Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmastime is Here

Today is Christmas Day and so Merry Christmas to you, dear reader! I wanted to tell you about my day yesterday, on Christmas Eve. I went to work at the hospital and played for some people in ICU.  On my route, I went to check in on a patient I played for last week. When I arrived at his room, the nurse gave me the news he was going home!   I went in his room and there he was, all dressed with his coat on and his belongings all packed up and ready to go.   His wife stood by his side and I said, "Merry Christmas!"  Then I got out my guitar and started to sing, "Joy to the World" and his wife joined in. As we stood singing, my new friend began to cry tears of joy for going home on the holiday. We only had a few more minutes to visit before the hospital staff came to escort him to the parking lot.  He said, "when this is all over, I am going to call you up and invite you to come over and sing with us!"

Later, I was playing some holiday music on my guitar in the lobby when a man approached and asked if I also sang. He said he wanted to harmonize with me and so we sang a bunch of carols together. I loved how our voices blended and the people going by smiled as they listened. Then he sang a few by himself as I accompanied him on the guitar before he said he had to go to see his family up in the room he was visiting.

Just a couple of glimpses to show why I love to play on Christmas at the hospital. I also want to mention the many staff members who cheerfully looked on as I played and said they were also working today on Christmas Day. I plan to return today in hopes to brighten someone's holiday.
Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice and the darkest days

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. We are in the darkest time of year and it is a New Moon too. So if you live away from street lights, it's pretty dark out at night. I see it as a metaphor for this time of year too. With Christmas looming ahead, there is the pressure of shopping, family gatherings, parties and the like. So what happens if you are an introvert? Or of you don't like parties?  I have learned it is ok to be quiet amidst the noise and bustle.

I am reminded of something from a guitar class I took many years ago. There was an ensemble of guitarists that performed and with them onstage was someone standing there without a guitar. He did not speak or play a note of music. Later we were told he was "holding the silence."  How cool is that?  I'd like to have that job once in awhile.   To be a holder of silence amid the noise and busyness would be a nice gift to bring to the world, don't you think so?

These last few weeks though I have been bringing music to people in all kinds of places. Nursing homes, hospital, the gym, day care centers, homes. There is something extra special about this time of year too because most people think of it as a joyous time but I see a lot of sadness too. We are thinking of another  year gone by, people we have not seen or who have passed on. We forget that the solstice and Christmas time is also about sadness and not just joy. We can't have one without the other.

I will never forget I once worked for someone who said to me one day when i was sad, "I LOVE to be sad!!!" I thought it was so odd. And yet what a great attitude to have. Embrace life and full spectrum of color and experience.

Now to finish wrapping some presents. Hope you are enjoying the shortest day of the year. :)


Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Twelve Daze of Christmas

Singing with groups can be such great fun and some days really stand out over others. Yesterday was such a day when I played at two adult day care centers and later a reception at the new Battle Building Children's Hospital at UVA. 

There is no better feeling than singing with a group who loves to sing. Christmas carols often inspire people who normally do not sing to join in. Everyone knows the words, even elderly or special needs who are non verbal.

Something that has made it challenging for me is that my friend Mary Gordon Hall and I have sung "Mixed Up Carols" for many years.  It's where you take the melody of a one song and sing the words of different carol to it. The problem is, sometimes I can't remember how the songs really go!

Yesterday I got a request to sing, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." This is one carol I haven't really sung regularly and it is a very tricky song to sing!  I was tongue tied many times and it was a good thing the staff was there to help me along!  We did have some good laughs and bringing the holiday cheer is what it is all about!

Pictured is the big Christmas tree at the new Children's hospital at UVA.  I played my solo guitar rendition of "The First Noel" among other holiday favorites. Such a great day and Merry Christmas everyone! 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Beer & Hymns bring festive cheer



Last night I attended a most unique and enjoyable event that takes place at Trinity Pub on the 1st Monday nights of the month across from the U.Va campus. "Beer and Hymns"   has been happening for 3 years and enjoys a pretty good attendance. Last night about 30 people gathered to sing Christmas hymns from the St. Mark Lutheran Church hymn books.  There is no better feeling that being in a room full of people who love to sing. Even better--who sing well! The harmonies that wove through the room were heavenly! I absolutely loved it. 

Here's another thing. You don't have to be a church goer to love to sing hymns. A friend of mine who sings in a sacred music ensemble said about the event, "I love to sing hymns, even as an atheist."  Hymns were written with group singing in mind to uplift those who sing and lift them up out of the mundane.  Singing hymns with a group makes you feel bathed in beautiful sounds that wash away daily concerns. It makes you feel, "Everything is right. Everything is going to be ok." 

We live in such time of suffering and conflict and darkness. Now with the holidays approaching, I am aware that many people become more depressed as the pressure to be happy and with family (where some do not have) looms ahead. One way to think about it is that all religious parables are about finding light within the darkest days. If you should find yourself feeling down at this time, then you are aligning yourself with all seekers who looked for the light out of the darkness. 

If you live in town, consider coming! Here is an NPR story about the local Beer & Hymns gatherings. Enjoy and happy singing!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Songs for the 11th hour

I've been playing therapeutic music in ICU at a hospital now for 10 years.  There are days like yesterday when I see how fragile life can be. How our lives change change on a dime. We just don't know one day from the next what life curves life will throw.  ICU is full of people whose lives have been forever altered.  It is challenging to witness the suffering of others and their families.

Yesterday I was playing for patients in the surgical trauma ICU. I was sent to a room of a young man who was in a coma,  and on life support. I was standing at the doorway, looking over where would be the best place to sit (and not be in the way of the nurses) when the patient's mother appeared by my side. She looked as though she hadn't slept in some days and when she saw my guitar, she said with tears in her eyes, "Oh please, play for him. He is a musician and he plays the guitar too."

I found a chair by his side and began to play slow, soothing melodic passages to help bring down his heart rate.  Most of the time in ICU, I do not play something that would be familiar to the patient, especially if they are not able to speak. I can't risk sparking a memory that would call up emotional material for them. So, instead, I make up my own lullabies and soothing, simple music that lets them know I am there. I give a melody they can follow out of the depths of their suffering. A trail to where there is hope, comfort, beauty and healing.

As I played, his mother stood by his side and held his hand. She watched him closely and at one point she said, "I know he can hear you." She would often lean down and kiss his cheek. Her tender caring and love for him was so moving for me to see.  It is quite an honor to meet people in a place where they are the most vulnerable.  I am a stranger to them when i walk in the hospital room, but as soon as I start to play music, we are bonded by the universal language we all speak. The language that has no words.
Above is a picture of me taking in the ICU over the summer by a family member of a patient.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Inspirations, explorations and going back to the roots

I was inspired to take up the acoustic guitar back in 1975 after meeting a new neighbor down the street who was my age and proudly called herself a folksinger. Before meeting her, I was into the rock bands of the time such as Yes, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Beatles, etc. I also played the drums in high school band and I dreamed to be a rock and roll star.

Not long after taking up the guitar, I accompanied my friend Cindy to some of the finest folk clubs in Chicago and I was hooked! The raw honesty, simplicity and beauty of this music stole my heart.  I started taking guitar lessons at The Old Town School of Folk Music . I especially loved the sing alongs  and jams we had on Saturday afternoons. Everyone played together--beginners and professionals, old and young. We all had a chance to choose a song to jam too. I loved the inclusiveness this music encouraged.

