Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The true spirit of Christmas

Today I played my last Christmas party of the season. I have to say that I am somewhat glad as I have been playing this music since the end of November. I've been feeling a little worn out from all the holiday traffic, endless rain, added activity level with low motivation.  Sometimes it feels like it is all up to me to cheer everyone up and I need some help now and then. Today, I got it.

I was so impressed when I walked into the office of the activity director at one of the nursing homes I play at each week. I could barely get in the door as there were bags and boxes of wrapped presents, canned goods for those in need, eggnog and cookies for our holiday sing along.  When I commented on all of the gifts and things in her office, Mary laughed and said, "Oh yeah, I've been wrapping presents all week and getting ready for our caroling event on Christmas day."  She then told me with a twinkle in her eye that all the staff are going to go around room to room and sing Christmas carols on Christmas for the residents.  Now that's the spirit of Christmas! No complaints about having to work on Christmas--instead, it seemed Mary and her staff enjoyed preparing for it.

I see a lot of folks like them. Their work is more of a "calling" and not just a job they do for a paycheck. I feel so lucky to be around such good hearted people and it inspires me to keep going --even though I feel like I'm at the end of a marathon race. Just two more days left of the holiday... one more push. I can do it.

The sing along today was really a lot of fun. One of the daughters of a resident came and sang next to me and often would put her arm around me or make faces or gestures acting out the songs. It was such fun to have help singing with me and it really raised my spirits. I am now resting before I go out one more time today to sing for some nursing home residents.  I was given a sparkling Christmas lights necklace by one of the residents today and I'll wear that tonight.

Soon it will be Christmas day. Have a very Merry one!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's that time of year....

I love this time of year and yet... and yet. It is also very hard to navigate all of the social goings on and holiday traffic and extra activities placed on top of an already full life. I played two holiday parties where I had two people speak rudely to me. I understand though, it's a busy time and we all have full plates.

To maintain my balance I have been trying to be sure I have some time alone to be outside or play around on my guitar or read or do some artwork. I was sick for nearly two weeks in the beginning of Dec. and learned that I need to keep my balance.

Don't get me wrong though, I do love the music and bringing cheer to others. I just know that in order to do this, I need to be sure I am well and rested and in good spirits. There's a lot going on this time of year. It's also a life review time as I just had my birthday and it's the end of the year and lots on my mind.

Still though I know this time is not just about joy but also about struggle. It is about finding the light in the darkest days. I do my best to be happy even when others are stressed and rude. It's part of my job as I am around a lot of people all the time and everyone is trying to keep things together.

I wanted to say hello from holidayland and wish you some peace amid the hustle and bustle and take some time to be in the silence. to another gig. :)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Feliz Navidad and playing for the caregivers

Magical moments emerge out of a given gig in unexpected ways. Last night some of those moments came while playing for a group of older adults with dementia.  I play there twice a month after dinner calming guitar musical selections I call, "Sundown Serenade." Evening is often a confusing and anxiety provoking time for those with dementia and the music helps to relax them.

Many times while I am playing those working as caregivers get to have a bit of a break and sit at the table and talk and have something to eat. I often feel invisible (which is a nice feeling, actually!) as I sit playing my guitar and observe the night unfolding at the nursing home. I started the evening's music with some pieces I composed myself just to get the music flowing in the room.

As I warmed up, I started playing some familiar songs like, "Fly me to the Moon,"  "What a Wonderful World."  Then when I played, "What the World Needs Now," I saw one of the caregivers stop what she was doing and look over at me with an expression of recognition and fond memories surfacing. After I finished playing the song, I said: "Dionne Warwick." She smiled and said, "That was bringing back memories."  That inspired me to go through more songs of that era--songs like, "Baby, Now That I've Found You," "My Cherie Amour," "You Are the Sunshine of my Life."

This led to a conversation about the music of the 60s and one of them asked how I knew all those songs. I told them I grew up on those songs and loved the music of Jose Feliciano and other guitarists of the time. One of them asked, "Do you know, "Feliz Navidad?"  Yes I said and as I started singing it, all of the caregivers in the room joined in singing to the residents.  We laughed and sang more Christmas songs and then the residents also joined in. "Joy to the World," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The First Noel."  It gave such a feeling of togetherness in the room that was not there before. Like I said, I don't mind being in the background and playing instrumental music to relax but it is always such an honor to be able to really connect with people with music. 

There are times I do focus on connecting with the caregivers and I am always rewarded in doing so. As I got ready to leave one said, "I loved tonight!" I did too and they all said how much they enjoyed seeing me again and the feeling was mutual.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Gifted Listener

Many times we hear about gifted musicians who can play music in a magical way. I know a woman who is a gifted listener of music, who listens in a magical way. She lives in a dementia unit at a nursing home where I play regularly. I come after dinner and play what is called my "Sundown Serenade," instrumental music on my guitar to help calm the residents.  This woman who I will call Mary listens to every song I play with rapt attention. Sometimes she closes her eyes and nods her head along with the rhythm, as if she were playing along with me in her head. After each song she brightens and applauds and says something like, 'oooh I could listen all night!"

Last night I  noticed she wore an Irish clannad ring and she looked Irish, so I played, "My Wild Irish Rose" and sure enough, she not only recognized the song, she sang the song aloud with me. After I was finished playing it,  I said, "You know that song!" and we sang it together:

"My wild Irish rose
the sweetest flower that grows
you may search everywhere but none can compare
with my wild Irish rose."

We sang it together quite a few times and then laughed. I found other songs she knew too like, "Simple Gifts," "Edelweiss," "Shenadoah." I had such a good time singing and playing with her that the hour flew by.

When it was time to go, she walked me to the elevator, pointed to it and said, "Can I open that for you?" (I had already pressed the button to call it, but she didn't notice) I told her, "You can say 'open sesame." She leaned closer and said to the door, "Open Sesame!" and in that instant the elevator door opened. She was so surprised and delighted with herself. I said, "You did it--thank you!" and she laughed and laughed. 
I laughed many times on the drive home about this!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Where the music finds you

This week was so inspirational. New connections and collaborations were made as music found me in many places.  In addition to my usual weekly music gigs, I took time out to meet with my friend Mike to play some guitar duets.  One would think these kinds of meetings would go on all the time in a town with so many musicians. But it can be really hard to find people whose styles, skills, personalities compliment one another. So often when people meet me and find out I am a musician, they tell me, "Oh, you should meet ____! He/She is a musician too!" That would be like saying to a Catholic person, "Oh, you should meet___, they are Catholic too!"  The fact that two people play music does not always mean you will 'hit it off'. Similarly with any commonality in life.

Fortunately though, I did find myself among many musical people and events this week! On Saturday, I attended a volunteer brunch at one of the nursing homes I sing at weekly. How much fun it was to gather with other music lovers and sing around the piano! We sang Gospel songs like, "Down by the Riverside," "Do Lord," "I'll Fly Away."

Later that day, I went do an Oxford Tudor Anthem sing along led by Early Music Ensemble, MIRA (pictured above is leader Raven Hunter). It was quite a lot of fun and challenging. They had extra hymn books on hand (I had my own) and we all sat in our vocal sections. I was sitting next to the bass and tenor parts and switched between them. Of course the bass part was a bit low for me but I often did the octave above. Sometimes I just closed my eyes and listened to the blending of voices, it was heavenly!

Finally, the week ended with a monthly community sing along I lead at The Front Porch   roots music school in Charlottesville.  It is always a joyous occasion for me to sing with people. We sang everything from, "My Girl," "Stand By Me," "Do Re Mi," "Moonshadow," and everything in between. After that, we shared a potluck supper. How's that for a musical week? Where did music find you recently?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Harvesting ideas and taking time to play

Something that keeps me inspired is to continue to learn new things and work on new projects.  Since I work as a professional musician, I have to be careful that my music does not become "another job." I get so much fulfillment out of learning new pieces, coming up with new ideas for projects and spending time being creative.

