When I first left classical music to pursue my calling as a songwriter and healer, I found myself in the typical position of a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. musician, performing in whatever club would have me – basement music rooms, biker bars, and smoke-filled lounges throughout the Midwest.
This presented several major obstacles: I was generally a morning person, I had a young daughter who needed her mom to tuck her in at night, I preferred to perform my original music rather than the staple of cover tunes most bars prefer, and I had a debilitating allergy to tobacco smoke. Halfway through my sets, I would lose my voice and often come down with bronchitis afterwards. I had to find another niche.
A FIRST GLIMPSE
While in college, I often visited a 92-year-old woman in a nursing home and she begged me to perform a concert for the residents that Christmas. The response was wonderful, the pay was decent, and the gig was so easy to get that I decided to make it a regular part of my schedule.
My sister had been a nurse in an Alzheimer’s ward, so the usual smell and unpleasant sights one often sees in nursing homes were not a shock. I just felt bad for the guy in the wheelchair in the front row that had been wheeled in first and now had to desperately use the bathroom within the first song of the performance.
Overall, however, I found it highly rewarding. The residents were just happy to hear some live music that was pleasant to listen to.
After my grandfather’s death in 1998, I branched into hospice performances, but found that many of the residents were too sick to come to the recreation room to listen. Family members began asking if I could come to the rooms to perform a private song bedside. This became a regular part of my gigs, and I enjoyed it even more than the group performances because it was so intimate and so special to the individual.
A HUGE NEED
In the fall of 2001, I met Leslie Faerstein, director of Musicians On Call, an organization founded by two singer-songwriters like myself who found there was a huge need and hungry audience for bedside hospital performances.
Thanks to the support of private donors and a prestigious list of rock and pop stars (including Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel), the New York-based nonprofit was growing fast and expanding its programs to encompass the adult and pediatric cancer wards at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Rivington House AIDS center, the Village Nursing Home, the Harlem Hospital Children’s Ward and others.
I attended an orientation and began performing twice a month at hospitals in September 2002. A volunteer guide with a list of patients who want live music meets me at the facility and we go room to room as I perform one song per patient – often performing up to 30 different songs and for 40-60 people, including family members and staff.
SONGS TO HEAL
I perform mostly my original songs and simply ask the patient if they feel like hearing a particular genre – or even just a particular mood, like “happy and uplifting” or “slow and soothing.” From that determination, plus age, religion and ethnic considerations, I use my intuition to choose the song that will have the most desired effect for the patient. Sometimes, if the occasion calls for it or the patient is hesitant about accepting a song, I’ll pull an old cover tune or silly song out of my hat, which usually brings about joyous laughter or tears of joy and gratitude.
Recently, in the adult cancer ward of Memorial Sloan, a priest was visiting a nun incognito and when they requested an Irish tune, not knowing their religious inclination, I broke out into a raucous rendition of “Maids When You’re Young, Never Wed an Olde Man…for he’s got no fal lu rum and he’s lost his ding du rum..” They began roaring with laughter and she forgot her chemo for awhile.
Another beautiful young Indian woman smiled with tears in her eyes as I performed one of my favorite hope and inspiration compositions, “Falling Down,” almost making me choke up mid-song. Afterwards she proclaimed, “You took my pain away!” Suffering from an inflamed fibroid in my abdomen at the time, I responded, “It took my pain away too!” That’s the beautiful thing – I receive as much healing as they do.
GIVING 110 PERCENT
Performing for Musicians On Call isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain strength of character and humility that many musicians don’t possess because they’ve bought into the illusion of popularity, stardom and ego gratification.
It’s not easy to watch a teenager puke in a bucket in the middle of a song because he had radiation treatments that morning, or to watch a mother inject a syringe of medicine into a tube in her 18-month-old child’s chest as you sing “You are my Sunshine” because it’s her favorite song.
Some musicians need positive feedback and applause and might have a problem if a cancer patient falls asleep during a song, or an AIDS patient gives them the finger after a song – even though it’s the first emotional response that patient might have shown in weeks and the nurses consider it a milestone.
Then there’s the possibility of bacteria in low-immunity cases, so a musician must be able and willing to don a mask, gown and latex gloves and learn to play a guitar through rubber.
It requires a musician to give 110 percent and be willing to receive nothing but gratitude for a momentary escape from pain and looming mortality – to take patients’ minds off of their condition for just a short while.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
I’ve been told a lullaby or soothing folk song works better than morphine to put a patient to sleep, and no painful needles accompany my music. Instead, the only accompaniment is love, energy, compassion, and – in my opinion – the grace of God that they might somehow, on some level, be healed.
So even though Mayor Bloomberg recently instituted a law prohibiting smoking in public restaurants and bars, I think I have found my live performance niche. My daughter is older now, I don’t have to worry about my tobacco allergy, at least while I stay in New York, and I have found something with substance, purity, and a bright future to dedicate my life’s work to. All I can hope is that others follow and that collectively, we might remember what it is we have forgotten about music and its purpose in our lives.
In the meantime, I’ll keep reaping the rewards of the services I provide, and when life starts to get a little rocky, I’ll be grateful from the perspective these cancer patients, senior citizens and hospitalized children have given me.
Thanks, Musicians On Call! I hope your programs branch out across America.