Carrying a guitar in one hand and a banjo in the other, Sorcha Cribben-Merrill walked down the long hallways of Saint Joseph’s Rehabilitation and Residence in Portland, announcing brightly, “There’s gonna be music here today.”

As she tuned up her acoustic guitar, two women sat quietly in armchairs in a corner of the performance room, blank expressions on their faces. A few others were in the room, too, not paying her much attention.

“Are you ready for some music?” asked Cribben-Merrill, looking at the women in the corner. “Maybe some Hank Williams, in just a minute.”

Within seconds of launching into “Hey Good Lookin,” Cribben-Merrill had her answer. One short white-haired woman lifted her feet off the ground and began tapping her fuzzy slippers together to the beat. The woman next to her patted the arm of her chair with one hand and her leg with the other, all in time to Williams’ 1951 country classic. A couple songs later, both women were standing and dancing, gingerly, while holding hands with nurses. During the hour that she played, Cribben-Merrill got about a dozen residents of the memory care unit moving and dancing, including several in wheelchairs who were spun and twirled by nurses. One tall man followed Cribben-Merrill around as she played, mouthing some of the words. People who rarely engage with outsiders, some with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, were thoroughly into Cribben-Merrill and her music.

“It’s very unusual for most of them to be so engaged, but Sorcha makes eye contact with them and she makes them feel safe,” said Susan Stadnicki, one of the nurses on duty while Cribben-Merrill played. “As a nurse, I love to see the way they react to her. I wish she was here more.”

Cribben-Merrill, 35, is a Portland-based singer-songwriter who records albums and plays gigs all over the country. But for the past six years or so, she’s also been playing at two Portland assisted living facilities, Saint Joseph’s and Fallbrook Woods, every month or two. She’s also helped create music for the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, where she has been a volunteer, and worked with teen mothers in Midcoast Maine to bond with their babies through music as part of Carnegie Hall’s national Lullaby Project. Last December, she got a $1,500 grant from the Massachusetts-based Iguana Music Fund, which she plans to use to cover the cost of traveling to and playing 10 additional assisted-living facilities around the country. She gets paid to play at Saint Joseph’s and Fallbrook Woods, but she wants to bring her music to places that have no budget for music as well.

Cribben-Merrill learned early in life about the emotional and healing power of music, after the death of her mother when she was 9 and the death of a close friend in eighth grade. She feels comfortable, and fulfilled, when sharing that power with people who have little else.

“I’ve seen a gentleman in a wheelchair, who couldn’t hold his head up to look at me, move his arms as if he was playing cello along with me. It inspires me to see how meaningful the music is to them,” Cribben-Merrill said. “I could be having the worst day, or the worst month, and just walking in to play an assisted living gig makes me forget what I was torn up about.”

MUSIC AS THERAPY

Live music is a fixture in many nursing homes, assisted living facilities and rehabilitation centers because of its therapeutic effects, especially with people who have had brain injuries or memory loss. All around southern Maine, there are musicians like Cribben-Merrill who play in such centers, for people who might benefit from their music.

But the various skills needed to do it well don’t come naturally to everyone, said Kate Beever, a music therapist in Portland who has seen Cribben-Merrill perform.

“Some people would go into (an assisted living facility) and play fast, and leave no space for people to participate. The skills a musician needs are different than in a nightclub. You have to know what tempo they need, how much energy they can handle,” said Beever. “It’s not the easiest thing to do, but Sorcha is such a kind person, with such peaceful and calm energy.”

Beever has a master’s degree in music psychotherapy and worked at hospitals in New York before opening her own music therapy practice, Maine Music & Health. She has worked with people who have cancer, autism, cerebral palsy, brain injury, depression, developmental disabilities, dementia and respiratory diseases. Some of her therapy involves getting people who have lost the use of hands or arms to try and reach out and bang a drum in time to music.

Beever said music can be therapeutic to people with brain injuries or memory loss because it stimulates so many parts of the brain at the same time. That’s why songs stay with people for so long and people might remember a song, or the way a song made them feel, even when they can remember little else.

“Music is such a dynamic process, and there are so many tools (in the brain) we have to use during a two-minute song,” Beever said. “So the music is really ingrained in people’s minds. A song they haven’t heard in 50 years suddenly comes back to them.”

