Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas moments

This holiday season was one that brought challenge as well as joy.  Something I have learned about the darkening days surrounding the Winter solstice is that all religions talk about finding the light in the darkest days. That means that this time of year is about struggle as well as joy.

In my work I saw once again how the power of music can reach a soul and uplift one's heart in ways that no other thing can do.

On Christmas Eve, I played for some ICU patients at the hospital. One woman in particular stands out to me. I saw that she had no cards in her room nor any evidence of having had any visitors. She appeared to be in a lot of physical pain. I went to her and asked if she'd like for me to play her some Christmas music and she nodded yes. As I played through my favorites, "The First Noel," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,""Silent Night," tears streamed down the woman's face.  Then she said at one point, "You are such a gift! Thank you so much for coming to play for me." Her face brightened as we talked a bit and she was smiling when I left her. Though I walked in her room a stranger, with music we connected.

While playing on the ICU floor, I kept getting more requests to go and play for more families and patients. At one point, even the housekeeper stopped working and came to sing, "Joy to the World" with me.

As I had been having some challenges of my own (a recent knee injury had me a bit down), these moments really uplifted me too. It was wonderful to see the staff in holiday spirits and spirits of the patients lifted up.

Now as I prepare for the New Year ahead, I'd like to thank everyone who reads my blog and who supports my work and me in many ways.

Happy New Year to you! I wish you all the best life has to offer in the coming year and evermore!

The picture above is on the doorway of an assisted living center where I played. I love this message!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On failing well

Recent political events have really put a serious and gloomy feeling in the air. Many are afraid of losing their health care and benefits and that's not even half of what is going on. Rather than continue to focus on the negatives, I wanted to share with you a story of my favorite failure story.

A few years ago, I took an online jazz improvisation course. I was in way over my head as the course covered material that was new for me and a real stretch. I was excited by the challenge though and did my best with each homework assignment.

However, when I began to get zeros as my grade, (by other students in the class) I was at first very offended. I went on the forum for the class and wrote them a note, "To all of you who gave me a zero..." and I told them how hard I tried. But you know, we are not graded by the effort we make. We aren't graded for getting out of our comfort zone and showing the world our vulnerability. We are only graded by the final results and outcome of our efforts.

Each week, I had to post my recording and analysis of jazz tune. I had never tried to play a solo before on the guitar with a recording and all of the scales and chords and rhythms were pretty challenging even for the advanced player. I was failing the course but I did not know it at the time. Zero after zero, I still believed in what I did. It was hard to read the critical comments on my solos.

Then one day I got silly. We were to record a solo for this interesting Carla Bley song, "Olhos De Gato." I tried so hard to get a good recording but after about 49 takes, I decided to just wing it. I turned on the recording, whooped and hollered and laughed through the whole take. It was the best thing I had done in the class! It was definitely not a very good solo (especially after I lost focus halfway through) but it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I love it that I got a zero for this. It makes me see that we don't have to do things for the approval of others. We can do it because we enjoy it. If trying something new means I fail to impress or to get a good grade,  it is worth it for the laughs it will always give me!

"Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it. " - Oprah

Here it is for you to laugh as well:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election Day and making a difference

Yesterday was election day here in United States. I woke up in a good mood and after breakfast, I drove to cast my vote. Later, I arrived at the school where I teach music and while I waited for my students to arrive, I watched the voters come and go. After waiting for a long time and still no students, it occurred to me there must be some mistake. I went to check at the desk and sure enough, no classes today due to election day.

On my way home with my guitar in the back seat, I got an idea to spontaneously drop in a nursing home I have not been to for a long time. When I arrived, I was greeted by an elderly woman pushing a wheelchair that had plastic containers of cat food on the seat. She was coming from the back porch area when I went to say hello. After seeing the cat food, I asked, "Are there cats living here?"  She turned and pointed to the porch and said, "Yes we have 4 that live here and I just got done feeding them."    I told her I would like to meet them and we walked to the porch as she told me their names were: "Spikey, Sparky, Spunky and Starry. " I always enjoy meeting a fellow animal lover.

Once we were done visiting, I went inside to see who was around and who might want to sing a few songs. I met up with two elderly African American women sitting in the living room. At first, they eyed me suspiciously and asked, "Where are you from?? What is your name? " I told them my name and that I came by to see if anyone wanted to sing. One of them smiled and said, "Sing something. " So I started singing favorite Spiritual of mine:

"Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside
down by the riverside, Gonna lay down my burden.... "

Immediately the women's faces brightened and they sang along. Next we sang:

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

We kept going for a long while. I was amazed with how fast I went from being a suspicious stranger to a friend in music. One of them asked, "So, how often are you gonna start coming here? "  When it was time to go, they thanked me for coming and told me to come back again soon. I left feeling happy and that I made a small difference.

This morning I woke up to the news of the election results. Many people are very upset with our new president. I too wanted another outcome and yet my experience yesterday at the nursing home fills me with hope. I can only do what i am given to do and that is music.  Though many are discouraged now, I know that music unites and heals and brings people together.
I will keep on keeping on singing my songs and doing the best I know. Please do  not lose heart. We will get through this!

