One of the things about my mother that really struck a chord with her then-teenage son was her role in the University of Vermont’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, specifically that arm of it that dealt with the care and treatment of children who were radically developmentally disabled and saw little for their future beyond constant care. I remember a videotape she once brought home of a little boy whose life’s crowning achievement following years of therapy was to be able to roll himself over. It was crushing to see but the smile that shown on that face was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. I seem to remember a little tickle-driven giggling as well.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was a season ticket holder for the local hockey team and liked to wander about the arena before game time just to see what was around. In my travels I discovered an open space at one end of the building situated behind and above the top row of seats in the lower bowl. Against the railing was a line of wheelchairs of every size and configuration you can think of as well as a group of caregivers. I got to chatting with them and greeting those wheelchair-bound hockey fans who were capable of replying, a really interesting and dedicated group. Most were season ticket holders and proudly wore logo-festooned jerseys and caps.

There were several who were incapable of replying and others who were unable to move at all. I couldn’t figure out a polite way to ask but one of the caregivers, seeing that I was genuinely interested, offered an explanation of their being at the games. A few were totally aware of what was going on around them but had been betrayed by their bodies in some way. They were fans enjoying the game, they just couldn’t express it. There were a few, however, who were more like the little boy in my mom’s video. There was very little brain activity going on and a few had never moved on their own in their entire lives. The caregiver simply told me, “Stick around and watch” and I did.

If you’ve never been to an NHL game (how darest thou), there’s always a bit of pageantry to start things off. In this case it involved a massive black shrouded something lowered to the ice from the rafters as the lights dimmed. When the shroud was whisked away revealing a huge shark head music pounded, the players skated out of the shark’s mouth and the 20,000 fans went nuts. It was LOUD and had a real sense of excitement and anticipation that was palpable. Good theater and a booming start to a fun evening.

That was also the time when I understood what the caregiver had been trying to show me. When the music started and the crowd let loose with a roar every one of the immobile fans that was able showed some sort of positive reaction. One with a grin, one with closed eyes just letting it wash over her, another wiggling a finger or shaking a head. It was completely overwhelming and I found that a few tears were sneaking down my cheek as I watched the transformation.

The caregiver explained that the range of sounds and energy were great therapy for them all. She particularly enjoyed when the home team scored because then it got REALLY loud and the music thumped and the fans chanted along with it. I asked about the role of music in general and she told me about how it was used in a variety of ways. Gentle, calming music when they were agitated or dealing with pain. Something with a solid beat to help recognize and express rhythm. Something fast and rocking to energize and help get things moving during therapy. One thing that was universal was that music made a difference, helped them do their jobs and brought a smile to the faces of these very special listeners. For a few of them that smile was the only way their were capable of expressing themselves at all and music brought it to their faces better than most anything else.

To say I was moved is a huge understatement and I think back on that game often as I’m singing or playing an instrument, imagining that I’m bringing a smile to a face looking at me from a wheelchair. There’s an additional feeling of purpose that helps me do my very best, a gift that those hockey fans left me with that will stick with me forever. As I’ve said many times before, music is magic.