Whenever senior Bill Tsui visited his great aunt in an elderly living center, he said the situation felt depressing. 

“At first when we’d see her, she’d be so happy to see all of us,” Tsui said. “But from what I heard from my grandparents, she’s not that happy there. 

“If you have been to an elderly living center, you will see a lot of the elderly just don’t know what to do. It’s just really boring. They’re underserved. People should be visiting them more.”

Three years ago, Tsui began to change that at a local level. 

After learning about Lifting Spirits with Music from former member Allison Zhang, ’19, Tsui, who has played the flute for six years, joined the program. 

Through this community outreach program, student musicians perform in independent, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities in the Sacramento area. During holiday and summer breaks, students also perform at the Sutter Cancer Center, Shriners Hospital for Children and the Veterans Affairs (VA) Clinic at the former Mather Air Force Base.

In 2002, Kathy Atkins officially founded Lifting Spirits for her master’s degree program in gerontology and music at California State University, Sacramento. Since then, over 750 student musicians — whom Atkins calls her “team members” — from the Sacramento area have joined the program, including five from SCDS: Zhang, Chardonnay Needler, ’19, Tsui and juniors Sarina Rye and Ming Zhu. 

Rye and Zhu joined Lifting Spirits last year. 

Like Tsui, Rye learned of the program through Zhang. Since members of Country Day’s chamber orchestra already practice Christmas music, Rye said Zhang asked if they wanted to participate in Lifting Spirits’ December concert.

“I really liked the experience, and at that time I needed community service (hours),” Rye said. “So I was like, ‘Sign me up!’ I’m doing it again this year, even though I don’t need more community service hours.”

For her first Lifting Spirits concert — in a quintet with Zhang, Needler, senior Emma Boersma and junior Elise Sommerhaug — Rye performed with the violin, which she has played since fifth grade. However, she soon taught herself the ukulele, which became her main instrument for Lifting Spirits. 

“Otherwise, I don’t get a chance to perform with the ukulele,” Rye said. “It’s very different from the violin, and it’s more of a creative outlet. It’s more fun to listen to, especially since (the concerts have) a lot of piano and violin (performances).”

Atkins agreed.

“Sarina’s choice of playing the ukulele has added a new dimension to the programs,” she said. “She has chosen songs that relate to the residents in the audience, many of whom had played the ukulele when they were younger.”

Zhu, who has played the clarinet since third grade, also heard about the program through word-of-mouth. 

Last year, history teacher Bill Crabb instituted a service-learning project as a requirement for the sophomore project, and he suggested Lifting Spirits to Zhu, whose project focused on jazz. 

“People seem much more attentive when I’m performing in the elderly places,” Zhu said. “People would look at you and be super focused, sort of like in a zone where they’re just listening to the music.

“Playing a really good piece on stage and watching people enjoy it also brings enjoyment to yourself. It makes you feel like you’re doing something good while also benefiting from it.”

Atkins praised Zhu’s musicianship. 

“Ming is the consummate musician,” Atkins said. “He is polished and professional when he performs, and the audience is enthralled with his music.

“He played a duet with another student last year, and it was so wonderful that I’ve shared it with many people because I recorded it. He’s just outstanding and so warm and confident.”

Clarinetist Ming Zhu, a junior, plays Saint-Saëns’ “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano” with pianist Devin Chang during a Lifting Spirits concert on March 16, 2019.

Gaining confidence onstage is a significant benefit of joining the program, according to Rye and Zhu. 

“No matter what happens, these people appreciate you just being here and trying to do your best,” Zhu said. “That’s why I do it.”

“No matter what happens, these people appreciate you just being here and trying to do your best. That’s why I do it.”

— Ming Zhu

Tsui said he also enjoys the low-stakes concerts. 

“The most important thing is that you’re sharing the care for these people,” he said. “It’s not really about you and how you play. It’s about what you do to make their spirits lifted.”

In fact, Atkins’ journey to creating Lifting Spirits began because of the relaxed nature of these types of concerts. To improve her confidence on stage while she pursued her music degree, she started performing at nursing and retirement homes. 

While doing this, she noticed that most musicians never interacted with the residents. 

