Soon after finishing a waltzy rendition of “Moon River,” Brian Zachek got up from the piano to address his audience of residents at a senior living home in Bloomington.
“Henry Mancini, right?” he said. “And it was in a movie called Breakfast at …’ ”
“ … at Tiffany’s!” they responded.
Zachek followed up: “Who was the main actress in the movie?”
Again, a pause.
“Audrey Hepburn!” he told them.
One more question: “Who wrote the book?”
“Truman ...” he hinted. “Capote!” they answered.
A satisfied Zachek sat back down at the piano to play another jaunty tune, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” a popular song after the end of World War I.
As a music therapist, this is Zachek’s calling: taking songs or sounds and using them as a way for patients to soothe, heal or connect. It’s a tool now common in hospices, hospitals and retirement homes around the Twin Cities, including Friendship Village of Bloomington, where he played this weekday afternoon in March.
It is also deeply important to his own family. In 2002, Zachek’s wife, Wing Chan-Zachek, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor with an average survival rate of about a year. Chan-Zachek lived for 16 years after her initial diagnosis before dying in December.
Like her husband, Chan-Zachek was also a music therapist. During her last few months, as she succumbed to the effects of radiation, the music she heard from Zachek, their daughter and other music therapists became a sort of medicine, even after she had become unresponsive.
“I will never forget how much she cared for me and what she did for my life,” Zachek, 52, said, seated at a St. Louis Park pizzeria. “I made the decision I was not gonna let her down and I was gonna do as much as she could benefit from until she could no longer benefit from it.”
Music has always been a major part of Brian Zachek’s life.
He heard it constantly as a child growing up in Wisconsin. Later, he became fascinated with music therapy and the effects that sound could have on people.
“By definition, music is organized sound,” he said. “It can help bring a sense of organization. It brings a sense of safety.”
‘They know so much’
He began studying music therapy in 1986 and started practicing, mostly with seniors and mostly in group settings.
“I just love the population. They have been through so much, they know so much,” he said. “And I love the music, I love the film stars, I love the history, the politics back then, all of it.”
His musical knowledge stretches back as far as the 19th century: old jazz standards, hits from musicals, hymns and songs people used to play on the piano. And he had to perform well for his clients, many of whom had gone to the opera, ballet or Broadway throughout their lives.
Music therapy, however, is more than just leading singalongs. It can be a form of intervention.
Zachek recalled a resident who would normally not let anybody into her personal space. She relaxed after he began playing music. Another resident repeatedly hit his nose with his hand until Zachek began slamming ugly, dissonant chords on the piano every time he did so.
Music can bring the frenetic energy of a room down, or be used by nurses when patients need to eat. It can help them feel less isolated. This is especially true with seniors with dementia, who are dealing with depression and problems with their vision, hearing and taste.
Music proved invaluable during the last year of Wing Chan-Zachek’s life; she went through several illnesses caused by the radiation used to treat her cancer. Although she had lost much of her ability to speak, she was able to follow along to what Zachek and others would play for her, sometimes singing, sometimes just smiling, and other times calmly falling asleep.
She would sit in during Zachek’s group sessions at Friendship Village, where she stayed for nine months. When she was moved into hospice care in July 2018, she received the treatments of music therapist Leanne Barck.
In hospice, music can be used to manage symptoms such as anxiety, pain or breathing difficulties, Barck said. It can also bring about comfort, not just for the patient but for friends and relatives who visit them.
“I see a lot of joy on a day-to-day basis, because music making often just naturally brings joy,” Barck said. “Music brings people together, and singing and spending time with family members can just be a joyful experience.”
Sometime around Christmas, Barck was joined by Zachek and his daughter, Zoey. Together they played Chan-Zachek a couple of John Denver songs and “Goodnight, My Someone” from “The Music Man.”
“I can’t imagine a more comforting experience,” Barck said.
Barck said music therapy has shifted from being something people had no idea about to something they’ve now heard of on the news. One well-known success story is former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who, after being critically injured during a mass shooting in 2011, used music therapy to recover some of her speech.
Zoey, a senior at St. Louis Park High School, is hoping to attend her mom’s alma mater, Concordia College at Moorhead, to study vocal performance and communications. Having grown up around musicians, she recognizes the functional uses of music and its ability to bring about serenity.
“It’s a lot more powerful than people think,” she said.
Music in everyone
Taking care of his wife during the deterioration of her health was difficult and overwhelming for Zachek. Through it all, he has continued to rely on music, both for his patients and his own artistic work.
A large crowd awaited him that weekday in March, with residents, sitting in chairs and wheelchairs, extending from the main room into the lobby.
For more than an hour, and with a smile on his face, Zachek ran through several popular tunes on the piano and guitar, including musical numbers from “My Fair Lady,” hits from the Beatles and relaxed swing tunes. The residents quietly sang or mouthed the words, clapping afterward and interacting with Zachek during his mid-song banter.
George Fairman, 95, strolled into the room and hung around in the back. He’s a member of Zachek’s drum group, where a handful of other independent residents sit in a circle, each with drums in front of them. Zachek will come up with a beat and the others will join in, jamming and listening to what each drummer is playing.
“It focuses your mind on something you’re doing,” Fairman said. “You’re really departing from your everyday nonsense.”
Fairman would dance occasionally during Zachek’s session, jerking his hands side to side and taking small steps with his feet. Zachek, he said, fulfills an essential need for the residents of Friendship Village.
“There’s gotta be music in all these people, even if they’re not conscious of it,” he said.
Zachek finished on the guitar, playing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Although the singer is not his favorite, it’s important, he said, to know the music that mattered to the audience.
“You need to know exactly the songs that are going to hit the mark,” he said. “And that means you have to love all those songs, ‘cause you’re going to be doing them a lot.”