Last week I was given quite a special gift by a family member of someone at a nursing home where I sing. It was a book "The Folk Songs of North America." It has hundreds of old songs that were compiled by Alan Lomax who was one of the great American field collectors of folk music of the 20th century. He was also a folklorist, ethnomusicologist, historian, and film-maker. His work played important role in the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, '50s and early '60s.

I have had so much fun these last few days just going over this book. I have found some songs I've never heard before and loved at first listen like "Down at Penny's Farm" .  I found an old gem that James Taylor made into a big hit in the 1970s. Do you remember "Wandering" ? I've always thought it was one of Taylors' originals.  I was mesmerized by a beautiful Irish song I'd forgotten, "Black is the Colour."  I loved finding on YouTube new renditions of these old songs like Norah Jones' singing, "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?" I was reminded of the power of Bluegrass after hearing Alison Kraus & Union Station singing the raucous ballad, "Wild Bill Jones."

Since I work professionally as a musician, it is a rare treat for me to get to spend time playing songs just for my own fun and enjoyment. I really think this is important as it keeps me growing and keeps the love of music shining strong in my heart. 

What music stirs your soul?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Signing songs and singing good times

Such a fun music session I had yesterday with a young adult group (special needs).  I showed them some sign language signs I know and taught them to sing "Happy Birthday" in sign. We had a visitor who is a speech pathologist and she showed us how she signed to the song, "Wasted again in Margaritaville." You can imagine how funny that looked!

Then we talked about Thanksgiving holiday approaching and how there are not many songs about it. I showed them how easy it can be to make up our own songs by taking a well known melody and writing new words to it. Here is one song I found on the internet that we sang:

A Thanksgiving Song (sung to the tune of "Row, Row, Row your Boat"

The Pilgrims sailed away, far across the sea.
They came to America, so they could be free.
The Native Americans, helped them plant the corn.
Then they shared a great big feast, Thanksgiving Day was born!

Then I broke out my percussion instruments and we played "Follow the Leader" where the leader plays the big drum and sets the beat and we follow them. Everyone got to play their own beat and I played my Native American flute while they drummed.  We then sang a few Native American Chants like 'Hey Hey Watanee," "I am One with the Infinite Sun."

We wrapped up our music session with a few patriotic songs for Veteran's Day. In between we sang some fun songs and old songs and everything in between! It was quite a good time!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Of dogs and the soundtrack of our lives

It's not often you see a dog in the ICU at a hospital! Above is Sasha, a pet therapist dressed up for Halloween. This picture was taken outside the door of a patient I had a request to play music for. It sure made me smile and soon after this picture was taken, Sasha rolled over on her back for me to pet her belly. Animals are so comforting. In fact I often as patients i meet if they have any animals at home and you ought to see their eyes light up. Sometimes there are pictures on the walls of them. Animals are unconditionally loving and are always there for us. At our best, our worst and everything in between, they remain loving friends and family to us.

I think of music in this same way. Everyone loves music and it is always there for us, just like a loyal pet. We have songs that created the soundtrack of our lives. Songs that accompanied our happiest moments; a wedding, graduation, a new love and we have songs that helped us through our hardest times of loss, sorrow, challenge.

Today in ICU, I played my guitar for a woman who has been on a rough journey for awhile. She's had several very serious health challenges come her way and her road is a hard one to be on for now. Her sister requested music for her. I sat down and improvised some soothing chords and melodies in a slow, even tempo in the hopes to bring her high heart rate down. Within minutes as I started to play, she closed her eyes and a most serene expression came on her face. She looked to be in a state of profound comfort and ease. Two sisters stood on each side of her, holding her hand and stroking her arms to show their love and caring.

It was such an honor to be present to this patient who is in such a time of need. Playing my guitar, I watched her closely to see her response.  If I noticed certain chords or notes brought her more peace, I repeated them over and over again. If she appeared agitated at all by any note or change in the music, I smoothly transitioned over to the musical prescriptions that were calming her.

I am grateful for the work I do and amazed with the healing power of music.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrate Nature!

Hello everyone! What is the autumn season by you like? I love living in a place that has 4 seasons because I love each season for different reasons. I love autumn for the colors of the leaves on the fall, for the changes in the daylight, for the quiet the early nights bring.

Yesterday was a special day at Ivy Creek Foundation natural area in Charlottesville. I teamed up with the Live Poet's Society  in a celebration of the natural world with music, poetry and visual art. I sang some of my songs which focus on the beauty of nature. My song, "Choose the Sky"  is the title of my CD which you can learn more about on my CD Baby page.  I taught a couple of Native American chants too like, "I am One with the Infinite Sun."

Best of all was the good feeling of kindred spirits coming together to celebrate the arts and Nature at one of my favorite places around. Above is a picture I took there of some berries but now I am forgetting the name of them. If you know the name of them, let me know! :)

I love bringing music to all kinds of places. Friday I played at my gym in the lobby and loved how people came to me and told me their favorite music story. Everyone is touched by music in some way or another. How will music touch your life today?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Spinning lullabies in ICU

I'm going on my 10th year of playing therapeutic music for patients at a hospital and I just love it. In particular I love to play for patients in ICU. I was there today and played for patients who were in very critical condition. All of them were unable to speak (trache in throat) and hooked up with so many tubes and wires. Most of them were in a deep sleep or in a coma. I do know they can hear me. I know this also by watching the heart monitors. I'll tell you some about what I do.

Firstly, I never play what would be considered familiar music to them. When someone is so ill and unable to communicate,  I cannot risk sparking an unpleasant memory. It's happened to all of us. Haven't you ever been somewhere and suddenly an old song from the past comes on the radio and suddenly we are transported to an old, unresolved memory. We each have a soundtrack that accompanied both our best but also our worst memories. So that is why I don't play anything that could awaken a dark time because these patients need hope, comfort, calming.

So what I do is I improvise for them.  Today for instance I was playing for one patient and the nurse came in and said, "Play soft. If her blood pressure rises, then stop."   So I started playing a chord progression in the key of E because those are lower tones which are more restful, while higher pitches are stimulating. I was weaving melodies in a slow 3/4 time like a lullaby or a waltz. I watched her slowly breathing and I worked to match her rhythm.  It's all very scientific. Music is rhythm, just like our hearts that beat in rhythm. I play music in a slow rhythm to help the patient "entrain" to my slow, steady rhythm, to help stabilize their pulse.  If I see the monitor numbers rise, I back way off and play more quietly, more slowly.

It is very calming for me too. I often feel in such a zone, I have to consciously be sure I am staying alert to the patient's needs and shift my musical prescription according to their current symptoms.

When I am done playing I sit in the silence and send them positive thoughts and wish them peace and healing. I thank them for letting me play (aloud) for I do know they can hear me. It is such an honor to do this work.

I post the picture with the 5 Regrets of the Dying because each time I go to the hospital, I am confronted with people who may not go home. It has been good for me to always be reminded of what is most important in life.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Channeling George Eliot

Last night was such a lovely evening of stories, poems and songs at BON downtown Charlottesville. Opening the show was poet David Vaughn Straughn who came all the way from Brooklyn, NY to be with us. Sharing the evening was Jona Noelle of the poetry duo The Fire Tigers. I sang some of my new songs as well as songs that have been with me for awhile.  I enjoyed sharing some of my newest works in progress which are poems by George Eliot I set to music.

