Tuesday, July 11, 2017

When wanderers awaken


The other night I had an extraordinary experience as I was playing calming music for residents in a nursing home. The ones I play for have dementia and early evening after dinner can be a time of confusion for them. I usually sit playing my guitar as they drift off in their chairs while the nurses tend to their nightly meds.

There is one woman who is always pacing the halls. She usually looks down and never makes eye contact with me. In the 4 years I have gone there, she has never spoken or acknowledged the music. The other night, all of this changed.

It was while I was playing, "Over the Rainbow" when this same woman who paced and never spoke began to sing along. She smiled as she sang softly and she seemed so happy. She came over by me and said, "That is so beautiful! You are really, really good!"  While I had her attention, I played some others I thought she would know. Elvis was a big hit too. I played, "Can't Help Falling In Love, " and "Love me Tender" while she hummed along. She also loved, "Moon River," and "Unchained Melody," and "Edleweiss." She stood right next to me and hummed and laughed and kept telling me how much she loved it.

I was amazed to see this woman who I only saw wander in silence come to life. The joy in her face sparked memories of happy times and brought her out of her shell. Now I am motivated to learn more songs of the same genre and era to see how she responds next time.

The photo above was taken at the VSA (therapeutic parks and recreation) concert last April. Photo credit goes to Norman Carter. I like how I look like I am laughing to myself. I do remember it was a very good concert and such happiness was in the room that day. I'm glad Norm caught me feeling that way. It's how I feel when I play the guitar! Thanks for coming by and reading.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

You're Here Not By Chance


Every Wednesday night I go down the street to sing for some nursing home residents.  I find them all sitting in the hallway after dinner. I  have my guitar strapped on as I stroll the up and down the hall singing to them all.  I've been going there now for 7 years. Over the years I have seen many residents come and go (they are all quite ill by the time they take up residence here).  Most of the staff has been there longer than me but I've also seen a lot of them come and go too.

Even so, there have been times when my presence there seemed to go unnoticed. A Wednesday would come and I'd make my rounds seemingly invisible and go back home. At times when I'd be away or missed due to being sick, no one ever remarked on my absence.

All of this changed recently, however.  For I had missed a week due to not feeling well and one of the nurses came up and said, "Where were you last week? They were all waiting for you." Hm. I had never felt that way there before, seemed no one noticed me much. But it was true.

Last night I showed up and a man was waiting by the door. As soon as I got close enough, he punched in the code to unlock the door.  I thought he was going somewhere and asked, "Where are you off to?" But he said he was waiting for to help me in and that everyone was lined up to hear me.

Sure enough, they were. All 15 or so of them were lined up outside of the nursing station waiting for the music. As soon as I started singing, one of the nurses came and started singing and dancing and conducting along with me. The residents smiled and seemed to really enjoy it.

The above picture is something one of them took out of their purses and asked me to read. You can see it is very old and tattered and wrapped in plastic for safe keeping. I was touched by her saving this and feeling so much a part of their lives there.

 I was wrong that I was not noticed. Jt may be true that some people due to illness are unable to show or acknowledge what I bring but they do notice. It's good to be reminded of that at times.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Rewrite your endings


Someone once told me, "Everyone needs a path for growth." For some it is a relationship, for others it's their work and for me it is music. I learn so much about life from my music studies and practice. Here's what happened to me this past week.

I have a classical guitar piece I learned nearly 30 years ago that I play each day as a warm up. It's not a piece I'd ever perform in a concert but it is one I want to keep in my repertoire. Recently, I developed a memory block on the ending of the piece. Though I can hear it in my head, my hands do not remember how to play it. So, I was faced with the option of giving up on the piece (I'd never perform it anyway), or getting the music out and spending time re-learning it or I could improvise a new ending!  I went with the last option and today I had so much fun with it!

For me music is not only a source of growth and self discovery, it is also a source of joy. Today I played this piece (Weiss Prelude in Em) over and over and gave it a new ending each time.  It made me laugh to do this. I have to admit, I do prefer the "real" ending that S. L. Weiss composed but making up a new ending opened up new possibilities for me. It made me see that I don't have to do what someone else wrote down, I don't have to "color in the lines" or think in their box. I am free do see this piece of music as a recipe where I can add my own spices and flavors and herbs and make it my own.   It is such a freeing and empowering feeling.

It makes a good metaphor for my life too. If I see this old piece of music like an old story from my life and one that I have told the same way over and over --am I not free to give the story a new perspective, a new ending?   I know that endings of stories generally have a resolution or some kind of impact. What if we didn't keep the same ending? What if we improvised as I did and let the music take me to a new place?

