A Reflection on 20 Years of Making Music More Accessible

I wondered how different these past two decades would have been if just 50% of the musicians in our area had dropped by 3 or 4 times a year for a 50 minute show. You know, bring your guitar, sit down, play, leave. No big deal.

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Today Alice and I visited Charlottesville Health and Rehabilitation for one of our two monthly performance visits. This is the place where it all began for me in 1994. It was known as Heritage Hall then. I was working with the fine folks at Lakeland Tours (now known as WorldStrides) in those days and the community outreach committee organized a holiday party for the residents. The mom and aunt of my pal and co-worker Nedra shared a room at Heritage Hall then, so that’s how we ended up choosing that facility for the event, which was a continuation of their Make A Difference Day efforts that year.

In those days I had a pretty regular acoustic gig at a little coffee shop called Blackstone’s, so I had become known around the office as the music guy. The outreach committee had groups of Lakeland workers doing various things – some of them were making cookies and other goodies, some of them were making little ornaments that they could hang on the door of every resident at Heritage Hall, some of them were making and wrapping gifts for the residents, and so on. They brought me a list of office folks that either played an instrument or liked to sing and asked me to coordinate the music effort. So I printed up chord charts to a handful of Christmas songs that we would present, made up an agreeable schedule of rehearsals that would take place in one of the conference rooms at Lakeland, and things got underway.

One of the fun memories of the whole thing was the fact that one of the company Vice Presidents was part of the group – a good natured chap who I had gone toe to toe and face to face with a few times over the years on various points of differing managerial and administrative philosophy. Now here I was, making sure he got his part right for a few weeks. (Whuttup Jim? ;*)

So the holiday party came and went, and our little group of performers did a most wonderful job with our part of the deal. I have to tell you it was an incredibly moving experience for me, being the softie that I am. After the formal concert in the dining hall a few of us went room to room and sang a song here and there for folks who couldn’t get out of their beds.

When 1995 dawned Nedra came to ask if I would – or should I say insist that I would – continue bringing music to her mom and aunt Alice, and after plenty of attempts to wiggle out of it, I began to visit them weekly, on Wednesdays at lunchtime. I honestly believed that I didn’t know a doggone thing that two ladies in their 70’s or so would want to hear, since I played some original songs and covered bands like REM and KISS and the Beatles, and folks like Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot. How naïve of me.

Within a few weeks folks were coming to Alice and Clara’s room to listen – one or two at first, then five, then eight or ten. Soon they were spilling out into the hallway, creating an obvious safety hazard – if something happened and medical staff needed to reach someone in that room, precious time would be lost getting past the crowd.

That’s when Iris, the Activities Director, asked me if I would begin to stage a regular show in the dining hall on Wednesday evenings for anyone that wanted to attend. And the rest, as the French say, is histoire. I’ve been doing two shows a month there for most of the past twenty years.

So today… today Alice and I were there. I bet I’ve played more than 200 shows in that facility, which is pretty noteworthy I suppose. But there’s something even more noteworthy, something that makes me a little proud and at the same time rips my heart out.

There, today, at a table in the front row sat a lady who was at that very first show in December of 1994. Today, at Charlottesville Health and Rehab are two people, actually, who were at that first show. They don’t attend very often these days so it was a bittersweet delight to see her there, to be in her presence and share the joy and power of music with her.

It thrills my heart to know that I have brought this little speck of light to her for twenty years.

But it kills me to think that in some ways I’ve let those folks down, because I spent one of the past two decades trying to get Charlottesville’s “thriving music scene” to embrace the simple idea of Audience Inclusion ™. I built a non-profit that at its peak received in-kind support from REM, Billy Joel and Dolly Parton. International performers like Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, David Wilcox, Greg Howard, Dave Crossland, Zoe Mulford, Slaid Cleaves and Andrew McKnight played shows at area senior and nursing homes when I asked them. A very dedicated small group of local musicians including Tom Proutt, Thomas Gunn, Julie Goldman, and The Rusticators from Staunton played many a show in an effort to help make SongSharing successful.

But it never truly caught on here – in fact it was pretty steadfastly shut out by our, uhhh, our uhhhh… geez, I’m trying to be nice here… our uhhh… well you know… the people who sing about love and peace and getting along and taking care of each other and changing the world and all that. The people who played benefit after benefit for Katrina and tsunami and earthquake victims while they kept telling me they didn’t have time.

I don’t really like to harp on that era in such negative light, but I bring it up because here we are 20 years later, and I am not aware of anyone from our thriving music scene that includes these audiences in their musical vision. And as I played music today I could not get away from the painful little jab in my heart that comes from thinking about what it must be like to live in a nursing home for 20 years in a town like Charlottesville and be systematically excluded from the joy and healing power of music that so many could so easily bring.

I wondered how different these past two decades would have been if just 50% of the musicians in our area had dropped by 3 or 4 times a year for a 50 minute show. You know, bring your guitar, sit down, play, leave. No big deal.

But of course to the residents it is a big deal. Huge. Because recognition and inclusion are healing things that bring joy. And sharing your gift with your fellow beings is a sign of recognition – the recognition that these folks too are part of the community, even if they can’t drive a trendy car to the trendy bar and buy trendy beers. It’s a recognition of their humanity, and of the contribution that they have made to bringing this world precisely where it is today.

And while some might think the world’s a mess and they need to get out there and sing songs to “fix it up”, in one sense that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit because this world is also a place where musicians have unprecedented access to so many things – nice guitars, nice cars, nice venues, nice roads between their nice home and the nice venue, nice restaurants and nice radio stations and these people are a big part of why this world is so nice in so many way, and… and… do you see? Am I making sense here? How can they not see?

Or is it me? Maybe I’m crazy to think that people who sing about giving a shit might one day actually live their lyrics and act as though they give a shit. Maybe I’m nuts to think that the people who sing about what the rest of the world should do to change things, might actually start doing those things themselves. Maybe these musicians justifiably roll their eyes behind my back when I say that this is serious music, and when I call them Community Venues ™ and label the shows concerts. Maybe I’m just crazy to play for old people and sick people and disabled people.

Maybe….

No. No I’m not crazy. But I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was not more successful, for the sake of the residents.

And mostly I’m sorry for so many musicians. I’m sorry they’re in such a dark place, struggling to find the light. I’m sorry they’re struggling as they chase a vision so far away and so much later, while the success their heart seeks is right here, right now. I’m sorry they drive past it every day.

Happy Holidays, from Alice and me! _MG_9835

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