This past spring I went looking for poems to set to music and wanted to find something old enough to not worry about copyright issues. It seemed that everyone I thought of like Rumi, Hafiz, Elizabeth Barrett Brown, The Brontes, etc had been done already. Then I found a bunch of poems by George Eliot.  She is mostly known for her novels from the Victorian Era, "Middlemarch" and  "Adam Bede".  Her real name is Mary Ann Evans but she published under a man's name so that her work would be taken seriously.

As I worked on some of the melodies for her poems, I really felt as though I could have written these words.  One of the collaborations in particular came out that way. As I sang Eliot's words with my melody last night, I felt that it was my own work. One of the audience members also said this.

Here is the poem I am referring to:

Count That Day Lost by George Eliot

If you sit down at set of sun 

And count the acts that you have done, 

And, counting, find 

One self-denying deed, one word 

That eased the heart of him who heard, 

One glance most kind 

That fell like sunshine where it went -- 

Then you may count that day well spent.



But if, through all the livelong day,

You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay -- 

If, through it all 

You've nothing done that you can trace

That brought the sunshine to one face-- 

No act most small 
That helped some soul and nothing cost -- 

Then count that day as worse than lost.

I will record these poems someday soon! In the meantime, thanks for stopping by and I hope you are enjoying our lovely autumn season!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Just what I needed...

Once a month I play my guitar in the lobby at the gym where I go (acac). I often improvise or play my own pieces, sometimes I bring in music to read from too. I generally try to create energizing and restorative soundscapes that will invite those weary from the world to sit for a spell and listen. And that is just what they do.

"This is just what I needed," a woman said as she sat down next to me and closed her eyes and listened.  Another man I see every day but we've never spoken came up and tapped me on my shoulder and said, "it's beautiful!"

Some people come and bring a newspaper or magazine and sit and listen and read and relax. I love how they "get it" that the music is there to restore and energize them. Sometimes when people see me with a guitar,  I feel like they expect me to entertain them. Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment but it is a whole different feeling. To me music is like a food that can nourish any kind of craving, need or taste. It can fulfill a need for adventure (Brazilian and Latin American music), or be like sonic vitamins (Bach, Vivaldi) to calm you, or it can be that staple standard of an old folk song like Shenandoah to make you feel refreshed.

I love watching the people going by and our conversations we have when they choose to come and listen.  Their smiles and gestures of gratitude to me energizes me to keep going and fill the room with harmonious sounds. In a world filled with noises of construction workers, leaf blowers, traffic, loud car stereos.. .it is a nice thing to provide some peace through music.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A mixed bag

Most of the time I share stories that are positive and uplifting. I choose to focus on those moments. That is not to say that I don't have challenging experiences.  Quite often they are a mixed bag of elements of distraction, disruption, conflict amidst the good things going on.

Yesterday I was singing at a nursing home in the skilled nursing area. People were gathered in the living room where small tables are set up and snacks and meds are given during music session.  There was an elderly man sitting at one of the tables eating a plate of scrambled eggs and cornbread. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank and used a wheelchair.  Every time I started to sing a song, he would yell out something I could not always understand because his mouth was full of food.  His tone was very rude, to the point where it was surprising how rude he was. Crumbs of cornbread and eggs would dribble all down his shirt. Each time he yelled out, an activities assistant would come over to him and whisper for him to be quiet. "What?!!" he would yell. "It is time for you to be quiet," she would say.

Being hearing impaired, things like this can be hard to focus with people yelling, staff trying to intervene, residents reacting.   Meanwhile there is me trying to get others to sing along. I do have to say that instead of feeling really annoyed, it seemed comical to me. It seemed that the man was trying to get me angry and I decided I would not let him.  I started to sing again and he yelled out, "Hot Dog!" The nice activities director came over to say, "I don't have a hot dog to fix you" she said to him. "I want a hot dog!" he yelled again and eventually the nice woman wheeled him off to his room.

It turned out to be a good session though. Ms. Tyler came and sang and picked out some songs. There was a man I've seen for a couple of years who sang along. All this time, I never knew he could even talk because he never has. It was great to hear his voice for the first time singing. Usually Ms. Tyler is unhappy with me because I don't have enough country songs in my repertoire but this time she picked songs she knows I sing. Often singing with seniors is a mixed bag. Because of their illness or disposition, it is not always easy to make them happy. I do try though and I was glad I didn't let Mr. Hot Dog spoil our time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I'll Fly Away

I love when I find a song that really strikes a strong chord with the people I see. Sometimes I am surprised by which songs do this.  I've found that the song, "I'll Fly Away" is one that really gets people singing.  I am surprised because the lyrics say, "when I die, hallelujah by and by" and I thought that by mentioning any suggestion of dying would not feel appropriate to sing for someone very ill in a hospital or nursing home. But I see the glimmer of hope in their eyes when they sing this song.   Many of the people I see are very religious and also Southern--while i was raised without a religious upbringing in Chicago. Before I moved to Virginia, I never heard this song.

Yesterday I was playing for a patient at the hospital who was feeling down becuase she thought she was going home soon--only to find out that she had to stay longer. I sang for her a couple of songs I wrote and then her nurse (male) came in the room and requested I sing, "I'll Fly Away." As I started singing, he harmonized with me with the most beautiful voice! Then I saw the woman in the next bed over singing along while sewing on her needlepoint project.  The woman who was down a minute ago was now smiling and she just looked so happy.

After that song, the nurse and I sang a few more. I asked him what key and he said, "I don't need a key" and sure enough he could sing any song and key and adapt his voice accordingly. I wished I had a video to remember our moments in that room.  How music transformed the sadness into hope and inspiration. It lifted us all.  what song does this for you?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Very Good

Yesterday I sang at a group day care center where people with severe special needs spend the day.  When I say "special needs," I also mean they are special people.  For though it may appear they lack intellectual understanding, I think this allows them to come completely from their heart.

One of our favorite songs to sing together is, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." This is because they love to hear their names being sung to them and they love to pick the next person's name. After each verse I will ask, "who else?" and  Justine will say, "Daniel!" And after Daniel I will ask, "who else?" and Diane will say, "Susan!" and it goes on like this for a good long time until we have sung for everyone in the room and beyond.

There is one girl who cannot sing or speak but she makes up for this with the light in her eyes and the big smile on her face and how she dances in her wheelchair.  When she is especially excited, she shakes her head from side to side vigorously. To someone who does not know her, it may appear she is saying, "No." When in fact it is more like, "Yes! Yes! Yes!!"

As I was getting ready to leave,  I told her we could sing one last song. I went and sang with her, "This Little Light of Mine." and again the shaking head, the vigorous movement in her chair. When we finished singing she said clearly, "Very Good."   We were all surprised to hear her speak. In the 6 or so years I've known her, I've never heard her to so. It really made our day!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

If you're going to San Francisco


Last night I was singing for Ms. Valentino at one of the nursing homes I visit. As she is bedridden, I go into her room and sing for her. "Hi Darlin'!" she said, "Play me something!" I know she loves musicals, so I sang: "My Favorite Things." Afterward she was telling me about her son Joe Valentino (not his real name) who lives in San Francisco and plays the guitar too.  When she asked me to sing again, I started singing the old song "San Francisco" and it came to me to make up the words about her son:

"If you're going to San Francisco
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
if you're going to San  Francisco
you're going to meet Joe Valentino there..."

She loved that and then said, "make up another song about Joe!" and so I sang:

"This land is your land
this land is Joe's land
from California
to the New York Island." 

"I love that" she said, "make up another one!" and so I sang:

"You are my Joseph, my only Joseph
you make me happy when skies are grey.."

...and on it went. I think I will propose on our next visit  that we make a songbook of songs all about her son Joe. We'll see what she says.