I invite you to try this in your art or writing or music or your life. See where it takes you. It may make you laugh!

The picture above is from a gazebo in a park near where I live. I like to go there and let my mind wander. In fact, that's where I am heading now. Have fun rewriting your endings! :)

Monday, May 8, 2017

What I learned from Pachelbel Canon in D


Everyone is familiar with this beautiful piece "Pachelbel Canon in D" from the baroque era. I was hired to play this piece for a wedding recently and here's what I learned from studying and practicing this piece over six months.

Firstly, I see that musical lessons run parallel to life's lessons. For instance, if you have a problem with rushing through your day, chances are good you tend to rush the tempo in a given piece. I have that problem somewhat. Not because I am trying to get through a piece quickly but because I am so eager to show the listener how beautiful the next passage is. With a piece like Pachelbel Canon though, the timing must flow slowly with clarity and precision. I worked with a metronome for months to train myself to play the piece in a very steady, precise rhythm.

I learned a lot about bringing my own colors and musical phrases into the piece too. I have to admit, coming up with my own arrangement that would honor the tradition of the piece and also have my own unique touch was pretty challenging. I liken it to having to wear a beige colored outfit --something plain which would not stand out in a crowd. That was where my Pachelbel Canon was heading for a few months. It was ok but it was not "me."  I knew that I could wear a colorful sash or scarf to bring in my own colors while respecting the required dress code. To find my own colors and voice I turned to other guitarists who are known for never playing anything in a boring or redundant way. Here is Sungha Jung playing Pachelbel Canon. 

From him I got the idea to create my own introduction before the well known opening chordal passage and then I used the melodic idea in the outro/ending of the piece. That helped shape my vision of the piece to be more "me." I then asked myself, "How would You play this piece?" I am not really known for playing baroque music and since it was for a wedding, I needed the piece to sound like what others expected it to sound like. So it was a challenge to me to put in elements of my own guitar riffs and embellishments.


Not only that, but the church was very small and the bridal procession would only last about 40 seconds. I had to somehow find a way to condense the piece that would have all the known elements in it in a short time (usually this piece takes 2-4 minutes to play through).

What aided me in my conception of the piece was that I saw these pictures of a beautiful stained glass cabin by Neile Coooper from this webpage. Then I imagined the playing of Pachelbel Canon would be like entering a stained glass castle. Each level would become more ornate and intricate as the piece of music progressed.


I have posted some of the pictures of the stained glass cabin throughout, so you get an idea. All of these ideas helped to shape my own Pachelbel Canon in D that I enjoyed playing very much. 

My musical lessons led to life lessons. To move through my day unhurried. To express myself with simplicity and clarity. To know what I want and have a vision and set out to achieve that. 
To look for the beauty in life and stay with that vision no matter what chaos is going on in the world around me. 

I'd say that's quite a lot to learn from a piece of music. What do you learn from this piece? 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Finding the right song can open the door to connection

This week I had several good experiences in singing with my nursing home groups. It's amazing how one song can open up a door that was not there before.  For instance, there is one elderly woman at one of the nursing homes who used to yell out things when I played my guitar (instrumental).  I play my "Sundowning Serenade" to help calm the dementia residents there. Most of them relax or doze off while listening. Ms. Martha would say things like, "That's enough of that!", "How much longer do we have to listen to this crap?!" and so on. Because she is ill, I know not to take this personally. Even so, it's not pleasant to have that happen. The other night though, something cool happened.  I went through my repertoire and tried to think of a song Martha would know and like. I found Elvis Presley's song, "Can't Help Falling in Love." Well, what do you know?! As soon as I started playing it, Martha started to sing along! In the two years or so I've known her, she has never done this.  Guess what I will play for her from now on? That was a good feeling to find something she liked.

Yesterday I was over at another nursing home and at one point a man there named Johnny said he wanted to share something. Johnny is someone I have known now for about ten years. He uses a wheelchair and he is pretty severely disabled.  However, he has recently had some positive changes and healing take place. He told the group that he can now use his hands and move his feet and sit up straight and all sorts of other things he was never able to do before in his whole life. As he revealed another example to us, he would start to cry.  Everyone was so moved by his sharing with us. One of the ladies said, "Bless you." and knowing he is a man of faith, I asked him if he'd like for us to sing, "Amazing Grace" for him. We all did sing this song and there were more tears, especially during this verse:

"Through many toils and trials and snares
I have already come
Twas grace that brought me here thus far
and Grace will lead me home. "

At another place down the road where I sing, they like to sing old songs like, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light," "Do Lord." All of these people I see have such interesting stories to tell. We often talk in between songs and tell of a time we used to sing a given song.