Here are some of the things I'm working on. I've been asked by the local library to play music as part of The Big Read event next spring. This is a big deal and a real honor for me. The book chosen will be The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.  With this in mind,  this morning I put 3 poems by Carson McCullers to music. She did not write a lot of poetry but if you look her up, you'll find poems. I find this process of setting poems to music to be tremendously satisfying.

Also in the picture above is my music journal where I "tab" out (guitar notation) new songs and the one above is "And I Love Her" by the Beatles. Over the summer, I arranged over 30 songs for a wedding party and had so much fun doing it.  I'm also working on some Christmas music.

I usually go to the gym in the morning but today I stayed home to have a creative brainstorm day. It was very productive and I am particularly excited about my Carson McCullers' poems. A great way to spend a rainy morning. Oh and I forgot to say that my cat Jasper helped ensure I took many breaks to pet and play with him. :)

What ways do you like to be creative?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Last night I gave a presentation at one of the local libraries on the Music of the Civil Rights Era.  I love presenting music in a historical context and I feel particularly passionate about music in the Civil Rights movement. I was a child growing up in Chicago during this time and though I was too young to understand some of what was going on, I do remember the social climate of political unrest. I remember getting out of school early due to a riot or gang fights. I believe in the power of music to bring people together to bring about social change. Certainly, the "Freedom Songs" sung in marches and demonstrations were instrumental in helping the civil rights movement to succeed.

Many of the songs featured were written by slaves coming from African American Spirituals and Gospel traditions. Many of the songs were not part of the mainstream awareness nor heard on pop radio stations. Some of the songs I featured were:

We Shall Not Be Moved
I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table
Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn me Around
We Shall Overcome
Eyes on the Prize
A Change is Gonna Come
Strange Fruit
Hammer Song

Each time I present this music, I am filled with such a strong sense of purpose and meaning to continue to pass on these songs and their messages of empowerment and inclusiveness. 

I plan to teach a class at the local home-school enrichment center this winter on music of the Civil Rights. I look forward to this!

Monday, October 12, 2015

First of Many Community Sing Alongs!

There's a new roots music school in town called The Front Porch and it is a great place to take music lessons and get together with other music friends. Yesterday was our first Second Sunday Community Sing Along and it was a lot of fun! We had a small but appreciative group.

The songs we sang covered many genres from traditional folk, gospel, blues, show tunes, Motown. Some of the songs included, "My Girl," "Stand By Me," "From a Distance," "Moonshadow," Daydream Believer, " "If I Had a Boat," "Down by the Riverside," "Down to the River to Pray," "The Earth is our Mother," selections from the Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music.

There is something so special about joining in song with people. Whether it was in the summer camps of childhood, music classes in school, or front porch of our house, we all remember the rush of joy we felt as our voices joined with others in song. When harmonies gave us goosebumps, melodies made us smile and rhythms had us stomping and clapping along. 

Pictured above, some friends going through our new Rise Again Songbook 

If you live in the area and like to sing--please mark your calendar for the Second Sunday of the month at 4:00 at The Front Porch in Cville. We sing until 5:00 and then share a potluck supper.  We'd love to have you!!  

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Music is a refuge

This past Saturday I played for a wedding ceremony and reception party. I signed a contract to do this wedding nearly a year ago. I also learned over 30 songs to play for the reception and had practiced daily since June for it. All was in place the day before and I was ready. Then the call came in...

It was from my mother's caregiver and friend that she'd had a severe stroke and I was to fly to Arizona immediately. She was not expected to survive. What to do??! Since I was bound to the contract of the wedding, I could cancel and since it was the day before, I could not find a replacement that quickly. Fortunately, my sister was able to fly out there that night and I booked a flight for the day after the wedding.

Then there was the challenge of how to get through the wedding? It is a happy and emotional event and I was dealing with possible death of my mother. It didn't help that many of the songs I was playing for the reception were songs I grew up with and reminded me of my mother. "Moon River," "Light My Fire" by Jose Feliciano, "What the World Needs Now," selections from "The Sound of Music."

Of course I didn't sleep much the night before either and yet there was no turning back.  As they say in the music biz, "The show must go on." And so I arrived at the wedding and did my best. I actually found that focusing on the music and concentrating on my cues and being there for others helped keep me in a grounded state.  It turned out the songs all went well and everyone seemed pleased.

You never really know what's going on with someone. I played for all those people in their happy occasion, all the while trying to keep my sorrow and fear at bay.

It turns out that upon getting home from the wedding, I learned from my sister that my mother made much progress and she is now undergoing rehab. My sister has been there with her and we decided for me to come later in order to stretch out our support of her.

It's just an example of the kind of dedication it takes to do this work at times.  People say I am "living the dream" to be a professional musician and yes that is true. But it is not always easy! Still, I was grateful everything worked out!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Grab bag gigs

As a child I got a dollar each week for allowance and I'd go to the Woolworth's to spend it. I could buy a bag of marbles or a hot dog and a coke or any number of things. My favorite though was a "Grab Bag" of 45s. This was a stack of 10 45 records wrapped in a package so that you could only see the 45 on top. I loved going home and listening to each of them and discovering new bands and songs.  In most of the stacks there were a few duds but there was always at least one that stood out like a gem among the sifted sand.

My music gigs are like that too. There are days when I go and all kinds of distractions and mishaps are going on while I am trying to sing. Last week I was singing at a nursing home and there was a new resident present who was very unhappy to have me there. She kept repeating like a mantra, "Please leave. Please stop. Please leave. Please stop it now." I said to her once, "I have a few more songs to sing, maybe you can go in the other room if you don't want to listen?" She said, "I live here! Why can't I do what I want to do?!!" Well, she had a point there. So, I continued to sing while she tried other tactics. "One, two, three, four, five, six.. " (and on and on) until other residents tried to reason with her. "Please be quiet! We are trying to sing." But nothing worked.

I do have to say that the other residents did exhibit a lot of patience about the situation and seemed determined to have a good time in spite of the disruptive woman. Once we were singing, "Polly Wolly Doodle," and the disgruntled woman started up again, "Please stop. Please Go Away..." In the middle of the song, Ms. B went over to hear and said, 'Polly Wolly Doodle All the day!! How about that?!" and she laughed.  Then we all sang the refrain and laughed.. much to the dismay of our the woman who wanted us to stop. But we did have fun anyway.

In contrast was a few days later when i went to sing at another nursing home and everyone was alert and clapping to the rhythm and applauding after the songs.  They seemed so joyous and very appreciative too. When I left they all applauded me and a few even stood up.
So it can be a grab bag of mixed emotions and experiences but in all.. it is always worth it.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Songs for the underserved

When I was a child growing up in Chicago, my "playground" was the alley. I spent many days by myself going through trash, exploring abandoned buildings, climbing up garage patios, hiding out.  For years after we moved to a nicer neighborhood, I dreamed of those alleys and being lost in the dark. I still have those dreams now and then. Like this photo above... in my dreams I am walking in places that have no street names, no one is around,  I am alone. There are places where I sing that give me a similar feeling of being on the edge.

There are places where I go to sing for  under-served people. These are people much like the ones I met on the streets in Chicago --the ones my mother warned me to never talk to. (which I never listened and came home with countless stories). Maybe it is why I feel a special kinship when I play at the mission home in town. It's a dark place with people screaming in the corners and trying to climb out of their wheelchairs. Where the staff walk right by them and do not help--as if they've seen everything. I keep on singing no matter what's going on.

Last week at the mission home, I befriended a black woman who asked me when my birthday was. "Oh a winter baby!" she said when I told her the December date.  I sang some old African spirituals and after each song she said, "Oh yeah!" She was the only one out of a room full (about 25) of people who was listening.

