TLSJ Vol.1


The Tim Ringgold Interview. 22 minute read

Before beginning his talk at the First Christian Church in Orange during a speaker luncheon series for seniors, music therapist Tim Ringgold handed out egg-shaped shakers more than 20 seniors and stood in front of the room with his own black shaker.

Written by Nancy Yeang

Without any verbal instructions, Tim shook a steady beat until everyone followed. He made eye contact with each person in the room while speeding up and slowing down the rhythm. In the end, everyone vigorously shook their shakers until Tim made a signal to stop, and the shaker’s “tsch, tsch, tsch” sounds were replaced with applause from the audience.

“The myth is that rhythm is information or knowledge – you go to school and they teach you about rhythm in music class,” Tim said. “There’s nothing further from the truth.”

Music, along with faith and gratitude, are three values that Tim consistently follows in his life. He said that these three values transformed his perception on pivotal tragedies in his life: five of his friends were murdered in 1995; his father passed away early in his life; and his 16-month daughter, Bella, died from a rare skin disease.

Instead of letting his experiences break his spirit, he instead decided to empower himself. “I knew for my life that I had to make music to make peace for others,” Tim said. “I’m going to give this tragedy purpose and I’m going to let it fuel my life, not ruin my life.”

Even as he described giving music as a gift to individuals under his care, his stories radiated the important of his faith, down to the name of his business, Sonic Divinity Music Therapy Services. “Music is the sound of God and I am just an instrument in the choir,” he told the senior group.


Tim speaking on his experience with Music in front of the First Christian Church in Orange County.

Nancy Yeang

Tim shared how music therapy helps different age levels and different ailments. When he asked the group how many people they knew suffered from Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease that causes memory loss and damage to other mental functions, more than half the people in the group raised their hands.

He explained how music stimulates the entire brain at the same time in order to process music, and during his sessions with Alzheimer groups, they would sing songs from start to finish and recall memories from the past.

“What that’s like in the brain is a kaleidoscope of energy and activity and electrical signals. Every time they’re making music, it harnesses the brain,” Tim said. “Spoken language doesn’t require that. By comparison, it requires very little of the brain. It is much more specialized.”

The Musical Gift

“I wanted you to see for yourself that you really can, at any time from this afternoon on, play whenever you want,” Tim told the group. After “planting the seed” of music therapy at the speaker series, Tim headed to Carmel Village, a senior living center in Fountain Valley.

The first floor of the facility had an entertainment area where a saxophonist was playing for a group of seniors. They were all seated and faced forward watching and listening to the performance. Tim headed to the second floor of an adjoining building wheeling black luggage with him that jingled over every bump.

The second floor was a locked down area reserved for seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s. Tim arrived in a room where over 15 seniors were sitting down in chairs with a few in wheelchairs. After he put his luggage in the middle and slung the guitar over his shoulder, he went down to eye level with each person, looked directly into their eyes while shaking their hands, greeted them by name and asked, “How are you?”

They replied, “I’m fine,” and one woman giggled before saying, “Very fine!” which caused the other seniors to laugh. “The arrow of attention is directed towards each of them,” Tim explained.

“It’s in that engagement that they experience music in a way that’s totally distinct from the experience if the performer is letting them view the performance. Now, I’m channeling all this energy to them directly and connecting with them. That’s what makes it therapeutic versus performance.”

Before he played his oldies repertoire, Tim would weave in questions and short stories to get the seniors to interact with him during the session. “Our warm up song is from the 1944 musical, Oklahoma,” Tim said. “We’re going to start out with Oh What a Beautiful…”

Morning,” the seniors responded. Once Tim began to play his guitar and sing, the seniors either sang with him or mouthed the words to what they thought the lyrics were. Other seniors who weren’t singing, waved their hands or tapped their feet to the beat. More seniors entered the room, and Tim greeted them at the end of each song.

“Seniors are what got me to get into music therapy in the first place,” Tim explained. “When I was a little boy, my grandma was in an old folks home and I ended up going there and singing one day with a lady on a piano. My dad died in hospice and music was playing when he died. I thought it was perfect. If I could be the soundtrack for somebody to help bring them peace, in the moment of their transformation, that’s the best use of my musical gifts ever.”

Tim also talked about his decision to move from the east coast to Arizona, then to California, before singing “California Here I Come.”

When he asked where some of the seniors were from, some answered back with, “Canada,” and one said, “North Dakota.” “I don’t know anyone in North Dakota though,” Tim replied. “That’s a good thing,” the person replied back. “It’s just cold and hot.” About halfway through the session,

Tim pulled out various instruments from his luggage for the seniors to play with the music, from the shakers he used in his previous music therapy talk to half-moon shaped tambourines. He asked if anybody wanted to use the instrument and then delicately showed the volunteers the proper way to use them.

Before he started singing, Tim gave verbal cues of, “Tap, tap, shake, shake, to the beat of the song to let the group know to use their instrument. Some seniors started dancing more than before, kicking out their legs while staying in rhythm with the music. “They’re not like that all day,” Tim said.

Tim recalled a time when he was an intern at a different facility with another group of Alzheimer patients: he left the session to grab a sweater from home, and by the time he got back to the facility they were all “zoned out.”

“I realized for the large majority of the rest of every day, their default is that kind of catatonic level,” Tim said.

“The goal at this facility is long-term care,” Tim said, after having worked there for almost a year and a half now. “What I’m really working with them on is the quality of life.”

“From what I have observed, there has been no decline in their cognitive function in a year and half of having a progressive disease that requires them to be in a lockdown unit,” Tim said.