Monique Barrett, another Maine musician who plays in assisted living centers, says she was partially inspired to play such places because of Cribben-Merrill and hearing how much she enjoyed it. She thinks Cribben-Merrill is so good at playing to people in need of care, especially people living with memory loss or dementia, because she has a great gift for connecting with people of all ages in a very personal way.

“It goes beyond the music. It’s really just her, the eye contact she makes, her smile. For somebody whose mind is declining, those gestures go a long way,” said Barrett, 36.

Singer songwriter Sorcha Cribben-Merrill performs at the memory loss unit at Saint Joseph’s Manor in Portland. Photos by Joel Page

OUTLET FOR EMOTIONS

Cribben-Merrill grew up in the small town of Brooksville, near Blue Hill, in a creative and musical family. Her parents moved the family there when she was 2, from Boston, because it seemed like the kind of place where they wanted to raise her and her brother. Her father ran his own web design company, did construction, and sang and wrote songs. Both her parents taught music and opened a little music school at their home, giving lessons to local kids. The family recorded at least one album together when Cribben-Merrill was growing up.

But for much of her childhood, Cribben-Merrill’s mother, Carol Cribben, was ill. She died after a four-year battle with breast cancer when Cribben-Merrill was just 9. A few years later, when she was in the eighth grade, Cribben-Merrill lost a close friend to leukemia.

It was then that she started to find emotional comfort in music.

“I was feeling like life was just terribly unfair, and I started writing music on the piano around that time, and it opened a window for me,” said Cribben-Merrill. “Just playing very loudly in the laundry room (where the piano was) was incredibly therapeutic. It was a place to put different emotions that I didn’t understand or couldn’t process yet.”

She wrote music about her friend, and later, about her mother. On her 2010 album “Laughing and Lamenting,” Cribben-Merrill recorded a song called “Your Voice,” which is an adaptation of a poem her mother wrote.

She left Maine to study cultural anthropology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. She didn’t want to major in music, partly because “it had been a such a personal outlet for me,” and she didn’t want to “burn out on it.” But she says she spent more time in college focused on music than on anthropology. After college, she moved to Maine and eventually to Portland, where she started performing in public. Her original music ranges from soulful ballads to more uptempo tunes. They all draw attention to her powerful yet sweet voice, which Barrett calls “the voice of an angel.” She plays at small “listening rooms,” like cafes and coffee houses, but also at larger venues, including One Longfellow Square. She’s scheduled to play April 10 at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of showcase of Iguana Music Fund Grant recipients.

Soon after setting in Portland, she began volunteering with the Center for Grieving Children as a peer-group facilitator, working directly with children who had lost a loved one. Along with Maine musician Billy Libby, she helped created a CD of songs written by children there called “Your Song, Your Story.” She also helped develop a music and literacy program at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.

GIFT OF EMPATHY AND ENGAGEMENT

She began playing at assisted living facilities after a staff member from Fallbrook Woods saw her at Portland’s North Star Cafe and thought she’d be great playing for residents.

Cribben-Merrill has also spent time in Rockport helping teen mothers create songs for their unborn children as part of the Lullaby Project, a national effort put on by Carnegie Hall and run in Midcoast Maine by Bay Chamber Concerts. The program is aimed at giving mothers in difficult circumstances confidence and self-esteem, as well as an experience that will help them bond with their babies.

It takes musicians with talent but also empathy and a gift for engagement to make the program work, said Manuel Bagorro, artistic director for Bay Chamber Concerts and a consultant to the Lullaby Project.

“Sorcha was recommended to us, and it was clear from the beginning that the idea of the transformative power of music really resonated with her,” Bagorro said. “She can draw (the mothers) out of their shell, make them feel comfortable, which is as important as having the musical skill.”

Cribben-Merrill said the fact that she does so many things that combine music with helping others was not part of any career plan. She wanted to make music and has long felt the healing power of it, so combining the two just felt natural.

She plans to use the grant she got this year to help her play at assisted living facilities all over the country. Her plan is that when she’s playing gigs outside of Portland, or Maine, she’ll try to schedule a daytime assisted living performance in the same area where she has a night gig in a cafe or other venue. The grant will help defray the costs of getting to those assisted living performances.

“The reason I applied for the grant was to sort of light a fire under myself to do more of these,” Cribben-Merrill said. “When I play (at assisted living facilities), it just feels so meaningful.”

Contact Ray Routhier at 210-1183 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @RayRouthier