• Karla Wilson

"Funiculi, Funicula" (Maria - Part One)

Updated: Sep 4

When introducing me to Maria, his wife of 45 years, Enzo’s initial tone appeared almost apologetic. “She always loved music and loved to sing, but not lately.” He went on, “Her dementia is getting worse.” It was as if he anticipated that my expectations for Maria’s response to music would be high, and I would end up disappointed. And if that was to be the case, Enzo saw fit to apologize, in advance, presuming that Maria wouldn’t be able to meet my expectations.

In my experience as a music therapist, this was not uncommon for caregivers. In retrospect, when I was caregiver for my mom, I recall doing some of that myself. Why? Well, once again in hindsight, it was because I loved my mother so much that I wished to protect her from anything negative (as if I could actually accomplish that!). I wanted others to continue seeing her in the same, beautiful light they always saw her - just in case they couldn’t recognize, as I did, how the changes she faced were robbing her of some of the very things that helped her shine (i.e. socializing, line dancing, cooking, needlework, etc.). Of course, in my eyes she always and still shined, but would others notice that her sparkle was subdued? Another factor for Enzo and many other families I’ve worked with, is that typically there is some degree of uncertainty about what music therapy will be like, especially in the that first session. They don’t yet have a frame of reference with which to conceptualize it.

So, I gently assured Enzo that I did not arrive with any preconceived notions of what Maria’s response might be, nor would there be any possibility of Maria “failing” to do or be something I expected. Simply because I held no expectations. I further clarified, “my hope is purely that Maria will feel safe, comfortable and respected while she experiences the music in this time we spend together.” “I’d love for her to be free to respond (or not) in the moment, without concern for being successful…and that the music will connect with her in a meaningful way.” Enzo heard my explanation, but I wasn’t altogether convinced he accepted it as a reality. I understood.

Maria was seated at the dining room table, “folding” swatches of material. Enzo explained that it helped Maria from becoming anxious, having something to do with her hands. She’d spent much of her life as a seamstress, so the soft feel of the cotton in her hands was familiar and comforting. With Enzo’s permission, I placed my keyboard on the table, rather than on the stand I usually use. We agreed that might help Maria feel more comfortable to remain where she was, with me taking a place at the table, the place she was used to being when family or friends gathered.

Enzo shared that Maria was from Italy, but had immigrated to the United States in her early teens. She loved Italian music, as her father sang opera and popular songs throughout Maria’s childhood. I decided to begin with a popular, old Neapolitan song Maria might know, “Funiculi, Funicula” (Luigi Denza). My repertoire of Italian music for the keyboard was limited to 10-20 songs, followed by those I could sing in Italian reducing that further to 4-5 (though I should note that both improved significantly over the course of the two years I worked with Maria). Enzo, preparing a cup of coffee in the adjacent kitchen nodded his approval. As I sang, Maria looked up from her cloth folding and watched my fingers moving on the keyboard. When I reached the chorus of the song, Maria began to “skootch” her chair closer to where I was located, at the end of the table. The sound of the wood chair moving across the tile floor caused Enzo to direct his attention to the dining room and Maria. He proceeded to watch what was happening with interest, as I repeated the song.

This time, Maria nodded her head slightly with the bright tempo of the music. The smallest of smiles emerged on her lips as she appeared to be recognizing the familiarity of what she heard. When I reached the chorus, Maria began to sing along on the syllable “ba.” I immediately joined her in the monosyllabic singing and repeated the chorus once more. By this time, Enzo had moved closer, standing just behind Maria, his face demonstrating utter disbelief that Maria was singing. He asked, “can you please do that song one more time? I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” I didn’t think twice before beginning again. I noticed that Maria had let go of the material she’d been firmly grasping, leaving it on the table, with her hand resting atop. As Maria listened this time, there was a light in her eyes as she gently tapped the material on the table, matching the pulse of the music’s time signature. She sang a few more “ba, ba’s” in the chorus as well.

Maria’s response to the music prompted Enzo to share more about Maria’s life in Italy, prior to their marriage. He described how beautiful and vivacious she was when they met. Enzo’s eyes teared up as he reflected. He placed his hands upon Maria’s shoulders and softly spoke near her ear, “you are still as beautiful to me as you were that day – you always will be.”

(Maria and Enzo are fictitious names, bearing no relevance to previous or current clients)

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