With a song in her heart: Judy Sherwood uses music to reach through the pain

Judy Good Sherwood may have been born with a song in her heart, but the heart in her songs has brightened lives.

Sherwood, 71, pours herself into being a board-certified music therapist, a calling she has pursued for nearly 30 years. To local nursing homes she brings her rollicking piano and guitar playing and mellifluous singing, engaging residents with her vast repertoire of songs — standards, classic country and show tunes, service anthems, gospel hymns, her own compositions, anything to ease the ravages of age or disease if just for an hour.

“We absolutely see multiple benefits from her work,” said Meg Clouser, the activities director at the Hearthside Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in State College, noting that music therapy often engages people suffering from dementia or depression who aren’t responding to other stimuli. “Through music therapy, you see them light up.”

At Hearthside recently, Sherwood started a session by strumming her guitar with enough cheer to chase away the overcast sky outside.

“Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day,” she sang in the dining room before about two dozen residents, many in wheelchairs. “I’ve got a beautiful feeling. Everything’s going my way. Oh what a beautiful day.”

A smattering of applause crackled. Sherwood launched into her customary patter.

“Why would you say it’s a beautiful day? Tell me,” she said.

“If the sun would be shining, yeah,” one man said.

“OK, if the sun were shining, but guess what? It’s not shining. So what do we do?” A couple of thin voices pipe up, and Sherwood repeats their answer. “We make the best of it.”

Music has helped Sherwood, a pianist since early childhood, follow her own advice.

When she lost both parents within months, composing comforted her. Twice widowed before marrying again, she picked up her pen in grief. Her songs have eased chronic back and nerve pain, as surely as they have celebrated her two sons, beloved grandchildren and other joyous parts of her life.

Long ago, while working with sick and scarred patients in a Pittsburgh veterans hospital, she learned firsthand about music’s transformative power — how a few chords and familiar lyrics can erase the present and transport a troubled soul.

It’s a lesson the Ferguson Township resident has carried inside her ever since. She can’t reverse time or cure anyone when leading a group rendition of “Hey Good Lookin’ ” or pushing chords on an omnichord, a kind of autoharp, while a withered woman strums the strings with one finger.

But she can get feet and hands tapping, smiles spreading, eyes maybe glowing with distant memories.

“It’s taking them back to a better time, an earlier time,” Sherwood said. “They’re not sitting in a nursing home. They can do something that they can have success at.”

Putting onions

on ice cream

She grew up in western Pennsylvania, in the steel town of Monessen and then Uniontown, with a thread running through her childhood.

“It was around a piano,” she said. “My life sort of centered around music.”

Her mother, a classically trained pianist adept at both swing and gospel, got her started with lessons at age 6. Sherwood then played by her side constantly. Over the years, she also learned from her grandmother, who imparted more than keyboard knowledge.

Decades later, Sherwood titled the first of her two memoirs “Onions on Your Ice Cream.” The memorable line came from her grandmother’s wisdom.

“She said, ‘Judy, be different. Don’t be like everybody else. If you have to go so far as eat onions on your ice cream, do it, but do not be run of the mill.’ ”

It took her a while to truly heed the admonition.

At 12, she furthered her lifelong work ethic as a soda jerk in her father’s drugstore, whipping up milkshakes and sundaes. She also made music at home and in her church choir, going on in high school to sing in the state chorus and play piano for the school orchestra.

But when choosing a major at Westminster College, she shied away from music, mindful of her mother’s warning she would come to hate playing because of the theory.

After two years, though, she left school to marry.

She had met Roger Good in a choir. They settled in Pittsburgh, and she became a successful real estate agent.

All the while, she led a church children’s choir and gave community piano concerts — the extent of her music until a friend persuaded her to take her guitar to an Easter Seals school.

“I went over there, and in one day I was hooked,” Sherwood said.

It became her Thursday ritual: sitting in a circle of blind, deaf and physically disabled preschoolers, playing songs. Then one visit struck a special chord.

She had just finished singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” when a boy encapsulated in braces staggered over to her.

“And he threw himself on top of me and said, ‘Mrs. Good, I love you,’ and my life has never been the same,” Sherwood said. “It was a defining moment.”

The onions weren’t on the ice cream yet, but she was close.

She drew nearer by volunteering at nursing homes, nearer after her mother sent her an article about a woman who played music for ill and dying people. And then, in her office, gazing out her window, she finally arrived.

“I could no longer be Rosy the Realtor,” she said.

At 38, she tired of showing homes. Deeply spiritual, she felt a tug, God’s voice telling her she had more important work to do with the rest of her life.