Singing with others is so much more than singing. Music is the bridge that opens the door inside the window to their heart.  How rich I feel to know these people who inspire me and enrich my life.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Concert to Remember

One of my favorite events of the year is the annual VSA Charlottesville/Albemarle concert. Formerly, "very special arts," VSA is part of Therapeutic Parks & Recreation department which provides arts activities for people with disabilities. This is my 9th year doing musical activities with groups in VSA.

This year I really enjoyed accompanying a group of 15 students singing, "Let it Go" from the musical Frozen. It was a lot of fun rehearsing this over the past month because they were all so excited about this song. In the concert, we were last in the line up and which was an energetic and empowering way to end our yearly concert. Doing this Disney song on solo guitar was a challenge for me.  As you know from the song, it is an orchestrated song with several instruments and it was hard to get the same dynamics on my guitar but I think it worked out well.

I also sang a song called, "Blue Wings" which is a poem written by George Eliot. She is the writer from the Victorian era who is most known for her novel, "Middlemarch." Not many know that she also wrote poetry. Last year I set 6 of her poems to music and "Blue Wings" was one of my favorites. I hope to do a recording of these and video this summer. Stay tuned!!

Everyone did so well in the concert. One of my favorite performances of the song, "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. It was sung by my friend Jessica in her beautiful voice while Amanda interpreted in ASL (American sign language). Wow! That was powerful.

We also had hand bell choirs, African drumming with Whit, a John Denver song by Bill, a classic rock song by Chris.. it was truly a wonderful community effort. This happened a few days ago and I am still jazzed up about it.

The picture above is a screen shot taken from the TV news clip Channel 29 did about the concert. They were there through the whole concert and I was on for a few seconds. Thanks again to all who came out to support us on our special day.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Vitamins for the heart and soul


I love my work playing therapeutic music for hospital patients in ICU. The other day I had an interesting experience.  When I play for ICU patients, I mostly improvise simple melodies with simple chord progressions. If you think of the music being like a food that feeds the heart and soul, it needs to be very easy to digest for someone who is very ill.

The other day I was playing for a man who was hooked up to life support and barely conscious. I know that he could hear me because his heart rate would change anytime I tried to play in a musical key other than C.  That is something I do when I play for critically ill people, I look for their comfort zone and try to stay in that place while they lock into the slow rhythms and peaceful melodies.

I was playing parts of a piece I composed for my mother this past winter that has some major 7th chords. Stevie Wonder uses lots of major 7th chords, by the way. The song, "You Are the Sunshine of my Life" opens with a CMaj7 add 9 chord in the introduction. If you just listen to that chord, there is something kind of magical about it. It is soothing and uplifting and it sounds like love. If you had to find a chord that represented love, this one would be a good choice.

Anyway, I was improvising with these kind of chords for this patient and playing very slow, arpeggios and I was envisioning a peaceful pastoral scene in my mind's eye to bring him to. When at times I moved to change into a song in another key (of say G or D), his heart rate immediately went up. Hm. Ok, I went back to the key of C. This is a key that is found in a lot of country and pop music. It's a pretty comforting and familiar sound, one that would feel like "home." In playing for him for nearly 30 minutes, I saw how comforting it was for me to stay within a small confines and think up new melodic motifs and come back to other ones used before to help him focus.

So here's some homework for you.  As you go about your week and you are listening to music, be aware of what musical key you seem to really respond to. Just look up the song on google  with the word "chords" and you'll find the lyrics and chords. See if your favorite songs are similar and use the same chords. Do you have a favorite key? I am partial to the key of E and one of my favorite chords is F#minor.   How about you?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Our Most Precious Heritage

 We are living in times in our country faces fear of funding being cut for the arts and humanities.  When funds are being used instead to build walls and military forces.  In writing to my congressman and President to ask to continue to fund NEA and NEH and public broadcasting, I came upon this quote:

"Art is a nation's most precious heritage, For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish."-- Lyndon Johnson on the National Endowment of the Arts.

This past week was VSA Arts's 17th Annual Art show opening which is one of my favorite events of the year. VSA Arts is a non profit that promotes and develops opportunities for art and creative expression for persons with disabilities. I work with groups doing music and we are currently working on the program for the VSA Concert to be held at Carver Recreation Center in Charlottesville Wed. April 19th at 10:00am. (please come!)