Sunday, August 17, 2014

Everything and the kitchen sink


Check out that wilderness camping sink above! It is found at the Twin Oaks women's gathering space for the campers. It is a beautiful, rustic place in rural Virginia. Something I have noticed about myself is that when I go somewhere new, I take pictures of things and places around me--not of people. I am always fascinated by a given setting and how that makes you feel. Walking around yesterday in the woods  while waiting to give my Sacred Chants and Song Circle workshop, I felt renewed by the peace and beauty there.

It was the perfect setting to sing old Native American chants and I really enjoyed the group of women who came together to share.  The workshop began with my leading all of the songs but soon I invited others to share songs with the group.   We sang songs like, "Ancient Mother," "The River is Flowing," "I am One with the Infinite Sun," " The Earth is our Mother."   Songs that fill you up on a peaceful late summer day.  I always love how a group of people  from different places and of different ages and backgrounds come together and harmonize. It is a bonding that takes place that renews the spirit.

We sang for nearly 2 hrs and gradually we drifted into small groups to talk and get to know each other more until the dinner bell rang and it was time to eat. I enjoyed sharing a meal outside on the picnic tables--tofu and chicken BBQ and veggies and cookies for dessert.  The sun was going down as I drove home and I was filled with such a sense of happiness having shared today with new friends.  A restorative day!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sundown Serenade


I find the time of sunset to be an especially comforting time of day. Most people are home from work and the night begins and all is quieted. For patients with dementia though, the time of sundown is can be very confusing and it's probably their worst time of day. Some of them want to "go home", not realizing that the nursing home is their "home." Some of them become really agitated and cannot be calmed. This is where I come in. I have a few places where my job is to come and soothe those with dementia with music. In one place I sit in a big room where everyone is and play my guitar. That is what i did last night.

I have gone here now two years and have become another routine for them. When I arrived last night I saw one of the assistants helping Ms. Rachel and Ms. Clara into the elevator to take them to where i am playing. The night nurse told me Ms. Rachel was having a really bad day and just wanted to "go home" and kept trying to call on the phone (she was unable to call out without using a code she is not given).  Ms. Rachel is one of the nicest ladies of anyone there and so it was upsetting to the staff to see her so agitated.   Everything changed though when i set up my chair next to her and played my guitar. She sat quietly and listened to me thoughtfully. At times she leaned over to look at the music I had brought with me but kept quiet. By the time the hour was up, she was calmed.

I was treated to the lovely sunset of the countryside in the picture above. I love the drives to these places on country roads and love my work with them. Sundown is a special time for me.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Music prescriptions to help with insomnia

Most of you know I work at a hospital playing therapeutic music for ICU patients.  What this ends up meaning is that I help the patients relax and sleep by using music as a science. This means that the listener links up with the slow rhythms I play and falls asleep.

I'm aware that many people suffer from insomnia. Many report that they are able to fall asleep but wake up during the night and are unable to fall back to sleep. There are ways to help with this and below I will give you some ideas to try.

First I will say that getting a good night's sleep can be an effort. It may mean altering your current lifestyle somewhat in order to ensure you can create good sleep patterns in your life. For instance, I try to go lie down in bed one or more hours before I want to be asleep. So if i want to be asleep by 10, I go to bed at 9:00. Here are some other things:

Starting a new sleep routine:
  • Try cutting back on watching TV  before going to bed and instead try doing some light inspirational reading. TV can be very stimulating and I find it very hard to go lie down after watching the news or an TV show. Our brains are still working out the details. With a book, sometimes the quiet focus can relax and help us slow down.
  •  Begin your bedtime routine much earlier than you wish to be falling asleep. If you have had children or cared for children, you see that we can't suddenly announce, "ok it's time for bed" and expect them to go and fall asleep within 30 mins. We usually have to introduce the idea a long time beforehand by giving them a bath, getting them in their pajamas, reading to them, etc. It takes effort to help a child unwind. We are no different! We need time to unwind from the day. Give yourself that gift to slow down and unplug from the world.
  • You might like to purchase some nice, relaxing new music to listen to as you lie down for the night. I think it is a good idea to have new music that you have no past baggage with (that would get the mind thinking) and something that you associate with resting and sleep. I will list some recordings I like a lot at the end.
If/when you wake up during the night:
  •  Something you might try is to adopt a mantra you can say quietly in your mind. If you've ever taken a yoga class, then you are familiar with the chanting music that has short, repeated phrases with repetitious music. I prefer to say a sanskirt mantra of something simple like "Om Shanti,  Shanti, Shanti" which means peace.   The reason for the sanskrit is that in these mantras, the emphasis is on the vibration of the words, not the literal meaning of them. We want to bypass the thinking mind as much as possible. If you have something simple you can use for a mantra (you can google this topic and find many of them) it is helpful. 
  • The mind is like a border collie dog and it is wired to work and its job is to problem solve. One of the biggest hindrances is when we wake up and our brain kicks right in with things like, "did I send that email?" "will I be ready for the meeting tomorrow?" etc etc. These kinds of thoughts are like "hooks" that can get us all wound up and it is hard to shut down the endless chatter. So that is why I use the mantra to avoid that happening. It gives me something to focus on and the effort of the focus makes me fall back to sleep.
  • Don't look at the clock!   It really does not help us to know what time it is. In fact, it only creates more anxiety and more "hooks" to get us wound up. "Oh no! it's 3:00 am and I have to be up in two hours!!" This does not help.  Focus on the mantra or relaxing music.
  • You might try using a silk eye mask to ensure it is completely dark. I have light coming in my room and any kind of light tends to make me wake up or sleep lightly. The eye mask is so light you don't feel it and it helps to induce a deep sleep. 
  • Above all, try to be gentle with yourself about it. Treat yourself as you would a child who wakes up in the middle of the night. You would be kind and reassuring and maybe sing them to sleep or turn on a CD.

Here are some CDs I really like and use over and over. I recommend using one CD you like for at least a month at a time. This way, your body gets the message when you hear the music, "it's time to sleep now." I prefer music without words or words that are not in English so that my mind is not "hooked' into a storyline.

David Darling "Cello Blue" --beautiful, peaceful cello music 

Singh Kaur "Guru Ram Das" --healing chant with Kim Roberston accompanying on harp

Eckhart Tolle's Music to Quiet the Mind-- a nice compilation of relaxing music

Just about anything by Snatam Kaur--she has such a beautiful voice.  Here is her rendition on YouTube of a beautiful Irish song, " May the Long Time Sun"

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms, Silent Night & Happy Birthday!

Yesterday was such a high energy and happy time at a place I sang in Waynesboro, VA.  It's the kind of place that really strikes a chord in me as it reminds me of my early years living in Chicago.  The group is a mixture of elderly,  some younger developmentally then their years, some with special needs.

What I loved so much about singing with them was the way it all flowed from one seemingly unconnected song/idea to the next. It was a spontaneous flow of laughter and music and dancing and connecting.

Some favorite moments were when I got out my drum and others had percussion instruments to play along.  We jammed on some African rhythms I know and some of the people danced in the circle.  Then I was telling the group how I had someone ask to sing "Silent Night" last week, even though it was July. One of the people said, "well, Silent Night is not just about Christmas, it is about a silent time." and so we sang, "Silent Night." Then I asked about any birthdays coming up and we ended up singing "Happy Birthday" about  5 times. 2 for ones this week, 2 for ones I missed and 1 just for fun.

