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Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Bob Jarboe demonstrates his skill on the melodica at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Warsaw. He plays piano and organ at the church despite missing fingers on his left hand, the result of a 1999 car accident.

Healing power of music

Minister doesn’t let loss of fingers counter his calling

Jarboe leads choir practice at St. Anne’s. The Methodist minister applies his musical skill in church and with area residents in hospice care.

Bob Jarboe is putting in a little practice time at the organ, high up in the choir loft at the back of the sanctuary. He is getting ready for his weekly choir rehearsal at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Warsaw.

He’s pulled out the “Sanctus,” and soon the familiar strains of the part of the weekly service are sounding – along with an occasional muddy note in the left-hand accompaniment.

Jarboe is playing the piece with only two full fingers on his left hand – his thumb and his pinkie. His middle and ring finger were claimed in a vehicle accident 15 years ago, as well as his index finger to just above the knuckle.

With the organ, he says, he can use his feet on the pedals to ground the bass, and he’ll often play only the bottom and top notes of left-hand chords, using his index finger occasionally to fill in a note. Often, he says, he’ll automatically use his right thumb to pick up the top note of the accompaniment.

“I can’t do classical (pieces) with all the runs and stuff,” he says – as if he needs to apologize for not whipping out any Bach fugues during church.

A minister in the United Methodist Church, Jarboe studied classical piano at the college level and even gave piano concerts when he was young. The loss of his fingers, he acknowledges, was pretty devastating.

But his keyboard skills are proficient and ingrained enough now for him to play without fear or embarrassment.

“It’s like God puts in something to compensate, like if someone loses their eyesight, their hearing becomes more acute,” the Mentone man says.

“For me, I improvise (for my left hand) all the time. I don’t even think about it.”

Jarboe, 63, says music has always been a big part of his life. He started playing the piano when he was about 5 years old.

“It was either practice or do chores. I hated chores, “ he says, adding with a laugh, “I was lazy.”

Now, after working to recover the use of his hand, Jarboe works to bring the healing he’s found in music to others.

Providing comfort

Being a church organist and choir director is only one of Jarboe’s jobs. His other is as spiritual counselor at Kosciusko Home Health Care & Hospice in Warsaw.

Several times a week, he climbs in his white pickup and drives to homes around the largely rural county offering his services to the dying and their families.

Seven years ago, about a year after he began working for the hospice, he started bringing music to patients. Sometimes, he plays a melodica – it looks something like a clarinet and has its reedy, breathy sound. But it’s played with an accordion-like keyboard.

Sometimes, he’ll just sing. Nothing complicated or flashy, he says – just a quiet melody, maybe a song a patient would remember from his or her childhood or a hymn from church.

“I was thinking when I was with a patient, after talking and prayer, what else might work,” Jarboe says. “Music is just part of me.”

Music, he’s found, helped break the ice and made families feel more comfortable with having him in their home. Then, he says, he noticed similar things would happen.

Whether the person was suffering from terminal cancer, had dementia of one kind or another, or was slipping in and out of consciousness, his or her breathing would often ease, sometimes even synchronize with the rhythm of the song.

He came to believe that patients, depending on where they were in the dying process, got some relief, however momentary.

“Sometimes, it distracts them,” Jarboe says. “It helps take their mind off the pain. It’s comforting. It can be reassuring.”

One afternoon this month, Jarboe was at the bedside of a woman in her 80s at a home by a Kosciusko County lake. The woman was deep into dementia, to the point that she rarely responded to people.

“I sing to her,” Jarboe explains. “I tend to go simpler and simpler, until something clicks. She’s at the ‘Jesus Loves Me’ stage. But she responds to that.”

The woman’s son, in his 60s, hopes that maybe his mother will sing with her visitor, Jarboe says.

However, that won’t happen. When Jarboe finishes, he tells the woman that God loves her and asks to pray with her. Her son agrees.

Jarboe says later that made him feel good.

“We had his wife (as a hospice patient) a couple of years ago,” he says. “She was a severe diabetic. He was so happy to have the agency come back. I know it helped him, and helped him to keep his mother home, which is where she wanted to be.”

Through the pain

As for his own situation, Jarboe is reluctant to make too much of it. People have car accidents all the time, after all, he says, and a lot are affected much more than he has been.

The crash happened one late afternoon in 1999, when he was driving to see a friend in Huntington. He was crossing U.S. 24 going south when he was broad-sided by a westbound driver who, blinded by the sun, did not see that a recently installed traffic light had turned red.

When Jarboe was hit, the driver’s side door flew open. He instinctively grabbed the frame, but as the vehicle rolled over, the door slammed shut on his fingers.

“One of them was gone right then, and the other two had to be removed a week later,” he says. “They tried to reattach them, but it didn’t work.”

He remembers pain, and that he was in the hospital for a week. Later, he had therapy to re-learn simple tasks. He felt pretty bad, physically and emotionally.

But, he remembers that, at one point, his wife, Bonnie, told him, “OK. … You’ve got a month, and then we won’t talk about it any more.”

Jarboe says that might sound like very tough love, but it came to mirror his own feelings.

After the accident, he recalls “one person called me ‘a survivor,’ and I didn’t think I liked that term. It didn’t really apply. Another wanted me to be on a committee for the handicapped – well, I think they said ‘disabled,’ and I said no. I didn’t like that either.”

With a master’s degree in divinity from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Jarboe went back to being a pastor at Faith Chapel in Gobelsville.

And he started looking to music again. He had a bachelor’s in music from Manchester University, where he majored in piano and minored in voice, and it didn’t take long – maybe a month or so – for him to sit down at the piano. He realized he could play, a little. “Doodling,” he calls it.

He also had started composing music, mostly for church, a few years before. He found that ability hadn’t left him. One day, maybe six months after the accident, he played at church.

At one point, he says, he looked into finding repertoire for just the right hand. There’s a rather extensive repertoire for the left hand alone, thanks in part to a famed 20th century concert pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War I. But not much has been written for only the right hand, Jarboe says, and he found it unsatisfying.

“If I only had (played with) one hand, maybe it would be different, but it didn’t work for me. It’s like butter. When you’ve had butter on your bread, margarine just doesn’t cut it. That’s how I feel.”

He adds: “I realized I could do something. I’d just have to approach it a different way, rather than just sitting down and playing.”

Leading the choir

At St. Anne’s, the eight members of the choir start filing in just before 6:30 p.m., and Jarboe begins rehearsal by pointing out their upcoming week’s schedule.

It’s busy: first, Palm Sunday, then Holy Thursday, Good Friday and a 7 a.m. Easter Sunday service.

From the piano bench, he jokes with the choir that he believes Jesus didn’t rise until the afternoon.

“But the church, they haven’t bought it,” he says.

He begins going over several pieces, including a hymn, “The Christ Upon the Cross,” for which he wrote both words and music. Occasionally, he lifts his left hand from the keyboard to conduct the choir.

Then he turns the group’s attention to another piece, “Per Cruces” (“By the Cross”). Members of the choir sigh. It’s in Latin, and it’s supposed to be sung as a round.

The last time the group tried to sing it during a service, it was “kind of bad,” their leader confesses. Basically, the choir got lost in the middle.

“Well,” Jarboe says, “we’re going to try it again.”

He breaks the piece into lines, taking each one at a time and stringing them back together.

Then he splits the group into two and has them start singing round-style.

Then, Jarboe goes out on a limb.

“Is it possible we could split into three groups?” he asks.

Choir members sigh again. They pause. But they follow his lead. They split up and sing – all the way to the end.