano.

"Does this piano work, is it in tune?" he said, "Oh, that note wasn't bad! It does have a few... broken pieces, but it seems okay!"

Trimarch also mentioned that the new partership has benefits across three dimensions.

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The first, he said, is for the two institutions, which are both among the largest in Bennington, having the chance to work together.

The second, he said, was the residents themselves, and the third is the students, many of whom have never had the chance to perform in front of that type of audience before.

Trimarch said the student he had spoken to had previously mostly just played in front of his friends, and as such, discovering that his music was appreciated by the residents was a meaningful moment for him.

"We often lose sight of the fact that it's not just medicine that keeps you well," said Trimarch, "It's this. It's music, love, activities with your friends."

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"They can participate if they want to, or they can just watch, it's really great," said Carriker, "Having the students come in really shows [the residents] that people out there still care about them."

Ellison said that she has been working, over the last year, to get the colleges and other groups involved with the center. During last week's inaugural performance, Ellison said that she had been unsure of how the residents would react, but that both she and the students enjoyed how positive the reaction was.

Ellison said the center runs a number of different programs for its residents, including creative expressions programs seven days a week, which include games, arts and crafts, reading (especially magazines from earlier eras), and music making on Mondays.

One Boy Scout troop from Bennington, said Ellison, was making tactile sensory boards for lower-functioning patients, while another Boy Scout group was in the planning stages of a gardening project.

The center has also organized painting classes for residents with Alzheimer's disease.

Wimberly said that he truly believes in the power of music as a method of alternative healing. He joined the Bennington College faculty in 2012, and, besides teaching his African Music Ensemble, teaches courses on drumming, improvisation, composition, and music history.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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