God Bless America.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Songwriting, Cochlear implant testing and International classes, oh my!

Last week was very busy and interesting.  I love the diversity of my work. On Tuesday, I spent the day at JMU as a cochlear implant research participant. The day involved working on one test which I had to listen carefully to a series of two conflicting beeping lines of sounds --one in low frequency and the other in high frequency. The task was to determine whether there was a delay at the end of the line or not. This one task I did for 4.5 hours! I was to focus on the low sound while the high frequency sounds were there to try to distract me. At times I felt really able to hear the delay in the line and others I could not tell at all. Doing such focused tests can be hard but it is also fun for me.

On Thursday, I gave my second presentation to UVA's international students in my series, "The American Experience Through Music." This class I taught them some Civil Rights songs and how some of the old African Spirituals were brought back into popularity during that time. Songs like, "Oh Freedom," "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child." We especially enjoyed singing together, "Calypso Freedom," which is an improvisational call and response chant based on the Jamaican song, "Banana Boat Song" by Harry Belafonte (who was a big civil rights activist)  The picture above is of me at Minor Hall at UVA with my ESL students.

Friday I co-led a songwriting workshop for my VSA (very special arts) group. We gave the class a list of subjects to vote on to write about: Animals, Friends, Birthdays, Holidays. They voted we write about all of these :) So, we brainstormed to vote upon two animals who become friends and they were a horse and a turkey. We then gave the students options for the kind of song to write: Blues, Bluegrass, Country, etc. They decided they wanted to have the song be both a Blues and a Bluegrass song. Hm.  I was not sure how we were going to pull of of this together but we did it! And the resulting song was very funny! It began as a Blues song where both the Horse and Turkey had the blues because they were all alone. Somehow, they meet and become friends and that's when the song turns into Bluegrass. The students were divided up as either a Horse or a Turkey and they made sounds of the animals when it came to expressing their voices.

It was all a lot of fun and now I am ready for a new week. I wonder what will happen next ??

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The American Experience Through Music

Back in the late 90s I worked as a temp at the University of Virginia International Center .   Something I enjoyed most while working there was watching them learn about American culture in their English language groups. My favorite was their book group where they would read American novels and discuss them. I was challenged by the teacher then to summarize, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in one sentence. It cannot be done!

The book group gave me the idea that a similar study group could be formed to learn about American music.  So, my new series was born. In our first lesson we discussed, "This Land is Your Land," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Wayfaring Stranger." They are great examples of a folk song, African-American spiritual and a Gospel song respectively.

I passed out the lyrics and sang for them and each song brought up questions and comments. What does it mean "No Trespassing?" in "This Land is Your Land"?  One student answered, "not allowed?"  Yes and that was the main point of the song because the lyrics say next:

"On the other side, it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me."

In other words, this land is made for everyone. No matter your social class, ethnic background, skin color, etc. "This land was made for you and me."

Next I asked, "How does the song, "Wayfaring Stranger," make you feel"? One student answered, "It makes me feel like how I feel right now, far away from home." Yes. It's a song written back in the 1700s about the plight of the pilgrims and the hope of going to a better place in the afterlife.

Then I showed them some videos of Bluegrass music  Bill Monroe and Alison Kraus.  But the real treat was of this performance of the popular Old Time band  Carolina Chocolate Drops:

Our next class we'll focus on Blues and Jazz. Looking forward to that!!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Joyful times

Do you remember times when you were so excited about something you could not sleep? Times when after something so joyous happened to you that you daydreamed about it for daze (pun intended :) afterward?

Working with this group of special needs young adults this week brought back that feeling for me. I collaborated with a local music therapist and together we taught a workshop on songwriting. Of the topics voted on (choices were: fall, friendship, love, music) - the group decided to write about music.  Everyone contributed some of the lyrics and together we came up with a song that made everyone so happy to sing.

The first verse listed favorite bands and singers - Katy Perry and Led Zeppelin made the list. The chorus was my favorite part.  We sang, "Bands, singers and fans."  I remembered being a child when the Beatles' movie, "Help" came out and being in the audience while young women screamed through the whole thing. (I did not understand this at all).  Remembering how crazy excited some people can get about their favorite music, I suggested that we screamed after singing the word, "fans." That really made our song fun! Every time we came to that part- everyone jumped up screaming like a crazy fan.

This made me remember times in my teens when I saw a concert that was so good, I did not sleep afterwards and I would daydream in school for days after. When I first started playing the guitar, I loved Neil Young and I can remember a concert I went to where I ran down to the front of the stage and just stared up at him. It was hard to believe he was a real human being and not something larger than life.

It's been a long time since I have felt that kind of super charged excitement about things. Sure, I feel enthusiastic and happy but it is a more calm version from what I felt as a teenager. It was a good reminder of being in touch with the simple things in life and being happy.

Have you been to a concert recently that had you all jazzed up? Keep up that joy! :)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tales from a Blue Heart

This fall I am entering my 12th year working at the hospital as a therapeutic musician. It continues to be such a rewarding job that I love so much.  I meet people in what may be one of their worst moments in life. Though I walk in their room a stranger, music brings them comfort and connects us in a way that nothing else would. Since the guitar is such a popular instrument,  many feel an immediate connection to it and either play the guitar themselves or know someone close to them that did.

