Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Joy of Forgetting

There is a delightful woman who lives in one of the nursing homes I play for once a month. Last night when I arrived with my guitar in hand, she came over and gave me a hug. "Are you going to be making music tonight?" and I told her I'd be playing instrumental guitar upstairs to help the people relax. She wanted to come up and  listen. Then I asked her if she lived upstairs or down and with a twinkle of mischief in her eyes, she replied,  "Oh, I don't live here, I just spend a lot of time here."   I remember now we've had this conversation before and that time I believed her.  I've since come to see that she does in fact live there.  I see though the advantage of her perception of being a frequent visitor.  She always seems happy and each day is new.

She came up to listen to my guitar music for awhile but quickly grew restless and went back downstairs. When I  finished my "sundowning serenade" on my way out, I saw her again. "Oh how nice to see you! are you going to be making music tonight?"   I realized she didn't remember any of our previous conversations.

Some people I see who forget things become agitated and afraid. For her, she seems blissfully unaware. In a way, I think it is a gift to have this outlook because from her perspective, she is always in the present moment. The past is gone, the future not yet here.  Many people spend a lot of time and money in yoga & mediation classes to experience more fully the present moment. It's true that she does so because of aging and illness but if she is happy--that's all that matters, don't you think so?

The above picture is from Gordon House decorations for Easter. Pretty, huh?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

An autumn song in spring

There's a gentleman who I see each month at one of the nursing homes I play. In the 6 months I have been playing there, he never showed he liked the music I played or sang along. He always sat with a stern expression on his face I took to mean that he didn't like the music. On my way out last month, he asked if I could sing the song, "Autumn Leaves" and so I learned it and today I sang it for him.  With this, I saw a whole new side to him as he smiled and sang along for the first time. He has a very nice singing voice too and many others sang along. The sound of our voices and the melody was so haunting that it gave me the goosebumps. Later the activities coordinator came in because I had told her I had a special song to sing for one of the residents. She asked to hear it and we sang it again and I got goosebumps all over again. To me, the goosebumps are an indication of magic in the air. It was very nice to see this man come alive and he sang with many of the others songs too. Also present was a woman who used to sing on Broadway--we did some beautiful singing today!

Earlier I played in the surgical trauma and burn unit ICU at the hospital. I played for a woman who seemed very agitated.  She had such visible wounds all over her face and shaved head, at first it was difficult to look at her. But she smiled when I started to play the guitar and several times during the session she pointed to me and nodded as if to say, "yes, that is good music!" Sometimes she would try to pull out her IVs and I would gently tell her to please leave them in as they will help her to heal. She listened to what I said and stopped. She also had what looked to be her own blanket underneath the hospital sheets. Once she dug for her blanket and appeared about to weep but stopped herself. I got tears in my eyes watching her struggling with pain at times and wanting to cry out or unplug herself from the machines. I stayed with her for a long time. It's amazing what some people have to go through.

Interesting days I have with my work. In the morning there was pain and sorrow, the afternoon, joy and laughter and sharing. Music is what brings us all peace to be there for whatever life offers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My life in 90 seconds

Imagine a film about your life story told in just 90 seconds.  That's where I was today, being interviewed for a mini-film about my life. It was at the Light House Studio and which is a non profit organization that teaches teens how to make films.  It was a great time working with the students!
I was interviewed about my music work in the community with VSA Arts, which is an non profit dedicated to promoting the arts with people with disabilities.

We talked about my cochlear implant and my journey to learning to hear again with a bionic ear.  I brought some of the paperwork I used when I was going through aural rehab. Things I used in the "Listening Gym" which were a series of tests to write down what I heard. (got most of them wrong in the beginning!) It has been 4 years since I made that journey and it was interesting to look back on it all.

At the studio, Channel 29 News came and did a story on the Light House right before my interview. You can see the news crew in the photo above. It was such a nice day and I  honored they chose me to film. I am looking forward to seeing my life summed up in just 90 seconds! If only I could write with that much density--life as a Haiku!

Can you imagine your life story told in 90 seconds?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Heart, Soul and Spirit: Reflections of our concert

"Music's purpose is to bring you to a fragile and personal moment.  Every musician strikes a different balance between faith and reason, instinct and intelligence." - Michael Tilson Thomas - TED Talk

Last night I gave a concert with 3 of my good friends--all of whom I have known for many years and have collaborated with in different ways.  In light of the quote above, I wanted to share some insights into what I felt we each brought to the evening.

