Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Creativity is it for me!

I believe in creativity! Be it art, writing, music, crafting, cooking, gardening.... the act of creating something is so incredibly therapeutic. Today I had a group sing along at the Carver school held in an art classroom. The photo above is the canvas that covered the table which is a work of art in itself!

Earlier today I was feeling kind of sad and missing my mom (who I visited last week) and feeling sad she is so far away. (AZ)  As it was a cloudy day, that didn't seem to help matters.

Later when I looked out the window and saw the bus arrive with my singing students (see photo below) a big smile came upon my face.

Things got better from there. Those kids just light right up when we sing and they make me happy too. We sang all our favorites from "Lean on me", "With a little help from my friends", "You've Got a Friend",  "Stand by me", 'My Girl", "I'll be there."  Sure made it a better day.

One boy came up to me after class and whispered that he wants to sing in the music recital (VSA) next year with me. When asked which song, he said, "You are my Sunshine".
Good choice and thanks for the good times today!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Heartbeat rhythm & entrainment

I work at a hospital as many of you know and use music in a scientific way.  Many people see me in the hallways with my guitar at the hospital and think I am there to entertain people or cheer them up.  But actually, what I do is almost opposite of entertain them.

I work with a principle called, "Entrainment" which is the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm. A good example of this is playing for ICU patients in critical condition. I can observe their vital stats and HR and using entrainment, I can work to bring their heart rate down and stabilize their pulse.    The body has an automatic mechanism that synchs you up with strong, external rhythms, pulses or beats and working with this phenomena I  play a piece of music (instrumental guitar)  between 50-70bpm which is the heart at rest. Over a period of 20-30 mins, the patient begins to "entrain" with this slower rhythm and in most cases they fall asleep.  

I worked today in the STIBU (surgical traum& burn unit) ICU, and worked to bring the heart rates down. It is so gratifying to play for a patient who is anxious and see them fall into a deep, restful sleep. 

Today I played for a man whose heart rate was 106 and I stayed until it came town to 101. It is not a big difference but still, I saw him go from being wide awake and anxious to sleeping deeply and  peacefully. The most dramatic difference I've seen was a heart rate going from 130 to 90 It is work I love to do.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Love me a Hootenanny

Don't you love that word "hootenanny"? I first heard it in Chicago when I started taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music. My favorite of the experience was when all of the students and teachers would gather together in a big room and sing and play together. I loved how the most advanced players would be sitting along side a beginner.  We were all unified by our love for music and learning the guitar.  Before finding the folk music scene, I was into rock and roll music (in the 70s). The sing alongs were so appealing to me because it brought us all together. Such a different thing than going to a huge stadium and hearing some loud music where the band would play so far away.

I was reminded today of these times when I went to sing at a nursing home in Crozet. I go there each month but today was especially good. It is rare that everyone in the group sings but today that happened.   All of us from our varied backgrounds, beliefs, world views singing old songs together.
It seems so many systems in our lives such as families and jobs, clubs, there is some kind of social hierarchy going on. Bosses and subordinates, parents and children, rich and poor, rural and city folk, etc. With music, none of these differences come up. This is one reason I believe it is so important to keep group sing alongs going.

Do we have any song requests?  A woman who joined us later asks for, "You Are My Sunshine". Though we already sang it,  we sing it again and everyone joined in as if it were the first go round.

Anybody have a birthday coming up? We sing it for those I won't see until next time.

Now we have time for one more song...I choose, "Buffalo Gals" 

"Buffalo Gals won't you come out tonight
come out tonight, come out tonight
and dance by the light of the moon."

see you next time.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From the land of the Sun

Playing at Fiddler's Dream in Phoenix, AZ is getting to be a tradition each year. It works well for me as my mother lives there as well as a few friends.  The coffeehouse is a small and simple and run by a Quaker group.  As I rarely perform out of state, this is the closest thing to feeling like I am a touring artist as I come these days.

A friend of mine works at the Arizona Dept. of Deaf and Hard of Hearing and I gave a small concert there too. (photo above)  They were excited to see someone like myself who is a cochlear implant (CI) recipient to be able to continue to play and enjoy music. I am making plans now to work more with CI recipients to help them enjoy music again.

