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!

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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.