Later one of the activity assistants, Beth, asked if I knew any Bluegrass music and I suggested "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms".  I got out the words so she could sing along. Now this song is one you may or may not know but some of the words are not happy or "nice."  I often try to avoid lyrics about people being in jail or cheating on each other and the like but but the way Beth sang it changed that for me. I saw that it is all in the way you sing it. She sang these verses with a wry smile and mock dramatic flair and I had fun bouncing off of her with each of us hooting and "woot wooting" after each verse:

Now where were you last Friday night
While I was lying in jail
Walking the streets with another man
Wouldn't even go my bail

I know you parents don't like me
They drove me away from your door
If I had my life to live over
I'd never go there any more

   Roll in my sweet baby's arms
   Roll in my sweet baby's arms
   Lay around the shack 'til the mail comes back
  And I'll roll in my sweet baby's arms

It hit me that  some bluegrass is a lot like the blues I learned in Chicago--it is about things being  so bad they are funny. It's about having fun with life even when things seem impossible and laughing and enjoying each moment with wherever life finds us.

The picture above was taken just down the road from the home on the way going to yet another home yesterday. Such a lovely, unspoiled beautiful part of Virginia.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The power of other art forms, a cartoon

Last week I attended National VSA Conference in Washington, DC. VSA Arts is an international Organization that works to promote experiences in the arts  with people with disabilities.  I really enjoyed meeting VSA artists from all over the world (including Japan!) and the presentations were great. I've been involved with the local VSA organization for some years now and love it.

I had a powerful experience in one workshop that I ended up going to at the last minute because the one I had planned for had been cancelled. It was one entitled, "Comics, Films & Language" which talked about overcoming stereotyping in the arts.  We were given a piece of paper with four empty quadrants in order to draw our own cartoon. Pictured above is mine--if you click on it, you can see it more closely.  The instructions were :

4-Frame Story Activity:

1. Think about a time when you were (dis)abled. ( for me this is about my cochlear implant journey)
2. Revisit from perspectives that decenter expectations of normal.
3. Show close-up through humor, parody, or metaphor your identity, experience, strengths, and capacities.
4. Deconstruct disabling social constructions.
I did this drawing on the train going home. I didn't really think too much about it, I just drew what I felt led to draw. I have my own interpretation of what i did but I thought i'd leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions. If you want to, you can comment below what comes to mind. Thanks!

Come on by my website sometime too! I have lots of music to listen to!
www.blueoconnell.com
 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Amazing Grace and the unexpected gift

Yesterday I was singing at a group home and someone requested, "Amazing Grace". When we got to the second verse, suddenly I heard a beautiful male tenor voice ring out behind me, belting out the words to the song. I turned and saw it was the electrician working on the electrical sockets behind us! What an unexpected gift it was! He had a beautiful voice and I went to talk to him afterwards to see what band or choir he sang in. He said he didn't really sing anywhere.  He laughed it off and got back to work.

He may not have thought much about his singing ability but I will never forget his spontaneous expression. He made our day! 

It makes me think of how simple it can be to make someone's day.  A smile, an encouraging word, a kind gesture such as opening the door for someone. It does not take much. I make a point to remember the gifts of each day.

I wonder what today's gift will be?



PS Thank you for coming by! In addition, I play weddings and special events. Here's my website (http://www.blueoconnell.com ) and keep in touch! 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Christmas in July

Yesterday I sang at a Mission home and it was an unusual but very uplifting experience. This is a place for some people who otherwise have fallen through the cracks and seem to have no family in the area and not much of anything. Many of them are not very functioning or responsive when spoken to.    Many of the residents are elderly, some severely disabled, others are both.   It was only my 3rd time singing there and I had planned some gospel music but it turns out the people I played for last time were not there.

I started off singing some well known songs like "You are My Sunshine," "This Little Light of Mine", etc. but very few were singing and I was aware that there was an awkward feeling in the room and I was unsure how to proceed a few times.  Finally, I asked "is there a song anyone wants to sing?" and one of the workers said, "Miss Carla likes to sing Silent Night." and so we sang Silent Night.   Miss Carla smiled her toothless smile and said afterwards, "that is a beautiful song!"

I said, "let's have Christmas in July--why not?!" and so then we sang, "Feliz Navidad," "Joy to the World," "O Come all Ye Faithful" and on and on like that --meanwhile the room was hot from an old non functioning air conditioner but no one seemed to notice. It was great to see the staff at their desks singing along. Although there was one grumpy staff member who walked through the room during a rollicking rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"  who slammed her door behind her. Bah humbug!

It was a lesson in going with the flow. Had I just continued trying to lead the group with songs I thought they'd like, this experience would not have happened. Let the people lead and I follow.  It was such an uplifting experience!

P.S. Thanks for coming by and if you are looking for music for a wedding or special event-here is my page where I have samples:
http://blueoconnell.com/services.htm

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Songs for the 11th hour

This coming November will mark my 10 year anniversary of working as a certified music practitioner playing therapeutic music for patients at U.VA hospital.  I don't often talk about my experiences with patients here on my blog because of confidentiality issues.   I will say that I love my work and even after 10 yrs, I am still filled with a sense of awe from doing this work.

I play mostly in ICU and meet people in what could be the most difficult time in their lives. Most of the time, patients are unable to speak to me as they are too ill or they are on oxygen (tube in their mouth). This was the case in the picture above but as you can see, we were still able to communicate. Music is the bridge that connects me to others. The picture was taken by a family member who is documenting the healing progress of their loved one. Music with me that day was the highlight of the day. What a gift for me to be that for someone.

In another room that same day, there were several family members present as I sat next to their loved one and played my guitar.  Doing this work, I feel so privileged to be allowed into such a private moment for all and to be able to provide comfort and hope with music.

It is so different from the performing world where the focus is on me. At the hospital, I tell patient it is ok to go to sleep (they often do) and to the visitors I say, "don't mind me, you can keep talking among yourselves."  Then I sit and do my work and weave in the musical prescription for that specific patient. Sometimes I fill the room with my own compositions or something improvised on the spot but no two music sessions are alike. Just like no people are alike. Music, the universal language has the capacity to break down all barriers and nourish the heart and soul. 





Wednesday, July 2, 2014

When there are no words

Yesterday I sang with a lively group of seniors over at JABA. I was surprised to see that sitting in the front row was a man I used to sing with at another place where I do not go anymore. The facility let me go in favor of having new musical performers come. Some places prefer to have the same people coming to give their residents a sense of stability. Others want to change it around. At any rate, the man I saw yesterday was one of my favorite participants and I was happy to see him. I went and asked him if he remembered me and he nodded yes.

Once we all started singing, he did not miss one verse or lyric. While other people only remember the first verse and chorus, this man knows each verse and sings with such intensity. I can see from his expression that music is deeply important to him. We sang some patriotic songs for the 4th of July, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "God Bless America," "Grand Old Flag,". We sang old favorites, "You Are My Sunshine,""Oh Susanna,", Que Sera Sera." Just about everybody clapped and laughed after each song. We were having such a wonderful time.

Then I saw the quiet man in the front row begin to raise his hands up and with great effort and concentration, he placed them together to form a heart. (like in the photo above).  Oddly enough, I'd never seen anyone make a heart in this way. I asked him, "is that a heart?" and he nodded with a serious expression.