The next day I went to work at the hospital and played for a patient who was on suicide watch. The patient was in restraints and hooked up to life support and very agitated. I tried to surround her with the beauty and comfort of guitar music. There was a guard standing outside the door watching and listening.  I didn't know this patient was on suicide watch until I went to leave and asked if the guard was there to monitor the vital machines (bells kept going off and the guard kept coming in to turn off the alarms). The guard said, "No, she tried to kill herself."  Wow. It's hard to imagine life can be that bad for some people. I had hoped my music did something for her spirit.

There are things I see at times that gives me perspective. It makes me grateful  that I have work doing what I am here to give.  People often think being a full time musician is a lot of fun. And it is. But it is also a kind of work others cannot imagine. This was a week in the alleys of mankind. Hope I struck a chord to show them there is still beauty, peace, hope.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Picnics, gatherings and summers' ending...

Late summer and early fall is one of my favorite times of the year.  One reason is two of my favorite gigs of the year happen in late August. The first is the Charlottesville Therapeutic Parks & Recreation picnic. Each year all of the staff and many participants in our programs come together for a few hours and make music, art, play games and have a picnic.  I love singing with this group because though the picture has me alone--you can't see that to my left is Barbara on the piano and Chris singing and playing next to me (and Wayne taking my picture.) It's a time when I get to sing harmonies and bring up people to our little stage and back them up.  It's a time when I get to see some of my favorite people that work for parks & recreation. I don't see them often because throughout the year, we are involved in different programs all over the city and county.  Also there are new families and people to meet at the lunch table. I like hearing stories from parents who say things like, "Parks & Rec has made a world of difference for my child!"

Then later that same day, I got to do my other favorite gig which is an annual Women's Gathering in a rustic community 30 miles from here. I lead a scared songs and chants circle and it was so enjoyable joining with women and girls singing our favorite goddess, Native American and sacred chants and songs. The favorite that was chosen to sing at the open mic later was this one:

"We are the rising sun
We are the change
We are the ones we've been waiting for
And we are dawning."

I love all kinds of music and opportunities to connect with different kinds of people in different kinds of settings. I was marveling at the fact that just days ago I was in NYC amidst the hustle & bustle, noise and intensity in the city that never sleeps. Then yesterday being out in the woods singing Native American chants. The diversity of experience enriches my life so much.

Now, it's back to practicing music for my upcoming weddings. It is a great job, being a musician!

As always, thanks for stopping by and feel free to leave a comment or email me and say hello!

I hope you are having a good summer's end. What does this autumn bring into your life?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Glory Glory Hallelujah, Noxema and Red Pajamas

It's been a good week singing with my older adult groups. What's been especially fun is how a song will spark a memory. For instance, when we sing, "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," the last verse gets a laugh with: "We'll be wearin' red pajamas when she comes. " Everyone remembers scratching mosquito bites until they bled.

The song, "Down By the Riverside," led us to remember summer camp and I told of how I used to wear Noxema on my nose after a day down at the beach and getting a bad sunburn. This led to an animated discussion --is Noxema still being made? Don't you just love the smell of it? What was in it that made your skin feel so cool and good on a sunburn?

Since many times we sing songs connected to a holiday of that month, I only recently realized that August is the only month that does not have a holiday! We talked about that too. "Really?" Ms. Ruth asked doubtfully.  Yes and we went through each month and named the holidays. Then I sang, "Joy to the World," and said why not? It says nothing about Christmas in it.

I've enjoyed a new trend lately that some family members have gotten involved and sing along with much gusto. This gets everyone even more into it. Last night one woman who usually never sings sang along with us for the Battle Hymn of the Republic. A song with a good refrain is always a good one to get people singing and everyone knows, "Glory, glory hallelujah.."

It's true you'd think people would tire of the same old songs but we don't. After all, we watch some movies over and over again too. They hold memories for us and tell our stories. It is a lot of fun!

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Bluegrass Lullaby

As a guitar player, I often get asked if I play bluegrass music. Many of the families and patients I see at the hospital are from rural areas. While I can and do play some bluegrass music--it  is not often what I would choose to play for someone in ICU. The reason is that bluegrass music is usually a fast and uptempo rhythm which would not be a good thing for someone anxious with high heart rate and racing pulse.

Yesterday I was sent to a room  (ICU at the hospital) of a man who wanted bluegrass with the heart rate of 112 bpm. I  play nylon string guitar which means I play finger picking style as opposed to strumming most of the time. In this instance though, I chose to strum a slow bluegrass-like progression in a waltz tempo.  I put in the bass runs and played it in a twangy style while the man kept talking to me so softly, I could not hear him. I kept focused on the music and gradually his gaze went still and I saw the heart rate on his monitor start to come down.  At one point, he looked as though he would start to cry and so I played, "Shenandoah" and did see tear streaming down his face. What I do when playing for a patient is i meet them where they are (as opposed to trying to cheer them up or make them feel something they are not feeling at that moment). If they are sad, then I play a sad song to match them as it encourages them to grieve. Sometimes crying is a very healing thing to do.

I continued playing soft chord progressions and lullaby like melodies as his eyes began to close. Within 5 more minutes, he was sleeping deeply and peacefully and his heart rate went down to 92. I stayed playing quietly awhile to be sure he stayed asleep. And so when people ask me, "Do you play bluegrass?" well, yes but the musical prescription most often needs a slow rhythm to help them rest. People sometimes think a fast, cheerful melody would make a patient happy and that is sometimes the case. But more often, they need rest to heal.  Had I gone in there though and immediately played in the classical guitar style I most often played --I would likely have encountered some resistance. The strumming of familiar chords won his trust and then I sought to lead him to a quiet place. It worked!

Thanks for stopping by! If you found me for the first time - here is my website. Feel free to drop me a line! 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Peace and quiet and a song to uplift me

The last few days have been stressful here as the noise from the construction (new development - yuck!) next door has increased. Because of this noise, my cats have been fighting and I even had to take one of them to the vet to be sure it is not a medical reason. Her diagnosis? Stress from the noise.
We all have times like this.

Yesterday I was feeling downhearted as if a big cloud was hanging over me. I knew I had to go play at a nursing home 30 miles away later that evening and wondered if I had anything to give.  Well, it is as I say many times -- my work really helps me a lot! For I was so richly rewarded from my time at the nursing home out in Madison county.

When I arrived, I was welcomed by the new activities director I had not met before. It is often a bit stressful because sometimes a new activities director means I'm cut out of their new vision & schedule. I was happy to see this was not at all the case.

I enjoyed the peace of playing calming music (which I also needed) for the residents. When I was finished, I went to say hello to one of the residents I see each time. She often comes during the last 10 minutes and brings her afghans she is crocheting.  Last night I learned more about her and as we talked she asked brightly, "Did I give you my Christmas letter? " I nodded that she did not as she went to get it. She came back and as she handed it to me said, "It doesn't say anything about Christmas but it talks about all that I'm doing here." Then she asked, "Shall I sing you a song?" and I told her I would love that. She sang a song about Jesus is her friend (this is a Mennonite  home where I play).  When she finished I clapped and said, "You just lifted me right up!" and then she smiled with a delighted grin and said, "There is another verse. Shall I sing that?" I laughed and said, "I would love that." Well, this went on for 3 more verses! I was so taken by her joyful spirit and it was so much of what I needed. She really gave me a shot in the arm and I smiled all the way home.

When I got home, I got out her "Christmas letter" and read that she has Alzheimer's to which she said, "Lord, I don't want that! But I trust there is a reason for everything and I make do. "  The letter went on to tell of how she spends all day praying for others. She said she missed baking for Yoders' country store. I was so taken by all she does even with her Alzheimer's she does a lot for others. She certainly helped me too.

