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Art for … What?

Art for artistic fulfillment or Art for commercial success? It’s a well-established, HEATED, and worthy debate, and as is the case with most “blank-or-blank” scenarios, there is certainly validity to both sides. But what about the creation and cultivation of Art for an entirely different purpose?

I recently stumbled across an article on Playbill.com about The Actors Fund: “a nationwide human services organization that helps all professionals in performing arts and entertainment. The Fund is a safety net, providing programs and services for those who are in need, crisis or transition.” In particular, the article focused on The Lillian Booth Actors Home, an assisted living facility, located in Englewood, NJ, for “individuals who have dedicated a major portion of their professional lives to the entertainment industry.”

The article goes on to describe a program called “Get Together With Music,” which uses songs from the American and Musical Theatre canons to improve the overall health of those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most fascinating are the positive changes observed by Jordan Strohl, the Home’s administrator: “ ‘It’s amazing to hear people who, at one moment, when you’re trying to engage them in conversation, they don’t know what day of the week it is,’ he stated. ‘Then two seconds later they’re singing a song from a show that either they were a lead in 34 years ago, or a song that had a lot of meaning in their lives 30 years ago, and they know the words like it was yesterday.’ […] We’ve seen, from our perspective, our residents – maybe their memory has not improved, but their overall health and their overall personality improve. […] It’s night and day. You see them wake.’ ”

If this all sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo or Hocus Pocus to you, rest assured: it’s not. According to Oliver Sacks, M.D., a noted neurologist, “The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity…”

Reading this article, I was reminded of my own deep personal connections to music. Some of the happiest and most vivid memories of my childhood are linked to the times I spent playing an instrument in my middle school’s concert and jazz bands. I still remember, quite viscerally, the feelings of community and excitement and pure fun that resulted from creating music alongside my peers. I even remember my favorite songs that we played.  It’s moments like these that remind me of why I fell in love with the arts in the first place, and why I continue to love them today.

So all modern debates aside, I think one thing that’s certain is the importance and power of Art for health and for life.

And if you still aren’t convinced, allow me to introduce you to the 92-year-old marvel that is Joan Stein. She should change your mind!

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