Yesterday, when I presented myself to the nursing station at the NNICU (Neurological ICU), I was given a patient to play for who was being visited by his family. The nurse said, "it's a lively group in there!"

Sure enough, it was a  lively group of 7 family members all from MI come to be with their loved one in the hospital. When the patient saw my guitar, he asked for Jimi Hendrix.  (I often get these kinds of requests, which are meant to be jokes :)   Yet he did not know that Jimi Hendrix was one of my biggest inspirations for taking up the guitar back in 1975. That was a time when bands like, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd,  were popular.  At the recreation center where I hung out in high school, we used to make up line dances to Jimi Hendrix songs. Back then I was so absorbed with the music, I did not dance with them but sat right next to the speaker and drummed along with the songs. (I was a drummer in high school band)

Anyway, his Hendrix reference gave me ideas for music he would like. Usually in ICU, I don't play much upbeat music or pop songs because I am usually working to relax the patient and bring down their heart rate. But this man was sitting up in a chair (often this means for medical reasons they need to be "up" physically for circulation and other reasons).

So I launched into the Beatles, "Here Comes the Sun" as my first song. Instantly I saw the song was known and loved by everyone in the room. Two of the women got teary eyed and had an expression of surprise.  I often feel an intuition of what to play and I was glad I hit a common chord with them.

The man was eating his lunch and nodding along to the music as the others were video taping and photographing me. I used to be uncomfortable with this kind of reaction but I realize it is not a usual occurrence for people to experience live music in a hospital room.

Since the patient was a guitar lover, my next selection was "Classical Gas" -- a very famous guitar instrumental. I find that song is a real connector because it is so well known and everyone seems to have memories attached to it.

After a few more songs,  we all sat and talked awhile and I learned they were from Michigan which is also where my family is from.  When I was getting ready to leave, one of the women collected money to give me as a tip. I told them I appreciated their generosity but I could not accept it.   I don't often get people doing that, so I was a little overwhelmed by the gesture. Also, I didn't want to hurt their feelings for wanting to give back to me. In the end, they understood why I didn't take the money. Also they gave me much more than any money could give.

Pictured in this post is a coloring piece I did recently that I call Tales from a Blue Heart. It is about healing from the grief of the loss of my mother as well as one of my best friends. Though the heart is blue, it is surrounded by love and memories.
Thanks so much for reading and Happy September!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Invocation of the Mystery Guest

Hi everyone! Today I wanted to tell you the story of how one of my solo guitar pieces came to be. First of all, about the title. When I first moved here to Charlottesville, VA (from Chicago) I was invited to a women's gathering. She asked me, "Do you want to be the mystery guest?"  This question really intrigued me because it gave a name for how I felt much of my life. Kind of of an outsider but not in a negative way. I mean there is a difference between being an outcast and a "mystery guest."
Little did I know that in accepting this invitation nearly 30 years ago, I would still have these friends in my life.

So now onto the song posted here. It was a cold winter morning and I picked up my guitar and this piece emerged. I never forgot the invitation of being the mystery guest though it was many years ago. I knew right away that the music that came would be perfect for the mystery guest theme. So.. that's the story.

I love how songs come about and how they make a sonic memory album and soundtrack of our lives.

I hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Life Changing Event #BeatsofCochlea2016

I have just returned from one of the biggest journeys and life changing experiences of my life. I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in the Beats of Cochlea Festival in Warsaw, Poland. This is a festival for musicians with cochlear implants. It was absolutely wonderful to meet musicians with such a high musical skill level who also had cochlear implants.  As many know, music can be very challenging for those with cochlear implants. However, technology has come so far in recent years in for musicians and this festival was a demonstration of that.

I loved being part of a global community where I was only 1 of 3 from the U.S. while others came from Turkey, China, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Equator,  Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Canada. All of the events were translated into four languages. I loved hearing the sounds of the mother tongues from all over the world.  

The festival sponsored 32 musicians where we auditioned to perform in the Gala concert on the final night. One ten musicians were selected and though I was not a finalist, in a way that was nicer for me in order to enjoy the concert with no stress.

Some of my favorite moments were:

During lunch after our auditions, the jury was meeting to choose the Gala participants. As we awaited the verdict we all got programs with our Bio info and pictures and went around to each other to get our autographs. It was a very touching moment for me that we were all stars in each others eyes and we were all supporting and encouraging each other.

That night, the staff members of Cochlear and I got the idea to create a "Flash Mob" experience and start singing a song after dinner. I got the idea to adapt the African freedom song, "Freedom Calypso" and change the words to be about music and being at the festival. It is a call and response song where I would sing one line and the group would answer me. This was a lot of fun to do! We didn't tell the other tables we would do this and the whole restaurant stopped and watched and joined in.

The Gala concert itself was a black tie occasion. It was streamed live over the internet and it was very exciting to think that anyone from around the world could watch. There is a link to the recording of the broadcast at this link.  It was such an exhilarating experience and one that I will always remember.