The picture attached is one I took on a peaceful day at a friends' pond. I need those images sometimes. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Christmas in July and lots of laughter

This week was a fun week singing with my groups. We played, "Christmas in July" a few times which was fun. What I love about these people is that they do not question it when I start singing, "Joy to the World, " --they just sing right along. No one stops and says,  "Hey, it's July--it's not time to sing that yet." With one group of adults with special needs, we sing in a big room and it can be hard for them to hear me and it can get chaotic at times. So I found that singing Christmas songs got their attention! Everyone knows and loves the songs and it is a good way to get everyone back on the same page. I enjoy watching the staff's reactions to this as they walk by.  Many of them smile and sing right along. It changes the mood in the room. I would not do this all the time but something about singing these songs during the hottest time of the year brings us a breath of fresh air. Something about doing what is not expected makes the doing of it more fun.

Then there was the case of laughing out of control in one group. We were singing, "Polly Wolly Doodle" when Miss Dorothy started laughing non stop. Every time we'd start to sing a new verse, she'd start up again. Next thing you know, those sitting next to her started laughing too, then me too. When we finally finished the song I asked, "Miss Dorothy, are you laughing about the song?" Then she burst out again, "Polly Wolly Doodle!" she howled with tears of laughter streaming down her face. One of the staff members next to her looked at her with surprise and laughed too. This outburst led us to talk about times when we all laughed when we were not supposed to. Or when we got in trouble from laughing in school or something. It was a lot of fun. We've all been there.

I love how the groups I see bond over these moments and music is the bridge.  Have you sung any Christmas songs lately?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marathon prepping and living the dream

I have been working on a big summer project which is to learn 27 new songs. It involves writing out a lead sheet chart for each one. I started back in early June and most of the new songs are doing pretty well. Being a musician is a lot like being an athlete.  There is a lot of physical work/practice to be done each day for my hands to stay strong and in shape. Mentally,  I have to have good concentration to keep the music in my head. Cause if I can't hear the tune in my head, I usually don't play it well. It involves learning to prioritize my time in order to be sure I am keeping up old repertoire as well as learning new songs. It is a lot like preparing to run in a big marathon. Each day of long practice and work.

Like an athlete, I  struggle with injuries and such from playing long hours and schlepping equipment. Sometimes when I make extra money, I have to  put that into getting a massage or other body work in order to help smooth out the kinks. 

The new repertoire I am working on is mostly for a wedding I have in Sept. Some of the songs I'm working on are, "You've Made Me So Very Happy," 'What the World Needs Now," "Baby, Now That I've Found You," Light My Fire," etc. They are mostly from when I was growing up (that is the age group of my audience) so it has been a lot of fun to play music from the soundtrack of my life!

There are so many new songs though, that i had to make and excel spreadsheet practice log to be sure I am keeping up on all of the songs. There's a picture of my practice log above but not sure if you can see it well. Many people do not realize how much music is required to fill one hour. All my new 27 songs only time in at 35 minutes. I will add in some jazz ballads and classical, and original repertoire to fill out the hour.

I am "living the dream" as another musician friend is fond of saying. I am enjoying the challenge and having new songs to connect with people. How's your summer projects going? What are they?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Campfire songs and This Little Dog of Mine

This past week I was asked to come and teach kids (grades 1-5) how to write their own campfire songs.  It was a lot of fun to work on this lesson plan and even more fun to do with the kids.  Here are a couple of ideas I came up with.

To illustrate the ingredients that make up a song, I came up with this activity:

"Words, Rhythm, Chords and Notes"  (to the tune of, "Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes")

Here are the lyrics:

Words, rhythm chords and notes, la la la
Words, rhythm chords and notes, la la la
These are things that go in a song
Words, rhythm chords and notes, la la la

Divide into 4 groups: One for each of the above (Words, Rhythm, Chords and Notes)
When we sing “words" – the word group will sign a letter (as in American Sign Language) to represent words.
When we sing the word "rhythm" the rhythm group will clap 2xs
When we sing the word “chords” that group will strum 2xs an air guitar
The “Notes" group will sing, "la la la."

We had fun doing that! Then we took songs we already knew the melody/chords/rhythm and wrote our own words to it. My favorite one was 'This Little Dog of Mine (I'm gonna treat him fine) " (to the tune of "This Little Light of Mine." )  The idea was to write a song to teach people ways to be kind to animals, in this case specifically dogs. The kids had great ideas like, "buy him a toy, " feed him a treat, " "give him water, " "walk in the park," etc. 

We also did songs about favorite summertime activities  and things they did at camp (Old McDonald Had a Camp EIEIO).  It was great fun!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Songs are like good dinnerware

I think good songs are like good dinnerware.  Both are beautiful to see and hear, both serve a purpose to feed the body, mind and soul. Finding the right song for the right time goes beyond what many come to see music as sheer entertainment. It serves as a way to bring people together and share in new memories or bond over a fond memory of the past.

Last night at one of the nursing homes I play in I had such a good time finding the right songs for the moment. This is a place where I come and play calming music to people with dementia before bedtime.  Often times I come and play and I don't have much interaction with the residents (as they are falling asleep, etc) but once in awhile something special happens.

There was a family member visiting his mother and he situated her wheelchair right in front of me and they sat and listened together. I judged the man to be about my age and played music I knew he would know, as well as his mother.  It was so nice to see him singing along to, "Chim Chim Cheree" (Mary Poppins), "When You Wish Upon a Star", "Over the Rainbow," "Edleweiss", "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You." (Elvis).  The man would close his eyes & smile  each time a new song came  that he knew and then he would lean over and sing to his mother. Most of those songs were popular when we were growing up, so his mother would recall the songs too.

Something I've done recently is that i used to not play music that I had to read from a score for people. To be honest, I am a slow music reader and I would get tripped up and make too many mistakes for it to be a pleasant experience for the listener. (and me). But this summer I made some charts that are easier for me to read and I played from these last night. It was so gratifying to see that this work has paid off.

I am looking forward to serving songs up to more people in this new way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Serving the underserved

Every now and then a friend sends me  a link to a radio station to send my CD to and make suggestions for my music career. They think I should sell and promote myself and try to gain more public recognition. While I do appreciate their thoughts, I also feel misunderstood. What they don't understand is that I am happy playing at day care centers, the hospital, nursing homes.  It means much more to me than any DJ that would take an interest enough to play me on their radio show.

Yesterday for instance,  it made me smile to see the sign above that lists me in the activities for the day which includes pet therapy and menu of the day.  Pets, music, food --what could be better? This is an assisted living residence where I have played for 3 years now. As always, it was a great time spent with them.

I was about 1/2 way through my set when I saw a Chaplain I used to know from the hospital walk in. She smiled and waved to me as I kept singing. Then she settled in next to one of the residents who was sitting in a wheelchair in the corner.   I sang a couple southern hymns, "In the Sweet By and By," "I'll Fly Away, " and then some Patriotic songs for 4th of July (we were still celebrating a few days later). The Chaplain sang along while focused on the woman she sat next to. I could see the woman was not able to speak aloud (due to disability) but she moved her lips along with the Chaplain to the songs. Both of their faces lit up with a happy expression of connection.  The room was filled with music and good feelings. That's more than a radio airplay can do for me!

Some people don't get it that it brings me so much joy to do this work.  They picture singing for the sick and people living in nursing homes as depressing. It is not at all! In fact, I find the competitive music scene to be depressing. I prefer these modest centers and homes and rooms filled with people where the music brings them happy memories. For those who think that the only way for a musician is to be famous... well,  maybe you can come with me sometime to see what I mean. There's more to life than fame or the seeking of fame. Though my wages are meager, I am rich in other ways.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Language of the Heart

Today was quite a day at the hospital. I was sent to play for one woman in ICU who was hooked up to life support and all sorts of other tubes and IVs. She was seated in a chair but she did not appear to be conscious. I knew she was aware of my music because I could read her vital stats change as I played. When I play for ICU patients, I mainly work to stabilize their pulse and bring their heart rate down by playing simple melodies in a steady, slow rhythm. I do not play anything familiar to the patient in these situations as I don't know what kind of history they have with a given song. We've all experienced when a certain song brought up old unresolved memories. When someone is so ill, we can't afford that kind of emotional charge--all of their energy needs to be focused on healing.