I enjoyed my trip out west but I am happy to be home again too. I am happy to see that spring has sprung in my absence and to see the green of the grass and leaves again! Yay!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Well, that was interesting....

Last night was a gig in Roanoke at the Third Street Coffehouse (as you can see from the photo :).
I'd say that my gigs in coffehouses and cafes are the most challenging for me because it is not always easy to  please an audience.  As an artist, I try to strike a balance of presenting music I feel people will like but I also want to maintain my integrity as an artist and do what is true to my heart.

Last night's set started off with high energy and enthusiasm in the air. I am not sure what happened  but somewhere along the line, the mood changed and people started leaving.

It could have been the drunk guy who came in late and started heckling. I didn't understand what he was saying (mostly song requests) but it definitely changed the mood and within 15 minutes or so, the rest of the audience left. I didn't want to stay and sing for just two people (my ride home and the drunk man), so I ended my set early and called it a night.

I left feeling confused by the whole thing. When things like this happen, I try to see if there is an overall message telling me to take a different route with my music. I have to admit that I enjoy playing in therapeutic settings more than as an "entertainer" (for reasons stated above).

On the long drive home (100+ miles), I thought a lot about it and decided that the fact that doing music full time is full of unpredictable experiences is largely why I love it so much. It's not often something negative happens-but it's no different from a frustrating day at the office.
 Even so, I sill love my work --even the down times are an opportunity to learn from.

What do you do when things take a negative turn at work?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Been knowing you a long time

Today was a trip down memory lane when I saw a man who used to be in a coffeehouse social hour at a center where I worked with people with various disabilities. It has been since the mid 90s since I last saw him.

When I walked into the room where I was going to sing for a group today, he was sitting in a rocking chair off to the side of the room. As I immediately recognized him, I started to approach him when he said, "How have you been? I haven't seen you in a long time." I said, "Cecil, I have been knowing you a long time!" and he said, "I know you have known me a long time."

Now what is completely remarkable about this is that in all the 20+ years of knowing him, I never knew that he could talk. He would always fall asleep in the chair until coffeehouse was over. When I spoke to him, he would only nod. I never knew that he understood anything I said. 

So imagine my surprise that not only did he remember me, but to learn that he is much more capable and aware than I ever knew him to be. I wonder if perhaps medication in the past caused him to be too drowsy to be aware. But whatever the case may be--it was a great surprise.

When I was leaving, he told me that his birthday was coming up and I sang him "Happy Birthday".
I have learned today that sometimes we may think someone is not capable of understanding or communicating--but if you give them a chance, they may show you otherwise!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A little bit of everything

Today was a concert I gave at a library in Waynesboro, VA. I love that on the poster they made for it (above), they described the music as, "A little bit of everything."  And....it was just that.

I'd say that today's group was one of the liveliest I've had in a long time. There was a big group of people with special needs there who were quite animated and their laughter was contagious. I enjoyed watching the audience's response to them who clearly got a big kick out of their enthusiasm. One young man was great at sound affects.  Each time a song mentioned an animal or train or car or something that had a sound, he would make it very loudly, causing everyone to laugh. I told him he would have been a great sound effects maker in one of those old radio shows that told stories.

I was glad that everyone in the room went along for the ride and got into the fun and silliness. We sang, "On top of Spaghetti", "Be Kind to your Web Footed Friends," "Old McDonald," "Bingo, "If You're Happy and you Know It" as well as many other songs everyone knows. We all had such a good time together and that is what singing with others is about!

I will end with a quote by the late movie critic Roger Ebert that I so agree with:

"I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

I feel this happened today but I do not take the credit for it. Everyone contributed in some way--whether the one laughing or the one making us laugh or one who sat in silence taking it all in.

Monday, April 8, 2013

When work is a refuge

People often say to me things like, "You are so nice for doing the work that you do!" Some people see it as my helping others but what they don't understand is how much it helps me too. Today I had a headache and was tired and unmotivated to do much.  I was looking so forward scenic drive out to a nearby town where I would be playing for some seniors. It is a huge place and the interior looks like a southern palace (see photo above).