The next day, I presented at the World Hearing Center in a conference about music and implants. I talked about things I did with a music teacher to help regain music and pitch perception. I enjoyed doing that a lot and that was one of the highlights of my year so far!

Thanks much as always for stopping by. Feel free to get in touch!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Let the Music Come

I was going through some of my old songs from when I first moved here to Charlottesville back in 1989. Pictured above is a photo shoot from 23 years ago! I love remembering some of the stories that turned into songs. Here how the song, "Let the Music Come" came about.

Way back in '89 I participated in a week long guitar class in NYC with Robert Fripp called, "Guitar Craft".  The class involved using  what is called the New Standard Tuning for guitar.  This was a totally new way to tune the guitar to all 35 or so of us beginning Guitar Craft students.

On Wednesday of that week, Robert came to class and announced, "You are to play in a concert on Friday night. The New York Times will be there. It's up to you what you will play. " Then he walked out.

Chaos ensued after he left! What are we supposed to play? We did not know this new way to tune the guitar and we did not know any songs. For nearly an hour we argued and debated what to do. Finally, I got an idea and suggested we imitate a rain storm. Everyone liked this idea. We practiced first everyone playing light harmonics on their guitar and then it crescendoing into thunder and lightening with percussive playing on our guitars. We were ready for the concert. Or so we thought...

When the hour was up, Robert asked what we planned to play for the concert. One of the students said, "How are we to know what to play if we do not know this new tuning or have any songs?" Robert let the question hang in the air for a few moments and he said, "Sit in the silence and wait for the music to come. " We were dismissed.

I went to my room and sat in the silence and this song, "Let the Music Come" came to me--just as he said.  This is what we played for the concert on Friday night.

I still remember when we performed my song that night at the concert, I forgot some of the words. (I only wrote it two days before) It created a long pause where it turned out to be just perfect...for it was when I said, "I gotta wait.." The song is about waiting for the muse to come.

We did also play the rain storm  but that was a disaster! I still remember Robert turning his head away in what looked to be disgust. We were just learning then and failing and experimenting is all part of it.

I hope you enjoy the song :)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A good way to make a life

I love the quote above by Kurt Vonnegut and I have found it is so true. Today I was standing in line at Verizon waiting to talk to them about a problem with my cell phone. The man in line in front of me and I struck up a conversation and he asked me, "What line of work do you do? " I said, "I am a musician." He immediately perked up as if I had said the most magical thing then said, "Oh, really!?" Just then his turn in line came up but he pointed to me and said for me to go ahead of him.  It turned out we both got served at once, but I appreciated his offer.

 Being a musician and playing an instrument is a great way to make a life that is full of meaningful connections and times.  I'm often told  by people that they used to play the guitar but _____ (fill in the blank why they do not anymore). I always hear a twinge of regret and sadness about this. I always say, "You can play it again, it's never too late. Your guitar is always there for you like a good friend."

So today I just wanted to say if you are one of those who either played guitar and set it aside--why not pick it back up again? Or if you are someone who always wished to play an instrument --it is never too late.

There are so many ways you can learn nowadays too. You can go to a private teacher or take classes online or buy a book, watch YouTube videos.  There are so many ways you can meet new friends by going to music camps, participating in online forums, going to MeetUp groups, going to a jam. The list goes on and on.

While it may be true that going into the arts is not always an easy way to make a living (financially), it is a great way to make a life.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Tribute to My Mother, Nancy Patterson

This post is the obituary I wrote for my mother, Nancy Patterson. A short version was published in the Chicago Tribune at at this link. 

Nancy Ann Patterson (nee, Post) passed away peacefully on the morning of May 23, 2016 in her adopted home of Arizona.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, on July 23, 1935, Nancy was the youngest daughter of Viola and Donald Post and sister to Donna (Harris). Raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, Nancy left the comforts of home and moved to Chicago in 1956 with her husband Shane O’Connell and daughter Sheryl. Two years later, daughter Renee was born.

While working as a waitress in the thriving artistic neighborhood of Old Town Chicago, she met lifelong friend and legendary jazz musician Jimmy Smith. Attending his concerts at the Plugged Nickel and other jazz clubs over the years with her daughters was among her happiest memories. Nancy’s love of music was a strong thread throughout her life. At Battle Creek Central High School, she played clarinet in the orchestra and sang in Glee club. In Chicago, she learned to play the guitar in the 1960s at the Old Town School of Folk Music and later took up dancing and performed in a dancing troop in Sun City, Arizona, for many years. Daughter Renee (Blue) inherited her mother’s guitar in 1975 and went on to become a professional musician. Nancy’s legacy lives on through Blue’s gift of music and playing for hospital patients, nursing home residents and people with special needs.

In addition to her love of music, Nancy was known for her artistic creativity. She loved needlepoint and stitchery and excelled as a seamstress. She took great joy in putting her own interpretation on current fashions, and her daughters, wearing the one-of-a-kind garments she made them, always looked stylish and ahead of their time.

