A pulsing drumbeat filled the room.
Ba-ba … ba-da-BUMP.
Soon one person, then another, joined in, tapping brightly colored hand drums.
In a few measures they found the beat, smiling and toe-tapping as they swayed to “Lovely Day,” the upbeat Bill Withers tune.
On this particular late-summer morning, the forecast called for rain and clouds. But the energy in the art studio at the Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Facility on Fuller Avenue was all sunshine.
The residents at the rehab and nursing center are there for short-term rehabilitation or long-term care because of injuries, stroke or other chronic conditions. Most are in wheelchairs.
But for a glorious 60 minutes, they didn’t need to be anywhere except in the moment.
That’s the key to Mindfulness Music, a collaboration among RaNae Couture, artist facilitator of the Spectrum Health Expressive Arts Program, professional musician John Nowak, and Artists Creating Together, a local nonprofit.
“It’s about being in the moment,” Couture, an artist and nurse, said. “We just focus on the music and each other. The music evokes a lot of different memories.”
Drumming offers physical health benefits. For those with limited mobility, the movement engages the lymphatic system and helps clear toxins from the body.
And it releases feel-good chemicals in the brain.
“So it lifts your mood,” Couture said.
‘We’re going to be laughing’
Wearing a yellow-striped shirt, Nowak, 29, exuded energy and positivity as he moved around the room.
“You’re looking strong today,” he told one resident, smiling as he drummed with each participant.
And he brought along a few tools of his trade: a Bluetooth speaker, nesting drums, an acoustic guitar, a sampling of vinyl from his extensive collection of classic 45s.
After “Lovely Day,” he strummed another familiar tune:
“I see trees of green, red roses, too/ I see them bloom, for me and you/ And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
With gentle encouragement, the residents sang along, adding a few drumbeats for good measure.
“What makes your world wonderful today?” Nowak asked.
“My son,” said one. “Grandkids,” said another. “Being outside.”
The residents look forward to Nowak’s visits twice a month—and the feeling is mutual.
“We’ve had so many great moments together,” said Nowak, who finds he benefits as much as the residents. “It’s been a real treasure to me as a professional and a musician and a person.”
Nowak has been a drummer with the band Desmond Jones for the past nine years. He schedules his visits to Spectrum Health between tours and recording sessions.
To him, music and mindfulness go hand in hand.
“Music is inherently mindful because we’re listening and we’re participating and we’re engaging,” he said. “It’s an hour a week where we forget everything else that is going on. We’re engaged with each other.”
Making music together also helps residents connect with others. It lets them know they are not alone, Couture said.
“It really lifts their mood, decreases their stress and their anxiety to just be in the moment,” she said.
Nowak has gotten to know the residents well, engaging in easy banter.
Sandy Fasburg, 56, showed him a necklace she recently completed. She has been attending art classes with Couture since she moved here 10 years ago, after she sustained injuries in a car accident. She loves practicing art and participating in Mindfulness Music.
“I am happy when I hear music,” Fasburg said. “John is a good person. He makes me happy when I see him.”
Eric Aufrance, 57, worked as an electrician until he suffered a severe stroke about 10 years ago. His speech is limited to one to two words at a time, but he fully participates in the music.
“Eric is our rock ‘n’ roller,” Nowak said.
Nowak encourages participants to choose music by their favorite artists.
Aufrance held up a replica of AC/DC’s “Fly on the Wall” album cover that he painted based one of the many albums Couture keeps in the art room. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are another favorite.
And once the music starts, the joy takes hold.
“You don’t have a choice but to engage in that present moment,” Nowak said. “If I have any control over that present moment, it’s going to be loud, we’re going to be smiling and we’re going to be laughing.”
Music and memory
Toward the end of the session, Nowak pulled out a box of classic 45s. He encouraged residents to choose their favorite—and he gave every person’s choice a spin on a turntable.
“I love connecting music and memory,” Nowak said. “I just have to find the right song and, all of a sudden, I’m talking to people in their 60s, 70s or 80s and beyond about their high school prom.”
One memory brings up another.
When their meetings were virtual, for example, Nowak asked participants about their first car. Then he shared Google images of the year, make and model.
For participants, the benefits go beyond nostalgia, Couture said. Remembering special times from the past is therapeutic.
“It connects them to that youthful energy,” she said. “They feel it again.”