So much was I looking forward to the quiet drive (and to get away from the loud construction noise in my yard) that I arrived about 30 mins early. I sat outside on the bench until a nice young woman approached and said, "Are you Blue?"   She led me to the room where I'd be singing and I felt my headache melt away. I was enjoying the conversations with the folks who arrived until the rest of the group came.

Some days I feel most alive and vibrant when I do this work. I feel a sense of purpose and meaning and connection. I enjoy seeing the reactions on new faces of songs I sing and it's always great when they sing along and enjoy themselves.

I was struck by an encounter I had with one woman who approached me on my way out. She said she was learning to play jazz on the piano. She said she was 99 years old!  It's never too late, is it.

Thank you for having me today!

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Something that I love about my work is the diversity of experiences I have and the interesting people I meet. Yesterday morning was my gig playing guitar at the gym.  I love playing music in unexpected places.  I play in an area where folks sit and read the paper or wait for a friend or relax. In the two hour stint I am there playing, many come and sit next to me. Some of them never acknowledge they are listening but I can see that they are. I know because they stop and close their eyes and seem to slow down and take a deep breath. It seems we are all going all the time at 90 miles an hour. I love to play slow music to help people slow down.

Then yesterday afternoon was my new songwriting class I am teaching at a home school enrichment center in town. I am really excited about being part of this community! I felt like I fit right in and you can see in my picture above that I was feeling happy and at home. I had a good time with my young students and look forward to getting to know them more.

Today, I worked in a few ICUs at the hospital. I was struck by one woman, whom I was told never had any visitors. I went to her and played my guitar by her side. After about 10 minutes, she raised her hand and made a motion with her finger as if to say, "come here."  (she could not speak because of tubes in her mouth from a respirator machine). So, I went to her and she tried to tell me what she wanted. After some guesswork, it was that she wanted me to take the tubing out of her mouth. Of course, I am not allowed to do things like that and I told her so.  When I told her I would get the nurse, she nodded, "no" and pointed to me. I said, "I am sorry, I know you are uncomfortable but I can only play music for you. Would you like for me to continue?" This went on back and forth for about 30 minutes. Eventually I had to leave her because I could see that she only wanted me to help free her from the machines and I could not do that. My presence was agitating her more, though I tried to bring her peace. I rubbed her arm and said, "I am sorry  but they are helping you to heal " and I left her. It sometimes goes this way.

There you have my work in two days, lots of varied experiences. All of which I value so much.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Quiet place within

My week was enriched with many uplifting experiences at various nursing homes. Each brought me some happiness and peace.    I now live next to a big, noisy construction site where a beautiful forest was destroyed. It has been very hard for me to witness this and each day I struggle to make peace with it. My days visiting beautiful places and nice people is a great soothing balm for me.

Today, I decided to share some snapshots of my week in Haiku form. The picture above is from my favorite place in Madison county. How I need that quiet peace in my soul right now!

My week in Haiku
A room full of joy
nurses, maids, residents sing
an old melody

Dancing in wheelchairs
united in one moment
one voice together
Shy new one staring
I'm singing "This Little LIght"
her hand reaches up

Finger dance smiles
now no names do not matter
maybe now new friend
Yelling loud woman
I sing, "You Are My Sunshine"
you say, "I like that."
Blow a kiss hello
Priscilla's happy greeting
nice to see you too
Country roads, take me
home, to a place I belong
a song we all know

Stirs longing for place
without machines, urban sprawl
quiet peace within

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Life in 90 Seconds.... here it is

Hello everyone,

Remember when I told you about the documentary film that was made of me with the Mountaintop Montessori students at the Light House Studio in Charlottesville?   Here it is....

I think they did a good job with it and I am honored they chose me to interview!
Thank you to the Light House and Montessori students!
PS I have asked to see if they can put some captions for my hard of hearing friends. Will get back to you on that!

Blue O'Connell from Light House Studio on Vimeo.