Notes from the field: Love of Music Outreach Grew with Mama Dot’s Lasting Memories

A post by guest writer, singer, songwriter, guitarist and grandson Joe McMurray

In a small town in western North Carolina, I grew up thirteen houses down from my grandparents’ home of over half a century.  My grandmother, whom we lovingly called Mama Dot, was in incredibly intelligent and thoughtful woman who loved to play the piano and sought to understand her grandchildren through philosophical questions: “What is the meaning of life?” and “How do you think your generation views love differently than previous generations?”

When she was 90 years old she moved into a local assisted living home.  I would stop in to visit whenever I was in town.  I had always played music, but around this time I began to seriously study jazz guitar.  I would bring my guitar and play her whatever jazz standard I had been learning, and she would always impress me when she hummed or sang along. 

While Mama Dot was my intended audience, other elders would often ask me to play for them when they saw me walk through with my instrument.  On one of these visits I was in no hurry, and I pulled out my guitar.  I don’t know what they expected, but I was immediately rewarded with smiles and hugs and compliments.  I had such a positive experience that I would have played for the retirement community more often had Mama Dot not developed intestinal cancer.    At the age of 27, I was steeped in the madness of music school, struggling to find enough hours in the day to practice and study the guitar, the piano, my voice, whatever other instruments we were learning that semester, aural skills, music theory, and musical history.  I heard the bad news regarding Mama Dot’s sickness and was planning to head back to North Carolina in a couple weeks, but her condition quickly deteriorated: all too soon I found myself on FaceTime with my dying grandmother.  My uncle held his iPhone over her face, and I sat in a practice room at George Mason University with my own iPhone sitting on the music stand of the piano.  She couldn’t open her eyes or say much, so I chose to continue my tradition of performing for her.   With her eyes closed, voice shaky, and lyrics unwavering, she was able to sing all three verses of Amazing Grace as I struggled to play the piano through my own tears and emotions.  It was the most powerful musical moment of my entire life, and I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to someone who meant so much to me.

I began performing at retirement and assisted living homes in the hopes of providing uplifting experiences to elders in my community, first in Northern Virginia and now in Virginia Beach.  I also seek to fulfill my own musical needs, to find extraordinary musical moments comparable to those three minutes when Mama Dot and I ascended into our own surreal musical world and said our final goodbye.  I perform professionally at all kinds of venues, playing many different genres of music, but I have never played to an audience at a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, festival, or cruise ship that has given me their full attention like the elders at retirement homes.  They greet me with hugs and warmth, they clap and dance when I play their favorite songs, and they keep track of my life as if I’m their adopted grandson.  I have begun collaborating with Tidewater Arts Outreach, a local organization that is working to bring wellness, socialization, and meaning to the lives of elders in our community by providing music and arts programs.  Through interactive experiences (group singing, ukuleles, hand drums, painting, etc.) they cultivate positive social environments for residents to bond with each other and with their caretakers.  I have seen first-hand how music can instigate youthful energy and positivity in old souls, and we should all hope that music and art lift us up and bring us together when we reach that point in our lives.