Later once we were done singing, I went to talk with him but I could see that words did not come easily for him.  So I reached out my hand to him instead while I said good bye. There was a moment of awkward silence and just when I thought he would not take it, he grabbed my hand and held it tightly.    I stood by him holding his hand for a long moment and told him I enjoyed singing with him and I would see him again soon. It seemed he did not want to let go of my hand. I too felt a strong connection was made with him. No words needed, just the bond of music-the universal language.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rock-A My Soul in the Bosom of Charlottesville

Last week I played a a Mission home in town. It was my second time there and since I saw last time that the best participants were African American, I came prepared to sing some Gospel & Spirituals with them. Wow was that fun! I found that some of them brought back memories from my early childhood in inner city Chicago.  It was a great feeling to belt out, "Rock My Soul (in the Bosom of Abraham)," "Oh Happy Day," "Take this Hammer," "Oh Mary Don't You Weep."

There were two women up front who sang the most heartily with me-Ms. Rosalyn and Lucretta. I asked them where they were living during the civil rights movement and told them about my life in Chicago. Then we sang, "Oh Freedom" and "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child". I could see Lucretta felt those songs deeply, she would close her eyes and nod her head while we sang as if in a trance.

It's been a long time since I've sung some of those songs and it was great to be able to  connect with them with music. One of the activity assistants was also present and she said she hadn't heard those songs since she was a child.

Do you remember this:

"Rock a my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Rock a my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Rock a my soul in the bosom of Abraham , oh rock my soul

So high you can't get over it
So low can't get under it
So wide can't get through it
oh rock my soul. "

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sweet Betsy from Pike & Old Smokey

Today I sang with a group at a small assisted living center. This is a place that is pretty downtrodden with no real activities. So unlike other places that look like 5 star hotels! Anyway, when I said I liked the new furniture they had in the front room one of them said, "it's old." I said, "well, I like old furniture." She looked down as if she was ashamed and then I said I shopped at the Goodwill all the time and get good things. I meant it when I said that I liked the furniture. But to her I think the fact that it was old and used made a statement about where they lived.

At any rate, we had a good time singing today.  At one point one of the ladies asked me if I knew the song, "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and I asked her how it went. She began to sing:

"Oh don't you remember sweet Betsy from Pike,
Who crossed the wide prairie with her lover Ike,
With two yoke of oxen, a big yellow dog,
A tall Shangai rooster, and one spotted hog?"

Then she told me it was about pioneers during the gold rush times in the 1800s. This led to an interesting discussion about how so many American folk songs are about struggle. She was saying how much she liked the song because it was so sad. I rarely have heard anyone say that and I find that I too like sad songs. We said that there are different kinds of sad. There are some that feel comforting that  you can feel that way. Then there are some that feel hopeless and make you want to cry.

She then wanted to sing, "On Top of Old Smokey" something I haven't sang in years. I forgot how it went and so again, she sang it for me:

"On top of Old Smokey
all covered with snow
I lost my true lover
from courting too slow."

I've been singing "On Top of Spaghetti" so many years I forgot the original song!

Then we sang other sad songs, "Down in the Valley." "You Are My Sunshine" (check out the lyrics, that is sad stuff to a happy melody).  "Clementine" is a funny song but to me it is like the blues. It is a song about a situation so bad that it is funny. I remember when I first "got" that that was why the blues felt so good to sing. It is cathartic.

I told them it's like watching a soap opera on TV. You see these people with horrible lives and people are dying and cheating on each other and then we think, "wow! I've got it good!"We laughed about that. I like it when songs can lead to a good discussion and connecting. That's the main point of it, really.

We had such a good time but it all ended on a sour note when  a man who was doing some maintenance in the place walked up to one of the women and grabbed the newspaper out of her hands. Then he proceeded to hit Ms. Caroline 's little dog with it. I guess she was walking under his feet. I said, "that's not right!" and glared at him. I was surprised Ms. Caroline didn't say anything. Instead she scooped up Misty in her arms and held her close.

It's like that in some places. I try to bring good cheer but there are so many other things going on that tip the balance. I actually think most of them didn't even notice the whole dog spanking incident. We kept talking about the music and they all thanked me and asked me when I'd be back.  I guess they are used to the struggles. Maybe that is why those sad songs rang so true for them.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How about some sonic tonic for breakfast?

You may know I am a Certified Music Practitioner   but what does that mean?   Certified Music Practitioners (CMPs) are musicians who play live therapeutic music to provide a healing environment for those who are ill or transitioning. Therapeutic music is an art based on the science of sound. It is live acoustic music, played or sung, specifically tailored to the patient’s immediate need. It is is a gentle non-pharmaceutical intervention to promote well being.
Certified Music Practitioners (CMPs) are trained through The Music for Healing and Transition Program (MHTP.org), which is accredited by the National Standards Board of Therapeutic Musicians.

It is work I love to do and so opposite of the world of performing or my other life as a singer/songwriter.  Imagine playing music to help someone relax and fall asleep. If playing a concert this would be considered a big insult! But in the work as a therapeutic musician,  falling asleep is the best compliment you can get. I love watching the monitors in ICU and the heart rate dropping as they connect with the slow rhythms I am playing.

Since I play the guitar and it is a common instrument, I often get questioned in the elevators or in the hallways. "Where is the concert?" "Do you play bluegrass?" "Do you want to jam?"  and they are logical questions because people automatically think of music as entertainment. Nothing wrong with that! But I love how music can be used almost like a food and source of nutrition. If someone is in ICU, I feed them something very easy to digest. Bluegrass would likely have to wait until the good news of going home (a bit too fast of a beat for critically ill people).

I love the message on the image about about all the things music is. Science, math, language, art--yes to all!

Do you have favorite songs you like to listen to when you are down and need a lift? Do you have something to help motivate you when you need a push? Do you have music to clean the house? Music is such a necessary part of life! Feel free to tell me some songs you like. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Charity Update and your support

Hello Friends,

I hope life is good in your corner of the world. I thought I'd give you an update about the donation I made to the Music Resource Center of the guitar I bought from Dave Matthews 22 years ago. The guitar was an Ovation pictured above and signed by Dave with an inscription reading, "This Old Guitar I play for many years".  It was his main guitar during the years of 1991-92, during the time when "Remember Two Things" was being recorded. (which is to be reissued soon).  The guitar was auctioned off on CharityBuzz.com in May and sold for $41,000! What is also cool is that DMB has a song called, "#41" --how cool is that?

All proceeds went to the Music Resource Center in Charlottesville which will help about 100 low income kids to receive music lessons.  We all know what a gift music is in our lives!

Many people have told me what a generous thing I did to donate that guitar. They have asked how they may support me in return. Thank you for asking! You may purchase my CD, "Choose the Sky" via CD Baby or you may get a signed copy directly from me by emailing me here.

In addition, for every sale of this CD, I will donate 10% of the profits to go towards the Healing Music program at the University of Virginia Hospital where I am employed as a Certified Music Practitioner (CMP) trained to play live therapeutic music and "in-the-moment comfort care" that is tailored for a specific person/patient. I graduated from the Music for Healing & Transition Program in 2005 and have been employed as a CMP at the University of Virginia Hospital since 2004.  Your support of me helps many and thank you!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Sound of Elephants Running

Yesterday was a fun time with a group of young adults in their last week of school. Summertime gets everyone giddy in anticipation for vacations and down time.  We sang quite a few songs that were of a summer theme like, "Take me out to the Ballgame," "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain,", "You Are My Sunshine."  Songs we never seem to get tired of.

