Musical Memories Chamber Music at Burcham Hills

Private support brings participatory concerts to seniors.

One of the musical memories groups, the Minuet Trio; Sarah McMichen, Matthew Caister and Jiwoon Choi in front of Burcham Hills, ready to visit with residents.

Kristine Steensma, M.D., recognized the love her mother and father had for music, having grown up in a household where classical and pop from the 40s and 50s provided a soundtrack for their everyday lives.

So when her mother asked to take piano lessons, she never hesitated, despite the challenges presented by her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Instead, Steensma found teacher Denise Travis through the MSU Community Music School who would sit side-by-side with her mother at the piano, providing accompaniment to her mother’s songs or scales.

“She made my mother feel very good about what she was doing,” says Steensma, a 1977 alumna of the MSU College of Human Medicine and native of East Lansing, Mich. “We did that for a full year, then stopped about two months before she passed away.”

Steensma never forgot the joy and comfort that music gave to her mother during her end stages of life from 2011 to 2012. Witnessing those moments, Steensma says, inspired her to donate in honor of her parents Kay and William Steensma to the MSU College of Music.

“My donation is meant to pay forward to MSU and the community the work that was done with my mother,” says Steensma of her annual support to the College’s Outreach and Engagement Fund. “The music lessons she received almost always gave her pleasure. It also gave her an outing and a chance to interact with another person in a very safe and nurturing setting. My hope is that my donation will help reach even more members of the elderly and dementia community through community music programs.”

Making music from memories

Around the same time of Steensma’s donation, the College’s Running Start program had been looking to develop new experiential learning opportunities for students. Steensma’s story prompted Director of Career Services and Music Entrepreneurship Christine Beamer to explore ways to engage with senior citizens in their community. After meeting with representatives from Sparrow Hospital and Burcham Hills retirement and health care community, an idea for a unique chamber music residency program with the Memory Care unit at Burcham Hills started to emerge.

“I wanted our students to learn how to reach out and engage senior citizens, since they are the single biggest growing demographic,” says Beamer. “There is also an increasing focus on senior wellness initiatives within health communities, which provides an opportunity to involve the arts.”

Musical Memories, Beamer explains, involves flipping the traditional, unidirectional performance model to one in which an audience informs the direction of an upcoming interactive performance. Consulting with the elder care community, Beamer proposed a program in which student musicians would curate and create concert programs based on the memories, perceptions and musical expertise shared by the residents. Burcham Hills’ Wellness and Volunteer Manager Elizabeth Pahl identified the memory care residents as a population that would benefit from the partnership.

Burcham Hills Memory Care Manager Kathleen Leslie was excited to hear about the concept, and arranged for 15 memory care residents to be involved. Since January, eight MSU student musicians have met with residents in small groups, inviting them to share memories and experiences through music. In turn, those shared memories and experiences are serving as the artistic base for upcoming concerts.

“A program like this provides our residents with a sense of purpose and an opportunity to share their memories with someone,” says Leslie. “Being involved affects resident’s quality of life greatly, increases their mood, and improves their conversations when they return to the hall.”

Assistant Professor of Chamber Music Tasha Warren has been coaching the two flutists, two clarinetists, two bassoonists, and an oboist and horn player participating in the residency. She says the project gives students the chance to form meaningful connections with people through music—something all musicians strive for—and to do it in a very tangible and emotionally touching way.

“This project enables students to see that music can serve as a bridge of communication to people of all sorts of backgrounds and experience,” says Warren. “It demonstrates that music connects us to something deep within the recesses of our own personal experiences, awakening meaningful feelings and memories.”

Students recently wrapped up the small group meetings and mini-performances with residents, and are in the midst of designing two interactive performances. The Musical Memories chamber music events will take place at Burcham Hills March 30 and April 7 at 7 p.m., with participants, residents and the public invited to attend.

“We are so fortunate to have donors who believe in the power and importance of engaging communities outside the concert hall,” says Beamer. “None of this would be possible without the vision, support and kindness of Dr. Steensma, and the generosity and kindness she has extended to our students and elder community.”

For information on how you can support the College of Music, please contact Rebecca Surian, senior director of development for the College of Music, at surian@msu.edu or by calling 517-353-9872.

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