I so much believe in the power of music and art and all forms of creativity. I loved playing my guitar at the VSA art opening and Chris Carter also played his music for the people at the art show too.

You can see some great pictures by Norm Carter at this link of some of the artists and artwork which will be on display (and for sale) at Carver Recreation center through August 2017. The picture above was taken of me at the art opening by Norm.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Musical moments


As February draws to a close, I am struck by how lucky I am to share music with so many people in varied circumstances. Last week I had one of the most deeply moving experiences playing music for patients at the hospital.  When arriving on the ICU unit, I was asked to play for a woman who had been taken off life support. She had no family or anyone with her. I went to her room and played for her as she lay dying.  I wanted to fill the room with beauty and hope and chose some familiar pieces like, "The Water is Wide" and  "Simple Gifts."  I also played some of my own compositions and did some improvising. I worked to match her deep breathing patterns to support her journey to the next world. Sometimes her breath would slow to a point where I thought she left us but then she'd come back and I'd start a new song on my guitar. I thought of what it would be like to leave this world with me and others a stranger to her as her witness. I wondered what her life had been like, who she was and hoped for her peace.

After that, I was sent to a room of a patient who played the guitar. He was sitting up in a chair which meant I could play more uptempo pieces (to help circulation and energy).  He requested, "Amazing Grace," and "Wayfaring Stranger." After that, I started to play, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and he sang along and asked his friend in the room to video tape us.   I could see the song meant a lot to him and we sat and talked about music and life in between our songs. I plan to look in on him again this week.

Other gigs were singing with groups at nursing homes. Above in the picture you see a poster they had in one facility.  Singing with others is a joy too. Everyone comes with different stories and backgrounds and we all have memories associated with a given song.

With March coming, I got out my Irish repertoire and have been practicing for St. Patrick's Day. Here's a jig I wrote myself but it's so recent that it doesn't have a name yet but I do hope you enjoy it!

Happy Spring (soon!!)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Party of one


The other day I was to play for a nursing home group but only one resident showed up. It turned out the activities director was out of town and failed to inform the community.   When I arrived Ms. Joanne (not her real name) was sitting at the front table. She was slightly slumped over and had her eyes closed as if she was in deep thought about something. She wore a headband laced with pink silk flowers in her white hair.

"Looks like it's going to be just you and me today. We can have our own party." I said and got out my guitar. I brought my songbook and set it on the table between us.  "Let's sing a happy song." I suggested and we sang, "This Little Light of Mine." After that I let her decide what we would sing next. I'd prompt her by giving choices of what kind of song. "Should we sing a funny song or a serious one?" (funny she smiled) and we sang, "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin', oh my darlin Clementine...."

When we sang, "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands," we mentioned all the names of her family members and her home town in West Virginia, Charlottesville, the state of Virginia and the whole world. We just kept expanding our circle of who we sang the song to.

It was actually quite a nice time we had. I enjoyed talking in between songs and learning things about her. She would drift off into  a story about living in the mountains in West Virginia back in the day. Or she'd tell me about her granddaughter who she hoped was coming to visit her later that day.

I was struck by how much music is a connecting force in our lives. Had my class been about another subject - it may not have worked out to have just one participant in the room.  It could have been awkward since we did not know each other at all. But through songs and sharing, it didn't matter no one else was around. In fact, I was glad to get to know her.

Oh, the picture above is one I post for Valentine's Day. It is of a stump from my yard when 5 acres of forest were destroyed in order to build a housing development. The stump is what is left of my favorite tree that stood right outside my window. I was stunned when I saw it made a heart shape- the picture was taken moments after it was cut down. To me it was saying, "You can cut us down but you can't get rid of the love and the heart of the forest. "

Monday, January 30, 2017

Music of Acceptance

Hello everyone! This has been quite an interesting winter.  Something I feel fortunate about is that the work that I do brings people joy, comfort, hope and peace. Working at the hospital and playing for patients in the ICU is the work I feel so grateful to do. Last week I played for a dying loved one surrounded by family and friends. Since my mother passed away in the spring, a lot of new music has come to me that has brought me a lot of healing and comfort. It feels good to play this music for others.  I have given a lot of thought to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and I am now in the acceptance phase. As a result, the guitar pieces that have come to me reflect the peace and acceptance I am feeling.

I have many new compositions that are not yet titled but here is one I like. It is an uplifting piece with an upbeat rhythm that speaks of moving forward with hope. Here is a link to that piece so you can listen. 

