Vol IV n.35
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers are studying how music affects the brain. In Hingham, The Opals have the answer. “It takes us out of ourselves and makes us feel happy,” said Ann Kelsey, 75, one of 32 singing seniors in the South Shore group.
t’s true that scientists still don’t know exactly what happens in our brains when we respond to a favorite song or melody. According to Todd Machover, associate professor of music and media at MIT, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence the right music can make people happier and healthier.
“Music is one of the most powerful ways for people to explore and express just who they are,” he said at an AARP event in Boston.
One of the most dramatic effects: how music can jog memory. You hear a few familiar notes and suddenly remember the words to a song you thought you’d forgotten. Or, a resident in a nursing home, who has dementia and never speaks, begins singing along to an old favorite.
Lucy Parlee, activities director at 1000 Southern Artery, a seniors residence in Quincy, has seen the effects both at work and at home. Her husband, Wayne, was withdrawn and angry while he was undergoing cancer treatment when he was in his 50s. One night, they went out and a well-known singer, Mel Simons, kept singing, “A little dab will do ya” to Wayne. Finally, her husband couldn’t help breaking into laughter. After that, “he was his old self. Mel gave me my husband back.” Wayne Parlee is now 73.
There are musical groups across the region that entertain at community events, schools and nursing homes. Members say the music connects them to their shared pasts and is how they “give back” the blessings of their lives.
Walk into the Hingham Senior Center on any Wednesday afternoon and you’ll hear joyful sounds filling the corridors. The Opals (Old Peoples’ Active Lifestyle) are rehearsing. Lena Sheridan, 94, and Betty Cole, 93, both of Hingham, are the oldest members; close behind is guitarist George Pilioglos of Weymouth, 91.
The Opals perform every week, often at nursing homes, and after a show, they like to mingle with the residents. “I circulate with the people I’ve seen singing along, enjoying themselves,” Cole said. “It just kind of makes your day.”
Lester Sable, 81, of Hull calls it “payback time.” He grew up poor in the Depression and for entertainment, his family gathered around the piano to sing.
“Music has always been a part of my life and now that I am retired, I devote my time to singing in nursing centers,” Sable said. “When we sing for people and they smile at you and start to sing, it’s a feeling you can’t describe.”
Sable recalled the “song pluggers” of the 1930s — people hired by five and dime stores like Neisners to sit at a piano in the store, playing the latest popular tunes to sell the sheet music.
Here we are 70 years later and you could say the Opals are modern-day song pluggers, promoting music and memories. There’s 79-year-old Elaine Richardson, their pianist, who plays with an air of improvisation and mischief. Setting up a number, she calls over to guitarist Pilioglos, “Key of G,” starts playing, and then adds a syncopated “Whiz!” (Gee whiz!)
So, in their own way, the Opals rock. Stop by and hear them some Wednesday afternoon between 1:30 and 3 at the Hingham Senior Center at 224 Central St.