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Judy's Opus: The story of a woman who held onto her music with the help of a crescendo of care

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The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City was named 2016 National Champion at the American Legion Senior National Band Competition in Cincinnati, Ohio on Aug. 29. This accomplishment was the latest installment in an 80-plus-year tradition of excellence for the ensemble often referred to as “Harry Truman’s Band” – the only band to have competed in every National American Legion Convention since 1951. Clarinetist Judith Perlman has been a member of the band for more than 35 years. Though she’s seen her fair share of success throughout her tenure with the band, no victory has been more meaningful than the one she experienced this year.   

Judith Perlman is 68 years old. She is living with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Early onset Alzheimer’s is a rare form of dementia that may affect up to a half million Americans. No form of dementia is easy, but none is more devastating than early onset Alzheimer’s. Given the low occurrence of dementia in those under 65, health care providers rarely look for symptoms in younger patients – often leading to a delay in its diagnosis and the beginning of proper treatment. Symptoms usually emerge while the person is still working, in most cases leading to shortened careers and increased financial stress. But perhaps most difficult is the emotional toll on those affected and their family members – most of whom are ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of the disease at such a young age. 

Judith Perlman beams with pride after she and her bandmates from the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City were named 2016 National Champion at the Legion’s Senior National Band Competition in Cincinnati, Ohio.  

For nearly two years, Judy has been a resident at Village Shalom. There she has been able to continue to lead a meaningful life thanks to the care and services the community provides, but for her, the decision to move was a difficult one. Aside from giving up the comfort and familiarity of home, Judith was concerned that the move would mark the end of her time with the band – one of the few remaining ties to the normalcy of her life before Alzheimer’s. 

Music has always been at the center of Judith’s life. She began playing the clarinet in fourth grade and continued through high school. She later went on to major in music therapy in college. Classical music, especially Mozart, is her favorite. She also has a deep love of traditional Klezmer music, and takes great pride in a version of the classic Hebrew blessing, “Sim Shalom,” she composed for her adult B’nai Mitzvah class.  The honor of blowing the Shofar for the Yom Kippur services at Temple B’nai Jehudah was a merger of Judith’s spiritual personality and musical talent.  Aside from the clarinet, Judith loves to play the guitar. She plans to eventually donate her guitar to the Wounded Warrior Project, as she has first-hand knowledge of the healing power of music.  

“I can always get my spirits up by playing music,” said Judith. “I’ll start with something soft and build into something peppier. It’s uplifting.” 

Judith Perlman performs at the 2016 American Legion Senior National Band Competition in Cincinnati, Ohio.

 Soon after moving to Village Shalom, Judy found a kindred spirit in her evening nurse, Kim Krouse. Like Judith, Kim had been a music major in college. Krouse strongly considered beginning her career as a music therapist prior to becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant. 

“I quickly took a special interest in Judy,” recalled Krouse. “I think it’s because we have so much in common with music.” 

Kim along with the rest of Village Shalom’s assisted living team were determined to do everything in their power to ensure that Judith could remain with the American Legion Band and fulfill her goal of attending the National Band Competition in Cincinnati. Whether it was reserving appropriate evening practice space or having her ready on time for her ride to rehearsal, Kim and the Village Shalom staff were there to make sure that music remained a driving force in Judy’s life. 

The drivers of JET Express, a volunteer transportation service facilitated through Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City, were equally important in helping Judith to reach her goal. They were in frequent communication with the Village Shalom staff to coordinate her transportation to-and-from practice, and would even escort her into practice and assist her with setting-up her gear and music. 

“We worked with the folks at Village Shalom and JET Express to coordinate her transportation needs,” said Mark Drake, President of the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City. “During the summer season, they were instrumental in making Judy's participation in various events and rehearsals possible.”

Given the hectic nature of setting-up for a concert, Judith often required additional outside assistance to prepare herself before a show. 

“It can be chaotic during set-up,’ said Krause. “One Saturday I was able to be there as her personal assistant. It was really enjoyable to see her so happy. You could tell that her bandmates really cared about her and wanted the best for her.” 

 Rehearsal and performance logistics were only half of the story. As her disease continued to progress, Judy found that fast tempos had become difficult to follow, and keeping track of her gear and sheet music had become especially challenging.  

“With the Alzheimer’s, you think you’re doing something right, but it’s not quite right,” said Judith. “It can get really frustrating, so sometimes you just have to take a step back.” 

Unwilling to give up on something so dear to her, Judith reinvented her approach – increasing the number of times she practiced each week, and developing her own systems to stay on track and minimize her level of frustration.    

When the time finally came for the National Band Competition, Judith needed someone to accompany her on the long bus ride to Cincinnati. Her sister, Marcia Cox, lives less than an hour from Cincinnati. Not willing to let her sister miss out on the opportunity, Marcia took the week off work to fly to Kansas City and immediately hop on a bus back to Ohio to serve as Judith’s “roadie” for the weekend. 

“My sister has been part of the Greater Kansas City American Legion Band for more than 35 years,” said Cox. “They have challenged her to meet their standards, but most of all, given her love and support throughout her life. They have been there for her over the years of her illness, no less than in previous years.” 

“This trip was so important to Judy, and I am so proud that as a group we were able to make sure she was able to go,” said Village Shalom Director of Assisted Living, Jill Craft. “This is why we do what we do.” 

The National Band Competition is a three-day affair between three American Legion Bands from across the country. This year Kansas City faced-off with bands from Joliet, Ill. and Minneapolis, Minn. The bands performed three pieces, each judged on strict musical criteria and timing. When it was all said and done, an impressive cumulative score of 93.7 ensured that Kansas City took home the national crown. 

The clarinet section of the 2016 National Champion American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City shines after their victory (left to right) Carol Henson, Belinda Johnson, Judith Perlman, Terry Moran, Heather Pearson, Kathy Wing, Nalleyn Jones. 
 

“It was awesome,” recalled Judith. “Because so much hard work went into it.”  

The championship served as a triumph on many levels. For the Village Shalom staff and the volunteers at JET Express, it was a selfless victory – the prize was the gleam in the eyes of a woman whom, with their help, achieved something truly special. For Judy, it was a testament to the value of hard work and dedication – serving as proof that nothing, not even Alzheimer’s disease, can keep a determined person from their goals.