Music: the best medicine

April 22, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

The monthly handbell class in the Alzheimer’s Unit at Providence Marianwood performs the Stephen Foster song, ‘Oh! Susanna,’ under the direction of music therapist Rebecca Wu. By Greg Farrar

The monthly handbell class in the Alzheimer’s Unit at Providence Marianwood performs the Stephen Foster song, ‘Oh! Susanna,’ under the direction of music therapist Rebecca Wu. By Greg Farrar

As “Oh! Susanna” floated its way through the speakers and into the room, Marie Dalessandro’s expression softened.

 “I like this song,” she said, smiling and waiting for her cue.

Sitting in a half-circle, the women in Providence Marianwood’s Alzheimer’s Unit waited their turn, each ringing in as music therapist Rebecca Wu pointed to them. 

Together, their sounds created a harmonious melody. 

“Their attention is amazing,” said Diane Bixler, therapeutic recreation and volunteer coordinator at Marianwood. “Their recall is amazing, even though their reflexes may not be that fast.” But the best part, she said, is that “they know they are making real music.”

Wu started at Marianwood by happenstance, Bixler said. Nearly a year ago, Wu came to Marianwood to substitute for another music therapist, who’d gone on maternity leave. While substituting, Wu visited the Alzheimer’s Unit with her handbells or tone chimes. 

“We are really lucky to have her here,” Bixler said. “When she works with them, I can see it brings back memories. Some may not be able to talk, but they can still sing and they sing their different parts.”

The program helps them use their short-term memory and motor skills, as they have to memorize their notes and shake their chimes to make them sound in time, she said. 

Though it isn’t as popular in the Pacific Northwest as it is in other areas of the country, music therapy is now an integral part of life at Marianwood, Bixler said. Wu comes one time each month and helps them play for a half-hour.

Wu graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in music and then went on to study at the University of Kansas, where she earned a master’s degree in music therapy. 

She started using handbells during her studies at Kansas with children with attention deficit disorder and elderly patients, hoping to prove people with limited memory could create music together without the frustration of learning to read music or playing an instrument.

“It’s not about the product, it’s about the process,” Wu said. “As long as they get something out of it, it’s fine with me, and I’ve never had a time where the seniors haven’t enjoyed themselves.”

Throughout a session, Wu guides her students by giving them bells within their capabilities. 

Some bells, like those in the middle, are used all the time. Others are heavy and used infrequently. So, she gives the chimes in the middle or two chimes to students who want to participate a lot, she said. 

For those students who seem to lose track of the task or don’t wish to participate often, she gives one chime or really high or really low chimes to ring. 

Wu also spices up her handbell classes with music that resonates with their generation, so it’s not uncommon to hear Elvis or the Glen Miller Orchestra being chimed at Marianwood.

During the session Dalessandro attended, several women gathered to play various chimes in a half-hour salute to Stephen Foster, a famous American composer and musician in the mid-1860s.

Among the tunes for the day were many the women said they thoroughly enjoyed, including “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Wu said she has perfect pitch, which helps her easily change keys, assign chimes and point to individuals who are holding the next notes she needs to hear in a piece.

Students in class said it was a chance to break out of their ordinary routine. 

“It’s something we do because it’s enjoyable,” Dalessandro said, adding that she used to sing often in her youth. “Otherwise, what would we do? If you don’t get up and do something, then you’re just sitting here. And if you do something, you may as well enjoy it.”

Though it’s the first instrument she’s played, Virl Luck said she is a regular at the sessions because she likes the music and likes to talk to others.

For Wu, it is a way to help people connect with one another and a way to help them feel like they are creating something.

“In a group, they can help each other create music,” Wu said. “But they also come together and talk and remember. Those are all good things.” 


Learn more about music therapy at

Reach local music therapist Rebecca Wu at


Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment on this article at 

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2 Responses to “Music: the best medicine”

  1. Shirley Tai on April 30th, 2009 8:52 pm

    It’s really meaningful to care the elderly in various aspect.Appriciate what Rebecca Wu did!!

  2. Penni Neusbaum on October 20th, 2011 2:52 pm

    This warms my heart. I can tell Ms. Wu enjoys bringing music to these women, and for all the right reasons. They are actively making something they can all enjoy together and others can enjoy as well.

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