Monday, June 18, 2018

Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me?



I work on weekends at a nursing home in town and bring my guitar and go room to room to sing. I am always richly rewarded by the responses I get. There is a resident who is severely disabled and bedridden. All of the times I have been in her room, she was hooked up to a ventilator and not conscious. So I was surprised today when I went to her room and she was awake.

 As I got out my guitar, I saw she moved to try to turn the TV off. She appears paralyzed or at least extremely limited mobility. I asked her If she wanted me to turn the TV off and she mouthed the word, "please." She is unable to talk as she has a trachea in her throat. When I started to play my guitar, she watched me with a curious expression. I was trying to find a song that she would connect with. Since she is black, I sang some spirituals but she did not appear to recognize them. I guessed her age to be early 60s but none of the songs of that era seemed to strike a chord. So I looked around her room to gain clues about what kind of songs would resonate. Sometimes residents have a Bible or a picture of Jesus or Mary and that helps me to know they would like hymns. In her room, she was surrounded by Mickey Mouse things. She had a Mickey Mouse clock on the wall and was covered with a Mickey Mouse blanket. On the floor next to her bed, I found a Minnie Mouse doll.  I picked up Minnie Mouse and asked her if she wanted her in the bed with her. She nodded yes. Then I got the idea, judging by her facial expressions that she probably had some brain damage or developmental disability.  I got the inspiration to start talking to her through Minnie Mouse. I made my voice like Minnie's and I sang to her the Mickey Mouse TV theme song. 

"Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E, Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!"  


She smiled and brightened with this! I saw I was onto to something. I kept singing and talking to her with Minnie in my hand and even had Minnie do a little dance for her. When it was time to go, I put Minnie into her arms and she held out her hand and I took her hand in both of mine and thanked her for letting me come and visit her. I told her I really enjoyed singing with her. We stayed holding hands for awhile. I was so moved by this experience! I have worked there nearly a year and never knew she could communicate at all. I will make sure I go see her all the time now.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We've Got the Whole Earth in Our Hands


Today I enjoyed teaching nature themed songs at Wildrock nature center in Crozet. This is a great place way out beyond the town where there is not even reception on your cell phone.  Good to feel off the grid for awhile and play outside. This place has lots of play areas indoors too for kids to explore. They have educational areas to teach about animal life in the wilderness and a botanical area, camping gear to on display, magical forests. Outside you can hike to the stream or walk the labyrinth or play and dance on the stage or go fishing. There are lots of animals around too. Sheep, horses, cows, frogs, fox, deer and probably bears out there too.

There were groups of 1st and 2nd graders that came on a field trip there and I taught them some of my favorite Native America songs. How about:

"The Earth is our mother, we must take care of her 2x
Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yon yon..."

Or from the Lakota tribe:

"I am one with the infinite sun
forever and ever and ever
keyo teh leno leno maho teh
heino heino heino."

We talked about caring for the environment and things we could do to help. Things like reusing things instead of throwing away and recycling.

I sang them some songs about recycling:

"We've been working on recycling (to the tune of "I've Been Workin on the Railroad"
all the trash we can
we've been working on recycling
it's a very simple plan..." etc.


We then talked about camping out and being out in nature and singing campfire songs. The children taught me some new ones and I taught them some of our old ones we sang as a child. Songs like, "Old MacDonald," and "Bingo."

It was a fun time!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

We all live in a yellow submarine...


I love my work playing for patients at the hospital. Each patient is unique with varied circumstances that require a unique musical prescription. Since I primarily play for ICU patients, most of them are too ill to respond or speak or acknowledge me in any way. I sit by their bedside and watch their responses register on the monitors as I weave improvised melodies or my own compositions. Since they are unable to speak, I rarely play a piece that would be familiar to them since I would not know if it could be linked with a emotionally charged memory. (Cannot afford to tap into a negative memory when they are so ill) Instead, I seek to bring down their heart rate and stabilize their pulse using soothing melodic phrases made up just for them.  If you think of the music like a food, then you can imagine I try to play them a musical elixir or broth that is easy to digest. 

Every now and then though, I meet a patient in different circumstances that call for upbeat songs.  That was the case today when I walked into the room of a woman who was awake and receptive to the music. We immediately struck up a lively conversation about music and artists she loved. Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville, Johnny Cash to name a few. Her mother used to play the guitar, so she was really excited that I also played it. 