“Life is quick, and when I’m 70 years old, I don’t know if I’m going to have enough steam running up and down these flights of stairs: here’s the garage, here’s the powder room, here’s the family room,” she recalled thinking.

“But maybe, maybe, I could sit by someone’s bed and help them die. Maybe I could do that.”

Returning to school

First, she had to return to school — not the easiest task for a nearly middle-aged mother of two.

After she passed an audition playing “Amazing Grace” on her guitar and a Broadway medley on the piano, she began a daily commute to Slippery Rock University, 70 miles away. The college had accepted many credit hours from her past, but she still needed dozens more in music and psychology, since music therapy combines both.

“Suddenly here I find myself having to take all the music theory that my mother told me I would hate,” Sherwood said. “She was right.”

Adding to her burden were a slew of math, biology and other required courses. Nothing could deter her — not the crushing load, not the seven final exams in two days to cap her four years.

“By then, I had the vision,” she said.

Before graduating, an internship with Forbes Health System in Pittsburgh taught her more than anything else.

She did stints in a psychiatric ward, general hospital, geriatric wing and pediatric center, soothing with her guitar at each stop. None moved her more than a hospice.

“I saw in that hospice what music did,” she said. “It was phenomenal.”

A professor, dying at 52, requested Sherwood play “The Whiffenpoof Song” from his Yale days. An Austrian woman needed to hear songs from “The Sound of Music,” and Sherwood found herself singing, “High on a hill lives a lonely goat ...” to comfort her.

“It told me: People die in different ways,” Sherwood said. “And they die as they lived. Everybody doesn’t want to hear “The Old Rugged Cross” at their death bed, but some people do.”

One man, who could communicate only through clicks because of a laryngectomy, presented a list of favorite songs in his final days. Strumming an omnichord while Sherwood chorded, he made his way through the titles as his family looked on.

“What he was saying to them was, ‘This has sustained me. This is what will sustain you. Hang on to this, kids. I’m leaving. I’m giving you what you need.’ ”

She’s so sincere

Time and again in her career and life, music’s magic has awed Sherwood.

Along with her faith, it carried her through the rough year of her parents’ deaths while she plunged into working with 650 patients in the psych ward of the Highland Drive VA Medical Center.

She witnessed a veteran struggling with schizophrenia pound out rhythms on hand drums before a therapy session, throwing himself around as she held off orderlies.

“After the session, he came up and said, ‘Judy, I’m really sorry about the outburst. I was so angry and I didn’t know what to do with it. Thank you for letting me let it out.’ ”

Another veteran, in a stupor from severe depression, would come alive only when she played the country song “Green, Green Grass of Home” on the piano.

“He would sit there and the tears would run down his face,” she said. “But every week, he wanted to hear it again. It was his one time of release during the week.”

There was the arthritic World War II pilot, normally crumpled over, who snapped to attention when she played “Wild Blue Yonder.” A withdrawn Battle of the Bulge veteran confidently sang “That’s Life” like Frank Sinatra.

Then she met the couple who had lost a son in the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they sobbed and abruptly left during a Veterans Day concert Sherwood gave.

She felt terrible until the couple came up later, said nobody in their life wanted to hear about their boy any more and thanked her for letting them grieve again. She held them, and they cried together.

When Lou Gehrig’s disease stole her first husband’s speech, she saw how music reached the remnants of his personality. During a concert at Carnegie Hall, he sang in a croaking voice the whole time.

“I often say the wife in me was appalled at what was going on,” she said. “The music therapist in me was beyond amazement.”

All of her experience she gives now to local senior citizens, joking, laughing, tossing off songs with the ease of a cocktail pianist one minute, passing out glockenspiels, xylophones, maracas and other instruments the next for “hoedown” jams.

For Sally Rothwell, an administrator at the Greenhills Village retirement home in Ferguson Township, it’s easy to tell Sherwood’s music comes from “really deep in her heart.”

“I think the residents can feel it,” Rothwell said. “That’s why they connect to her, because she’s so sincere.”

Rothwell has seen Sherwood visit the rooms of residents too ill or weak to attend sessions. So has Meg Clouser at Hearthside, noting Sherwood once stayed to play for a man near death.

“I hope she can continue sharing her talent and joy throughout the community,” Clouser said.

Sherwood will know when it’s time to play only for her grandchildren, her church and herself.

“It’s totally realizing where my strength is, and my strength is not in me,” she said. “If I ever get to the point where I think I’m doing this on my own, I can hang up my shoes. I’ll say, ‘Lord, I have nothing to give. There’s nothing left in me.’ ”

But she hopes that day doesn’t come.

“I just can’t give up,” she said. “As long as there’s life, there’s a song.”