I was so engrossed in playing for her when suddenly I noticed a man standing in the doorway with his face in his hands as he cried openly. I was going to ask him if he wanted me to stop playing but then he came into the room and held the woman's hand (apparently his mother) and began talking to her. I could not hear what he was saying but I could get some of the tone of his voice. He spoke to her in a way that seemed he thought she could understand everything he said. Later, another man came into the room also crying and he held the woman's other hand. I continued to play as they cried. I understand that music can assist the grieving process and I kept playing my slow, lullaby-like improvised melodies. After about 20 minutes, I got the impression it would be nice for me to leave them alone with her to say what they needed to say.  They thanked me as I left and said that I played very beautifully.

Next I was sent to a woman's room who just suffered from a stroke. "I can't walk," was the first thing she said to me and then told me about her stroke. When I asked her if I could play for her, she said she liked that song, "My Girl," by the Temptations.  So, I started to sing this song and a big smile came on her face and she sang along.  As she was African American, I sang a few more songs by black artists. Once I said I really liked the old Spirituals and she looked surprised as if to ask me, "what one will you sing?" Then I sang, "Down by the Riverside," and again a big smile came. As I continued to sing, she closed her eyes and started to fall asleep. She looked very peaceful and as I slipped out of the room, she opened her eyes and said, 'bye."

Quite a day and again I feel so honored to play songs of the language of the heart. Though I was a stranger to them, the music helped to bridge our worlds and let tears to fall and smiles and memories to come.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Songs for an outsider

Have you ever been an outsider? Most of us have been at times in our lives.  Perhaps we moved to a new town, went to a new school or were displaced by life in some way. Have you ever been the only ________ (fill in the black) white person in a group, the youngest, oldest, only child of divorced parents,  relocated to a middle class area from a blue collar status, etc, etc?  We have all been there. Finding a place to belong is a universal quest and need. Music can give us that belonging. It's where social class, racial background, marital status, gender issues and all other boundaries fall away.

Last night I had the opportunity to make an outsider feel she belonged. She is the only black woman living in a nursing home where I play each Wednesday evening.  Last night as I strolled the hallways where I sing for the residents in troubadour style, I saw Ms.  Jackson seated in her wheelchair outside her room. Her head was down and when I tried to say hello, she did not respond. Since I had not met her before, I was not sure how much she heard or understood. I decided to keep trying to make a friend.

I sang the old Spiritual, "Down by the Riverside" and afterwards I told her I remembered learning that as a child in Chicago.  This sparked a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. She was paying attention now. This told her I'm not from here either. I then went on to sing to her an old Motown song, "My Girl." She didn't appear to know the song and so I explained it was popular in the 60s by Smokey Robinson. After that, I sang "Stand By Me." Again she didn't seem to know it but the nurses (also black) did and one of them came over and sang along with me.  She started to dance a bit and when one of the dishwashers walked by, she grabbed his hand and sang to him, "Stand by me, oh stand by me.." By this time Ms. Smith was smiling. I was chattering on as if we were old friends and at one point I reached up my hand as if to ask her to slap me five. I was surprised when she raised her hand and slapped me five! As she did so, I saw that her nails were long and painted red. I showed her my nails --those of a guitarist --one hand with no nails and the other with long nails. She smiled at this and I could see I made a connection. She went from not responding and being completely withdrawn to smiling and feeling a connection. The music gave me a way to do that.

Sometimes I get so involved in learning new music that I can shut myself away for days at a time and not actively seek out social connections. I forget that playing music is to make connections! Yesterday was a great reminder of that.  Each new song I learn could be a ticket to someone's secret world that would open a door between us. I look forward to seeing Ms. Smith next week.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Don't sing about death

The other day I arrived to sing for one of my nursing home groups and ran into a woman who was in my last music session there. She said, "I loved your music! All of the songs were just great!" and then she paused a minute and added, "All except the one about death..." I knew just the song she was referring to.  "Do you mean this song?" and I started to sing the refrain:

"I'll Fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away, in the morning
when I die, hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away."

She nodded her head with a puzzled look as if to ask, "How can you sing that with a smile on your face?" I explained to her it is a Southern Hymn that many folks around here grew up singing in church. From a Methodist or Baptist perspective, dying holds a great source of comfort and salvation.  And to those who have declining health (and are aware of it and are suffering to some extent),  dying is a welcome relief from our burdensome  earthly life.

I did not grow up in the south though and neither did the woman I was talking to. I said for us death was something we didn't talk about. It was something to fear and to avoid discussing openly. It is a cultural difference. It took me some years before I really understood some of the perspectives of those raised with southern Baptist background (I'm from Chicago) but I do understand it now. In fact I've learned a lot from these people.

I've even played for people as they died peacefully. It's not the super charged dramatic scene I used to see on the Marcus Welby M.D. TV show. In fact I was very afraid of being around death until I started to be with people in hospice and at the hospital who were dying. It can be a very peaceful and beautiful thing.

That is why I can sing songs about death with a smile.  That is why when I come to the nursing home one evening and find a death notice of one of the people I've come to know, I am happy for them. (because they no longer suffer) Of course, I'm sad for me and others' loss though.

It was an interesting discussion I had and something that people would never imagine would come up when they hear I lead sing alongs.  Many songs talk of very dark or thought provoking topics. I say that's the reason to sing them. Life is about struggle too, not just joy. Music is a reflection of all of life.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Where the music takes us

Yesterday I played out at a nursing home where i used to play regularly. It's been months since I was last there and it was so good to see everyone.  I was so surprised to see my old friend Danny walking with a cane. I've always known him to use a wheelchair and so this was great to see. He smiled and laughed when he saw the joy and surprise in my face when I said, "well, look who it is, walking up to me!" He said, "I got better," and smiled as it some secret made it happen.

We sang our favorite songs and it was like no time passed between us. My favorite part is after some songs, we talk about what memories we have with that song. At one point, I was talking about singing on the bus when we went on field trips in school. Then Ms. Martha said that one day when she got to school, she was sent to the principle's office. When she got there, she was told, 'Martha--we're gonna need you to drive the bus to school on Monday." And that was that. She was only 13.  From that day forward she drove that yellow school bus for years and years. "It ain't easy drivin' a bus," she said. Everyone was looking at her like, "wow." The stories we can tell and share over a song. It's incredible.

When we were done singing, several of them came up and we shook hands and they thanked me for coming. One man who spoke with a severe speech impediment said, "I, I, I jjjjust wwwanted to saay tthank you ffor being you."  Can you imagine? What a thing to say and how touched I was to see all of them.

On another note, I have been so much enjoying learning new (old) songs. This is my summer project to expand my repertoire. Today I learned, "Light My Fire" the Jose Feliciano version. I've also learned, "Fields of Gold," "Sunny," "What the World Needs Now." I will be playing them at a wedding cocktail hour. It will be such fun!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The soundtrack of our lives

Group singing fascinates me. As a musician, it is interesting for me to see which songs people of all ages will consistently sing along with.  As I play for a lot of senior groups, I am sensitive to trying to choose songs that are not considered too babyish or unsophisticated. And yet, it is always the most simple songs we learned as children that bring about the best response. I have some ideas of reasons for this.

I used to think that if people were in less happy circumstances in their present life, then recalling happier times would make them sad because they would compare their lives to better times. I have found that I am wrong about this. When we sing a song that conjures up a happy memory, all the cells in our body respond accordingly.  We are able to feel that happiness anew. And when singing in a group, it is such a bonding experience because we have come from different places, might have a different social class, ethnicity, religious background, political outlook but when it comes to singing together --we are united on equal ground. We are like a field of sunflowers reaching to the sun.

