University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

A Classroom Waltz

A student—I will call her Rebecca—tells our class that the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Cathy’s Waltz” has held a special place in her heart since childhood, when she would daydream about waltzing joyfully and freely to it. She explains this was because she had polio when she was a girl and assumed dancing would be something she’d never do. She says despite her physical challenges, this piece of music still brings her much happiness.

Welcome to “The Amazing Power of Music,” a class I’ve taught since the spring of 2010 at the U of M’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, also known as OLLI.

I started teaching this class when I was in my early 40s, after earning my doctorate in educational psychology. In graduate school I had discovered a love of teaching, along with a fascination with how the brain works. But my greatest passion is music.

I’d had a few significant musical experiences as I was finishing my Ph.D.—including Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert at London’s O2 Arena in December 2007. I’d also read several riveting new books, including Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, about how music affects us. I was inspired to merge my affinity and background in psychology with my wish to help others understand the power music has on their lives.

That’s how I came to create my first course on music, the brain, and overall wellbeing.

The first clue to how my course would be received came in late February 2010: I inquired about how many people had registered, and an OLLI administrative staffer replied, “Your course is already full and there is a wait list.” I was shocked. A month later, when I began teaching, every one of my 40 students not only confirmed my preconceived ideas about lifelong learners, they exceeded them. They loved the content and were always eager to discuss how it related to their own meaningful experiences with music. One student, newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, told me that because of what he’d learned about music’s effects on the brain, he’d started listening to a favorite piece of music while he walked. This allowed him to walk steadily and confidently for up to an hour. Clearly, I had chosen a teaching topic that deeply resonated with these learners (musical metaphor intended). Our sessions together were a weekly source of joy and fulfillment.

Which brings me back to “Cathy’s Waltz.” As Rebecca talked, another student, whom I’ll call Anthony, rose from his seat, faced her, and said, “Come on, let’s dance.” Rebecca insisted she could not, indicating her cane—she still had limited mobility. But Anthony—who had also had polio as a young adult—gently but firmly insisted.

“Yes, you can,” he said.

Then, he stepped away from his walker and took Rebecca’s hands—again, gently and respectfully, but steadily. She put her cane aside and, as Anthony held her, they danced gracefully around the front of the room until “Cathy’s Waltz” ended.

At that point, most of the other students were in tears. I was so filled with joy and gratitude for this small miracle taking place in my class that I was grinning too broadly to cry.

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