“I think that the people in the nursing homes are hungry for people to pay attention to them individually,” Atkins said. 

“The people in the nursing homes are hungry for people to pay attention to them individually.”

— Kathy Atkins

To fulfill this need, a “Meet the Artists” session follows every Lifting Spirits concert.

“One of the primary goals of the program is to establish a dialogue between the two generations: seniors and young people,” Atkins said. 

For students who do not have grandparents living nearby, these discussions provide learning opportunities, according to Atkins. 

“For the residents, it is uplifting and refreshing to know that the world is going to be fine with such kind, motivated young people leading our world in the future,” she said. 

Tsui said this interaction is the most important and enjoyable part of the program.

“Sometimes I just share, ‘Oh, yeah, I just had finals, and it was so stressful,’” Tsui said. “They just like hearing that because it’s something they don’t really hear that often. When you talk about your life, and you ask them about their life and experiences, you realize that they’re people, too — they’re not just the audience, and they actually have a story behind them. 

“It’s not just an experience for them. It’s also an experience for me because I learn more about the people around me. That’s really important.”

Senior Bill Tsui talks with a resident at Winding Commons Senior Living during a post-concert “Meet the Artists” session in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Tsui)

Team members can sign up for roles such as program coordinator and greeter. Once the students arrive at the concert, they run the show, according to Atkins. 

Tsui uses his role as a presider — the person who introduces the musicians — to better engage with the audience.

“When I first went (to Lifting Spirits concerts, students) usually just went up, played their instruments and looked like they didn’t want to be there, which seems really boring,” Tsui said. “So I decided to change it up a bit.”

To catch the audience’s attention, Tsui started telling jokes and talking about his life between acts. 

“I wanted to make more of a difference, so I just added a bit of myself into the program,” he said. “I do something different all the time to make it more special.”

Atkins said she and the audience enjoy Tsui’s anecdotes. 

“His personality has just shone,” she said. “When he presides, or when he talks, he always has some kind of a funny story to talk about, and it puts everybody at ease. Bill usually has a short story about the piece or composer — (he’s) always able to draw the audience in. He’s very comfortable talking to the residents in the audience, and it’s really fun to listen to him.”

Through her role as a greeter — in which she welcomes audience members and hands out programs — Rye said she has “enhanced her people skills.”

“I’m still a very shy person, but I always sign up to do the greeting positions,” Rye said. “At the end, I’m always a little nervous, but I always go and introduce myself to people and say, ‘Did you enjoy the program? What was your favorite part?’ and tell them a little bit more about the ukulele if they want to know.”

Atkins also noted that Rye is clearly more confident than when she joined Lifting Spirits.

“For me, the most rewarding part (of Lifting Spirits) is having such caring young people in my life, watching them grow in confidence and warmth,” Atkins said. 

Audience members’ reactions to the music have also created rewarding and memorable moments for her. 

“One of the veterans (at a VA Clinic performance) came up to me afterward and said, ‘You can’t believe how much this has made a difference for me.’ He said it was just phenomenal,” Atkins said. “A former team member wrote (to me) that a lady in her 90s, a former concert pianist, was so inspired by his performance of a Rachmaninoff Prelude that she was going to start practicing again.”

Tsui said the performances are especially meaningful for audience members who are former musicians. 

“A touching moment was when one of the elderly started tearing up when they saw me because they were reminded of what they did back in the day,” Tsui said. “They were talking to me about how they’re so happy that people are still doing this and helping people.”

Audience members have sung along to his music, Tsui said. Once, an elderly person even began playing the piano. 

Seventeen years after she officially founded Lifting Spirits, Atkins said the program’s growth has surprised her.

“When I designed this program, I was in my 50s, and I was designing it for old people,” Atkins said. “Now I’m 77, and I’m designing it for me!”

Tsui, Rye and Zhu said they are happy they joined the program but wish they had done so sooner.

“I didn’t know about this program until Allison started talking about it to me,” Tsui said. “For that, I’m really grateful, but at the same time, I wish someone would have told me earlier because this really is a cool experience.”

—By Larkin Barnard-Bahn

Originally published in the Dec. 17 edition of the Octagon.

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