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Music has helped Michael Kittredge make his way back from a stroke

  • Kittredge, who played the drums before his stroke, starts his days practicing, even though he has the use of just one hand and one foot. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Kittredge plays the drums at his home in Leverett. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Kittredge plays the drums at his home in Leverett. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kittredge’s friend and personal assistant, Tim O'Brien, right, makes music with Kittredge every day GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Kittredge plays the drums at his home in Leverett while Tim O'Brien plays the guitar. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Kittredge plays the drums at his home in Leverett. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Kittredge plays the drums at his home in Leverett while Tim O'Brien plays the guitar. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • SUBMITTED PHOTO/BOB MEAD

  • Michael Kittredge plays at a fundraiser at his Leverett home for the organization Sounds of Recovery. SUBMITTED PHOTO/BOB MEAD

  • Kittredge and his group, The Tuesday Night Band, closed the fundraising show highlighted by Livingston Taylor. SUBMITTED PHOTO/BOB MEAD

  • Michael Kittredge plays at a fundraiser at his Leverett home for the organization Sounds of Recovery. SUBMITTED PHOTO/BOB MEAD

  • Michael Kittredge, whose right side has been immobile since he had a stroke five years ago, plays the drums with a group of friends at a fundraiser held at his home in Leverett last week. SUBMITTED PHOTO/BOB MEAD



Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2017

Michael Kittredge, founder of the Yankee Candle Company, is seated onstage in a wheelchair in Leverett, keeping time with one hand on an electric snare drum while the band around him plays the song “No Time” by The Guess Who. His foot pumps the drum pedal and he doesn’t miss a beat, even though the right side of his body is immobile.

People from the crowd of about 100 dance to the music as Kittredge, 65, and his band close the fundraising show headlined by singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor. Taylor was at Kittredge’s estate in Leverett last Thursday for the $100 a ticket benefit for Sounds of Recovery, a music therapy advocacy organization that was founded by Kittredge’s former wife, Lisa Kittredge after Michael suffered a stroke five years ago. Her aim, she says, is to share with the world the power of healing though music that she witnessed while watching her then-husband’s journey to get well. This was the organization’s third benefit concert.

“It feels good to spend the energy on something like this,” she says.

The organization has already funded a music therapy pilot program at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, which consists of a part-time music therapist working with psychiatric patients.

“Music is a really powerful way to bring people out and have them connect,” says Marcus Soifer, the Cooley Dickinson therapist. “It is the universal language.”

Michael Kittredge had a lifelong love of music which, Lisa Kittredge says, helped him find his way as he relearned basic functions, like how to eat solid food and begin to walk. He still struggles with communication, she says, but retains a sharp ear for music. A drummer before he got sick, he never lost his ability to play, even though he can use just one hand and one foot.

“We all credit that power of music as a huge part of his recovery,” Lisa says. “The progress has been nothing short of remarkable.”

When Michael was in the hospital, Lisa would bring him an iPod and a pair of headphones so he could listen to some of his favorite bands, like The Beatles, The Yardbirds and The Monkees. “He really enjoyed that,” she says.

At first, a grim prognosis

Kittredge, who in 1998 sold the candle company he started in 1969, was helping his son, Mick, launch another one, Kringle Candle, in Bernardston, at the time of his stroke.

Always an early riser, Michael didn’t get out of bed in time for an 8:30 a.m. appointment one November morning, says Lisa, and she knew something was wrong. An ambulance rushed him to Cooley Dickinson Hospital, where doctors discovered he had had a stroke. The prognosis was grim. With paralysis of his right side, doctors later told Lisa, Michael would likely never eat solid food again.

But even while he was in a coma in the intensive care unit, music seemed to bring him peace, Lisa says. Friends came to his side with guitars, playing and singing for him.

Just before Christmas, one of them, John Kuhn, played “Silent Night” and Michael started to mouth the words.

“That’s when we knew that he was getting better,” says Lisa. “His eyes started to open and he started his long journey toward recovery.” 

Guiding notes

In the months that followed, with the help of a private music therapist, Michael Kittredge worked on strengthening his vocal chords, the same muscles used in swallowing. Now, says Lisa, he can eat whatever he wants. Those muscles have pretty much fully recovered, she says, though it’s hard to say whether the music therapy deserves all the credit for that.

When Michael would practice walking, a music therapist would strum a guitar to the rhythm of his steps, and that would help him keep his balance, she says.

When he struggled to speak, his music therapist showed him how to communicate through song to give his caregivers important messages, like he needed to use the bathroom or he was cold.

Every morning, his personal assistant and friend, Tim O’Brien, plays music with him. And on Tuesday nights, a group of friends — some of the same friends who played guitar at his hospital bedside — get together with him to practice some of his favorite songs.

He still has trouble forming sentences, Lisa Kittredge says, but he can sing nearly any Beatles song. If a friend holds and strums a guitar, he can still finger the chords with one hand.

“We discovered that he could remember every song lyric that he ever knew.” His stroke, she says, did not affect the part of his brain where memory is stored and he still has access to the music.

Expanding the reach

Sounds of Recovery, run by a four-member board, donated about $30,000 for the music therapy program at Cooley Dickinson. The program is aimed at psychiatric patients, who often struggle with feelings of isolation, says Jacquielyn Ouellette, director of the inpatient behavioral health unit at the hospital.

“I see the patients who are pacing in the hallways and then they go into music therapy and they start connecting and singing,” she says.

Soifer, Cooley Dickinson’s music therapist, meets with patients twice a week for two-hour sessions, during which he plays guitar for them. He also has included steel drumming at some of the visits.

“This is really putting music therapy in the hands of those that need it,” says  O’Brien, who is also a Sounds of Recovery board member.

In the coming days, Lisa Kittredge plans to meet with the president of Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield to talk about starting a music therapy program there, too.

It’s an uplifting service that helps not just those who have suffered from strokes or brain injury, but people who are suffering with any medical condition, she says.

Since the organization’s launch, Sounds of Recovery also has paid for the creation of the educational website MusicTherapyTales.com, a collection of stories that highlight the benefits of music therapy. The site’s motto is “unlocking the beauty and power of music therapy one story at a time.”

On Thursday night, Michael Kittredge was playing with his Tuesday Night Band. Bathed in the blue and purple stage lights, he seemed to be in his element, exuding, enthusiasm as he played.

Already having exceeded all expectations, he continues to get better, O’Brien says. “It never ceases to blow me away.”

In the last couple of weeks, now when he finishes his breakfast, Michael Kittredge will point at the drums and point at the guitar to let O’Brien know that he wants to start the day with music. 

“Music therapy has been the most consistent therapy that Mike has participated in, so he enjoys it and I think he feels accomplished by doing it,” says Lisa Kittredge.

O’Brien agrees, “Yea, there is no question, he enjoys it a lot.” 

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.