Then I passed out percussion instruments and I had my doumbek drum and we did some jamming to rhythms for awhile. First I led and then everyone got a chance to lead as the main drum got passed around. We played a game of "call and response" and at one point I played a rhythm and asked the kids what did they think I was mimicking? I told them it related to an animal. One got it--I was doing a horse galloping and then we all did horses galloping. After that, I asked what other sound we could try to get on the drum and one boy said, "elephants?" So, we did elephants running! Funny too because as we played this for awhile, I could actually see elephants running in my mind's eye.

It goes that way with this group. We flow from one idea to another and use our imagination. It is a joy to play with them and I will miss them this summer! 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Making a living or making a Life

To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, going into the arts is not a good way to make a living but it is a good way to make a life.  For most of my working life, I've had to spend most of my day trying to make a living. I did this by working low paying jobs doing things that didn't mean much to me, working with people who didn't "see" me. (not that I blame them, for I was not doing my art on my job and what brings me most to life)

As a child, I often would stay home from summer camp (in Chicago) and wander the alleys alone, playing in the mud or going through someone's trash or exploring a vacant building. I made up games and spent all day in an imaginative world,  totally engaged with my own company.

Someone recently asked me where I get inspiration for new creative projects.  One answer is that I give myself time to "wander the alleys" of my mind and just sit in silence and imagine.  I read once, "If you don't imagine anything, then nothing will happen." I think of things I love to do and then I imagine ways to do it and whom to do it with.

Lately I have had a a lot of fun putting old poetry (19th century) to music. The trend of writing then made usage of meters and rhythms and rhyme scheme that is so easy for me to imagine music. I have 6 poems now made into songs.

I also spend time looking at music lesson videos. I watched one the other day where a music teacher talked about an African rhythm exercise taking a 4/4 beat and counting it as a 6/8 rhythm. Then I realized I had done this very thing with one of the poems I put to music.

Taking time to explore is something I really value. I am happy that my lifestyle now allows me time to not have to adhere to goal oriented deadlines. Time when I can plant seeds and incubate and grow new ideas.
I've set aside today for another creative day. I have some jazz videos to watch and a new instrument to explore too --the Indian Shruti box. It is a drone instrument with a deep an resonant voice.

What ways do you nourish your creativity? Do you make time to imagine and play? 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

An award and a magical life


Today I was honored to be the first recipient of the Mildred W. Spicer Arts Fund Award, created to recognize a local person for outstanding service improving artistic opportunities for people with disabilities.  For those of you not in Charlottesville, Mildred Spicer created a Therapeutic Recreation program here over 30 years ago. I worked for her in VSA Arts until she retired last year. An annual award was created in her name and today was our first ceremony.

 I am still so very moved by this award. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, I had given a great deal of thought to what i would say in my acceptance speech.  I tend to be very wordy and had to keep asking myself, "what is the most important thing for me to say?"  and over time, I kept trimming my words down to what is my essential.

What came to me was that when i started out as a teenager playing music,  my dream was to become a rock & roll star. This is because  back then I thought that rock stars led these magical lives. And I wanted a magical life too.

All these years later, I  am no rock star, but I do have so much magic in my life that I thought only rock stars experienced.  Singing and playing with others, I get to see eyes light up when a happy memory is sparked, or a boy dancing with wild abandon to an old Elvis song, or the girl whose disability prevented her from participating without assistance -was able to play a drum with the help of her friend and how she laughed and laughed and gave us all that joy.

I told my friends today even if I were given a million dollars, I would still want to be doing just what I am doing. Wow, what a day!

In the picture above: Meredith Gunter, my friend and former colleague hands me my award while Mildred Spicer gives me flowers. Thank you everyone! 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Songs, laughter and ingridients for a fun time!


Bring together a group of giddy young adults,  a bunch of percussion instruments, a guitar, songs to sing and the willingness to go with the flow and you have the ingredients for a fun time. At least, that was the case yesterday when I sang with the gang from Post High for the last time of the school year. (that explains some of their giddiness --summer break is in view)

We warmed by singing our favorite songs like "Stand by Me," "Lean on Me," "My Girl," "Lion Sleeps Tonight," then I got out my percussion instruments and we became a big merry band. They played percussion along with some uptempo songs like, "Down by the Riverside," "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain," and then we just jammed on the drums for awhile. Each of them got a turn leading by playing the red drum (pictured above) while the rest of us played along. I was struck how each of us has our own sense of rhythm and way of expressing that. Each person became a leader without using words but the sound of a beat they chose. Some were more slow and deliberate, others more refined, others a bit wild. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when one girl whose disability prevents her from participating without assistance laughed uncontrollably while playing the drum with the help of a classmate. Her laughter was contagious.

After that a few of them got up and sang a song by themselves. It was a funny sight to see them using their percussion instruments for their pretend microphone. One girl had us all laughing when she used a hand cymbal for her microphone and tried to sing, "Amazing Grace" without cracking up. She had to do two "do-overs." Another girl sang while gesturing with her arms and made all kinds of faces opera singers make, all the while she didn't know an audience from outside in the hall were watching her. We all laughed and clapped at the end as she took a deep bow and laughed at her own silliness.
I feel lucky to have these times with them!



Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Of Marigolds, red roosters and songs

Virginia gets my vote for the prettiest spring of any place.  Last weekend I went with neighbors to a local nursery and got these lovely marigolds for the yard. Just looking at them makes me happy. I think of songs this way too. They ask nothing in return, they are there to enjoy and bring people happiness and beauty.

Yesterday I visited a nursing home where I am a strolling minstrel. I find people on the porch and sing with them.  I find people in the TV room and we sing there. We also sing in the hallway or outside on the patio. I've been going to this nursing home now for about 5 years, so I know some of the residents fairly well.  I was greeted with a pleasant surprise to find Margie out on the patio without her wheelchair! I learned she's been walking without it now for a couple of weeks. In all the years I have known her, I never thought I'd see her walk again.  And later when she stood to hug me goodbye,  she was taller than me! That was the happy part of the visit.

A few of us were singing outside on the patio and  when suddenly the rescue squad pulled up in front. "I hope it's not Mrs. Roberts again," said Caroline.  In fact, it was her.  Earlier when I met her in the hallway, I asked how she was doing and she said she was in a lot of pain. I said I'd sing her some songs to help her feel better and she sang along with me, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and in the middle of "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands," the resident manager called her name and asked her to come see the doctor. I walked next to her, still singing until we met up with the doctor. Then went outside and later the rescue squad came and took her in the ambulance. "She has lung cancer," Margie said and I was glad I got to sing with her earlier. It goes that way sometimes at the nursing homes. The residents are used to seeing people being taken away and sometimes they never come back. I do think Mrs. Roberts will be back though and I'm glad I gave her a song to sing before she left.

 I feel like singing songs is like bringing people sunshine, warmth, hope, happiness. I got a laugh when after singing, "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," Caroline said, "the rooster part comes before the chicken." We all laughed at that. I rarely get away with singing a wrong lyric or mixing up the verses, there is usually someone who will correct me. I am glad they care that much to do so.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Universal Mind & The Erie Canal

There is a great video called, The Universal Mind about the musical genius Bill Evans who was a master improvisor on the piano. In it, he reveals his secrets about how he excels at improvisation. He talks about focusing on the fundamentals and breaking learning something new into small bits.

Somehow this reminds me of the magic and challenge of group singing. Imagine a collection of elderly folks who may not remember their names, who mistake me for their daughter, or think they are "going home" and all the confusion this causes. When we sing we become like a "universal mind". We are all on the same page. We all know the words, everyone is contributing, everyone is important.

