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Young violinist touches older heartstrings

Since February, Alexander Knecht has been playing at a VA medical center in Loma Linda. He's convinced that his music can free patients, if briefly, from the prisons of their own bodies and minds.

July 14, 2009|David Kelly

Alexander Knecht unpacked his violin and sheet music and slipped into Marvin Baker's dimly lit hospital room.

"Hello, Mr. Baker, is it OK if I play a hymn for you?" he asked brightly.

The 81-year-old patient, bedridden by a series of illnesses and unable to respond, stared blankly at the wall.

Knecht lifted his bow and played "Rock of Ages," the lilting sounds swiftly displacing the room's cold quiet.

"I hope you liked that," he said.

Silence.

"I play for him every week," Knecht said, stepping into the corridor. "He can't speak very well, but he appreciates the music, I think."

Since he began playing violin at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda last February, the earnest 17-year-old has grown used to the strokes, dementia and crippling disease afflicting so many here.

He wanders the halls, dipping in and out of rooms, regaling veterans with solo selections from Mozart, Bach and, occasionally, the Charlie Daniels Band.

With those who can't speak, he's learned to read the small signs of awareness: a faint smile, a finger tapping. Signs or no signs, he's convinced that his music can free them, if briefly, from the prisons of their own bodies and minds.

"When the world is as small as your room, there really isn't much to do," said the thin, rangy teen. "This brings a little of the outside world to them."

Paul Winters, 72, bent and twisted like an old tree from arthritis, calls Knecht "my favorite violinist."

"I like country and religious tunes, but I never know what he will play," he said in a raspy voice, hunched in his wheelchair. "I just take potluck."

Knecht isn't the VA's only volunteer -- there are escorts, greeters and therapy dogs -- but he is the sole violinist.

"He does this on his own. It is completely his own ministry," said Diane Gellentien, the hospital's chief of voluntary services. "He came to us and said he wanted to do it, and we encourage more people to do the same."

Knecht and his family, originally from rural Ohio, have been making music at nursing homes and hospitals for years. His mother is an associate professor of pharmacology at Loma Linda University; his father, a geneticist, home-schools him in Loma Linda. His sister Maria, 14, sang Christmas carols at the medical center last year. Not long after, Alexander decided to contribute his own talents.

Their motivation, he said, springs from their Seventh-day Adventist faith and its emphasis on service.

"Jesus led a life of ministry," he said. "He ministered to the sick, to make man whole."

Thoughtful and articulate, Knecht has been playing violin for 10 years but is still a bit self-conscious.

"I get a little nervous before each performance," he said. "I don't know if 'performance' is the right word, but it will have to do."

Knecht spoke as he kept up his morning appointments, carefully noting each visit in his logbook. He pushed a cart carrying his violin and music into the room of 83-year-old Howard Fay.

"Hey!" Fay exclaimed, rising slowly from his bed. "What are we going to hear today?"

"How about 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic?' " Knecht said.

Fay, who has heart problems, rocked back and forth to the music.

"Oh, yeah!" he said. "You do any Irish tunes?"

To his delight, Knecht launched into "I Went a Wandering."

"When are you going to come back?" Fay asked.

Knecht said he'd be back after two weeks of math camp.

"Alex comes in, but not often enough," said Fay, who spends most days watching television. "It's a break in the routine."

His last stop was the toughest: the dementia and Alzheimer's ward.

The staff has tried to soften the unit's often grim reality with warm colors and walls painted with old-style street lamps.

Knecht set up his music stand in front of seven patients being hand-fed near the nursing station. They paid little attention.

He thumbed through the music and chose a Bach sonata. When his bow hit the strings, the effect was immediate. Patients who moments earlier were confused and anxious turned to him focused and clear, their jangled minds momentarily soothed.

He followed up with "The Tennessee Waltz" and "On the Bayou" by Hank Williams.

"The patients are always more calm when he plays," said nurse Linda Orleans. "Their attention goes to the music and not what they are feeling in their bodies."

Head nurse Simona Daniel said it has healing qualities.

"We are dealing with dementia and they get very agitated and restless, so the music is therapy," she said. "It's also nice for them to see other people. They don't get many visitors, and for many life here is the same every day."

After about 20 minutes, Knecht put his violin away. He stood somewhat awkwardly before the group.

"I guess I'm ready to move on now," he said with a smile. "Goodbye."

They watched intently but silently as he loaded his cart and pushed it through the double doors. A few smiled.

"That was pretty typical," he said later. "There is no feedback, so it's kind of different. Sometimes I play too long or not long enough. You can tell by the reaction. Even with people who can't talk, you get a feeling from them."

This fall, Knecht will attend La Sierra University in Riverside to double major in music and math. He plans to continue playing at the hospital.

"In providing music, I think I am giving them hope," he said.

--

david.kelly@latimes.com

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