Mary Gordon Hall is a singer/songwriter and she is especially gifted with harmonies. She can blend with anyone and make their voices sound more beautiful. In a similar way that a good photographer can make an average person look radiantly beautiful.  MG (as I call her) represented the Heart. Her songs speak of love, longing and innocence and spontaneity.

Peter Markush is an amazing instrumentalist (cello, piano, bass, guitar, fiddle). He played cello on our songs --and in the same way MG can blend with anyone, Peter can make any melody especially haunting and beautiful with his cello playing. He also sings with raw emotion and his songs express the complex absurdities of life. To me he represented the Soul of the group.

Sandy Johnson is a harp player (pictured above) and she brought to the evening an angelic peace with her gentle celtic and old folk melodies.  She represented the Ethereal realm.

Now me I am not as objective about but my songs are about spiritual journeys and questions and my love of nature. I represent the Spirit.

Together, all of us weaved an evening of unique expressions of beauty, joy, peace.  I loved it!
Thank you to all who came out to hear us!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A colorful new bird in the flock

There is a new resident at one of the nursing homes where I play. She is quite a sprightly, colorful person who stands out like a peacock among pigeons. Now I am not trying to say anything negative about the other residents, just that most of them seem very tame and quiet in contrast to Ms. P___.

When I arrived last night to play she approached me quickly pushing herself in her wheelchair to say hello.  Her long, grey hair was tied back with a big sunflower barrette.  She wore a  colorful Guatemalan dress, Japanese looking sandals and big beaded rings on her fingers.

I was playing my guitar and she laughed and mimicked me putting her hands up as if playing an air guitar.   Then she passed me by as if she were in a hurry to get somewhere,  stopping to touch the hands of a gentleman asleep or to say something to another resident who did not seem to notice her. (hard not to!)

When we met up again, we started talking about the weather and I said something about being from Chicago. She scrunched her face and said, "Chicago?! Goddamn! " and whisked herself away as if she said enough. It made me laugh and appreciate the colorful ways she lights up that place.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Welcome Challenge

A friend recently made a comment to me about doing sing alongs in comparison to other performance gigs that made me feel that she thought it was all very easy. It is true that in my blog I tend to focus on the positive things that happen and most of the time it is all positive. But it is not easy and I thought I'd talk a bit about some of the challenges involved with singing with seniors and at nursing homes.

Firstly, it is not always easy to get people to sing along. There are some people who will just sit there with their arms folded across their chest and refuse to participate. Others fall asleep or what have you. Next there is the issue of choosing songs that would appeal to a mixed group of people. Many times nursing homes are full of people from different regions or they grew up in a rural area or perhaps from an affluent background. Which means that one song that would go over well with those who grew up going to public schools would clash with folks who went to a private school.  In other words the folk and country songs do not resonate with the folks who prefer the old jazz standards and swing songs and visa versa. ("Blue Moon", "Sentimental Journey", etc)

This was the case yesterday, one woman loves country music while the man next to her never heard of Johnny Cash. He loved the jazz songs, while the country music lover sat there bored.

Then there is the issue of choosing songs that would not be condescending to some. Most of the time folks enjoy to sing an old childhood song like, "Billy Boy" or "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain" while others would scoff at feeling patronized by the "baby" songs.

It is always a risk to put myself out there--the picture above shows risky challenges and while singing with folks is not skateboarding in an arena.. it does mean risking offending some people or making them dislike me or them rolling their eyes or saying they don't like the song, etc. I have had to grow a thick skin to do this work!

Fortunately, I really enjoy and welcome the challenge. When I sing for a group of people --they are always different. What went over well one day may fall flat another.  I have learned to move on to another song midway if it is not resonating. Or to keep a successful one going longer than usual if it is a real hit. Many times I come away learning new ways to connect with people. Most of the time I come away feeling good as I gained their trust and they let me in.

