Songbird Musical Service spreads musical joy

The newly-founded club pays weekly visits to a local assisted-living facility


Courtesy of Songbird

Songbird Musical Service is a newly-founded club that provides musical therapy to residents diagnosed with dementia.

Isabella Romine, Contributing Writer

“You were playing so well. Do you know another?” Winston-Salem dementia resident Gail asks from where she sits on her narrow bed. She directs the question to freshman Lauren Kooman, who has just strummed the final melodic chords of “Amazing Grace” on her guitar. The room, like those of the rest of the residents, is too small to fit more than a few pieces of furniture and framed photos, but lends itself perfectly to a private concert. 

“Absolutely,” Kooman replies, searching for a new song on the phone resting on her thigh.

The morning of Sept. 25, I accompanied Songbird Musical Service to Brighton Gardens, an assisted-living facility located a short five-minute drive from campus. There, the newly-founded service club provides musical therapy to residents diagnosed with dementia. The students connect with them for an hour, employing body language and communication skills tailored specifically to those with dementia to make them feel at ease. Through trial and error, club members discern what music residents like and respond to, then play the songs for them, engaging with the music in different ways.

“Music highlights and reactivates parts of the brain that allow [dementia patients] to come temporarily back to themselves,” co-founder and senior Roscoe Bell said. Bell had a formative experience with a musical therapy club in high school that inspired him to create the same opportunity at Wake Forest.

He continued: “Some residents played piano and now don’t remember, but when you put on a Beethoven or Mozart sonata, sometimes they’ll even play it out without realizing. [In high school], there was this patient who we all called Mr. Jim. You would ask him questions, and he would look at you blankly without responding. We would start playing a song like ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ — a deeply emotional song — and by the second verse, he would light up, say the words and shake as he held your hand. It’s a beautiful transformation for a family to see.” 

After our group signed in to the sounds of a church service in the next room, a cheery nurse guided us through a keypad-locked door into the wing where the residents with dementia live. Even though it was only the club’s second visit, the environment felt warm and welcoming, a sentiment Songbird’s other co-founder, senior Liam Kimbro, described. 

“Every worker [here] is so passionate to get behind the club,” Kimbro said. “The facility is buying half the headphones we’ll use [with residents to listen to music], and they’ve worked around our student schedule. It’s such a blessing to be the recipient of that grace.”

Club members were divided into pairs before visiting their residents. One of Brighton Gardens’ biggest draws, Kimbro explained, was that students could meet with the same people every week to create a sense of consistency and build deeper relationships. The internal life of someone with dementia is often chaotic as they lose understanding of their surroundings; nurturing specific connections helps provide stability.

I joined Kimbro, whose partner was absent that week, to spend time with a sweet woman named Peggy. She was delighted to hear we went to Wake Forest, where she reported meeting her husband and playing softball. She peppered us with advice on how to avoid overworking ourselves between memories, a rewarding conversation I left reluctantly only when Bell ushered me to other pairs.

Throughout the sunlit garden, dining hall, and residents’ rooms, some members serenaded residents with violins or guitars. Others played music from their phone, singing and clapping along to the Spotify results; the playlist “Old Time Southern Gospel” yielded some definite hits amongst the crowd.

Regardless of how far a patient’s dementia had progressed, the familiar rhythms and melodies of songs opened a pathway for students to connect with residents. Sometimes the process was more involved. Other times, it was more about simply being a comforting presence. 

Songbird member and sophomore Tori Cascone recounted how her resident took her hand during “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Even though she seemed to fall asleep afterward, she continued to squeeze Tori’s hand along to beat if she enjoyed the song.

Other residents with more energy sang readily along to gospel and classic rock & roll: Elvis songs, “Amazing Grace,” and “Jesus Loves Me” were clear favorites. Conversation also played a prominent role in the morning. One woman sitting in the garden shared her life story, readily folding me into her group as I approached to tell how she used to drive for RJ Reynolds Tobacco. 

“We [aren’t] just playing music and hoping people respond. It’s about talking to the person and making them feel comfortable too,” Liam said. “It’s an opportunity the school needed that wasn’t there–a creative outlet in service through music. Music is just the vessel.”

Both co-founders stressed that musical talent isn’t necessary to participate – although, certainly, liking music in some capacity is helpful. 

“It’s about taking your own passion for music and commitment to service and using it to heal others and help them relive some of the best moments of their life,” Bell explained.  

He added: “From an individual patient to a nation, any form of art that reminds us of what is beautiful and true about life is crucial to the healing process and getting through the suffering.”