Her incredible interior design skills equaled that of any professional decorator. Her many phases of style in home décor were tastefully up to date. In the 1960s, the family’s apartment in Uptown, Chicago, was painted in red, gold and olive green, and the furniture was decidedly mod. A leopard skin chair, black chaise lounge and a new hi-fi console were among some of the favorite items of that era. In the ‘70s, her suburban home in Park Ridge resembled an historical museum after she had fallen in love with antiques. A butler’s call box, a roll up desk with a green banker’s lamp, and an old coffee grinder were a few of the things you’d find in her home. During her last years in Arizona she decorated her home in a western cowboy theme. There you would find rodeo paintings, cowboy boot lamps and horse saddles among her collectibles.

Visitors were often in awe of her ability to create a sense of timelessness and beauty. Sometimes they were even afraid to sit on the furniture for fear of messing up the beauty! Her oldest daughter, Sheryl, inherited Nancy’s visual artistic gift and has worked as a graphic designer her entire adult life.   Nancy’s legacy lives on through Sheryl’s gift of beauty, fashion and style.

Nancy’s creative skills and flair were balanced by her practical abilities. In the late 1960s, she became a computer programmer, which altered the course of her life. For it was in this job that she met her second husband Jeffrey Emrich and relocated the family from city to suburbs in 1970. With their shared love of antiques and history, Jeff and Nancy enjoyed volunteering with the Park Ridge Historical Society. In 1974 their son Scott was born. He went on to become a successful tech entrepreneur and currently owns a business in social media. Jeff passed away in 1997.

Nancy was a gentle and kind person who was known for her accepting attitude towards others. She enjoyed being with people but also loved her solitude. She was a big supporter of Goodwill throughout her life. She regarded shopping at Goodwill as a way to help others, knowing that her money was going toward a good cause. Donations to Goodwill can be made in her name in lieu of flowers.

The family wishes to express their gratitude to Paul LaGorce who was a loving friend and caregiver to Nancy for many years. Also, to the staff at Comfort Home Care in Peoria, AZ, who cared for her in her final days.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Smile though your heart is aching...

Just over a week ago on May 23rd, my Mother passed away. As she had been ill for a long time, I do feel some peace that she no longer suffers. Some days are easier than others at such a time. I have found that my work helps me in many ways. The hugs I have received and words of kindness and offers of help.   Singing  old songs with others has always been a form of comfort. At times though,  I feel as though I am living the lyrics of that song, "Smile" by Charlie Chaplin:

"Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though its breaking"

Yesterday I played at the Missionary home I've been singing at for a few years. I've gotten to know some of the residents there and was surprised to see Ms. Florence (not her real name) sitting in the front row waiting for me to sing.  I hadn't seen her in a long time. She was wearing a dozen or more colored beaded homemade bracelets on each wrist. I was complimenting her on her beautiful bracelets and said, "My Mother had bracelets like that. " Just as I said the word, "had"  a lump formed in my throat and I thought I would burst into tears. It was the first time I talked about my mother in the past tense to someone at my gigs. Ms. Florence smiled and said, "What is your mother's name? I want to meet her!"  I stood there fighting back the tears and I could not bring myself to tell her that my mother died only days ago. 

"....Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near..."

Saved by the bell (so to speak), it was time to sing and Ms. Florence and the others sang along with such happy gusto that I forgot my sorrow for a little while. 

"...That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile..."

They laughed at my story I told when I was a child and my father yelled at me for singing in bed. "I told you to stop that singing and go to sleep!"  (laughter)  The song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is what I could not stop singing and every time I sing that song, I remember that. Yesterday I was glad for the laughs I got because as I told the story, I heard my friend's question in my head, "So how does it feel to be an orphan?"

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" comes to mind. 

There is a song for every occasion. I was amazed I made it through yesterday's gig without crying and how healing it felt when Ms. Florence and the others seemed so uplifted by our time together. It helps me remember the good things in life. 

"Smile when your heart is breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by"

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Perks of Being a Cochlear Implant Recipient

Those that know me know that I became a cochlear implant (CI) recipient in 2009.   It has really been an interesting journey these last 7 years! Something I have really enjoyed doing is participating in CI research. I have done so in Cochlear Implant Labs all over the country from Northwestern University in Chicago, Vanderbilt in Nashville, Arizona State, U of Maryland and JMU in Virginia.
It is gratifying to know that people like me can help ensure that technology for CI users continues to improve.

Last week I went back for the second time to UMD and participated in 2.5 days of testing. Probably the most fun part of the research was an experiment where they put these electrodes on my head (using a cloth cap with holes in it). Then they hooked my CI up directly to a sound that repeated over and over again over a period of a half hour or so to record how my brain responds to the different sounds. For example, one of the sounds is the word "ditch", while the other sound is, "dish." To someone with a hearing loss, these words sound pretty similar. So they test someone like me to find out why is it that some people are really improving from a CI and can understand speech clearly, while others do not seem to get the maximum benefits?

Other tests have to do with memory recall. There was one test where there was a series of numbers in a circle like a clock. After I heard a series of numbers, I was to click on the numbers on the computer in the order I heard them.  The hard part was when I was asked to do this exercise backwards! It was not so hard with 3 or 4 numbers but they had sometimes 8 or 9 numbers which was just about impossible!

