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.