I've also been enjoying leading sing alongs with people and it is especially gratifying to see how music is such a bridge to connecting people of all backgrounds and ages.  In light of this past week with the tumultuous political climate all around us, it is nice to see that my work is about connecting and bringing hope. Singing songs like, "This Little Light of Mine," "Down by the Riverside," "I Got Rhythm,"  - from folk songs to show tunes to hymns -- we each have our own memories connected to these songs.

I published a new article, "My New Sonic Reality: In Harmony"  in Hearing Health Foundation at magazine recently. You can read it at this link. 

I've also been doing a lot of art and the picture above is my latest creation called, "Fire Lotus."

Thanks for stopping by and feel free to get in touch! blueoconnell.com

Monday, January 16, 2017

My ACA (Obamacare) Testimonial 2017


Today is MLK Day and in his memory I sang Civil Rights songs with my nursing home group. "This Little Light of Mine," "We Shall Overcome," "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Down by the Riverside." I love these songs and they mean so much more to me in the face of what we are facing now in America.

I spent this morning sending my ACA testimonial of how Obamacare (ACA) has benefitted me.
In honor of MLK day and speaking out for what is right, I share an excerpt of my letter  below. Thank you for reading and wishing us all a time when we will be free from fear and injustice.

To Whom it May Concern:

My name is Renée Blue O’Connell and I am writing to ask that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be protected for the American people. What follows is my story and how the ACA has helped me.

Like many Americans, I have a disability. My disability is profound deafness.  A musician since my early teens, my deafness was an obstacle that kept me from pursuing my dream to become a professional musician.  In 2009, all of that changed after undergoing cochlear implant surgery. After a year of successful aural rehabilitation, I was emboldened to leave the safe confines of my administrative assistant job where I worked 14 years to pursue music full time.

I became a Certified Music Practitioner, which trained me to play therapeutic music at the bedside for the ill and dying.  Employed as a Musician-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Health System, I have provided music for many people in their 11th hour.  I witnessed a homeless man revive from a 4 month coma who was found nearly beaten to death one summer night. I played my guitar for a woman as she was taken off life support while she took her last breaths. I comforted a young girl, a burn victim, whose face was scared beyond recognition. Though I walked into their room a stranger, with music, all barriers were left behind.

In this work I have found my life’s calling. Even so, this life path came with much sacrifice. Before the ACA, I was unable to get health insurance because of my pre-existing condition of profound deafness. This meant I was unable to get necessary routine audiology services. As well as other routine check ups.

Cochlear implants are very expensive devices requiring upkeep and maintenance. As technology continues to change and improve, implant companies continue to upgrade sound processors. A cochlear implant recipient has no choice out of medical necessity but to obtain upgraded processors as old ones become obsolete. My recent upgrade cost just under $11,000.  Even with ACA health care, I am left with a hefty payment that I estimate to take 3 years for me to pay off with my current wages.

I am very grateful to the ACA because I have been able to contribute to my community and for the greater good doing such meaningful work. Yet it is very discouraging to be living in times where my health care is now being threatened.  I face the real possibility of returning to a life where I am discriminated against because I am profoundly deaf. 


I appeal to those of you who can vote to save ACA. Thank you very much for your hard work. 

Respectfully yours,


Renée Blue O’Connell, CMP
Certified Music Practitioner
www.blueoconnell.com

#ACAtestimony, #cochlearimplantaca, #obamacaretestimonial, #acarights, #acaspeaker

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New Year's Eve Labyrinth Walk Improvisational Music

Given that the year of 2016 was ridden with loss and many challenges, my NYE gig playing guitar for the Labyrinth walk at the Unitarian church was a fitting way to end it. As you can see from the picture above, walking this maze is a good metaphor for life. At times we have to stop amidst our steps going forward in order to move over and give room for someone else to pass by. At times we have to slow down more so as not to get dizzy when looking down at the circular maze. We have to walk slow enough to see the big picture and gain perspective. Yet if we walk too slowly, we lose our balance.

My job was to accompany these walkers on NYE who came to end a year of life's experiences. Had they also lost someone close to them? Had they had changes come to them without warning? What are they letting go of and what do they wish to bring into the New Year?

I played my guitar without any script or sheet music. I flowed into one continuous stream of musical ideas, each one bringing a nuance and color and ambiance to help them move through their memories and dreams and hopes.

This year will be my 42nd year playing the guitar and I do have to say that nothing else fills me with such a feeling of joy and expansion and beauty.

What have you let go of this year and what dreams do you intend to plant?

Wishing you all the best in 2017!! Thank you for all of your support!

as always, my website is here:

www.blueoconnell.com