By Sarah Elmquist Squires
Years ago, Keegan Thacker was visiting his grandma at Wind River Rehab, and brought his trumpet along to play for her. When he was finished, a nurse approached. “Is there any way you could play louder?” she asked. “People are asking, because everyone is really enjoying it.”
It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, when Thacker experienced the power of music – the way it can boost a person’s mood, spark a bit of joy. And as a music therapy student at Central Wyoming College (CWC), it’s at the heart of his studies. Last week, he put the power off music to the test, as part of a study that examines how music affects people living in nursing home care.
The residents of Wind River Rehab were treated to three ensembles on Tuesday – the Central Wyoming Quintet, an acoustic duo that included the calming tones of a harp, and the South Pass Jass Band.
Thacker’s work on the study started two weeks ago, when he first visited with residents and went over a questionnaire with them gauging their moods and feelings of well-being. Then, following the rousing performances, he went in and queried them again. The study aims to show whether and how music impacts their moods.
And although the study isn’t yet complete, the evidence is already apparent: Wind River Rehab residents were moved by the music. When the Central Wyoming Quintet performed the nostalgic “What a Wonderful World,” one resident swelled with appreciation. “I love you guys!” she called out. “And one of the participants said ‘I love you too,’” Thacker recounted.
Some more mobile residents were drawn down the hall when the recognized a tune they loved, some sang along for a few of the melodies, Thacker said. “And even after the concert, there were a lot of people that actually came up and said ‘Thank you so much’ … It was really phenomenal to a lot of them because they really haven’t heard that before. It definitely has already shown some effects.”
Thacker has been playing the trumpet since the fifth grade, first in Shoshoni, and then when the music program there was cut, he transferred to Riverton High School to continue his studies. When he was younger, he’d play for his horses and animals, and started noticing the effect. “When I started playing I noticed that a lot of times the animals that were farther away, like songbirds and other types of animals, like dogs, they would start to come in closer and closer,” he said. “I have a wire hair fox terrier, and my terrier would come in and start howling, because he was excited by the music, and he would sing along.”
That’s when he first started to realize what a big component music is when it comes to communication. “Music itself is a universal language,” Thacker explained. “Where every creature, every person, every animal, even every plant on the planet is related.” The stories of music and its effect go back thousands of years, touching every part of history. Thacker recounted “The Odyssey” story of the siren songs that put people in awe. “I’ve just always been inspired about how music can help change someone’s reality or wellness,” he said.
Thacker hopes his study helps shed light on how positive music and the arts can be for folks who live in nursing homes, and to encourage others to remember how much performances there are appreciated. “In taking and finding a way to get more people to come into these places and help, it’s going to have to be breaking down that barrier of agism,” he said. “We need to stop looking at nursing homes and rehab centers as a place for people to just pass away. We need to look at them as a home, as a place to live, and bringing that type of positivity to these places will help bring awareness and motivation to bring [more music and activity] in.”
Right now, Thacker is pursuing his music education degree, and he’s not quite sure what direction he’ll take it. Music therapy combines music performance and education with psychology, so he might pursue a psychology degree too. He says he’ll probably take a year off to save up some money as he’s deciding, but whether he’s taking music classes or not, music is part of his life, wherever he goes.