Yesterday I experienced this in two groups.  We sang old songs like, "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad," "Billy Boy," "Oh Susanna," "Que Sera, Sera," "When the Saints Go Marching In," etc. At times I would insert a song more sophisticated musically like, "Side by Side," Or "I Got Rhythm, " but songs like, "Home on the Range", 'Take me out to the Ballgame" got the laughs and smiles and shared camaraderie.  We all remember those field trips in school where we sang on the bus the whole way. Or music class where we sang together. It was not about learning music --it was about sharing the moment together.

I once thought I had an unhappy childhood. It is true most of us remember the bad memories more strongly over the good ones. But I did this exercise and you can too. Recall some of the songs that hold a happy memory of when you were a child. If you can, seek out that song and download it from the internet.  Find about ten or more and burn them onto a CD. Listen on the way to work in the car or at  your leisure and see how it makes you feel.

Some of the songs I chose were songs I danced to in tap class, sang in variety shows, heard on my transistor radio while at the beach with my family, or sang in summer camp. Here are some of the songs from my Happy Childhood soundtrack:
"Alley Cat," "Happiness Is (Charlie Brown), "Time is Tight, " "For Once in My Life,", "Classical Gas, " etc.

what's on your Soundtrack?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

I knew it was you....

Yesterday I sent to play for a patient in isolation in ICU outside of their room ( I am not allowed in the room when isolated). Just as I started playing opening notes on my guitar, a woman emerged from the room next door. "I knew it was you!" she said.  There stood a woman I met nearly 30 years ago when working at an independent living center (with people with disabilities). At the time, her son was a young boy (now in his 30s) and I helped her get services to enable him to be more independent. I had seen her a couple of months ago at the hospital, our first time seeing each other in a couple of decades. She looked just the same as I remembered her.  However, life has not been so kind to her recently and she asked me to play for her husband who was hospitalized.

Yesterday, in the  hallway of ICU, she said, "I wanted to talk to you when you have time. "  So, after I was done playing, I went to see her (again visiting her ailing husband) and she said, "the last time I saw you, you played a song something like "Come Spring." I said I told her it was a piece I wrote myself called, "Promise of Spring."  And she said, "How can I get that song? I want to have that and listen to it over and over again." Then she got the idea to record me playing "Promise of Spring" for her husband. I stood next to him and close to her tape recorder (on her cell phone) and played my piece. When I finished, she put down the recorder and opened her arms to hug me. We stood hugging for awhile and I was so overcome with gratitude for seeing her and reconnecting with her.  It is so good for me to connect with people doing my work. To know that I can make a difference, however small.  I told her she has helped me a lot too and we say our goodbyes as I go on my way.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Songs without words

I am an Arts Fusion Specialist  with the Alzheimer's Association which brings interactive music/art activities to seniors with dementia and Alzheimer's. I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to encourage participation in my music sessions.   Sometimes I look out at the participants and think, "I don't think they are capable of participating." This was the case the other day when I saw the residents in their wheelchairs nodding off after a few songs.  But I decided to give it a try anyway.

Here's what I did. First, I passed out egg shakers and told them we will form a "merry band" and they will play along with me on some uptempo songs. I started them off with a rhythmic beat and they shook their eggs along and I played, "Hey Good Lookin' What You Got Cookin'?" and a few other songs. To my surprise, they woke right up and smiled and enjoyed playing along. Next, I got out my djembe (drum) and played a rock 'n roll beat and they jammed along with me. The next part is what surprised me the most. I went around to everyone and asked them if they'd like to play my drum. I didn't think they'd do it but each one of them took a turn at it. I held the drum as each one played a "song without words."   After the first gentleman took his turn I said, "let me see if I can do what you did" and I imitated his rhythmic beat. A big smile and nodding -I got it right and I went around to everyone and did the same.

For those with dementia, words can be hard to find. Although most them them can recall words to old songs. Even so, I've found that drumming can be a lot of fun for them as we all have rhythm as I told them and then sang the song, "I Got Rhythm."

After that successful session, I made my way over to a friend's 3rd grade classroom and talked to the kids about my bionic ear (cochlear implant). It has been over 6 years since I was implanted and I actually forget at times how much it has changed my life. It was a nice reminder that we can never take anything for granted. Thanks for stopping by and reading my stories.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

You bless us too

One of my favorite places I play for people is a nursing home in Madison county that is run by Mennonites. It is always inspiring to be there because the people who work there radiate such genuine kindness.  It is how I would like to be in the world more often and I really do try to be but there are times I might be down about something or tired or something prevents me from feeling my best.

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far and so that made me feel fatigued. It's a  long drive (30 miles) to this nursing home and during rush hour traffic, so I had to psyche myself up for it. I was greatly rewarded for my efforts, as you will see.

As a therapeutic musician, sometimes it can be a challenge in that people see my music offering as a performance. At this nursing home, I usually sit in the middle of a big circle and play soothing instrumental guitar music. This is for "sundowning" time when folks are anxious and the music is to help calm them. Often times they applaud when I finish playing a piece and listen attentively. That is very nice but I would prefer they fall asleep. (therapeutic music is opposite to a performance)

Yesterday I had the inspiration to ask if there were residents who stayed in their rooms that I could play for one on one. It turns out there was someone who was bed ridden and I went to play for him for awhile as his eyes drooped and I could see he was about to fall asleep. Next I played for Ms. B. who is generally pretty agitated and the music appeared to calm her too. After that, I did play in the big circle until one of the nurses asked me to play for another resident who was set apart by the window in a corner crying.   This is what I do best-one on one playing. I was so happy to feel I was being more useful (and not feeling like I was "performing"). On my way out that evening, I told one of the nurses I really enjoyed coming there and it inspires me. She said, "You bless us too." That was such a compliment. I drove all 30 miles home smiling and feeling good.

Check out the view across the street from this place pictured above. Just beautiful!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Keeps the music inside

It has been a challenging time for me as I recently went to visit my mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's and lives far away. It is never easy to see anyone suffer, much less my mother. I always find that my work really helps me during such times. We all have some kind of challenge or battle going on whether or not it is visible or apparent to others. I find that my work playing for patients at the hospital is the most helpful for me at this time since it allows me to do something for others.

The other day I had this vision of a big Grace Bank that we can all contribute to. At times feel overwhelmed with all the suffering that goes on in the world and helpless to do much about it all. But I can do what I can and however small it may seem, it is contributing to the greater good. So imagine then if we all had something, a gift, a skill, ideas, gestures, money, whatever you have to give. Each day we make a small contribution to the Grace Bank and those in need of some healing, peace, grace in their lives can take from this "Bank."

Yesterday I played for a patient at the hospital who was in Palliative Care. This is a place where many of them are likely not to go home. They are hospice patients who are being kept comfortable until they die.  This woman sat peacefully as I played and closed her eyes.  I envisioned her taking in the melodies I played as she breathed in. I was aware of trying to fill the room with beauty and peace and healing. When I finished, we chatted a bit about where she grew up and such. She had such a serene expression on her face as if she were at peace with all of life. I was happy that perhaps my music contributed a little to her peace (and to the Big Grace Bank out there somewhere)

As i got up to leave, I asked her if she wanted me to close the door on my way out. She smiled and nodded yes and said, "It keeps the music in." I imagined her room like a big music box where she could recall the melodies I played whenever she wanted. I left feeling uplifted by her and what we shared.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Jammin' through ethnic sounds

The other day I played at a club house with a colorful bunch of people.  It's a place with a game room and card tables and such set up but all of the action happens outside on the back patio. This is also where everyone smokes cigarettes. I'm not a fan of smoking but I hardly notice it once we get singing.

Many of the people I know from my five or so years of coming there but there were also a lot of new faces. Since there are a lot of people of color there, I chose to sing songs by black artists.  Those who never saw me before quickly dropped their guard as soon as I started singing, "My Girl" by Smokey Robinson. Just about everyone stopped their conversations and joined in. Next I sang, "Stand by Me," followed by, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay."   Soon I was taking requests which ranged from Beatles, "With a Little Help from my Friends," and "Yellow Submarine," to Marvin Gaye's, "Heard it Through the Grapevine," and Cat Steven's "Moonshadow."

