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?