Since she was the age of someone who would likely appreciate The Beatles, I played for her, "Here Comes the Sun." She instantly brightened and sang along. Then she requested,  "Yellow Submarine."  I played what I remembered of the song and she burst into tears, saying that her mother (now deceased) used to sing her that song when she was a child. I then played her one of my own compositions, "Choose the Sky" and she got the idea to video tape me so that she could show her daughters. After my song, she requested I play, "Yellow Submarine" again and got the idea to improvise my own lyrics to the verses based on things she told me. I sang:

"Now your mamma used to sing this song to you, when you were young
and we sing it here again so that everyone can sing along
We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine…" etc…

When we finished singing together, she put her camera down and threw open her arms and we hugged for a long time as she cried. She said, "That brought me so much peace!"  You helped me so much!" 


What she does not know is that she also helped me so much. It is not often I have people like her who are so responsive to the music. What she did not know is that I purposely went in to work today because I had troubles of my own I wanted to put aside. My favorite way of helping myself get through a rough patch is to do something for someone else. For that whole time I was with this woman and sharing our stories and music, we both were able to put our troubles aside. I also know my own "troubles" pale in comparison and I left feeling so grateful not only for all that I do have but the gift she gave me of feeling I was helpful. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

"I needed you."


When I tell people I work at the hospital (U.VA), I am often asked, "Isn't that a depressing place to be?" and the answer is No! It is not depressing at all. It is because it is such an honor to be with people during what could be the hardest times in their lives. Because of this, there is no time to waste with superficial conversations. We get right to the core of our being. When I walk into their room, I am a stranger. But when I get out my guitar and start to play music, all barriers between us are lifted. Here is a story from yesterday:

I was playing in the medical ICU and going from room to room to see what patients might benefit from soothing instrumental guitar music. Sometimes patients say no because they have a visitor or maybe they are asleep or for some reason I can't play for them.

As I was passing by a room, a female patient waved to me and smiled and asked me to come in her room. I went to her and she was in the middle of eating her lunch. I told her some about what I do and said if she'd like to listen to music, she can even fall asleep if she wants to- there is nothing she needs to do.

I told her how music can help bring down the heart rate and relax a patient and we talked about how being in pain and being ill can really be a stressful situation and one that causes a lot of anxiety and worry. We talked about how music can ease our worried mind and remind us there is hope and beauty and love in the world, that all will be ok.

Eventually, our conversation waned and the woman said, "I'll let you choose whatever piece of music you think is best for my situation." I told her, "I will play you my favorite piece I like to play right now. It is a classical piece called, "Pachelbel Canon."

When I began to play, she pushed her food tray out of the way and easesd back in her bed and closed her eyes. As I played,  she smiled and a serene expression came over her face. She appeared to be very happy and peaceful as she listened. In all my 14 years of playing for patients, I have to say that she was one of the most appreciative of any patient I had ever played for. She listened as if savoring every nuance and note I played.  I saw her heart rate come down.

When I finished, she said, "Thank you so much!! I feel like now I am so relaxed I can take a nap. " I encouraged her to do that (I was getting ready to go home anyway after my session with her.).  She said, "I am so happy you came to see me today. " Then I said that I almost didn't come to the hospital because it was supposed to be my day off. She said, "You needed to be here because I needed you. " I said I needed her too, that meeting her was good for me too and we helped each other. Then she opened her arms and I leaned over to give her a hug. What an honor to have been the recipient of such deep appreciation. Today I am going back. Will see who I meet today!

Thanks for coming by!

Friday, April 20, 2018

VSA 10th Annual Concert


One of my favorite events of the year is the VSA Annual Concert hosted by VSA Charlottesville/Albemarle (therapeutic parks & recreation for people with special needs) .   I love the opportunity it gives me to try out a new musical idea on a very receptive audience.

This year I played my arrangement of a poem by George Eliot I set to music, "Spring Come Hither."
I accidentally found a bunch of her poetry online and I was really drawn in by her musings on nature and life.  She is a female writer from the Victorian Era whose real name was Mary Anne Evans. In those days, it was common for women to change their names to a man's name in order to have more opportunity to be published. She was most known for her novel, "Middlemarch, published in 1871.

Here are the words to her poem:

Spring comes hither
Buds the rose . . .
Roses wither
Sweet spring goes . . .
O ja là
O ja là . . .
Would she carry me.
Summer soars
Wide-wing'd day . . .
White light pours
Flies away . . .
O ja là
O ja là . . .
Would he carry me.
Soft winds blow
Westward borne . . .
Onward go
Towards the morn
O ja là
O ja là . . .
Would they carry me.
Sweet birds sing
O'ver the graves
Then take wing
O'ver the waves
O ja là
O ja là . . .
Would they carry me.