Later, Roberto asked me, "Do you know any Latino songs?" And I started playing a Latino-like chord progression and improvising lyrics sung in a Latin beat, "Ev-ry bo-dy got some-thing- to - sayyy sayy ya ya .." Roberto starts laughing and laughing. Next thing I know, Joe starts in riffing off of me and making up lyrics and singing and improvising. Roberto keeps on laughing and starts drumming on the table. Then Susanna joins in beating on an old coffee can.  I kept on playing my Latino song and we played around like that for quite some time. Finally, when it was time to go a guy named John said, "That was the most fun I've had in a long time!" 

Sure was... I can still hear that song we made up in my head. I wish we could have recorded that!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Fellowship of the Guitar

I often meet people in my work who once played the guitar but can no longer do so because of an illness or injury.  Yesterday I was asked by an activities director to spend some one:one time with a man named Raymond who used to play the guitar but due to a spinal cord injury, he cannot move the right side of his body.

There is something about people who play(ed) guitar. There is a lot that we share and talk about.  For instance just the make of the guitar is a topic that can bring up some interesting stories. Back when I was starting out, there were a few name brand acoustic guitars that most serious players sought to own. Names like Martin & Gibson for instance. Nowadays though, there are just as many private builders of guitars as there are players. One of my guitars was made here in Ivy, VA and a lot of people find that interesting.

Then there is the way we learn guitar has changed so much over the years and since the internet. Back when i was learning in the 70s, if I wanted to learn a song, I'd have to purchase a whole book or sheet music for that one song. Now, I can almost always find it online.  There are also many ways to learn online from Skype lessons to DVDs and such.

Not to mention then there are so many genres you can play on the guitar from country, folk, blues, jazz, classical, rock & roll. You can play with your fingers (fingerstyle) or with a pick. Electric/acoustic... and on and on, you get the idea.

It is always a good experience for me to meet someone who loves the guitar as much as I do. I cannot imagine not being able to play anymore. But I could see yesterday the spark in Raymond's eyes when we talked about his old Gibson and the country band he played in. We talked about my guitar and the woods it is made from.  I could see that talking about guitars brought him a lot of comfort and happiness. I know it can't be any substitute for playing a guitar, but at least I feel good that I was able to talk to him in a way others could not really understand. We guitarists have a kind of fellowship that only we understand. If you play the guitar --do you know what I mean? Here's to us!
Thank you, Raymond for helping me remember what a special gift it is to play guitar every day.

Friday, May 1, 2015

To Sit at the Welcome Table

Yesterday I gave a presentation on African American music of the Civil Rights Era at a local High School. I have such passion for this music and historic time period. I often say you can read a book about a given historic time but it would likely have been written by someone who was not there. A factual account with names and dates you are expected to memorize. Or you can sing the songs that were written by the people who went through those times first hand. Songs that grew out of their hardships and struggles.  These songs I taught expressed their outrage over the injustice and yearning for radical change in the nation. When you sing them, you can feel the emotions of the people and how it must have felt to live through their struggle.

Most of the songs are from the Negro Spirituals and Gospel traditions that were brought back during the Civil Rights Era and the words changed to express their new message.  Here are some of the songs we all sang; "We Shall Not Be Moved, " "We Shall Overcome," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "This Little Light of Mine,"

I think one of my favorites was one that is not as known but was sung by the Freedom Singers Gospel group called, 'I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table." The words are:

"I'm gonna sit at the welcome table
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, hallelujah
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days."

This song seems so simple but what a powerful message when you think that black people were not welcome in so many places. To declare, "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," was a bold thing to say back in the Civil Rights Era.

Other verses are "I'm gonna be a registered voter," "I'm gonna sit at the Woolworth Counter." For me these verses are so revealing. Can you imagine not being able to vote just because of the color of your skin? Do believe this happened in my lifetime?  And to think that black people were not allowed to eat in most restaurants (hence the Woolworth reference). It is just mind boggling.

We've come a long way since those times but as we see in the news, racism is not over. It is my hope  that in singing of the songs yesterday with young people, a seed was planted in their hearts. It is my hope they will stand up against injustice and continue the work that has been ongoing for many years now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Earth Day to All!

Happy Earth Day to All! The last two days I had the pleasure of teaching first graders at Greer Elementary all about Earth Day. We sang songs about recycling, caring for the earth, learned about a day in the life of trees and different Habitats.   I love to see that children are so smart and I hardly had to "teach" them, as they already know so much. For instance, I was telling them that we could all eliminate being wasteful by reusing some things again. I brought with me a chipped coffee mug and asked them what might I use it for? Answers, "to plant a flower," "to hold some pens/pencils," "to bring to the beach to make a sandcastle," "to use as a pail." I also showed them a plastic water bottle and asked them what would be better than to have this disposable bottle? Most of them held up their own decorated water bottles they use again and again.

A funny thing happened during our afternoon class --the electricity went out. The perfect setting to talk about saving on power and things we could do. Things like: hand wash dishes (instead of dishwasher), hang clothes outside to dry, make a compost, rake instead of leaf blow, etc.

Their favorite song we sang was "The Earth is Our Mother," a traditional Native American song. They understand that while some people go to church and sing about God, Native Americans sing about the Earth.  I also taught them to sing, "Happy Earth Day to All" (to the tune of "Happy Birthday") and they got it down right away!

We were even visited by the local news! (link will be supplied later!)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

No More Fried Egg Boons: Cochlear Implant Journey

Today I am being featured on the Cochlear Americas blog about my cochlear implant journey. The content of the blog is my essay that won 1st Prize in an essay contest this past September. Most people know that I am a cochlear implant recipient. It has been a fascinating journey! Because of it, I have traveled to Arizona State, Northwestern University, Vanderbilt (Nashville) and University of MD to participate in cochlear implant research. I have met many people and done many things I would not thought possible had it not been for my cochlear implant experience.

Here is a link to the blog post on the Cochlear Americas blog and thank you all for your continued support!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It Takes a Worried Woman to Sing a Worried Song

 As a therapeutic musician, I am often asked what kind of music I play. The answer is --all kinds! It all depends on who I am playing for.  When playing for a patient, I first consider their medical condition before choosing. Often times they are too ill to digest a song with words and so I play something very simple on my guitar.  A few chords in a familiar key and style could bring them a sense of home and comfort.

Yesterday at the hospital, I was sent to an elderly woman's room who was said to be sad and discouraged for being in the hospital so long. I don't often sing but I knew by looking at her that she'd respond best to songs. She was sitting up in a chair (a good sign) and I sang, "You Are My Sunshine." She immediately joined in. I had a feeling she was a singer. After that, she asked for some Old Time music like, "I'll Fly Away." That led to singing, "Worried Man Blues." Maybe you've heard it? Here are  the lyrics to the chorus:

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,
It takes a worried man tossing a worried song,
I'm worried now but I won't be worried long!

I changed them to say, "It takes a worried woman to sing a worried song." and she laughed and sang right along. We also sang a Carter Family song, "Keep on the Sunny Side."  We then sang the old song, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." I was just talking to someone about this song last week. He said, "that song is about watching their mother being carried away in a hearse." I said, "that's why people like it!" We sometimes think we should shy away from a dark song that talks about death and struggle but I've seen it over and over that these songs bring such a sense of catharsis and comfort. Mind you, these are the kinds of songs she asked for.  I know this genre of music would not be healing for someone who prefers jazz, for instance. It helps to know something about where a person is from and their background.

Many of the Old Time songs were written by people going through a dark time. They are meant to help people remember that we've all got to cross that lonesome valley and there is no one who can cross it for you. (words from the Carter Family song, "Lonesome Valley Blues."

