Brandon Boyd will hold two holy women in his arms when he takes the conductor’s podium on Saturday night.
The first is her late grandmother, who loved her like a mother before she died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.
The second, his undergraduate piano teacher, who showed Boyd remarkable generosity. She died in 2020, having also suffered from dementia.
Boyd, a music professor at the University of Missouri, will share conducting duties with Columbia Chorale conductor Emily Edgington Andrews during “In the Dark and Light.” Featuring the choir, MU Concert Chorale and Ensemble Leme, Saturday’s concert will benefit the local Walk to End Alzheimer’s chapter.
These two women shaped Boyd’s music immeasurably, guiding his heart and his hands. And he knows he’s not alone — many dads, moms, teachers and loved ones will figure prominently Saturday night, quietly nudging the Columbia musicians to their tunes.
“Conducting this concert is a tribute to Carol Stone Gafford, and a tribute to Delores Boyd, my grandmother,” he said. “But I know that these wonderful singers in our choir also honor so many of their family members. … You know that’s real life for a lot of people right now.”
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stories in song
The concert consists of two multi-movement pieces capturing both the stories and the spiritual cries of people with dementia.
“Alzheimer’s Stories” by composer Robert Cohen and librettist Herschel Garfein, which Boyd will conduct, is divided into three parts. The opening movement “The Numbers” traces Alois Alzheimer’s discovery of the disease that now bears his name and acknowledges the numerous Alzheimer’s diagnoses since.
The movement revolves around a German phrase translated “I got lost”; the music creates a deliberate sense of loss and disorientation, Boyd said.
The second movement, “The Stories”, relays true stories of Alzheimer’s disease patients and their caregivers. The choir tenderly ends the sentences of these tales or diverts the story, as caregivers often do. These interruptions are sung “in a very sweet dynamic” and a spirit of love, Boyd said.
The last movement, “For the Caregivers”, pays homage to those who perform demanding acts of love. The lyrics to this section give Saturday’s concert its name: “Find those you love in dark and light / Help them through the days and nights.”
Janaire Seye knows these words by heart. The longtime member of the Columbia Chorale has spent the past four years as the primary caregiver for her mother, who has Lewy body dementia. For Seye, threads of support and understanding will weave together in a unique way on Saturday night.
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Even before taking over her mother’s care, the Choir was a cherished community, Seye said. His time overall parallels director Andrews’ tenure, and Seye served on the band’s board for a time.
When the benefit concert was proposed, before the pandemic, Seye saw her worlds come together and expressed her willingness to do anything to make it happen, she said.
Caregiving reorients a person’s whole life, Seye said. His mother’s needs set the priorities for the day, and Seye must actively remember to apply that crucial word – care – to herself.
“I have to find ways to take care of myself first because I’m naturally going to think of her first,” she said. “I’m going to make sure she eats before she even thinks about eating me most of the time.”
Seye’s life as a carer is marked by immense love – “she’s the best thing ever”, she said of her mother – and intense demand. Because dementia expresses itself invisibly, people outside of a caregiver’s life don’t always see the point.
Healthcare providers sometimes express surprise when Seye’s mother cannot answer questions about her health, she said. Moving in and out of buildings, even to and from the car, presents challenges if her mother physically decides she won’t go, she said.
And Seye doesn’t have the freedom to indulge in impulsive social invitations, she said.
Through it all, the choir has been “a place of relief and calm – just getting lost in the music and being able to sing and do something that I love,” she said.
The other singers treat Seye and her mother like extended family, sitting with the eldest woman during concerts and, one year, even baking her a birthday cake.
“Emily’s vision and hope and goal is to make this a community. And it really is,” Seye said.
Cohen’s play came at the right time in Boyd’s life. While a graduate student at Florida State University, his choir performed “Alzheimer’s Stories” the very night of his grandmother’s funeral. Boyd was excused from the gig, but his family encouraged him to sing as an act of healing.
Throughout the performance, he felt his fellow singers cover him, like with a blanket, he said.
“They all knew what I had just come out of that morning. And they were all singing to me, because I don’t know if a lot of sound came out,” Boyd said.
A particular lyric about a petite woman in a wheelchair still resonates today. Boyd became emotional as he recalled a visit to his grandmother just before she died. He passed a woman in a wheelchair several times before realizing it was her, her appearance altered and frail.
And Boyd knows he wouldn’t be able to conduct Saturday’s concert without Gafford. He credits the professor and her husband with every degree he holds; they eased his student debt through their unremitting generosity, allowing him to continue learning.
At the start of the pandemic, Boyd moved in with the Gaffords, helping to care for Carol during the last months of her life. This commitment was simply a reflection of what she modeled over a period of decades.
“I’ve never seen anyone show me that kind of love” outside of his family, Boyd said.
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“Love and music are the last things to do”
“I Will Lift My Eyes” by Adolphus Hailstork, conducted by Andrews, is Saturday’s second track. The three-movement work unites a classical aesthetic with melodic motifs of black spirituals, Boyd said.
Sounding notes of hope and lamentation, the piece quotes Psalms 121, 13 and 23 respectively. The second movement will also sound familiar to caregivers, repeating the biblical question “How long, Lord?” before recalling the first move and the words “I’ll look up,” Boyd explained.
Expressing their wishes for Saturday night’s program, attendees echoed a verse from “Alzheimer’s Stories”: “Love and music are the last things to do. Sing anything.”
The act of making music affirms Walk to End Alzheimer’s mission in several ways, walk director Chris Cottle wrote in an email.
“Music has the power to awaken the senses, to evoke emotions, and music taps into our memories,” Cottle wrote. “Music therapists, who care for patients with dementia, find that music instantly stimulates a person to recall a story from their past and reminisce about their life.”
Ultimately, music gives hope. That hope could be felt when families feel heard and understood during the program, Seye said, or when listeners respond by volunteering. Positive movement is a natural response to a gig like this.
“Music allows us to connect with our humanity in a way that nothing else can. This concert offers that,” Cottle said.
Boyd hopes his MU students won’t experience the presence of dementia by the time they reach their adult years. But first, the action must continue in the right direction.
“We have work to do. We have something to do to find a cure for this disease,” he said.
Until then, they will sing something – a little more than anything.
Saturday’s concert will be at 7 p.m. at the Christian Fellowship Church, with a VIP reception at 6 p.m. Tickets cost between $20 and $25 for adults, $5 for students; a VIP ticket costs $50. Learn more at http://www.choralartsallianceofmissouri.org/.
Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.