How the Power of Music is Helping a Community Heal

By Bashir Aden

The cloudy Saturday sky brightened the empty vestibule of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church as a small choir of six formed for their monthly rehearsal. Led by choir director Jeffrey Brown, the voices joined together to sing gospel favorites such as “Woke Up This Morning” and “Amazing Grace.” Smiles ensued as the room was electrified by the singing of returning and new members. What separates them isn’t important; it’s what brings them together that is meaningful.

The singers are members of the Precious Memories Choir, a musical group for people with memory loss and caregivers. The choir was started by community organizers Keretha Cash, Edith Lawrence-Hilliard, Kathryn Simons and Fabu Carter in late 2019. With the help of Rev. Joseph Baring, the group secured St. Paul A.M.E as their home site and Brown as the choir director.

“We all come from different backgrounds, but we all have some connection to memory loss,” said Fabu Carter, senior outreach specialist at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. From the inception of the idea to start a choir, Carter worked with the organizers to form, coordinate and find new members for the choir along with contributing spoken poetry. Through support from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, which sponsors the choir, Carter has actively worked to find public events and places where the choir can perform and showcase its talents.

The idea for the Precious Memories Choir was born following a performance by the Amazing Grace Chorus, a dementia choir from Milwaukee, at the 2019 Solomon Carter Fuller Brain Health Brunch. The presence of the choir for people with or connected to memory loss sparked Cash, Lawrence-Hilliard and Simons to contact Carter to work to create a similar choir in Madison. The name they chose was Precious Memories.

“The name of the choir is named after an African American spiritual, and the name was chosen because of its connection to memory,” Carter explains. “When our elders lose their memory to Alzheimer’s disease, it’s such a devastating loss. That is why we named it the Precious Memories Choir, because we want to promote brain health and help people remember what is important to them — everybody they love and the important events in their lives.”

The choir focuses on creating a safe, supportive place for individuals closely dealing with memory loss, as well as allowing them to exercise their brains through music. The choir primarily chooses colloquially known songs such as “You Are My Sunshine,” so that new members can participate and feel at home at their first rehearsal. That is how Jessie Rankin described her first time meeting the choir.

“I love those songs where I can hear mama singing along with me, those songs we used to sing in our little church back home,” said Rankin, the choir’s newest addition.

Before she found Precious Memories Choir, she struggled with joining a choir due to the physical toll it took. However, after Carter introduced her to the new choir, she decided to join. “It’s funny how you remember stuff like that [musical lyrics], especially when you sing the old songs,” she recalled.

While the relationship between music and memory is still an area of study, the benefits it has on people with memory loss has been widely observed. Current research has highlighted the impact that music has on memory and the visible behavioral and emotional benefits for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias. 

“I was a caretaker for my mother who had Alzheimer’s, and one of the things I noticed was every time I played the old music she would come into the present and it was such a joy to see that,” said Edith Lawrence-Hilliard, who along with long-time friends Cash and Simons, established the choir. With their own connections to dementia, along with the respect and recognition they have in the community, the choir begins and continues with the strength of these powerful women.

If you are interested in joining the Precious Memories Choir, contact Fabu Carter at fpcarter@medicine.wisc.edu or (608) 265-4329. Rehearsals are held the first and third Saturdays of each month from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at St. Paul A.M.E. Church, 4525 Diamond Dr. in Madison.

The Precious Memories Choir is scheduled to perform at the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Brain Health Brunch, a free annual event that raises awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and brain health in the African American community. The event will take place March 14, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at Wyndham Garden Hotel, 2969 Cahill Main, in Fitchburg. In addition to a performance by the Precious Memories Choir, the event will feature the keynote address “My Story, Your Story: Sharing the Dementia Caregiver’s Journey” by renowned Alzheimer’s disease researcher Dr. Peggye Dilworth-Anderson. A free community breakfast will be served. The event is free and open to the public — everyone is welcome. Visit www.adrc.wisc.edu/scf2020 or call (608) 232-3400 for details or to register.