We ended our session with "Amazing Grace." This song really moves me to sing at the hospital. There is that verse:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

These people know the power of those words and singing them brings them hope and comfort. It was quite a privilege to sing with this woman yesterday. She really brightened up and looked radiantly happy after singing together. Good medicine!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

I Got Rhythm, Who can ask for anything more?

This past weekend I completed work to be a trained HealthRHYTHMS facilitator. It's a series of protocols using drums in a group to facilitate empowerment, community, connection all in a fun way. At times it is like a drum circle but more structured. There will be times in the session for each of the participants to  have the opportunity to lead the drum circle.  It is a fun way to feel safe and connected using drumming and music to express feelings, thoughts, ideas, dreams in a supportive group.

When I was about 10 years old, I fell in love with drumming. I was given a pair of drum sticks by my art teacher and I put them to use right away by playing along to drum centered 45s. Songs like, "Hawaii Five-0," and "Mission Impossible" theme songs were among my favorites.

I went on to be a the only girl drummer in my high school band.  It was great fun and something I loved most about it was the ability to express myself through an instrument where words failed. For example, I went through my teen years on a tumultuous roller coaster ride. I didn't 'feel comfortable talking to people about what I was feeling inside. But get me behind my drum set and I could pound it out--the whole neighborhood heard me!  There is much to be said about finding self expression through music and arts.

I know the power of rhythm and drumming in a group. It's empowering and transformational. I saw it this weekend and I look forward to offering Health Rhythms sessions in the near future! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Touring Singers' Homecoming Song

Yesterday I played at a nursing home in rural Virginia that is run by Mennonites. It is one of my very favorite places to go. Each time I make the 30 mile drive as I leave behind the remnants of city life behind, I feel such a sense of peace come over me. I so much needed this peace yesterday! It was a day I was feeling a little discouraged about being self employed and no longer working with a team of people or having a boss to guide me. Don't get me wrong, I love my work but it is not always easy.

I take refuge in this country nursing home run by such peaceful and kind people. Last night when I drove up to the home, I saw a bus across the street with a congregation of Mennonite people all dressed in purple standing near it. It was too far to hear, but the way the were standing, I could tell they were singing. (pictured above)

I sat in my car a few minutes and took pictures of the mountain view until it was time to go in and play for the residents. When I got to the door, a young woman wearing a purple dress let me in. Then I saw the rest of the group that was outside the bus. Standing together as if preparing to sing, they all looked windswept, well traveled and radiant. The band's leader said to me, "give us five minutes" and then he lifted his arms to signal them and they began to sing the most beautiful song.  Everyone who was not already seated to listen stopped their work and came to take in their impromptu performance.  I saw tears well up in the eyes of a few of the women looking on.  As I listened and took in the whole scene, I felt so lifted up. It was so what I needed! Being in the presence of such positive people and music making and offerings from the heart makes me feel such gratitude for being alive.

After their song ended, no one applauded. There was a stillness in the room for a few minutes and the leader of the band looked to me and said, "you can take over now." As I prepared to play, I spoke with one of the singers who told me they had traveled on a singing tour for 3,000 miles in just 4 days. I then set up my guitar and microphone and started to play but no..... it was like I was being played. It was a feeling I don't have often. A feeling like one gets when you do something called "automatic writing" --only I was automatic guitar playing. The music flowed from me with such ease and beauty that I could not claim my own. It was just magical. I know I can tell you all about this because I am sure you have had a similar experience. When have you experienced a magical moment? I'd like to hear about that. Thank you for stopping by!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Power of Creative Spirit

This past Friday night our community celebrated the annual VSA Charlottesville/Albemarle art show opening.  You can see some of the beautiful art work behind me in the picture.  It was wonderful as always to see the place filled with artists and those who support the arts. I was fortunate to have been encouraged at a young age to cultivate my creative spirit. I loved to draw and make crafts.  It was at a community recreation center in Chicago where I also took tap and ballet, acted in plays and participated in variety shows.

These artists in VSA are people who have a disability of some kind.  Some of them use a wheel chair to get around. Others' disability may not be visible but they may have a severe hearing loss (like myself) or a brain injury or some kind of special need. I say this because while on the one hand their lives may contain challenges that many do not experience, on the other hand their ability to express their innermost joy with art is unhindered.

I think about where we are as a culture now in this digital age. Many of us have Facebook pages. I see many people posting quotes from famous people or cartoons or other images with messages not of their own making to speak for them. We often use the words and images of others to give voice to our lives.

This makes me see that creating our own art and music and poems or however you choose to express yourself is so important.  It is an important contribution for an artist to capture something that could speak for others or express joy and beauty in a way that is unique to them. Their unique expression becomes a way to celebrate the human spirit. Up on these walls are the testimonies of lives well lived. I am proud to be a part of this community!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Gospel and Goosebumps

There are times I am singing with a group and I get the goosebumps. I feel like when this happens, it is a sign of something magical going on. Today I got the goosebumps singing at a Mission Home.  It was such a high energy time of singing together. One reason it was especially enlivening is  because of a staff member named Mary. She's a CNA there and has been for nearly a decade and she loves her work. It shows in her bounding energy and spirit.

I know this group likes to sing hymns and gospel and I love to try out new repertoire.  I didn't grow up going to church and I'm from the midwest, so I love learning Southern Gospel songs. (I live in Virginia and many of the people I sing with are from rural areas). Today I brought with me, "There's a Storm Out on the Ocean." Maybe you've heard it.  Here are the lyrics:

"There’s  a  storm  out  on  the  ocean
And  it’s  moving  this a  way
If  your  soul’s  not  anchored  in  Jesus
You  will  surely  drift  away

Drift  away,
Lord,  drift  away
You  will  surely  drift  away
If  your  soul’s  not  anchored  in  Jesus
You  will  surely  drift  away..."

I started singing it the way I've heard it sung, kind of slow and bluesy and Mary joined in. Afterwards she said politely, "I've heard it done a different way." I asked her to sing it her way and this is where the goosebumps happened. What a soulful voice!  Her singing got the attention of one of the nurses and she came and joined in. We all started clapping and singing, "you will surely drift away, drift away Lord, drift away." We sang this song about 4 times over and over. It was great!

We had other such moments and got to talking and sharing about our lives. We found we had a lot in common. When it was time for me to go, she stood up and held out her arms.  I felt such a connection as we hugged. "See you next time and thanks for coming!" Mary said. I left feeling rich with gratitude.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

When Irish hearts are happy

Tis been a fun week of spreading the Irish cheer and good times.  I recently learned a bunch of old Irish songs to sing with my senior groups. Songs like, "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "Molly Malone,", "It's a Long way to Tipperary," and others. Yesterday in one nursing home when I sang these songs, a woman who usually never sings was singing all of them! She also moved her hands to the beat as if conducting. She was more involved and lively than I have ever seen her.  Even one of the other residents pointed out her lively involvement. Her smiles and cheer spread to everyone in the room. You just never know what song(s) will spark a memory. I work to find songs like this that will touch someone in a new way.

Here are some Irish jokes:

Q: Why can't you borrow money from a leprechaun?
A: Cause they're always a little short

Q: How do you get an Irishman on the roof?
A: Tell him the drinks are on the house.

Never iron a four leaf clover. You don’t want to press your luck.

I so much enjoy making people happy and it has been great to have the holiday of St. Patrick's Day approaching to make people smile and laugh.

Last night I played at a fundraiser for the Fluvanna SPCA. It was held at the beautiful winery  in Scottsville called Thistle Gate. That's where I am in the picture above. It was taken minutes before the place filled up with people. Guess what? I got carded too! I told the guy he will faint when he sees how old I am. (He did appear stunned. Hint: I've been playing the guitar since 1975 to give you an idea of my age).   I enjoyed having a "Shamrock Sangria" and chatting with the supporters of the SPCA on my breaks. It's a grand life, this musician life! Being an O'Connell,  perhaps it's the Luck 'O the Irish :)