For the introduction, I played Pachebel Canon in D. 
I loved hearing all of the other artists as well. It is a time of sharing our love of music and enjoying our community. 

I have set 6 poems of George Eliot's to music and hope to record them some day!




Saturday, April 7, 2018

From regional to universal songs


I grew up in Chicago during the late 60s and 70s. Back then music was more regionally based. Songs played on the radio in Chicago were not played here in Virginia.  If you grew up in NYC, you weren't likely to hear the same songs played on the radio on Mississippi. For this reason, it can be a challenge when I lead sing alongs to a group of elders with varied background. Not only in terms of geographical differences but also ethnic and racial backgrounds can influence what songs resonate or not. However, there are also songs that are universally known and those are great to sing in all groups.

Since I moved to Virginia nearly 30 years ago,  my musical repertoire has expanded a lot and I love the songs that have come to be favorites to sing at local nursing homes. I have learned much from the Southern Gospel repertoire that really go over well. Songs like, "I Saw The Light," "I'll Fly Away," "Sweet By & By," Do Lord."

What I love to see is how much the words and meaning of the songs reflect some of the audience members' life experience. Back when I was just learning to play the guitar, and taking lessons at The Old Town School of Folk Music (in Chicago), I remember that the song, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, " was a favorite to play in our weekly jam sessions. The words at the time were just lyrics to me but now their meaning resonant with real life experience:

"I was standing by my window, on a cold and cloudy day
when I saw the hearse come rollin' for to carry my mother away.."

I feel those words, the sorrow of losing my mother and I know everyone feels this way. The song goes on to say,

"I will follow close behind her, try to hold up and be brave
but I could not hide my sorrow when they laid her in the grave."

I know everyone in the room has been there. It's a universal experience, letting our mother's go. Interesting too that the song gives a feeling of hope and connection - rather than sadness. It's because we are not alone in our feelings and experience.

Other universal songs are, "My Girl" by The Temptations - this always brings a smile and "Stand By Me."

"When the night has come, and the land is dark
and the moon is the only light you see
well I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
just as long, as you stand
Stand by me..."

When we sing that song, we are standing by and with each other.  A song can be the one who stands by us and gets us through a rough patch at times.

Yesterday the song that bonded my group the most was an unexpected one. Someone requested a song by Elvis Presley. The one that came to mind was, "Hound Dog." When I started to sing this- everyone started clapping and singing along. There were feet stomping too. We laughed and made up our own verses too. I always thought it was a silly song but silliness is part of our collective experience too. We had every feeling in there yesterday.

What songs get you clapping and stomping? May you sing that song today and brighten your day!

Thank you for stopping by!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Playing guitar brings me joy!


Last Saturday I played guitar for the VSA Charlottesville/Albemarle's annual Art Show opening.  It brought me so much joy to play my music for a room full of creative people. I believe in all forms of creativity. Writing, visual art, music, whatever ways you feel help express your passion and joy in the world.

For me, there is something about what happens when I play my guitar. I forget all my troubles. I forget about the world going crazy. I go to a place inside that I can't really tell you where that is. It's a place within but at the same time it feels far away. Do you know what I mean?  I thought so :)

Thank you as always for stopping by and for your support.  Happy spring!! (almost)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Music as a language


I play my guitar in the lobby at my gym once a month and it is always an interesting experience. Sometimes people walk right by me and don't seem to notice me. Other times people seem in a rush and don't want to stop to listen. Yesterday though, many people stopped and took a seat on the couch near me and listened. Mothers with small children sat them down and pointed to me to show them, "Music!" Weary people taking a break from endless activity sat down and closed their eyes and listened. One man I know, who cannot speak (due to a stroke) sat down and his eyes beamed brightly as I played. For someone who can't speak, his eyes say so much.

I loved connecting with people and talking about the songs I played or my guitar (a handmade classical locally made) or about how music makes them feel. It all made me wonder. What was it I was doing yesterday that caused the people to come and listen? Was I being more inviting somehow?

I discovered that what I played and how I played set a welcoming mood for others to join me in sharing a musical moment together.  What I did was, when someone came to sit down, I tried to gain as much information as I could about them by observing them. About how old are they? What song could I play that they would know? What memory could I spark? What kind of connection can be made?

There have been times when playing for the public in that kind of setting made me feel a little vulnerable. What do they expect of  me? I often think they want me to play something fast and flashy to impress them. Sadly, I do not really know fast and flashy songs and it's not what I really love to play.