They also made new "maps" which is what audiologists do for CI users by measuring the thresholds of the softest sound I can hear, to the loudest sound we can tolerate. This is done with different electrodes connected to the implant. After the maps were made, I was tested to listen to a series of sounds which each map. One test was to determine which sound out of three was different. It is like those optical illusion tests where you have to choose which picture is different of three. What happens with me over time in listening to these sounds is they start to blend together or my brain processes them in a delayed way. At one point I thought I heard a ringing sound in the room and I got up and asked what that was. The test team looked at me which a confused expression. "You need to take a break. " And so I went outside awhile.

What happens with the CI is that we use our brain to hear and so these kinds of tests give research teams data to see how the CI responds with different types of people. Depending on age, how long they've had their CI, how much they have worked at their auditory rehab, etc.

Contrary to what people may think, having a CI does not cure your hearing. You do not hear perfectly after it is activated. It's not like a hearing aid where it is turned on and that is it. The CI requires a lot of skill and listening exercises.  Sometime I will tell you more about the rehab it requires.

All in all though, it's an interesting life. Feel free to get in touch if you have questions about cochlear implants. I also give talks and presentations on CIs if you are interested. Thanks for coming by!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Time to explore and play

April was a very busy and demanding month for me that required a lot of practice and focus. What I like to do to recoup is to have fun with music and make time to explore. Something I love to do is go through my songbooks and look for songs I might be interested in learning. I have two Vocal Jazz Real Books that have lots of great songs to learn.  Today I was messing around with that song People which is from "Funny Girl." It is hard for me to sing it without crying, so I have to put it away for a bit until I can do so.

It's because the song reminds me so much of my mother who is now very ill and the song brings back a happy memory of being with my mom and sister in Grant Park in Chicago hearing Ella Fitzgerald singing it. The fact that there is a strong emotion that comes through is a good thing though and will work for me well over time. This same thing happened with that song, "Smile" by Charlie Chaplin. I learned it to play for a funeral but it took me many times to be able to sing it without crying. Now when others hear me sing it, they are moved to tears. I think because I truly feel that song. Crying to a good sad song is a good, healing feeling--don't you think so?

I like to find all kinds of songs that would display different moods and memories. Who remembers the Henry Mancini song, "Charade?" I find the melody to be very haunting and it makes a good guitar solo.  Check out Chet Atkins' version of Charade.

In my vocal jazz book I came across "A Taste of Honey." Again, this one is an unusual song that many different people have done from the Beatles to the Hollies and Herb Alpert. I messed around yesterday playing this song with Charade --they are both in the same key but have a different mood to them.

This is the kind of thing I like to do when I have time in between gigs. It's a time to explore and see where it leads me. Visual artists do this by exploring new mediums or colors. It's a way to keep things fresh and new.

What is your way to explore? Have fun!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Big Deal and wonderful experience!

In addition to the amazing work that I do day to day at the hospital and at nursing homes and such, every once in awhile I am asked to perform for a big event. That's what happened the other day in DC. In the picture above, I am doing a sound check.  It was a lovely stage and background!

The occasion was to perform for the SourceAmerica  conference at the Gaylord National Convention Center in DC.  SourceAmerica is a non-profit that creates job opportunities for a skilled and dedicated workforce of people with significant disabilities, so I was a perfect fit for the occasion!

For this performance, I sang my song, "Choose the Sky," and played my solo guitar piece, "For the Lily Grows." In addition, I sang the old jazz standard, "Heart and Soul," and "What the World Needs Now."  

It was a great experience to be a part of an event from an organization that does such good work in the world. I loved being up there on that big stage and looking out at all the smiling faces as I sang.  I loved connecting to conference participants after the concert. I met people from Utah, Kentucky, Illinois and beyond there. It was such an exhilarating experience for me that I will never forget! Thank you, SourceAmerica!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Spring flowers, spring concert

Last week was VSA Arts  annual spring concert and it was a lot of fun and very special for me. We had rehearsals both Monday and Tuesday and the concert on Wednesday. It is always a great time for our community to finally be able to perform songs some of them have been practicing since winter.

One group sang, "You've Got a Friend," and another did, "Rockin' Robin," and of course we also had African drumming led by Whit. I had prepared to sing two poems I set to music written by George Eliot. However, it turned out that I got hit with a cold the night before and felt too congested to sing and I changed my selection to be my instrumental song, "Promise of Spring."  

I don't have the pictures back yet from the concert and so I show you my spring flowers in my front yard instead.  So much beauty to behold! With it being an election year and so much ugliness going on in the world, I feel lucky to be part of events that bring beauty and happiness to others.
Are your flowers in bloom yet? Happy Spring!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Celebration of Nature with music, poetry and art

One of my favorite gigs I do each year is a collaboration I do with The Live Poets Society at Ivy Creek Foundation .  In this beautiful setting we celebrate the beauty of nature with music, poetry and art. What could be a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon? 