Do you have a welcome challenge you'd like to share?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Guitar Man

It was just great being back to the hospital today after a break. My work today brought to mind that old song by the group Bread, "The Guitar Man"--do you remember it? The chorus goes:

"He can make you love

He can make you cry

He will bring you down

Then he'll get you high

Our music team got a request in the book for some guitar music. (other musicians I work with play the harp). We rarely get a specific instrument requested, so I figured it was likely someone who either used to play the guitar or still does. When I got to the man's room and told him I was going to play my guitar, he immediately brightened and asked me if I wrote my own compositions. I asked him if he played and he told me about bands he used to tour around with.  He said he wanted to hear my music and so I pulled up a chair, tuned up and started to play a new piece titled, "Promise of Spring". Not far into the piece, he asked, "can you hum along with it?" and so I did so and he burst into tears.  They were tears of great relief, as if he so much needed to unburden himself and only music could do it for him. After I finished the piece, he said he thought my music was very beautiful and my playing was more refined than his. He said he  played more bluesy "back home" kind of music. And so I started to play some blues chords and he said, "keep doing that!" and he sat up in bed and improvised his own blues song. We must have done this a good 10 minutes or more and he would direct me here and there by saying, "now do some picking" or "ok now you sing something" and he would say, "Oh yeah!" and nod his head. 

At one point, a nurse came in to give him a shot and he just kept singing and raised his arm to take it and did not seem to even notice it. Then I sang the blues about that, "I just got a shot and now I ain't feelin' so hot. "and he laughed, "oh yeah!" 

I had never had anyone direct me to play or sing in the way he did. It was as if I were his hands, and I gave voice to his yearning to play guitar.  There was a sense of urgency about his response to the music which made me think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.  The scene when Dorothy found him rusted on the hill and he urgently directed her to oil his mouth, arms, legs and how he would show such profound relief. This man did the same with songs. I would start playing, "Fire and Rain" and he would take over singing it. We sang, "My Girl", "Hey Jude", "With a Little Help from my Friends", "Stand by Me" this way. It was quite cathartic for me too. I was so glad that I was able to get the sounds he needed out of my guitar.

I felt like the "guitar man" in the Bread song--only I'd have to change it to be the "guitar woman" or "guitar person".    Here's another snippet of the song:

"Then you listen to the music and you'd like to sing along
And you want to get the meaning out of each and every song
And you find yourself a message and some words to call your own and take 'em home"

Oh yeah.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Under a rest

Hello everyone! I have not forgotten about all of you.   I did have a rest from recent gig activity and thought I'd tell you some about that. I was sick last week and then we had a big snow storm, those two things slowed life down a lot.  I think the rest did me some good though and I've been reading a lot and preparing for more future gigs. People often ask me, "do you ever have time to rest? what do you do to relax?" and the answers are within.

I have been enjoying having some quiet times at home with my cats (you all know Jasper, his mother Abilene does not like to be in the limelight). I have been practicing for future gigs too. Really my work never stops --either I am practicing or creating or networking or searching for more new ideas.

I do have some exciting news to share which is that I am working towards being an Artist in Residence for Albemarle County Schools. I would be teaching American songs to kids in elementary and middle schools. Everything from Appalachian to blues, pop, folk, country, etc. The songs will be taught in a historical context to help the kids learn in new ways about American heritage. I have a demonstration to give next Monday and I'll let you know how things develop! Surely, I will be blogging here about my experiences.
Hope everyone is doing well in bloggersville! Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sonic Tonic: Serving the Elixir of Life

Today was a special day for me as I gave a presentation with the title, "Sonic Tonic: Serving the Elixir of Life".   It took place at a venue that has a series which features holistic and alternative healing presentations each month.  

My presentation today talked about my work as a certified music practitioner (CMP) and my work in ICU at a hospital. I talked about what inspired me to work in the healing arts back in the mid 80s when I was a studying to become an acupuncturist. I told of how I decided to leave acupuncture school because I became conflicted over how demanding the program was and how it took me away from music. Then there was my fateful conversation with my friend Joe who helped me to see that I could be a healer with music.. although it took me nearly 20 more years to find the Music for Healing and Transition Program (  which led me to where I am now.

I shared "songs from the 11th hour" --which were songs I chose from lists I compiled from my journals from working at the hospital. They were songs that were requested often or songs that had the most powerful response.

We also did some GIM (guided imagery to music) and toning and chanting. It was all a bit of an experiment and a risk for me as I had never tried to lead a workshop like this before. I found that I really enjoyed it and I hope to do more of it soon!

What ways have you found music to be healing in your life? do you like to sing (even in the car and shower counts!)