Yesterday I felt like I opened up my heart and let them see the soundtrack of my life. The songs I have collected along the way. Songs from "The Sound of Music," "Mary Poppins,"  Motown, Stevie Wonder, Bach, Pachelbel, my own songs... I stood there and played and watched their responses. When their eyes lit up, I knew I struck a chord and it was a song with a memory attached.

It made me remember again that music is a language. Yes, the "Universal language."  And it does not matter how well we speak it but only that we try to connect.   Though my playing had mistakes and it was not a perfect performance - I was not playing to impress my listeners but to connect with them. "Do you remember this song?" I would ask and see them smile. We'd share our stories about the song.

Music is like any language. Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language and felt intimidated to use it with someone who was fluent in it? Did you notice they did not care that you spoke with mistakes--they only cared that you tried to speak their language. It means a lot. Have you ever tried to sign to a deaf person?  My signing is very limited but they do not notice imperfection, they notice I cared enough to share my vulnerability of my imperfect attempts. Same with music. So what about mistakes. Isn't that part of life? Don't let mistakes hang you up. They are what unites us too!
Good for me to remember this.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Keep the Dream Alive


Today is Martin Luther King, Jr day. A time to remember all the lessons and teachings he left behind.

"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." - Martin Luther King, Jr

Whenever I hear words from Dr. King's moving, historical speeches, "I have a Dream,"  I am deeply moved. Now more than ever, we need to remember his words and teachings. 

Yesterday I was playing my guitar on a dementia unit at an assisted living center. In honor of MLK day, I played a series of Patriotic songs.  When I finished playing our National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner," I looked up and was greatly moved to see an elderly woman standing out of her wheelchair with tears streaming down her cheeks. As I had been reading the music, I did not see her until I was finished playing. When I looked up and saw her tear-streaked face, she smiled a sad smile and saluted me and got back in her chair and left the room.  A few moments later, I heard a door slam down the hall. 

It made me stop and take note of all that is going on in the U.S. now. So much blatant disrespect, violence, chaos and turmoil.  I remember a day as a child having to sing the National Anthem in school while facing the flag and with our right hand over our heart. I did not fully understand why we did this but I am saddened it is gone from our schools now. There is no sense of allegiance to our country right now. At least, not with those I come in contact with. 

May we find out way back to the guiding principles taught by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 "I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” - MLK "I have a Dream"

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Silence Made Visible


Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you all much happiness, prosperity, good health and success. 

Recently, I have been asked many times if I listen to music. For some of my old friends, it is a shock to them when I tell them these days I prefer to be in silence. This is because when I was younger, I was a voracious listener to music. Back in the days of vinyl LPs, I would often walk into a record store and buy 5 new albums and go home and listen to all of them. I would buy albums I knew nothing about and listen with such a hunger and curiosity. I loved discovering new artists, sounds, instrumental combinations, lyrical messages. I was also a radio DJ for 20 years at WTJU.net. I loved creating musical tapestries that would engage listeners in hopes of grabbing their attention away from whatever they were doing. I loved getting phone calls from drivers who pulled over to the side of the road to ask me, "What was that song you just played?" 

So now silence is my great friend. Many years ago for a humorous gift to a friend, I gave her a recording of an "Interview with Silence." In this interview I asked things like,:

 "What is your favorite sound?"
"How did the expression, 'Silence is Golden come to be?"
"What has been your greatest challenge being Silence?"
"What's the wildest thing you've ever done since you've been Silence?"

After each question followed a silent pause that really felt as if Silence was answering!  I had forgotten about this interview until I thought about my sister asking me over Christmas holiday, "So, you don't listen to music?"  I tried to explain to her how I love to go home and be in the quiet peace of silence. This being the New Year, I thought it would be a fitting topic to share with all of you. 
The picture above was from the view outside of the window of my train ride of the Hudson river. It's a picture of "Silence made visible. "

How is silence made visible in your lives? I'd love to hear from you. 

Enjoy and thanks for stopping by!  Below are some favorite quotes on silence.


"Silence is the great teacher, and to learn its lessons you must pay attention to it. There is no substitute for the creative inspiration, knowledge, and stability that come from knowing how to contact your core of inner silence."- Deepek Chopra

"We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature -- trees, flowers, grass -- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls." - Mother Teresa


"Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment; that background which the painter may not daub, be he master or bungler, and which, however awkward a figure we may have made in the foreground, remains ever our inviolable asylum, where no indignity can assail, no personality can disturb us."- Henry David Thoreau