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Judy’s opus: A crescendo of care helps woman hold onto her music

udith 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.

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.

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. 

For nearly two years, Perlman has been a resident at Village Shalom, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Overland Park. 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, Perlman 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 Perlman’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 The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah was a merger of Perlman’s spiritual personality and musical talent. Aside from the clarinet, Perlman 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 Perlman. “I’ll start with something soft and build into something peppier. It’s uplifting.” 

Soon after moving to Village Shalom, Perlman found a kindred spirit in her evening nurse, Kim Krouse. Like Perlman, Krouse 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.” 

Krouse and the rest of Village Shalom’s assisted living team were determined to do everything in their power to ensure that Perlman 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, Krouse and the Village Shalom staff were there to make sure that music remained a driving force in Perlman’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 Perlman 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 Perlman’s participation in various events and rehearsals possible.”

Given the hectic nature of setting up for a concert, Perlman 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, Perlman 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 Perlman. “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, Perlman 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, Perlman 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 Perlman’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, Illinois, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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.

“It was awesome,” recalled Perlman. “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 who, with their help, achieved something truly special. For Perlman, 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.