Many musicians end up working “day jobs” to make ends meet, but Brenda Lynn Allen loves her day job just as much as she loves evening gigs performing on stage, in and around Nashville.
Her day job as recreation coordinator at the rehabilitation center National HealthCare Corporation (NHC) has helped her learn about the music business, but the job’s real rewards have been what she’s learned about people and the power of music.
“The coolest thing I’ve learned is that we never lose music because it is in a different part of the brain,” she says, explaining that she works with many patients who suffer from various forms of dementia. “If you can’t reach somebody by talking to them or touch, you can reach them by music—even people considered comatose. It is really amazing.”
Allen describes one patient, a 40-year-old woman who suffered a brain injury in a car accident. “She can not speak, but she sings with me. That’s how I know I’m reaching her,” Allen says. “And that is so common; it amazes people. To show that to the rest of the staff lets them know that she’s still in there.”
Allen began working at NHC after answering an ad in the paper for an activity assistant. “I went to the interview not knowing what to expect,” says Allen, who was in college and working as a substitute teacher at the time. It turned out she knew the recreation coordinator, and more importantly, the coordinator knew her from school.
“She hired me under the condition that I would share music with them because she remembered me singing in school,” says Allen.
“When I was a kid I would sing all the time in class,” she explains. “I started singing in front of people when I was probably six. My sister and I would charge the neighbors to come over and do shows for them and make up songs. My dad told me that if I ever get the opportunity to sing, or somebody asks me to, I don’t need to turn it down. The teachers and students were always encouraging me.”
Allen says she’s always had an inclination towards older country music. She began singing Patsy Cline songs when her grandfather passed away, leaving his record collection. “He had this big box of records. I would play them and write down the words on a piece of paper and learn one song at a time,” she says. “I was very disciplined about learning songs.”
Her parents gave her a white Washburn guitar for Christmas when she was 13 and her father began teaching her to play. “When I got a little older, I started playing writers’ nights in Nashville and lots of open mikes,” she says.
Learning Through Music
Allen was eventually asked to take the position of coordinator at NHC. “It’s one of those jobs where you can learn a whole lot. What I am doing during the day almost feels like a calling,” she says. “The music business and what I’m doing in this job go hand-in-hand.”
Likewise, her work as a singer-songwriter is a benefit to NHC. Aside from frequently performing for people at the facility, she’s in charge of bringing in other entertainers. “I really use my connections in Nashville and the musicians I’ve met there.”
“I don’t think I could have looked at music as a business without my day job,” she explains. “Sometimes I call myself the entertainment director. This job has taught me about entertainment and relationships with people and I’ve even learned how to emcee shows.”
Eight years ago, when she first started at NHC, Allen thought the residents would only enjoy the familiarity of cover songs. “In this part of the country, the three songs that get the most response are ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” she says.
The thinking in the long-term care community was that people with dementia couldn’t learn new things. “I thought that can’t be true, I’ve seen people learn new things,” she says, adding that this theory has since been proven false. “People are people, no matter what age, and they are capable of learning no matter how progressive dementia is.”
Now Allen often plays original music at the facility and has even written songs for patients. “Right now I am trying to write songs about how we are all individuals and we all have a story to tell. Nobody has the same story and everybody has something to teach others, no matter what age,” she says. “I’m working on songs to educate people about improved quality of life in long-term care.”
“We try to incorporate music into almost everything we do,” she says about her work at NHC. “Music definitely is the universal language.”
Allen says she feels blessed in her dual careers: “I’m excited about playing in Nashville and doing the things I want to do there, but it really goes hand in hand. The patients are probably my biggest fans and most supportive group.”
—Click here to watch some of Brenda Lynn Allen’s videos.