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!
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
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.
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
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.
Our time here’s a journey we cannot
so please live a life that brings joy to your soul.
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!
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.
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
My daughter, my darling, I’m
your shining guide.
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.
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.
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.