Finishing on a High Note: The Musical Legacy of David Peters

By Nancy Kennedy

Dave Peters lies in a hospital bed, surrounded by medical equipment that supports his fragile hold on life. He is a big man confined to a small space, but he has lived a broad and rich life, and he still has dreams for his life, despite a grave prognosis. Dave has been a son, a brother, a husband, and a father to two sons; he is now grandfather to seven. He has always been an outdoorsman, and he has worked as a steelworker, roofer, window installer and much more – physically demanding, tough, skillful work that enabled him to feed and nurture his family.

Over twenty years ago, Dave was diagnosed with a rare and progressive form of muscular dystrophy. The disease has slowly diminished his strength and energy. Now, his disease has reached end-stage and he is bed-bound; the hands that once wielded hammers and tools so capably now are still and lie at his sides in quiet repose. They are pale, stiff and swollen, so weakened that he cannot make a fist or feed himself. But those hands have a story to tell – a life story that transcends the obvious and ordinary details of a biography, and that serves as a reminder of the unseen universe within each of us.

Within those hands there are immense and perhaps unexpected capabilities, for Dave has an artistic nature.  He loves to draw and paint, and especially enjoys painting birds, animals and nature scenes. He has kept this talent rather quiet, but his work was good enough to be exhibited at Penn State University about ten years ago, and he has taught art to seniors and special needs children. And that’s not all – Dave is also a pianist, self-taught, and a composer, and it is his music that is now his greatest challenge as well as his primary source of satisfaction and esteem. Modest and private, Dave does not easily talk about himself, but talking about his music brings him pride. “Music flows through me,” Dave says. “I like a variety of music, especially dramatic, suspenseful music like movie soundtracks often have. I’ve always wanted to write music, but it’s not easy to write a song. I didn’t really start writing until I met Katie, and she encouraged me to do it.”

“Katie” is Kathleen Sanford, MT-BC, a board certified music therapist and Dave Peter’s number one fan. They met when Dave became a participant in Community LIFE. Katie joined the staff in 2015, when Dave was attending the day program at the Community LIFE’s Tarentum location. He was younger than most of the participants and kept mostly to himself. On one fateful day at the day center, upon hearing that Dave had an interest in music, Katie asked him to come to the piano. “I was amazed to hear him play,” she says. “He plays by ear – he can listen to a song and immediately play it. His music comes right from his heart. At first he was nervous but as we got to know each other, our relationship grew and his confidence grew. I sat with him as he played and I took notes and played it with him.”

There is one song in particular that Dave and Katie have been perfecting. Titled Silencio de la Soledad, or Silence of the Lonely, it is a lush, dramatic instrumental piece that expresses the wide range of emotions that Dave has felt on his personal journey, as he struggles with his condition and the changes it has brought to his life. “It’s a sad song but is uplifting at the end,” he says. “It’s about a person who feels like he is all alone, and thinks that loneliness will never end, but it does end. The person in the song doesn’t know that, but I know it, and I play it as I have experienced it.”

As his motor skills waned, Dave was no longer able to play the piano, so Katie took over. “I became his hands,” she says. “I know how he wants it to sound. I play in his room and he coaches me and critiques it. I make changes and record them on a computer program that then creates sheet music.”

Music is the universal language, and music therapy is the clinical use of music, through listening, playing or creating it, to help meet the physical, emotional and social needs of individuals. Music therapists can do many things: reduce stress, relax and strengthen muscles, facilitate communication and expression of emotions, and much more. At Community LIFE, music is an integral part of the program, and a perfect fit with the organization’s emphasis on quality of life. At Community LIFE, participants identify individual goals for their lives; the staff provides opportunities and support, and a lot of creative thinking, to make those goals reality. Dave’s goal was to record and publish his music, so that his family would be able to hear and appreciate the songs and have them permanently.

“Music provided Dave with a means for expressing the difficult emotions that he was experiencing with his diagnosis and increasing disability.  It’s a reflection of his life,” says Katie, “and this is what music therapy can accomplish. Music therapy is about being in the moment with the music.”

The unlikely partnership between this young healthcare professional and Dave Peters has been mutually beneficial. Dave sings her praises: “Katie worked magic for me. She’s a very good partner. I needed a buddy who could make this happen, and she showed up at exactly the right time and place. When I could still play, we did a duet. My music is for everyone and because of Katie, anyone will be able to hear it.” According to Katie, Dave has been an inspiration, a great partner and a teacher for her. “Dave brought me out of my shell. He opened doors for me and working with him has strengthened my skills and made me a better music therapist. He is living proof that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.”

Dave’s dream was a simple one: to have his music heard. Now, his sons, David and Danny, his sisters and brothers, and his grandchildren will always have Dave’s music. They will be able to listen to the beauty he created, and it will help them honor their good and gifted loved one. When he looks back on his life, Dave says that he realizes that he has been blessed. “I tried to be a good Dad, and I’m very proud of my boys. I’ve done lots of things; I’ve been to Alaska four times and saw beautiful scenery and wildlife there. I’ve had a lot of life experience and I think my music is best appreciated by people who also have life experience. Life can be hard, and you can have times of great hardship and loneliness, but don’t despair because there will be an end to that, an uplifting end. Music always helps; music takes you inward and upward. Music lasts forever.”