Meet Contributor, Musician John Van Beek


Meet Contributor, Musician John Van Beek


Please join us in welcoming John Van Beek—our newest (and only) musician in residence! The benefits of music are widespread and have been well documented. From children living with chronic pain to people in either hospice or palliative care, music has a therapeutic effect. For those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s, music can tap into old memories and boost brain function.

John is the founder of Music We Remember and has joined us to launch a free, live performance concert series for the community. In this time of increased isolation, we believe music can bring connection and healing to families and their aging loved ones. This musical performance is an activity families can enjoy together. Please join us December 8th at 3:30pm PT/6:30pm ET for his inaugural performance! In the meantime, get to know John and learn about his favorite moments from performing in assisted living and memory care communities.

Who or what inspired you to become a musician? Where did you get your start?

My grandmother played piano and organ for church services and my grandfather was the pastor. At home he would sometimes play the piano in a much more rollicking fashion than grandma. My mother played some as well, and as a kid my sister and I both took mandatory piano lessons.

I had a lot of Peanuts comic books and was inspired to listen to classical music by the character Schroeder who was always banging out Chopin or Beethoven on his little piano. Eventually I got the idea that becoming a famous composer (who was still alive) would be a worthy pursuit, and I would randomly scrawl sequences of notes on music paper and ask one of my grandparents to play it for me. My piano lessons had more to do with reading what was on the page, and not so much to do with HOW it all worked.

It wasn’t until I was eighteen and picked up the guitar that I had the good fortune to be instructed by a teacher who really opened my ears to the theory behind chord progressions, and how music “worked.” Shortly after I began learning guitar, I started working in the maintenance department of a nearby retirement community. Some years before, my family had taken to visiting a retired minister who had originally opened the home back in the mid 1960s. He and his wife were at a stage in lives where they didn’t get out of their home much, so we would visit on Sunday afternoons and sing some hymns and my dad would read some scripture and share some encouraging thoughts. Once the elderly couple relocated to the community they had started nearly half a century before, we continued to visit them there. Other residents could hear the music, and wondered if we would have a chapel service for the rest of them. So I was working there during the week, and visiting on weekends for chapel services to play guitar (along with my then widowed grandmother, on the piano).

Where did the idea come from to begin performing in assisted living and memory care communities?

Before long I was providing entertainment for the community’s monthly birthday parties, and our chapel services expanded to include a hymn sing-a-long in the secured memory care wing. The incredible connection between music and memories became apparent to me one Sunday morning when I witnessed a particular resident who hadn’t spoken to anyone all week suddenly perk up and sing all the words to every song with a rapturous smile on her face.

I eventually connected with a group of local “gypsy jazz” enthusiasts who were bent on imitating the Parisian stylings of early Jazz guitar hero Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. This is the music I love most, and much of the repertoire comes from the popular American songs of the 1920s-1940s. After a while, I realized that many of the tunes we played also had lyrics, and while I didn’t consider myself much of a singer I figured if Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson could do it, why not me? And so began my exploration of the beloved songs of The Greatest Generation.

Many of our residents participated in a local senior program where they would take a bus to a day center and engage in a range of activities outside our community. After occasionally seeing me performing solo or with friends from the local gypsy jazz scene, the bus driver asked if I ever performed at any other senior communities. Aside from coffee shops and the occasional wedding, I didn’t really play anywhere else. It turned out they had lost a performer and had an opening in their activity calendar. So I began performing at the day center once a month, then twice a month, and eventually at a few other sites related to the same senior program. It dawned on me that I got a lot more fulfillment and satisfaction out of playing the guitar than I did from snaking stray Depends (read: adult briefs) out of the building’s plumbing!

Some years later I married. With a wife, two daughters aged five and seven, and increasing requests for time off work to go perform, I began a relentless season of marketing myself and my music. In 2019 I gave my nine month notice at my day job and whittled down my hours there to one shift a week. My final day was about three months before the COVID lockdown. At that time I was doing close to sixty performances each month with a subscriber waiting list.

When it became apparent I would be out of work for a few weeks, maybe a few months, I began producing a “Music We Remember, Working from Home” weekly music session and sharing it with my clients on YouTube in order to keep my regular listeners in good spirits until we could all see each other again. After two months of scripting, shooting, and editing a half hour show every week, and no end to the current inconvenience in sight, I began offering my services via Zoom and other livestream platforms.

What has been your most memorable performance?

There are so many little things that stick with me: The lady who loudly exclaimed to her table-mate, “I didn’t even remember that I KNEW that song!” There are the folks who sidle up after a show and share bits and pieces of their lives and their special connection to a certain song I played. Sometimes the recollections make me laugh and other times I leave with their tears mirrored in my own eyes. If I can leave a room having coaxed a smile out of every participant, I feel great.

In my days working at the retirement home, we had a handful of musicians move in over those years. Being able to include them in a performance on site, or even offsite, was always a highlight for me and for them.

Playing music at someone’s bedside as they are taking their final breaths has also been a recurring occurrence over the years; I wasn’t aware before, but music thanatologists are a thing. Look it up!

What are your favorite or most popular songs and artists to perform?

I’m always learning “new” songs prompted by listener requests. My favorites usually involve making some comical alterations to the lyrics and a set of chord changes that I find interesting. Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” (made popular by Patsy Cline) is a great example.

Songs that put an immediate smile on my face are of course at the top of the list: On the Sunny Side of the Street, It’s a Good Day (for Singin’ a Song), Button Up Your Overcoat, Blue Skies, and their melancholy counterparts like Autumn Leaves, September Song, and I’ll See You in My Dreams are all dear to me.

Favorite artists include, but are not limited to: Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. Singers like Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and musical comedians like Homer and Jethro, Stan Freberg, and Spike Jones all influence how I approach a song. I can perform the same song 4-5 times in a day, and it often comes out differently every time.

The “young folks” these days are more apt to request something by Elvis or The Beatles, so I’m adapting and learning to appreciate these newer styles. But as the great composer, musician, and band leader Duke Ellington once declared, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

What do you hope people gain from this new, live concert experience?

This year has been a real humdinger for sure. At the start, the catch phrase seemed to be “What’s your vision for 2020?” As my listeners have faced increased isolation, I have strived to develop the best possible virtual representation of my humorous and engaging in-person appearances that I can. Online, streaming video performances are not limited by geography, so I’m excited to bring Music We Remember to a wider audience who can benefit from an additional friendly face and some beloved songs that will rekindle fond memories and possibly spark some new ones. We may not be able to reach out and touch, but we can still sing and laugh together from opposite sides of the screen.

I’m honored to partner with in making a positive difference and doing my part to bring a little light from my corner of the world.

Read more: Portland singer reaches back to touch memories with music

Related: Learn about the choir that’s helped families and dementia patients of all ages create important, in-the-moment experiences together.

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