HomeThe Healing Power Of A Cappella: Woody Geist's Story

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Woody wakes up and opens his eyes to a strange but somewhat familiar room. It’s a fine room, but he’s not sure where he is. He blinks a few times, looks around, and waits for his mind to catch up with his eyes. Strangely, it does not. He cannot recall ever being here before, and is frightened to realize that he cannot even recall who he is. As he is on the verge of panic, he hears a voice from across the room, a woman. The sound is comforting, but he does not recognize it. He turns to look; his face is empty, eyes blank. He is confused. She tells him it is time to get up and put on his shoes. Something is wrong! He does not know what shoes are, or how to put them on. He is completely lost and is desperately searching. Her voice is patient, kind, and not totally unknown, but he cannot comply. He does not know what to do. He waits anxiously, hoping the answers will come, but nothing happens. She speaks kindly and gently as she reaches down to put on his shoes. So, those are shoes. He wonders why he didn’t know that.

“It’s time to rehearse, Dad. It’s time to sing.”  Suddenly, as if he has just received fresh batteries, Woody comes alive. Time to sing? This he knows!  He is relieved, he knows what to do. He stands up tall, with shoulders back, and walks confidently to the full length mirror. He suddenly recalls that this beautiful woman is his daughter. Though he does not know her name, he smiles with relief and gratitude as she begins to sing “Night and Day”. Woody immediately recognizes the tune and joins in on baritone, recalling every note, every word. They continue singing, the next song: “My Romance”, then on to “Summertime”, the Lord’s Prayer, and they wrap up the performance with “Moon River”. He even throws in a bit of the old choreography that accompanied the songs. Woody is back to life, energized and happy. For a moment, the world makes sense again. 

Having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than 16 years, Woody Geist, who once owned an auto parts company, is slowing fading away. Singing a cappella is one of the few remaining windows through which his real life can be seen. Though there are days he barely recognizes his family, and even struggles to speak, he can still sing, and he remembers his part to many of the songs he performed with his a cappella group years ago. Indeed, he whistles all day and sometimes in his sleep, and this seems to provide a stabilizing force in an increasingly confusing world. This is simply amazing, given the power of this cruel condition.

Woody got started singing at a very young age. He joined the church choir so that he would have an excuse to play with the church kids after services. It was soon discovered that he had a beautiful soprano voice, and in a time when joy was scarce (due to the Great Depression), Woody’s voice brought delight to countless souls as he performed solos all over Detroit. He loved singing right away, and started performing with a cappella groups, glee clubs, and barbershop quartets in high school and college. He also realized that being a good singer and dancer seemed to leave a lasting impression on members of the opposite sex! But along the way, he began to find a deeper purpose in singing. It was fulfilling and fun to entertain the crowds, nice to share his talent, but above all, it was the harmony that hooked him. He felt that he was a part of something, as if he belonged.  The blending of voices was magical; the bond thick.  He sang with the twelve-part jazz group, The Grunyons, (not to be confused with fish) for more than 30 years. The relationships, the camaraderie, even beyond the music, brought tremendous and inexplicable joy to him over the years. And today, his a cappella experience is providing a bond for him and his daughter Mary Ellen Geist. In fact, Mary Ellen left her job as a New York afternoon radio news anchor and moved back to the family homestead in rural Michigan to be with her mother and father (who now lives in an extended care facility). Woody’s wife, friends and other family members also use music to communicate with Woody. His caregivers use his favorite songs to help him complete tasks. Though his mind is under attack, it is holding fast to the memories of singing a cappella. Mary Ellen is certain that his singing greatly delayed the effects of the disease, and that it has provided significant healing for him. Even on the worst days, when he was depressed, his body language suggesting despair and defeat, singing brought him back, made him smile, giving him a sense of pride again. When all else failed, a cappella brought light to his eyes.  
It is exciting to realize that our passion for singing could serve such a noble purpose. Mary Ellen agrees - it is magical, impossible to explain, but somehow singing connects us. We should embrace and explore this. The harmony, as beautiful as it can be, is really just an indicator of something greater taking place beneath the surface. When we sing together, we become one. Our performances have power to unify and to heal. Sing with purpose!       

Woody’s story is part of the HBO special “The Memory Loss Tapes”, which can be viewed online.
For more information, visit www.maryellengeist.com.

Mary Ellen’s memoir: Measure of the Heart: A Father's Alzheimer's, A Daughter's Return

An interview in Wired Magazine with Oliver Saks (featuring Woody) about music, the brain, and healing.

Photo: The Grunyons, 1973, Woody in the back row the plaid tie

About the author:
Jon McLemore began his career in a cappella at age 19, an intern for the Acappella Company in Paris, TN. Since then, he has vocalized for hire in every U.S. state except Hawaii. As a member of Minneapolis based groups Go Fish and Four Shadow, Jon’s original tunes garnered numerous CARA nominations and awards as well as time on the contemporary Christian inspirational chart. He has conducted workshops on harmony, arranging, and songwriting at schools across the country as well as at festivals such as SoJam. His most recent recording as half of the McLemore Brothers, Sunday Drive, won two CARAs in the religious categories.  


Amazing story

I've wondered for a long time about using singing as therapy for these kinds of ailing patients.  Even for people who didn't used to sing, the recognition of music from younger times can be very powerful.  Any groups sing at care facilities?

Woody singing

Grunyons saw Woody this past week and he was still able to sing some songs with us.


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