For my contribution, I sang some of my own original compositions like:

and also set some poems by George Eliot to music "Blue Wings," "Ay De Mi" and "Spring Comes Hither."  In addition, I sang a couple of parodies I made up about Ivy Creek. Here's my favorite one:

A Place called Ivy Creek  (To the tune of "House of the Rising Sun") There is a place in CharlottesvilleThey call it Ivy CreekAnd we’ve been pursuin’ many new trailsWe walked a new one this week My mother she’s a beekeeperShe maintains honeybeesMy sweetheart has a sweet toothHe consumes the colonies Go tell my baby sisterTo bring the binocularsI want to see the birds in the skyInstead we saw catepillars

I enjoyed listening to the poetry of the members of the Live Poets Society and visiting with everyone on our intermission. It was such a nice time and thanks to all who came!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Tales of a Mystery Guest

I had a very interesting opportunity where I participated in the local library's program, "The Big Read." This is a National program where libraries choose a book to be read and host various discussions and events based on the novel. This year's book was, "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers. The biggest theme in the book is our struggle with isolation. The book centers on several characters who are in some ways a misfit or social outcast. There is also one deaf character in the book which is the reason I was chosen to give a presentation about my cochlear implant journey after the screening of the documentary, "Lost & Sound." 

I also played in the grand finale of for The Big Read which was a lot of fun.  One of the activities for the program asked people to submit art work that was inspired by the themes of the book. I enjoyed seeing the photographs, paintings, drawings and collage displayed at The Haven where the finale took place.

I enjoyed playing some of my own songs that spoke on this. One of them being my song, "Mystery Song"  here are some of the words:

"Why are you standing outside?
Life has invited you along
Come to the table inside.
You belong, you belong

All that you want is seeking you
why don't you let yourself be found
You really never are alone
Welcome home, welcome home."

I also played some poems I found of Carson McCullers and George Eliot I set to music. I've always loved books about as much as I love music, so that was a lot of fun.
Above I'm pictured playing my Native American style flute which I opened the program with. A very fun gig indeed!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A week in the life of a therapeutic musician

In the space of a week, I have a diverse range of experiences bringing music to hospital patients and people with disabilities.  There was the day at the hospital I was playing on an ICU unit and was asked to play outside of a room full of people. A big family surrounded this patient and I could see that something big happened. People were crying and embracing and huddled together. After awhile, a woman came out and said, "Hi, I know you from my school."    I nodded hello and smiled to acknowledge her as I continued to play soft instrumental guitar music.  Then she said, "My father passed away today! " and she pointed to his room and began to sob. I said, "I'm so sorry" and looked away to give her space and I kept playing quietly. It can be hard to see people in these kinds of moments but it is also an honor. I am often placed into people's lives at a crossroad or a major rite of passage.

The next day found me in totally different circumstances where I played for a group of young adults with developmental disabilities.  I could see they were in the mood to be silly, so I got out some Madlibs I made up to create our own funny songs. Here's the one everyone liked the best:

"My spaghetti skied over the mountain
my spaghetti skied over the pool
my spaghetti skied over the mountain
now bring my spaghetti to me..."

(To the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean")

I even ended up telling some Christmas jokes. (That's because those are the only jokes I know)

Q: Why is Santa good at Karate
A: Because he has a black belt

You see? There is grief one day and laughter the next. Music has a place in our hearts for every kind of situation.

Monday, March 21, 2016

VSA Art Show and Community

Each year  VSA Arts  has an art show featuring local artists with disabilities.   It is one of my favorite events of the whole year!  I love to see their creative art pieces framed and hung on the walls of the local recreation center. You can usually meet the proud artist standing underneath their work who will tell you all about their piece. I provide instrumental guitar music as a backdrop to the gathering of local artists, friends and family members who have come to support VSA.

When it's time for the speakers to come and say a few words about VSA and the participants, I am so struck with how proud I feel to be a part of this community. Some of these artists are people I have known since the early 1990s.

Music and art are what bring people together, sharing memories and creating more.  When I see the news on TV and watch the presidential election coverage,  I see how much negativity we have in our world now. Then when I look at the art that my friends have made and see their smiles and pride beaming, I am overcome with how grateful I feel to be a part of something that brings joy to others.

This night was a rainy night but that did not stop people from coming. I was standing with the two of my artist friends when a man came up to ask about the art show.  I told him all about VSA and introduced them to my friends who proudly showed them their paintings. He brightened when he saw their works of art and when he saw they were for sale, he asked, "How can I go about purchasing these?"   I led him to the desk where payments for the art were being made. Earlier, before this man came, I had just been talking the artists about what they planned to do with the money they made from the sale of their pieces. "Go to Outback for dinner!" one of them replied.

A delightful thing we have going here in my town and I'm so proud to be a part of it!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

We'll keep that a secret...

Playing music for older adults with Alzheimer's and dementia can be challenging at times but in the long run, it is all worth the effort.  There is one woman where I play who yells things out as I play relaxing instrumental music on my classical guitar. "Turn that music off! It's awful! That's enough of that." Is what she says about every five minutes all through the hour. But would you look at that view in the picture above? This is in Madison county and the home where this woman yells at me is. I don't take offense at this because she is ill and maybe her saying that is the only way she can have a sense of control in her life.