“From that perspective, I’m really excited. There are a couple of them that I have seen improvements during my hour with them, and for some others, that’s just not the case. The disease is progressive and we do the best we can.”

Though he admits that music doesn’t stop Alzheimer’s, “it does seem to slow down the progression and it provides this great quality of life experience.” Tim ended the session with, “Happy Trails to You,” where even the nurses sang along with the group.

Everyone said, “Thank you, Tim,” as he collected the instruments from each person. The seniors left the room with one lady was still singing, “Happy trails to you.” “Seniors are what got me to get into music therapy in the first place,” Tim explained. “When I was a little boy, my grandma was an old folks home and I ended up going there and singing one day with a lady on piano. My dad died in hospice and music was playing when he died. I thought it was perfect. If I could be the soundtrack for somebody to help bring them peace, in the moment of their transformation, that’s the best use of my musical gifts ever.”

The Solo Beat

Tim’s last session of the day was with group teens from 14- to 17- years old at the Newport Academy. They were in recovery from various behavioral and chemical addictions, including mental health addiction that could range from depression and anxiety to eating disorders. “Different age groups are just in a different world,” Tim explained. “You really have to enter their world to meet them where they are.”

Before the session started, they sat in chairs outlining a large hoop where Tim laid out various sized drums and instruments. The teens were giggling and talking about what they did in the day, and with the first rhythmic beat on Tim’s drum, everyone in the room cut off their verbal conversations and joined the beat with their drums. Some played softly and some were hitting the drums as hard as they could.

No matter how they played their drums they still met with the rhythm of the music. Two girls exchanged a look to try and match each other’s beats. Another person tried to fill the space in between another person’s beat with her own rhythm.

“If you want to see how somebody is really feeling, just give them a drum,” Tim said. “Because the drum doesn’t lie. You can’t fake it. We’re going to meet on this beat and we’re going to connect, and you feel it right away. You know when it happens.”

Tim quieted the group with a slow beat and raised his hand to get everyone’s attention. Similar to how he engaged with direct eye contact in his prior session, he pointed at each person in the circle and they would make a new beat to add to a new rhythm. By the time he reached the seventh person, they created a different tone. It was pure drums and music for the first 20 minutes of the session. This was how they communicated.

Halfway through the session, Tim changed the pace of the musical conversation. He explained to the group that behind the music session, he incorporates a lesson from the 12-step program so that they can ask themselves, “What kind of action step can you take for tomorrow today, to physically change what you do?”

He posed this question group: “What does it sound like to be alone?” The group started discussing the solution to this question, and after a few minutes, underneath the sound of their voices slipped a slow and soft, “thump, thump, thump,” coming from one of the boys. No one noticed right away, but then Tim asked if that was a sound of someone’s “alone” beat.

“Oh, because no one was paying attention to him at first!” a teen realized from the group. The impact of the boy’s beat of how “alone” sounded like was enhanced by everyone’s lack of focus on him. Everyone paused.

Tim continued with his illustration. “In order to cope, if I only have good and bad, I just have two options. What if your first reaction wasn’t black and white, but color?”

Tim asked. “The quality of our life is the quality of the answer, so if you don’t like the answer, then change the question.” “I’m really curious at what you’re hearing,” Tim said.

A boy in a suit spoke first. “You can make a situation good or you can make the situation worse. You can’t avoid anything bad happening to you, but you can decide what to do about it.”

The boy who played his alone tone said, “I take it as in, you can either be in heaven or hell. It’s your decision, there’s always good in something.”

The other teens started to offer their thoughts.

“Pain is just a signal, suffering is optional,” another one offered.

“Freedom is an internal job. If I think I’m right just on other’s opinions, then who I am is predetermined,” another one chimed. Tim brought the group back to each person’s sound of “alone.”

Together, they all played their tunes of what alone sounded like to them. The melody was disjointed and lost the energy from before. “Even when we feel alone, we’re not alone in feeling alone. We’re even connected with other people feeling alone,” Tim said to the group. He then asked, “What’s it like to feel connected?”

And the rhythm became more lively and upbeat than the previous melody. Throughout the whole session, Tim never imposed on the group what was right and what was wrong. He gave the control to them to open their own venues of creativity and sound. He was not only the moderator of the group, to ensure that the teens got the most out of the sessions, but he was also a provider of the tools for the group to communicate their thoughts during their recovery period.

The Magic in Choosing

It seemed that Tim previously shared his own struggles with the group. He talked about his youngest daughter Bella, but instead of talking about how she died, he told them how he did not adopt the perspective of, “There’s nothing worse than the death of a child.”

At this critical moment, Tim had to choose: “I choose to think differently,” Tim shared. “Now, my dad is hugging my daughter in heaven. Now, my daughter is pain-free.”

Tim left the group with a parting thought. “Since we’ve determined it’s always our choice to feel connected and to connect if you feel alone, you can make the choice to connect.”

In the same way, he ended the egg-shaking rhythm with the seniors in his music therapy talk, the recovery group pounded their drums as fast as they could until Tim brought his hand down for the group to stop, thereby ending his final session for the day.

“You can’t move them with force, you really only have the right to invite after you’ve come over to where they are in the first place,” Tim explained.

“From there, as more like a companion, you can lead them out. You can use that through just words, through music, through tempo, through harmony, in terms of sad songs to warmers songs. You can move somebody out of the state they’re in, but not unless you first meet them there, give people space to be where they are, and before the end of the therapeutic experience, invite them to move with you somewhere else.”

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