I have to improvise when one of them begins to yell at the activities director when she does not sing the right words.   I have to find a way to please the woman who only likes country music and the man who prefers Gershwin. I have to find common ground for these people who for some reason ended up unlikely neighbors and roommates.  Singing favorite songs does this.

Today the song of the day was the old one, "The Erie Canal". Do you remember it?

I've got a mule, and her name is Sal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie canal,
She's a good ol' worker and a good ol' pal,
Fifteen miles on the Er-ie can-al,
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lum-ber coal and hay,
And ev'ry inch of the way we know
From Al-ba-ny to Buff-a-lo

Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,
Low bridge for we're com-in to a town,
And you al-ways know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you've ev-er navigated on the Er-ie can-al



Written back in 1905, it was recorded by Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and many others. A song about a bridge and music is the bridge. We crossed one together today.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Tao of Music

There is a good book, "The Tao of Music" by John M. Ortiz that teaches you how to make various "musical menus" to help process feelings and create a soundtrack for the meaningful events in our lives. In one "menu" it has you choose a specific era in your life that you have a happy memory attached. I decided to choose my early childhood. It was a great exercise because I had forgotten so many happy times I had as a child. It is said that our brains are like Velcro to remember the bad things and Teflon to recall the good. So choosing songs that focused on happy times was great fun.

I made a list of those songs and downloaded them from iTunes and burned them onto a CD. I still remember the day I listened to it on a two hour drive for a job interview. By the time I got to the interview, I was in such a great mood from listening to the happy soundtrack I had created.

Here are some of the songs:

For Once in My Life-- Stevie Wonder
Classical Gas- Mason Williams (inspired me to learn guitar)
Alley Cat ( did a tap dance to this song)
Love Child- Supremes
and so many more.

Try it sometime --it is such fun!

When singing with a group, I think of soundtracks from our life.  When we sing an old song from camp or school, we are all bonding with our happy memories. Last week I sang with a group of people who are closer in age to me, so we all have a similar soundtrack in terms of what was on the radio when we were growing up. I brought a bunch of new songs to sing and we had fun with:
"Penny Lane," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "Moonshadow", "Rocket Man."

I never tire to sing old songs that bring us together. What are some of the songs of the soundtrack of your life?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dave Matthews & the Shiny Black Ovation guitar


Back in 1992 I bought a shiny black guitar that now has the ability to change lives. This is because this guitar used to belong to Dave Matthews during the years 1991-92. It is quite likely Dave wrote the songs that became the foundation of the DMB career with this guitar.

The guitar is going to be auctioned off at CharityBuzz.com in May with the proceeds to benefit the Music Resource Center here in Charlottesville. It's a guitar I used to record my first album "Lines of Change" on too.

The story of how I came to own this beautiful guitar and donated to the Music Resource Center (MRC)  is best well summarized by the story in the Daily Progress article here.

Above I am pictured with the guitar on the steps of the MRC in October of 2013, the day I donated it.

I work as a certified music practitioner  playing therapeutic music for patients in ICU at UVa Hospital. I also work with people with special needs for VSA arts and back in May I won an award for this work. 

I love to play at weddings (classical guitar) and write my own songs. You can listen to samples of my wedding repertoire here. Other music I compose, you can find here. I appreciate your support for purchasing my recordings!  Thanks to all who have done so!
Feel free to get in touch by email or leave a message here!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A special spring recital

Yesterday was the annual VSA Music Recital  here in Charlottesville. VSA is one of the organizations I work for which promotes the experiences in creative expression with people with special needs. And special people they are!  I feel so lucky to know them and sing with them and share remarkable experiences with them.

The concert featured solo and group performances of songs such as, "Rainbow Connection," "Lean on Me," "Just a Closer Walk with Thee,", "California Dreamin'".  There is also the dynamic drumming with Whit Whitten's Drum Call groups. Always a favorite.

Everyone gets dressed up and it is exciting to perform on the big stage at the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center. How many local musicians get to say they've performed there? It's a big deal.

Once again, I come away from this experience feeling so lucky to be part of this wonderful organization and people. Thanks!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Summary of Spring Music


What a great week it's been for music. Monday I sang with a group I've been singing with for the past 2 years (nursing home). This group has recently gotten some new residents and the change is remarkable! It used to be that most of the time no one would sing and I'd endure them sitting there staring at me or falling asleep. Not last week! The few new ones sing loud and strong and it got others who didn't sing before to sing. I was surprised in a good way. What a big change!

Tuesday I sat in on a rehearsal of the Charlottesville Municipal Band in the percussion section. I started out as a musician playing percussion in high school band. But it had been nearly 40 yrs since I've attempted to play percussion in a big band. Needless to say, I was pretty overwhelmed. At times intimidated too. The thing with percussion is that unlike other band parts like a horn, it would be fairly easy to blend into the group that all plays the same part. Not so with percussion. That means every note you play everyone in the room can hear. If you hit the crash cymbals in the wrong place, guess what? Yeah. So I played bass drum but was constantly loosing my place --even so, I managed to play along and I did the best I could.   In all, I believe in taking risks and doing things that take me beyond my comfort zone. That is the best way to learn and grow. As it stands, we've decided if I want to join the band to try again in the fall. Summer is a busy time with a "brutal" (according to percussion director) rehearsal schedule.

Lastly, you see picture above my music stand with a few things on it. I have one book 101 Easy Fingerstyle Solos that I use to site read. What I like to do is play a tune a couple times through and then improvise different variations and chords. There are times when I play bedtime music for people dementia to help calm them and I play continuously for an hour. Easy pieces like waltzes, Celtic tunes, old folk songs are good to work in and improvise around.  It is one of my favorite things to do.

Spring time brings in new sounds. I love the songs of the birds outside that mingle with my music. Happy Spring everyone! (better late than never)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mississippi Mud and Mississippi Mud 2 3 4

I began my musical journey playing percussion in high school band. I was best at the snare drum but loved playing the timpani and mallets too. Years ago I belonged to the Percussive Arts Society  and I  still have my membership card from 1975. (wow)   That year I participated in an event called, "The Uncontest" where I played a drum set solo for 3 different teachers.  My solo was titled, "Wipe In" (a play on the famous "Wipe Out" solo).   Our sessions were recorded--both my solo and the teachers' feedback. I will never forget my first performance of the piece, I botched the ending so badly that it made me roar with laughter every time I listened to it.

What also happened that day was I ended up winning an award for it. The thing was though, I did not go down to receive it -even though my name was called 3 times. Part of it was due to some hearing loss that went undetected and the other part was me saying, "Nooooo, it can't be. It must be some other O'Connell." So, imagine my surprise when I went to my drum lesson the following week and my teacher presented me with my award. Huh. I really did win something! I don't know what happened to that certificate but it was the last time I ever won anything like it.

Over the years, I have continued to play percussion in the form of hand and frame drums. Bodhran, djembe, doumbek, tambourine. Back in the early 2000's I played snare in a local pipes and drum band.

Today, I got out my drum sticks and practice pad (like a snare drum) and my rudiments (exercises for technique pictured above) to get me ready for tonight sitting in on a rehearsal with the Charlottesville Municipal Band.
It's been  many years since I've played band music but I am really excited to try it out again. If all goes well, I will be wearing black and playing in the summer schedule. I'll let you know how it goes.

By the way, "Mississippi Mud" is a phonetic way to remember how a 5 stroke snare drum roll goes. (the count of it). That was a trick I learned in band way back when!
what fun awaits!