Song Spotlight: “Stand By Your Man”

  • Mood: Weary, Angry (maybe)
  • Themes: Loyalty, Forgiveness, Difficulties in Life
  • Tempo: Moderate
  • Genre/style: Country Ballad

It’s funny how you can hear a certain song fifty times, and then hear it (or sing it) again in a different context, and it takes on a whole new meaning.

Stand By Your Man” was co-written by Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill, and originally released by Tammy Wynette in 1968. It remains Tammy Wynette’s signature song and one that has been covered by other country artists many times. (In fact, I first heard this melody in a “Sesame Street” parody song.) This song, and its message to stick with your man no matter what, even became a flashpoint during the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Stand By Your Man” continues to be popular and easily recognizable today. Continue reading


Skin Hunger and Caregiving Through Music

Have you ever heard of skin hunger?

This phrase came up during a presentation by Dr. Melita Belgrave, a fellow music therapist, at a recent meeting of the Kansas City Partnership for Caregivers. We have an innate need for physical contact with other human beings, and “skin hunger” refers to the problem we have when we don’t get enough. It’s a rather stark phrase that describes the problem exactly, and it’s an especially significant problem for older adults.

Just a few minutes ago, I put my baby daughter to bed. She has a cold, and she was having a hard time falling asleep on her own, so I rocked her to sleep, stroking her hair and humming quietly. When Alice was first born, we held and rocked and cuddled her constantly. As research dating back to 1959 and Harry Harlow’s infant monkeys has shown, babies need physical touch for healthy development. I don’t know of anyone who would deny this these days.

That need for touch continues for adults, but many people wouldn’t identify that as a major issue for themselves. Most of us have little problem getting the touch we need, whether from cuddles and hugs with our families, pats on the back from our co-workers, or simple handshakes with business acquaintances. Sure, we get a sense of what it’s like to long for another’s touch when our kids leave home or our spouses are away, but most of the time, we probably get the physical human contact we need. Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Yes, My Darling Daughter”

  • Mood: Nervous excitement
  • Themes: Parenting, Moms and Daughters, Dating
  • Tempo: Upbeat
  • Genre/style: Big Band era

I’ve been trying to think of a good song to highlight for Father’s Day, but the one that keeps coming back is a favorite from my Mother’s Day playlist. There’s a fatherly twist, though, so we’ll go with it.

Yes, My Darling Daughter” is a 1941 song written by Jack Lawrence and made famous by Dinah Shore. The melody Jack Lawrence used as the basis for this song has an interesting backstory. The music is based on the Ukrainian folk song “Oj ne khody Hrytsju,” which is thought to have been written by Catterino Cavos in 1812. This same folk song was published in translation in 1816, and its English version did gain some popularity in the United States. Interestingly, the final phrase of the melody, to the words, “yes, my darling daughter” follows the Hyrts sequence, a melody common in Ukrainian songs and one that was used by several classical composers, including Haydn, Mozart, Boccherini, and Liszt. Musical motifs really do travel across time and distance, don’t they?

Daddy, may I go out dancing? Yes, my darling daughter!

Anyway, let’s get back to Jack Lawrence’s lyrics. In this song, we hear the conversation between a nervous young woman on her way to the dance, and her beloved mother. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the song: Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Smile” – In Honor Of Mental Health Awareness Month

  • Mood: Melancholy, Warm
  • Theme: Smiles, Looking to the Future, Dealing with Difficulties
  • Tempo: Moderate
  • Genre: Ballad

May is Mental Health Month, and today people all over the country are blogging about mental health issues today. (You can read more and see a list of other posts on the topic here.) For my part, I am focusing on mental health issues among older adults.

First, a few statistics. According to the CDC, approximately 20% of people age 55 and older experience some type of mental health concern. Depression is the most common mental health problem among older adults. Depression causes emotional distress, of course, but it can also lead to impairments in physical, mental and social functioning, and it complicates the treatment of other chronic conditions. Older adults with depression use more medication, visit the doctor and ER more often, have longer hospital stays, and generally incur higher medical expenses than their peers. Depression can also lead to suicide, and in fact, older men have the highest suicide rate of any age group, more than four times the overall rate for all ages.

Now, here’s the kicker. Depression is NOT a normal part of growing older, even though the rate of older adults with depression tends to increase with age. In fact, in 80% of cases, it’s treatable. Depressive disorders are widely under-recognized, and untreated or under-treated among older adults. (You can read the full CDC report here.)

Why is depression pervasive among older adults? And why the common misconception that depression is a normal part of aging?

I’m not a physician and I can’t claim to know the ins and outs of the physiological changes that contribute to depression among the elderly. What I have seen, though, is probably what you’ve seen and experienced: older adults experience many losses, sometimes without adequate social support to deal with them. The passing of spouses and friends, retirement from a meaningful career, declines in physical or cognitive abilities, children and grandchildren living far away, fewer financial resources – the pressures and stress of all of these circumstances can contribute to depression. Add to that the fact that American society doesn’t really value elders the way other societies do – no wonder depression can become such a problem.

