November 22, 2023

Memory Lounge Program Provides Socialization, Creative Activities for People with Memory Loss and Their Care Partners

Nancy F. plays a steel drum for the first time during a Scottsdale Arts Memory Lounge workshop on Nov. 17, 2023, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Brian Passey.

It’s 2 p.m. on a seemingly quiet Friday afternoon at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. But inside the Center Space gallery, there’s a special bit of magic underway.

A woman named Nancy, dressed in vivid pink, has an expression to match the brightness of her wardrobe. It’s a look of sheer joy—a massive, open-mouthed smile below eyes that dance with delight.

This is Nancy’s introduction to a Caribbean steel drum. And she’s not listening to it; she’s playing it.

Nancy in pink (to delineate her from Nancy in blue), or Nancy F., is among the participants in Memory Lounge, a series of creative workshops for people with mild to moderate memory loss and their care partners. Organized by Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation, there are multiple workshop series throughout the year, each of them focused on a different artistic practice in the visual or performing arts.

Keith Johnson provided drums from a variety of African nations for the Memory Lounge workshop. Photo: Brian Passey.

Why does Scottsdale Arts offer Memory Lounge workshops? Laura Hales, curator of learning and innovation for our Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation department, says the workshops benefit both the care partners and their loved ones by increasing socialization, decreasing stress, and offering high-quality arts experiences that provide both learning and fun. 

This particular workshop, led by musician Keith Johnson, is focused on African and Caribbean drums. Although he’s an award-winning musician, Keith spends little time actually playing the drums during the 90-minute workshop. He’s a teaching artist, and for a few years now, he has worked with Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation’s Arizona Wolf Trap program, taking his drums and other instruments into local schools to help young learners master a variety of skills. Now he’s transferring that stylized instruction to learners who are just a bit older. 

The steel drum is the climax, though, so we’ll rewind to the beginning of the workshop.

Keith Johnson, top right, leads Scottsdale Arts Memory Lounge participants in a drum circle. Photo: Brian Passey.

In the Center Space, six workshop participants sit in a circle with Keith and Laura, who coordinates the Memory Lounge program. They each have a drum, and Keith offers a brief background on the instruments, which he brought back from various African countries, including Guinea, Mali, and Senegal. 

They aren’t just appreciating the beauty of the drums, though. Keith begins the interaction quickly, showing them a basic rhythm on his own drum and encouraging them to tap along on their own instruments.

“I can do this,” he sing-chants, encouraging them to join him. “I have rhythm.”

Memory Lounge workshop participant Jack creates a unique rhythm. Photo: Brian Passey.

Once they begin to feel the rhythms, Keith shows them how to change tones. If they put the drums between their legs and slightly tip the instruments toward their bodies, thumps near the center of the drum elicit a deeper bass tone. But if they tap near the edge, the sound is sharper, more percussive.

Using their new knowledge, Keith leads them into the familiar rhythm of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” with two deep bass thumps followed by a percussive edge tap to replace the clap from the original song.

Then the participants get a chance to come up with their own rhythms. Nancy in blue (Nancy H.) is the first to try it. Then everyone joins in, following Nancy H.’s lead as they all play her rhythm.

When it gets around to Jack, who attends the Memory Lounge workshops with his partner, Carol, Keith is momentarily speechless. When he does speak, he tells Jack that what the novice drummer just played was a complex polyrhythm. He seems impressed.

Memory Lounge participant Carol uses a rain stick during a November workshop.
Photo: Brian Passey.

After each participant has a chance to offer a unique rhythm, Keith passes around a variety of other simple instruments, starting with tiny bird calls that turn the Center Space into what sounds like an aviary. Next up is a homemade rain stick, which utilized BBs falling against nails hammered into a canister to mimic the sound of falling rain. A modified paint can that emulates the sound of thunder is last.

Keith Johnson plays the steel drum during a Memory Lounge workshop. Photo: Brian Passey.

Finally, it’s time for the steel drum. Among Keith’s creative gigs is his own steel drum band called Steel Dads, which has performed at Scottsdale Arts’ Canal Convergence event, among other places. Because Nancy F. raises her hand when he asks if anyone has experience playing the piano, he picks her as the first one to try her hand at the steel drum.

Nancy sits behind the drum as Keith points to different sections of the bowl, which are labeled with the notes that correspond to the tones that come from that section. The brief lesson complete, Nancy takes the drumstick in her hand and makes a decisive tap on the drum. A single mellifluous note springs forth. That big smile begins to form on her face.

The magic has begun.

Nancy F. and her daughter Sara-Jayne create artworks during a Memory Lounge workshop with Mary Shindell. Photo: Brian Passey.

While Keith Johnson’s drum workshop aligns with the performing arts side of Scottsdale Arts, as seen through our music and dance programming at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and outdoors with our Civic Center LIVE events, many of the Memory Lounge workshops are led by Arizona-based visual artists, many of whom have been featured in exhibitions at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) or the community galleries operated by Scottsdale Public Art and Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation.

Among these artists is Mary Shindell, whose work was recently seen in the Unintended Consequences mural exhibition in the Center Space. Mary is also the artist behind one of the newest additions to the Scottsdale Public Art Permanent Collection. Her Mesquite Bosque stylized fencing was installed last year at the new Bell 94 sports complex in northern Scottsdale.

Memory Lounge participants base their art on favorite plants or flowers. Photo: Brian Passey.

On this early November afternoon, however, Mary is leading the same six Memory Lounge participants through a creative visual arts project where they use pens and colored pencils to create drawings inspired by their favorite plants or flowers. The drawings will then be placed in acrylic tubes to become free-standing sculptures.

Because the atrium at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is full of activity associated with the lululemon 10KTour—a rental event headquartered in the Center and filling the grounds of Scottsdale Civic Center—Mary’s workshop has been moved to a small art studio on site.

Rather than a drum circle, the six participants and workshop coordinator Laura Hales are gathered around a rectangle of worktables, dotted by cup full of colored pencils and pens. Mary’s brief instructions get them each started on a unique design, some using magazines or pictures on their phones as references while others create designs out of their heads.

Nancy H. shows her artistic creation. Photo: Brian Passey.

The nature of this particular workshop allows for plenty of conversation while they create, so they reflect on past art projects they have created during Memory Lounge activities. A discussion about the American sculptor Louise Nevelson—the artist behind Scottsdale Public Art’s Windows to the West—leads into a discussion about women artists and their pioneering work.

As they work, Mary offers advice and encouragement. “It’s okay if you’re off just a bit because your eye will fill it in,” she says.

As they finish their artworks, the participants bend them into cylindrical form to fit inside the acrylic tubes. Then they go around the table, showing off their new creations. Compliments are shared, and Laura tells Carol that she particularly likes her color palette. To celebrate, they click their acrylic tubes together like glasses of wine, offering cheers to one another.

Carol and Jack click their new artworks together to celebrate what they created.
Photo: Brian Passey.

“Such fun!” Nancy F. exclaims. “And the company is as much fun as the work!”

Two Memory Lounge workshops remain in the Fall 2023 series. They are scheduled for December 1 and 15. The cost is $20 per couple. More information is available at ScottsdaleArtsLearning/MemoryLounge.

But keep an eye out for the Spring 2024 series, which will go on sale in mid-December.

Carol shows her artistic creation. Photo: Brian Passey.

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