“I really believe that all music is therapeutic. I mean, if you think about it, when you’re feeling low or anxious, if you turn on your favorite music, it can calm you down or lift your spirits.” -Sarah Martin McConnell
Sarah Martin McConnell is the perfect example of someone who found her true calling later in life. Shaped by a series of unique circumstances that culminated in a way that embraced all her talents and interests, Sarah never planned this second chapter; it just evolved.
Q: Tell us a bit about Music for Seniors, Sarah. How did it get started?
A: My mother Marge, I like to say, was blown to Nashville by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And she had recently been diagnosed with mid-stage Alzheimer’s. My family was trying to figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to handle that, because she lived alone on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And then the hurricane made the decision for us.
She came to live with my husband and me and stayed with us for the last six years of her life. She was 84 when she arrived. And she began attending FiftyForward’s Adult Day Services. As a musician and performer, I said to the director, “Hey, I’d love to come and bring my guitar and do some singalongs with mom and her group.” And she loved her group at day services. She said, ‘Great.’ We had such a wonderful time that I started coming regularly, every month.
I’m telling you, one day, I walked out of that session, and it was a gorgeous fall day. The sun was shining, and I just literally had a download from the universe. One of those aha moments, that this should be a unified effort to connect talented musicians in our community with isolated older adults, and it should be a city-wide program. And that was the beginning of Music for Seniors. I pitched the idea to Janet Jernigan, who was then the executive director of FiftyForward. She loved the idea. The rest, as they say, is history.
Q: I understand that you are a graduate from the University of Texas in Austin, where you earned your Bachelor of Arts degree and you graduated cum laude. What led you to arts and music?
A: I have always loved music. I’ve always loved to perform. But in college, I actually did a double major. I did theater and psychology, and then I went back and got my master’s in social work after being a professional musician for many, many, many years, a singer and songwriter and performer. So, it’s just in my blood. Show business is in my blood.
Q: You earned your master’s degree in social work and have been a professional musician and singer-songwriter in a number of really large cities that are noted for their entertainment, including Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Does this effort, your Music for Seniors, combine the best of all those worlds?
A: I often have said that Music for Seniors really is a hybrid of social work and the arts, specifically in this case, music. And my love of both of those fields and my intention to contribute something that I felt was important to the world, I think has been a big driving factor. My dad was an Episcopal priest. So, we grew up with lots of music in the house and an overview that community service and giving back was important. And also it’s everything I love to do. This has really been an amazing journey for me.
(Is this part of the A? It reads like background and uses third person below which is a bit of a dicsonnec for me. ) Music for Seniors was born as an affiliate program at FiftyForward. McConnell enlisted area musicians to form something of a music ministry — playing to seniors around Middle Tennessee, hosted by many venues including Cheekwood, the Looby Theatre, The Frist Art Museum and all FiftyForward centers. She brought music programming to older adults many of whom could probably not get out to see live music anymore but could still enjoy it.
In July 2014 Music for Seniors became a nonprofit and moved to offices in the same building that houses Nashville Public Television.
Q: Tell me about some accolades that Music for Seniors has earned.
A: Oh my gosh, 2019 just took us to the top. But let me say, it started in 2012, when we were still a program affiliate, an arts program affiliate of FiftyForward. We got a Center for Nonprofit Management Salute to Excellence Award for business acumen in the arts, which was our first feather in our cap. And then, everything came together in 2019. It was kind of crazy. We were found by national television, PBS Nightly News Hour did a spot on us that was aired.
A most amazing thing that happened was I won a WeWork Creator Award. And that was so, well, I don’t know. It was just so unexpected, because it’s something that there was an application for. And I had spent lots of time writing and applying to be in the finalists, which was going to be right here in Nashville. I didn’t get chosen. They turned me down. So it was at Marathon, at their Marathon Motor Works, and it was on their big, beautiful stage there that they had erected. And I said to my husband Mick, ” ‘We’re going to go and we’re going to go early, and I’m going to sit right in the middle, close to the front, and I’m going to figure out how I can get up on that stage next year.’”
McConnell was prepared and won a $50,000 gift to seed the national expansion of Music for Seniors. Luck continued to shine for McConnell.
Q: I also was excited to see that you participated in a TED Talk event here in Nashville, which was called the TEDxNashville Women. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
A: Oh my gosh. It was so much fun. TED approached me, TEDxNashville approached me because one of the board members had seen me win my WeWork Creator Award. And he said, “ ‘I think this would make a fantastic TED Talk.” And I said, “Me too. I’ve always wanted to do a TED talk about Music for Seniors, ever since I heard about TED Talks and knew about it.’” So they worked with me and we worked on getting my story, I mean, it’s very specific guidelines within a specific timeframe. And it was a lot of work, but you know what? It was just wonderful.
McConnell is the first to tell you that her husband Mickey McConnell has been her biggest cheerleader and support. When she took the leap to start Music for Seniors, he often accompanied her to gigs and was part of the comedy act they worked out like George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their jokes, silly gags and music won over senior audiences hungry for live music and entertainment. McConnell will be the first to tell you that music works wonders for their audiences.
Q: Do you have a quick story or testimonial or something that you could tell us about the impact that you’ve seen music have with seniors, especially since you play so much at senior facilities in the Nashville community?
A: One story that we hear over and over again is, and it goes something like this, Betty who has Alzheimer’s…., she doesn’t speak like she used to. She’s compromised with trying to form sentences and her words escape her. But during your program, she knew all the words to every song. And I saw it firsthand with my mom. We hear it over and over again from the musician partners who help us achieve our mission, just the miraculous transformation in individuals when the music lights them up.
That’s another descriptor, that you can just see the participants light up with the music. And that’s why when I was trying to come up with a slogan about Music for Seniors that described in a nutshell what we did, sharing live music, lighting up lives, because not only does it light up lives of the senior participants, but the musicians who are participating as well.
Q: That’s beautiful. I do think your slogan is so appropriate for what you do. Many, many times, I’ve seen people just kind of, music sparks something in them. it’s such a beautiful thing to watch. And I know in conversations that I’ve had with people there have been discussions related to individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia and how it [music] can really help, especially songs from the past, they really help bring people back to the present in a certain way.
A: And tap memory and open brain cells that they haven’t activated in a long time. Music is just magical.