That brings us to our song spotlight: “Smile.” Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Mama Tried”

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California – Dorothea Lange

  • Mood: Regretful, Defiant, Wistful
  • Theme: Regret, Motherhood/Parenting
  • Tempo: Moderately Fast
  • Genre/style: Classic Country

Mother’s Day is coming up in a few days, and in honor of the holiday, I’ve been sharing many songs about motherly advice and love with clients in music therapy. In fact, a few that I’ve spotlighted before work well for this holiday, including Que Sera Sera, Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy, Cuddle Up a Little Closer and Button Up Your Overcoat (although it’s a bit warm for that last one. Maybe it would work in the southern hemisphere?)

The fact is, though, that Mother’s Day isn’t always the happiest day, for the children or for the mothers. My heart goes out to mothers who have lost their children and children who have lost their mothers, as I know they are grieving at this time. My heart also goes out to the women who desperately want to be mothers but who have struggled with infertility or miscarriages. These losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be papered over.

And, I’m also thinking about the mothers who have been disappointed by their children. Parenting always involves ups and downs as children grow and life happens. Sometimes things don’t work out for the best, and sometimes children make serious and lasting mistakes, no matter how hard their parents tried to raise them well. This causes a different kind of pain, especially when you think that you are the reason why your child turned out this way. I’ve known mothers of adult children who have experienced this kind of pain. I’ve also heard the regret of folks who disappointed their mothers, who made those lasting mistakes and now can’t repair the damage. That’s the topic of this song spotlight: Mama Tried.” Continue reading

A Musical Response for When a Senior Says, “I Just Want to Die”

I just read an article on how a caregiver can respond to a senior who is saying, “I just want to die.” I appreciate the advice given by Margaret Sherlock, M.A., Clinical Director of the Behavioral Health Program & Assessment Program Services at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, which includes not ignoring the statements and being realistic about a senior’s need to talk about death and dying, while still setting limits on such heavy discussions and monitoring for signs of clinical depression in both the senior and in yourself. You can read all of her advice here.

This is sound advice, but I do think there is one important piece missing: you must think about how to deal with all of the emotions you and your loved one are both feeling. In fact, this kind of conversation can be so emotional for both the senior and the caregiver that it can be difficult to tell who is feeling what. You might think, is this person feeling depressed? Or is he just ready to die? Or is this person saying she wants to die because she wants to make me upset or get more attention from me? Or am I interpreting all of this wrong because I am the one who is feeling sad, or tired, or frustrated? Or maybe it’s a mixture of all of the above feelings, and I’m not really sure how to put words to it?

Even just trying to identify these feelings is difficult. No wonder these emotional conversations can wear you out! As Ms. Sherlock advised, though, you can’t just sweep the difficult feelings under the rug: they’ll just build up and create bigger problems for you and the senior later on. That’s why I’m usually not a fan of just changing the topic or putting on happy music to avoid the conversation.

When someone says, “I just want to die,” you need to acknowledge their emotional expression and honor your own. Continue reading

Shall We Dance? When the therapist is vulnerable, too.

Here’s a tale of a music therapist becoming vulnerable in order to fully engage in the musical process with a client.

Warning: If you thought therapists should be somehow all-knowing and perfect, you should stop reading here.

A new member joined a monthly music therapy group that has been going for a few years now. He told me his name, and he participated in the first few musical experiences we shared as a group. Then I turned on a recording of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby,” encouraging the group to play drums and other rhythm instruments along with the music. I intended to provide hand-over-hand assistance to some of the residents who needed more help in playing their instruments. Once the music kicked on, though, this new resident could not stay in his seat, and he stood up, made a bee line for me, and asked me for a dance. Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Danny Boy”

  • Mood: Sentimental, Wistful
  • Themes: Ireland, Saying Goodbye, Missing a Loved One, Death
  • Tempo: Slow to moderate
  • Genre/style: Ballad


Photo courtesy

“Danny Boy” is one of those songs that is at once ubiquitous and mysterious. I’ve been singing this song a lot in the last week for music therapy sessions leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, and two clients reacted in ways that prompted me to do a little more research into this song’s background.


The first surprise happened when a client came up to me at the end of a group session at a nursing home and said, “You do know ‘Danny Boy’ is Scottish, don’t you?” I probably looked a little confused and responded that I hadn’t heard that and that I should probably look up more information.

Well, it turns out that this signature Irish song has both Irish and English roots. The melody is definitively Irish – it’s an anonymous folk tune known as “Londonderry Air.” Continue reading

How Music Therapy Brought a Couple Together Again

I started seeing this couple because he was on hospice and she was his caregiver. He had dementia, and his disease was causing him to be agitated and angry and sometimes even aggressive towards his wife. She was invested in keeping him at home as long as possible. As a nurse, she knew what she was getting herself into, and she wanted as much help as possible in helping her husband to stay calm. That’s why the hospice called me, the music therapist.

In our first session, he was dozing in his recliner, late in the afternoon following a dose of something sedating. I asked her about his music background and preferences, and she showed me his collection of CDs and the Bose stereo system that made him so proud. Continue reading