Back And Forth

“There’s all different sorts of music that an accordion lends itself to,” says Wayne Lavengood, although he didn’t fully appreciate the instrument at first.

When you first encounter Wayne Lavengood sitting near the cafeteria at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, he seems out of place. He’s a retired administrator and social worker who helped develop some of the facility’s mental health programs, so his presence is not all that unusual. What throws you off is that Lavengood is playing mood music – The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” “Over the Rainbow” from Wizard of Oz, traditional favorites like “Santa Lucia” – on an accordion.

Lavengood visits CHOMP three times a month to serenade cafeteria diners. It’s part of a rotation that takes him to retirement communities and events, where he entertains on an Italian-made Excelsior piano accordion. And it’s a gig he particularly enjoys. “Friends who I worked with come by,” he says. “There’s something about the instrument that causes people to come up and talk to you – not just the instrument, but the music.”

Watching him ease the accordion’s bellows back and forth, nodding his head as a soft, lilting stream of music flows into the room, you might think of him as one of those rare aficionados of the instrument. He sits comfortably in his chair and plays with a warm and engaging smile. But after seven years of lessons, Lavengood put the instrument away at the age of 14. For decades, he kept the accordion buried in a closet, picking it up only on rare occasions when prodded by friends.

“My parents thought Lawrence Welk was the end all, be all,” Lavengood recalls. Welk was a television show host who toted an accordion and played with a wholesome aura. When a man came through the neighborhood selling lessons, Lavengood’s parents jumped on the opportunity, buying him an instrument.

The 7-year-old Lavengood was hardly pleased. “I never wanted to play accordion as a kid,” he says. “It was not a cool instrument, even then.”

Now he owns five.

Part of what triggered Lavengood’s return to accordion was his role at the hospital. And what brought him to the Monterey Peninsula was a tour in the Army. Lavengood grew up outside of Chicago. At Wheaton College he joined the ROTC. After completing a master’s degree in social work at Florida State he owed the army two years of service – the first at Fort Ord and the second in South Vietnam as part of a unit providing what the military referred to at the time as “Mental Hygiene Consultation Services.”

The unit treated the mental effects of combat on soldiers – everything from PTSD to the emotions of receiving a “Dear John” letter. One time an officer sent in a soldier he thought was hallucinating and hearing sounds that didn’t exist. Eventually they discovered that Viet Cong fighters were digging a tunnel under the soldier’s quarters (“he wasn’t hallucinating,” Lavengood says).

“It was not a cool instrument, even then.”

Through health care, Lavengood rediscovered the accordion. Only this time around he came to appreciate the instrument deeply. Returning from Vietnam in 1971, he took a position in CHOMP’s mental health in-patient department. Over the years he helped develop the hospital’s outpatient program, substance abuse services, a geriatric mental health program and family support groups. In some of these, he found that music aided the caregiving process, in part by relieving stress or improving a person’s mood.

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Medical research appears to support this. A team of French researchers publishing inInternational Psychogeriatrics determined that Alzheimer’s patients showed better recall in some cases when music was played. And a 2017 study of peer reviewed research by scholars at Brazil’s Federal University published in Dementia & Neuropsychologia found general concensus of a benefit, yet cautioned that more “randomized controlled trials” are needed.

After he retired from CHOMP, Lavengood led an Alzheimer’s support group and developed a presentation in which he performed a set of accordion music. After decades where he didn’t particularly enjoy the instrument, Lavengood now treats the accordion as a companion. When he took an Alaskan cruise with his wife, he brought one along. On a trip to Sicily, he managed to rent one.

On a piano accordion, the right hand taps out the melody while the left works buttons that provide an accompaniment. At the same time, adjusting the pressure and pace applied to the bellows can turn sound into emotion.

“It takes awhile to be able to put all of that together,” Lavengood says. “But once you get it, it’s very rewarding.”

He’s aware that the accordion remains a novelty. “Almost every time there will be kids who have never seen the instrument,” he says. “They stand there with their mouths open.”

Probably like he did the day his parents signed him up for unwanted lessons. Now, he explains with a wry smile, “that’s one thing I thank my parents for.”

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