The amazing power of music to heal
Billy Byron pulled out his guitar, strummed a few chords from Yellow Bird and the dementia patients came to life.
He couldn’t believe it.
He’d played music for most of his life but had never before witnessed its power to heal.
“The patients just came alive,” he said. “It was like that movie, Awakenings.”
Mr Byron was playing at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital at the time, urged by the late musician Hubert Smith to volunteer.
“It was 1978. I’d recently gotten a good job at the Elbow Beach Hotel,” he said. “Hubert said, ‘Now that you have this nice job, maybe it’s time to give back to the people’.”
Mr Byron, who was born Francis Watlington, was a member of the Bermuda Island Spirit Band in the 1970s and 1980s.
Since 1986 he’s lived in Massachusetts, where he works as an occupational therapy assistant. He also has a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Music is part of the treatment he provides at Boston hospitals and nursing homes, through his company People Love Music.
He sings, plays the piano, harmonica and guitar for patients.
“You Are My Sunshine is kind of the national anthem of older people,” he said. “Sometimes people who work in nursing homes get really tired of hearing it but I have a repertoire of more than 700 songs.”
He recalled his work with a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher.
“She’d recently fallen and broken her hip,” he said.
“And she was going deaf. I had to play very loudly for her to hear. When I played How Much is that Doggie in the Window a smile broke over her face. When I played Red Sails in the Sunset, she said, ‘How do you know that song?’”
He tries to tailor his music to his client’s background and age.
“Sometimes music is the only thing people with dementia or severe mental challenges will respond to,” he said.
“Ninety per cent of the people I work with are depressed. If you get laid up and can’t do anything for months but rely on maybe a few visitors, of course you’re going to be depressed. Some people don’t even have visitors. I am always fighting people’s depression with uplifting music.”
He speaks from experience. Two years ago he tripped over a pothole on a dark street.
“I hurt my wrist and knee and couldn’t play for a month-and-a-half,” he said. “It really made me think about things. I was getting older. I’m a senior citizen now.
“I thought it was time to get straight with God. I now put Christian music on my business cards. That turns off some potential clients, but I don’t care.”
The learning difficulties he had weren’t properly diagnosed until in his 40s. He believes he has greater empathy for his clients as a result. “I loved music as a child, but struggled to read music,” he said. “I played by ear, although I did eventually learn to read music. I had a hard time in high school. I didn’t really understand what it was that was holding me back.”
He found resolution after a chance meeting with a Bermudian in Boston.
“He told me he’d had a psychometric test done,” said Mr Byron.
“He was diagnosed with a learning disability. So I thought I might take the same test.”
He learnt he had attention deficit disorder and a cognitive impairment. The counselling he received helped him attend university for a second time.
“Knowing my issues it was still challenging,” he said.
“I learnt to sit at the front of the class, not the back (as I usually did when I was at Saltus). I became a tape recorder buff and recorded all my classes. That really helped.”
Mr Byron regularly plays at weddings and conventions. In 2004 he won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest with a children’s song he wrote called Texas Campfire Song.
“I’d be happy to come home and work, by request,” he said.
“When I am home I always volunteer there at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute and in rest homes.”
•Learn more here: www.sonicbids.com/band/billybyron .
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