There are also some surprises that can happen too. The other day I was singing and playing for one group I play for once a month. At the end of our sing along session, one of the ladies said to me, "You are a very sweet person." I said, "what a nice thing to say, thank you." She said, "You are." Then I said, "Thank you, it takes one to know one. " She blushed then and said, "Well...I guess that is true." Then she gave a mischievous smile and said, "We'll keep that a secret."

Not only was this an endearing encounter it was also a surprise because when this woman was new at this home, she would plug her ears and tell me to go away and yell out, "Make it stop!" This went on for a couple of months.  I am not sure what made her decide I was alright but we are apparently friends now.

There are all kinds of things like this I see in my work and it still is the best job I've ever had.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Art of Reinventing

Yesterday was my debut performance with Nursing Homes Swing, a non- profit that brings jazz music into local nursing homes. This marks an exciting new direction for me and I feel I am really hitting my stride reinventing myself as a jazz artist! Perhaps it was always in the making waiting for me to discover. I say this because when I was a child, my mother worked as a waitress next door to a jazz club (in Chicago). She used to take me there and I have very faint memories of standing in that smokey room with the exotic sounds of jazz filling the atmosphere. My mom became friends with one of the jazz musicians then, Jimmy Smith  and to this day, those memories are my mothers' favorites to talk about.

I learned a lot of new repertoire for this gig and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge!  Something about jazz that is very freeing is that you find your own way to sing the song. When I was working on learning a new song, I would listen to the great singers such as: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennet, Judy Garland, Brenda Lee,  and each version was different! It was impossible to learn the "right" melody from these recordings because every singer had their own unique interpretation. And so I worked to find my own. If the notes that were written on the musical score were beyond my vocal range, I found a note that harmonized with it and sang that. It was so freeing and so much in the spirit of jazz! One does not need to sing exactly what is written, that is just a map or a recipe. For those who like to cook, you know what I mean by this. When you look at a recipe, you can alter the ingredients, adding your own flavors and spices to your own liking. No one's pot of chili is the same. Some like it hot, others don't. (I like it hot! :)

It's the same with jazz and me. Here are some of the songs I sang yesterday: "Moonlight in Vermont," "How High the Moon," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "My Favorite Things," "Smile," "Nature Boy," etc. Learning a new genre of music is like learning a new language. I wonder where this new direction will take me? Stay tuned!  

What new direction might you be taking with this new year?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Music really is the universal language

I love how in my work I am asked to do something I've never done before and how this new discovery makes me feel inspired to keep learning. Last week I played music for a memorial service for a former neighbor and friend.  She was from Norway and lived many years in Sweden and so I was asked to play the music of the Swedish troubadour, Evert Taube.  The song I was requested to play on my guitar was a beautiful one called, "Lill Lindfors" and after hearing it once, it brought me to tears.  Have a listen to it yourself and see how hauntingly beautiful it is:

Pictured above is the transcription I wrote of this haunting melody and translated into a solo guitar piece. I've never done such a thing before and I loved the challenge of finding ways to articulate the emotional nuances of Evert Taube into my playing. Such an example of music being the Universal Language too. I cannot understand the words in Swedish but I can definitely understand the emotional sensitivity that Evert Taube gives to this song.

Here is a recording of it, though a very rough draft:  Lill Lindors.I hope you enjoy the beauty of that piece. I also played, "Nocturne," and "Brysson Lull."  I felt honored to be able to play music for such a special occasion. She was loved and remembered  by many and we will miss her.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A New Year's Eve recollection

Happy New Year, everyone!  I wanted to tell you about my New Year's Eve gig and experience.    I played some solo guitar music at a local Labyrinth walk at the Unitarian church. It is such a nice way to reflect upon the year ending and a new one to come. I shared playing music with a friend who played her hammered dulcimer. We set up a code to let me know when it was my turn to play by her playing, "Simple Gifts".   We had to have some quiet way to make the transition without talking or much movement in the room so as not to disrupt the walkers. I was set up across the room with a little desk on my lap I made to do my art work as I waited my turn to play. Pictured above is what I worked on through the night.  A page from my Mehndi Designs coloring book.

I was so "into it" that I think Suzane must have been in her second time playing "Simple Gifts" before I realized she was summoning me to play guitar. It was such a peaceful and creative space to be in. It was the mood I had been craving for a long time. Since December was such a busy month, I really needed some kind of restorative activities. I love this about the Labyrinth walk. We are all doing our own thing together in silence. Some walking, some seated and reflecting, some waiting to walk.

I enjoyed seeing the Labyrinth filled with people and a nice metaphor too. People of all ages and walks of life and beliefs walking the path together. Making room for each other, getting out of the way at times, smiling to each other, nodding a silent "hello", sitting in the circle together.

And so a year has ended and a new one has begun. I am very optimistic about this New Year! How about you?  Do you make any resolutions? For me, I am working on dreaming bigger and finding new ways to be with people with music.  I wonder where this year will take me? You will soon see.

Wishing you all happiness, prosperity and good health in the coming new year and always! Thank you for visiting!