Carlos Reyes concerts at Aegis tap into rejuvenating power of music
By Lou Fancher
The courtyard is lit by soft, early evening sunlight and the 1945 jazz standard "Autumn Leaves" is played on a Paraguayan harp.
Aegis of Moraga, a senior assisted living community, is arguably the most improbable new destination stop in the East Bay.
Aiming to "put the location on the map," marketing director Molly Gleason-Kodama invited a musician friend to swing east of his usual stamping grounds. Instead of performing to packed houses in Bay Area clubs and concert halls, on world stages shared with the Doobie Brothers, Chuck Mangione and Wynonna Judd, among others, or at The White House, Gleason-Kodama's "brother of the heart," Carlos Reyes, serenades seniors at a June concert.
"Carlos and I have been friends for about 15 years. I met him at Pena Pacha Mama in San Francisco when my boyfriend played a gig with him."
The friendship with Reyes lasted; the boyfriend didn't.
Gleason-Kodama isn't a musician, but says that she and Reyes, a widely-respected musician who began playing violin at 3 1/2 and debuted on harp with the Oakland Symphony at 10, "resonate like the strings in a violin or a harp."
After inviting him to perform last fall and finding the residents "transfixed, stimulated and thrilled," Reyes has become a regular feature, although it's difficult to say who has adopted whom.
"God gave me this gift," says Reyes. "The best thing to be a good steward with it is to give it away. The music is healing. It feels normal to me, but yes, it did surprise me -- the connection I feel here."
At 95, Ethel Leibman no longer waltzes, except in her imagination.
"The first time I heard him play, I was absolutely speechless. It's right up my alley," she says. "He played and sang and was absolutely marvelous. I felt like I wanted to get up and dance. I can't walk well, but it cheers me just to think about it. I'm still raving about the last concert."
Reyes has performed and brought fellow musicians a handful of times. No one can remember the exact count: no one cares.
"One afternoon, he just phoned and asked if he could come out and play. We put him in the vestibule and let him rumble," says Gleason-Kodama, who was hired at the facility last year.
The June concert was open to the public free of charge.
Gleason-Kodama says people "shop around selectively" to find premium care for family members making the transition from independent living to an assisted living facility. She lives in Lafayette and says she's invested in the community.
"I can turn to someone and say I live down the street. I want this to be a destination."
As Reyes launches a first set, three friends, all residents, cluster at a table. Phyllis Underhill, 95, marvels at Reyes.
"Every minute, he's mesmerizing," she says. "It lifts you up, makes you feel good."
Phyllis Quinn, 86, smiles and starts tapping her toes while Heather Bransbury, 70, enjoys the back stories Reyes shares between songs, and says when he sings in Spanish, the 10 years she lived in Spain return in a flood of memories.
Reyes is a highly-regarded public speaker and has shared lecture appearances with neuroscientist, musician and best-selling author Daniel Levitin, an El Cerrito native.
"It's a scientific fact that music is stored in a special part of the brain," Reyes says. "Dan's clinical studies show that when people are in early stage dementia, one of the things they remember are words in song form. There've been residents here who haven't spoken in a long time, but at Christmas when I played, they sang Christmas songs."
Reyes says people are "the original walking hard drives" and sound activates memories. Researchers and scientists studying the brain are just beginning to understand the many health benefits of music, he suggests.
But there's no need to wait for the data: one glimpse of the expressions on people's faces at Aegis, the swing of a leg, a gentle sway, are proof enough of music's rejuvenating power.