Duo says the music does seem to help some patients

Published in the September 13 – September 26, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

Photo by Marty Cheek
Robin Hambey, left, and Michael Schifano, play for patients who suffered brain trauma at Learning Services in Gilroy. The duo, known as Midnight Sun, have been entertaining patients since November.

Not all of them remember who they were before their accidents. But they keep singing.

Two dozen people gathered in a sunlit room surrounded by old-growth sycamores in the northwest countryside of Gilroy at Learning Services, a facility that rehabilitates people who have endured severe brain trauma.

It was Tuesday late morning, and that meant it was time for music class. Some were pushed into the room on wheelchairs, others walked carefully on their own. All of them waited patiently for the music to start.

But at the first strum of Michael Schifano’s and Robin Hambey’s guitars, they all began singing. No, not all of them could sing in a literal sense — although some certainly were — but each and every one of them were singing in the way they could. With a tap of a foot, or a scrunched-up smile, or a bobbing of the head, or a radiant smile.

“Under the boardwalk, we’ll be having some fun,” Schifano, 54, and Hambey, 49, belted out the classic Drifters’ tune with twang. When the song ended, everybody cheered.

“That used to be my favorite song,” said Annie, a patient who suffered a broken skull from a car accident when she was a teen. Annie couldn’t remember exactly how long ago that was, but her grey hair implied it has been a while.

Hambey’s husky voice paired well with her Elvis broach and black leather vest. Schifano went at his guitar with the kind of grit one would expect from someone wearing a cowboy hat and a single dangling earring. They are skilled performers to be sure, but they weren’t the stars of this gathering.

The star is Bill, a middle-aged man who knew every word to the songs. Bill and a buddy as teenagers had too much to drink one night. They flipped a Suburban SUV off a brick wall — no seatbelt of course, he said. Bill entertains the crowd with vivid memories when they come back to him. He loses those recollections just as fast.

Then there’s Alison, a woman who is more demure but teared up during the chorus of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Alison was a concert pianist before she suffered a brain aneurysm from a car crash. She had to relearn everything — except how to play the piano. For some reason, she never lost that musical talent.

Thomas is the youngest member of the Learning Services group. His distant look may have been because his mind was on his wife and children, whose ages he can’t quite remember.

Thomas fell from a cellphone tower two years ago and is slowly rehabilitating. Occasionally, a sly smile spread across his face, and glimpses of his former wry personality cut through the fog. And then there’s Melvin, who shook a banana-shaped shaker in the air with the gusto of a rock star.

“That’s right, shake that banana high, Melvin,” Hambey said, laughing.

Hambey and Schifano have been leading this singing class at Learning Services since November. It all began when Hambey’s best friend, Michelle Simmons, 49, was kicked in the head by a horse in February 2016 and lost all cognitive abilities. In the days following the accident, Hambey would sing by her bedside to comfort her. For weeks she did this — and then one day, Simmons woke up singing one of Hambey’s songs.

It was the first time her short-term memory had returned since her accident.

“Short term memory is the hardest for brain injury patients, so for her to do that was a huge victory,” she said.

That’s what gave Hambey and her music partner Schifano an idea — they’d start doing concerts for Simmons and other patients at Learning Services and have some fun singing.

“And they danced their butts off,” Hambey said.

“That first day was so emotional for everyone,” Schifano agreed.

Hambey nodded. “Even now, we are toast for the rest of the day after coming here,” she said.

While Hambey and Schifano intentionally don’t call their services “therapy” because they are not licensed therapists, there is certainly therapy going on. Sometimes it’s in the physicality of forming words of the songs, learning to tap a foot to the beat.
Other times it’s mental — remembering who sang the song and what year it was and what was going on in their lives when the song first hit the radio.

And sometimes it’s emotional — dredging up feelings of romance or nostalgia or beauty — the kind of feelings people without brain injuries take for granted each time they listen to a song that stirs the emotions.

After singing a couple songs, Schifano asked the group if it was time to sing “their song.” The anticipation in the room amplified with resounding “yeses” and nodding of heads.

“Their song” is a tune Schifano wrote about overcoming obstacles. It’s a call-and-response style song and the group sang it louder than all the others.

“We keep on trying,” they sang over and over again.

“It’s become our anthem,” said Teresa Boehm, day program manager at Living Services.

Hambey and Schifano recorded the song as well as a few other original songs — thanks to donations from the San Jose Police Department, where Simmons worked before her accident — and it will be played for Living Services facilities around the nation. The duo also plans to throw a private album release party for the members of Learning Services.

“Whenever I’m having a bad day, I think about them,” Schifano said. “They are my heroes.”

Asked why they like to attend the music class, some of them were able to articulate it better than anyone could.

“It breaks us out of our shell,” Simmons said.

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“Music is the universal language,” Bill said.

“Because music is everything,” Melvin said.

There was a slight pause before Thomas chimed in.

“Because it makes me feel free,” he said.