After Matthew Alexander’s mother lost much of her memory to Alzheimer’s disease, he communicated with her through music.
In the years before Hannah Alexander died in 1999, mother and son would sometimes sit in her westside apartment in New York City. He’d play his guitar and sing some of his own songs, and his voice seemed to calm her.
The experience taught Alexander, a Charlotte psychologist, that music is one of the best ways to connect with Alzheimer’s patients.
On Nov. 13, in honor of National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, Alexander will perform at a benefit concert and release party for his new CD, “Three Minute Movie,” that includes a song he wrote in memory of his mother. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the concert begins at 8 at the Evening Muse, 3227 N. Davidson St. Tickets are $10 at www.eveningmuse.com.
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Alexander’s song “If You Didn’t Know Me” was inspired by a patient he once counseled. She told him that as a child, she asked her mother, “Would you love me if you didn’t know me?” Her mother said, “Of course. You’re my child and I love you.” But years later, the patient said she got a truer answer when her mother, who by then had developed Alzheimer’s, looked at her and said: “I don’t know who you are, but you’re so kind to me, I love you anyway.”
The story stayed with Alexander, who had already experienced what he calls “the long goodbye” of Alzheimer’s with his mother.
A poet, Hannah Alexander had supported her son’s aspirations to become a folk musician even when his father, a concert pianist and composer of classical music, had not. When Matthew Alexander threatened to drop out of Harvard to focus on music, he said his father told him, “Music isn’t a living, it’s a starvation.” But he tried it anyway.
A native New Yorker, Alexander had been playing guitar since he was 8 and writing songs since he was 15. He did graduate from Harvard in 1971 and said he went on to co-found a folk band called Moonshine that performed in Greenwich Village and opened for future stars Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
When Moonshine broke up in 1973, Alexander moved to Los Angeles and became the rehearsal piano player for the famed improvisational comedy group The Groundlings. He also pitched his songs door-to-door on Sunset Boulevard. Some got published and some didn’t. He eventually got frustrated and returned to school in 1978. He got his Ph.D. in both education and psychology and became a licensed clinical psychologist. In 1984, he took a job at Carolinas HealthCare System and also started a private practice.
From Charlotte, he traveled often to New York City to help care for his mother after she began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 1990.
Many years later, he wrote “If You Didn’t Know Me,” combining his experience with his mother and that of his former patient who asked her mother the question. That song is one of 14 on his sixth album, with themes of betrayal and redemption, grief and love. He’ll donate 20 percent of the proceeds from the CD sales to Alzheimer’s research.
Alexander remembers fondly the times he’d sit with his mother in Central Park, when she would tell him, over and over, how she first met his dad. Instead of chiding her for repeating herself, he let her talk. “I was fully there with her,” he said.
Now when counseling others who are dealing with Alzheimer’s, Alexander said, “I recommend sitting back and enjoying the gifts of the relationship. … Try to engage them with the music they grew up with (and) it will trigger memories from their past, often the last memories to go.”
For more information: www.alexandertunes.com