Friday, December 18, 2020

A Pandemic Lullaby

By Heather Watney, FVSO Cellist

As a cellist and participant in the Fox Valley Symphony’s outreach programs, I am fortunate to be able to touch the lives of listeners in direct ways. I am lucky enough to play quartet music (these days all virtually) for children with special needs, for adults with special needs or memory challenges, or with libraries/clubs that want to interact with symphony musicians on a smaller scale. It is these special symphony presentations that mean the most to me — because I can see directly how my music touches other lives, sometimes in profound ways that can’t be articulated easily.

In mid-August Cassie Schwandt, FVS’s Director of Community Engagement, asked a few people from the orchestra if they would be interested in trying something different and step into a singer/songwriter role to work on a Carnegie Lullaby Project with Appleton’s Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs. The Carnegie Lullaby Project pairs musicians with families, and together they compose and write lyrics for a new lullaby that children will have for their whole lives. Families and musicians involved in the program, piloted in New York City, have written more than 1,400 lullabies across the United States and around the globe!  

Jennie Micke, children and youth advocate at Harbor House, shared with me how hard her organization works to empower our local communities to be free from domestic abuse through safety, knowledge and engagement. Jennie was instrumental in our virtual sessions with mothers as the hub of communication in this lullaby project. She explained to me that writing lullabies with musicians gives families recovering from an abusive situation a chance to be empowered through music as a critical decision maker in the direction a song grows. She led all of us — musicians, mothers and children — through the experience with such grace and gentleness.

There were several mothers I could have been paired with, but I ended up with Rachel and her daughter. I’m so grateful I was paired with Rachel. The lullaby we worked on wasn’t just a project in empowerment for her; it was an important time capsule capturing an uncertain moment in Rachel’s life. When I heard her story, it gave me pause. It made me wonder if I could really do justice to a song that would be a lifelong reminder to her little girl of a mother’s love.

Rachel is battling cancer with an unknown outcome at this point. Rachel’s opening spoken dedication in the lullaby poignantly captures this unknown: “If there ever comes a day that we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I will stay there forever. I love you today, tomorrow and for eternity.” Rachel’s song is her legacy and a reminder for the little love of her life that even if they aren’t together, Rachel is still there, no matter what. Lyrics in the song repeat this loving reminder:

I’m always with you. I’m here at your side. 
I’m smiling at you when you think you’re alone.
through all of your child days and when you are grown.

So, I sobbed. I sat at my piano after our virtual brainstorming sessions ended and sobbed for Rachel, for her daughter, for my own mother going through serious health risks, for separation, for uncertain futures. Then I set out to compose but with a tormented heart — how could I possibly write a song that could reflect this mother’s purest love and be a lasting ode of encouragement for her daughter? I felt like it wasn’t enough to just write any song. It had to be the right song. I spent the next six weeks torturing and questioning myself, immersed in Rachel’s uncertain future, her story and her song.

Our time here’s a journey we cannot control, 
so please live a life that brings joy to your soul.

Rachel also spends time thinking a lot about her daughter’s uncertain future and journey. What happens to her daughter if Rachel dies? She can write a will naming a desired guardian for her daughter, but in Wisconsin that is no guarantee her daughter won’t be placed with her abusive father who lost his rights for custody. Rachel is, in her own way, also trying to craft a lasting ode. She is working hard to bring positive change to Wisconsin law cases where the primary parent with sole custody and parental rights has assurances that the abusive parent who lost his or her rights cannot regain custody upon the death of the primary parent. Rachel clearly has doubts. She asked me, “How do I protect my daughter if I die?” I don’t know the answer. All I could do is write down the inspired words Rachel penned for her daughter and find a melody (the most uplifting moment in the song) that reflected a shared message of hope and truth for Rachel and her daughter, both:

Keep staring your fears in the face like I taught
and overcome all of them. I believe in you!

The weeks passed and I finally felt the song was done. I had recorded the piano part myself, but wanted to make sure I found the right voice for Rachel, who has pain and difficulty with speaking and singing due to treatments. Kristy Danielski, a wonderful friend, nurse, mother and amateur singer from Christ the King Lutheran, provided the singing. Always an empathetic friend who connects deeply to songs she considers emotionally moving, she asked me, “How will I get through this without crying, Heather?” After practicing it at home she informed me that her own daughter, Autumn, spends quiet time in her bedroom singing the lullaby to herself. It made me smile to know that another mother and daughter were finding shared succor with this lullaby.

But the song still needed more musical heart and warmth. So, I called Fox Valley Symphony violist Jane Finch and asked if she would play all the violin and viola parts I wrote (there may have been chocolate and prosecco involved), and I’d play the cello. She didn’t hesitate, which led to multiple hours of socially distanced, masked playing and recording in the sanctuary of Christ the King Lutheran. Her instruments sang in the pandemic-empty space, bringing life and joy to the cavernous room. Hearing her play made my heart feel lighter in this project for the first time. The sun was shining brightly that day, like a warm smile. Jane’s playing was indeed the sound of a mother’s love behind that sunshine smile.

My daughter, my darling, I’m your shining guide.

Before each breakout brainstorming session, we started with singing and fun with all the mothers, musicians and children together. Musician coordinator Sam Taylor found all these fun songs for us to sing together and dreamed up kids’ activities. On one of the days, the children created their own rainsticks and played them during a closing song together. Sam played his authentic rainstick, adding to the cacophony of joyful child noises during that particular Zoom session. I knew I wanted to remind Rachel’s daughter of that musical moment and the rainstick she created with her mom from a toilet paper tube. I asked Sam if he would add some rainstick and string bass to the lullaby I worked on with Rachel. He was more than willing to help out and was instrumental in helping create the final mix with me. His additions to the lullaby were the final pieces of the puzzle. NOW the music was done. I felt exhausted and drained, the fast and inspiring creation process having taken an emotional toll on me. I think I found Rachel’s song.  

Finally, Jennie, Sam and I met with Rachel virtually to help her record her voice and dedication for her daughter. It was the first time she and Jennie heard the whole song from start to finish with the strings added. We were all in tears with the shared experience of the musical journey, of the arrival, of the destination reached. Here was the legacy, completed with her voice — still so beautiful and full of love despite changes due to all her treatments. Here was the gift for her daughter, the spoken and sung assurance that Rachel’s presence would continue no matter what.

Composing and recording music is kind of like being a mother and giving birth. You hope for the best, put your heart and soul into it, and hope your song makes a meaningful impact in the world, even if it impacts just one person. If I live to be 80, Rachel’s daughter will just be turning 41, almost the same age I am now (ok, I’m a few more years older). Even after Rachel and I are both gone, I hope this song I helped craft will still be in this young lady’s life, reminding her that Rachel is always with her, showing her that music has the power to touch our souls in profound ways. I hope this song will help her draw out beautiful memories like a rainstick craft and the sound of her mother’s beautiful voice. I hope this song has the power to remind her that music can be a shining sun in a long, dark winter.

Go live a life that’s defined by just you.
Your vivacious spirit will carry you through.
Go fill your days with your love and desires.
Be confidant fearless and I'll lift you higher.

Please consider donating to Harbor House of Appleton and the Fox Valley Symphony to “lift us higher” and ensure enrichment and outreach programs such as the “Carnegie Lullaby Project,” Youth Orchestras or the “In Harmony” symphony outreach programs can continue into the future. These programs strive and succeed to empower participants and make meaningful connections in our community.

To donate to Harbor House programs please CLICK HERE 

        To donate to Fox Valley Symphony programs please CLICK HERE

For information on the “Carnegie Lullaby Project” CLICK HERE