Monday, April 14, 2014

"Songs of Love" - Musical medicine for Sick Kids



Megan Ford's leukemia is so stubborn that even as it's blasted every Friday with chemotherapy, doctors told her last week she will need a bone marrow transplant.
"It's kind of annoying," said Megan, 12, still managing to smile and show her braces.
Megan lives across from an open meadow of swaying grass just south of Ankeny and loves her dogs, Jasper and Kelly; her parents, Linda and Tom; and brother, Noah. She plays the clarinet in the middle school band, sings soprano in the choir and likes the music of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.
So her answer was swift when she was asked at Blank Children's Hospital if she would like a song made just for her.
"Cool," she said. "Yeah."
That it was recorded in Pella by five middle-aged guys who love music as much as she does makes it even more cool.
If only they could play together again. The five had gone their separate ways after graduating from Central College in 1974, leaving behind Third Floor John, their pop folk band born on the dormitory's third floor that often played the student union.
If only they could keep the magic going, band members said while grilling steaks after playing for their 30th reunion in 2004.
"There's always been a special chemistry when you get these five guys in rehearsal," said Steve McCombs of Pella. "It was that way the first time we got together, and it was that way 30 years later."
That's when Steve Mark told them what he'd been up to since 1998. He had volunteered to write and produce songs for seriously ill children for a nonprofit called Songs of Love. The music was medicine for these kids, he told them. It lifted them up to hear it as they got jabbed by needles.
He played for them a recording of one of his songs, one about an ill girl who dreamed of having a horse and liked looking out the window at the wildflowers. Nine years later, they all still remember her name. Rachel. The song had that kind of impact on them.
"My wife and I looked at each other and tears were running down our faces," said Terry Van Zee, 61.
Van Zee, McCombs and Mark, along with Todd Shusterman and Ted Grubb, decided that day to reunite Third Floor John every year to write two songs for two children who needed a lift.
In the last nine years, their annual sessions have soothed not only children facing their mortality, but one band member suddenly facing his own.
Grubb, 62, of Colorado Springs, wasn't sure he was up for it prior to the first year of recording in 2005. While McCombs and Shusterman had become music teachers and Mark was a recording engineer in Texas, Grubb was a business consultant.
"My first time I did this I was uptight. But then it dawned on me. I'm writing this for a sick kid who is going to love this song no matter what it sounds like, which is totally freeing because then you just let it come out," he said.
"What I remember," said Van Zee, "is we had a picture of that child. I immediately got a smile on my face and it went much better."
The band gets information on two children's favorite things from Songs of Love in New York, then writes, arranges and professionally produces the songs in a weeklong blitz of creativity in McCombs' Pella home, transformed into a makeshift studio with instruments and music stands and recording equipment scattered in nearly every room.
The five grab a rhyming dictionary and write lyrics. They debate bridges and hum and strum melodies. They call for every conceivable instrument, and often the former Pella music teacher McCombs has one on hand. He might even disappear for a while only to return with a tuba in hand, scrounged up somewhere in Pella.
"It's probably the best experience I've had in my life," said Shusterman, 61, who today lives in Tennessee. "It's like five guys who probably never have anything to do with one another, yet it brings everyone together. It's a band of brothers."
They'll never forget their third year of recording.
In 2007, Van Zee's wife died one week before the group was to gather in Pella. As he mourned his wife at her Prairie City memorial, he was told by family that a "bunch of guys" were coming to see him.
Van Zee, 61, gets choked up retelling it. "They came early just to be with me."
The band sang "I'll Fly Away" at the funeral.
Two days later, recording a Songs of Love piece in Pella, Van Zee showed up, even in all his emotional pain.
"That was a powerful testament to what the Songs of Love is all about," Mark said, "and what it means to all of us."
megan Ford's parents, Linda and Tom, thought she had mono earlier this winter. She was busy with her music and 4-H, mock trial and student council at school, and couldn't get to feeling better.
But this girl has pluck, even after she was diagnosed. She continued to go to Woodside Middle School, to do her favorite things like baking and eating popcorn with her friend Gabby. She kept looking forward.
Even after genetic testing revealed that she would need a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota later this year, she only thought of missing her 4-H dog obedience demonstration at the county fair and her friend's birthday.
songs of Love Foundation was started 18 years ago by John Beltzer, a musician who was distraught over not getting a record deal, then sent into a real life-changing funk when his twin brother committed suicide in 1984. His brother had written a song called "Songs of Love."
"Suddenly, I had this epiphany," said Beltzer, of New York City.
His idea was to write songs for each of six sick children at a local hospital to help alleviate their suffering during painful treatments. Two weeks later, he got a call from a girl with cancer named Brittany, who thanked him for the song.
"I was crying after that, thinking of all these years trying to get in the music business and here I have this little girl with cancer thanking me for a song," he said. "Everything paled in comparison. I just wrote a bona-fide hit song."
He launched Songs of Love Foundation and hasn't looked back, enlisting volunteers like out-of-work musicians, celebrity performers such as David Lee Roth and Jason Mraz, and old college-band chums. They've made 24,000 songs, including 236 for Iowa kids.
Survivors have found him years later to thank him again and tell him they still listen to the song. He hears from parents of children who have died who tell him they played it at the funeral.
A parent told Steve Mark that the family wore out the cassette tape of their child's song, and they still play it all the time, long after her death.
"I realized that not only are these for the kids, they are a powerful influence on the families," he said. "It's a memory of who their child was."
Each year they get older. Some, like 62-year-old McCombs, have retired. Yet each year they gather and pull out the instruments — kazoos and flutes and mandolins. Family members have even joined in for a chorus.
They know what just the right song can accomplish.
The children, who have ranged in age from four months to 18 years old, or their parents send them emails. Like this one from a Cincinnati mom about her little daughter's song: "She knows every word by heart and now so do we."
"When we get an email from a parent my feet touch back on the ground three days after that," Grubb said.
On a recent late March morning, the band was hard at work, one practicing a guitar in the living room, another singing in the master bedroom, which they call "studio B."
It's not for the glory or money, McCombs said. It's sharing "what little gift we have" to make someone's life a little brighter.
In the other room, lead singer Van Zee had just hit a shaky note. Mark, sitting behind the engineer's sound panel, asked for another take. "I think you got a better one in you."
They call Van Zee "Dutch," and he modestly said this gathering does more for him than what he can now contribute.
After his wife passed, he was "lost" for two years, then moved from Prairie City to Colorado to be near his children in 2009, only to find out later that he had brain cancer. He still suffers through treatments, has seizures and can't drive, but still shows up for Songs of Love sessions. It brings back some normalcy, some college brotherhood.
"This week every year is like this wonderful island of fun and meaning and connection. Everything else goes away," Grubb said. "We are going to be doing this until we have to hire people to play the guitars and sing the parts."
A week later Megan Ford got her song in the mail and listened to it for the first time. Her parents worried that everyone would cry, but it was so peppy, so catchy, that they laughed with joy.
Megan, Megan, there's no mistakin'/The kitchen smells good when you've been bakin'./No one in Iowa is more adored/Than the one and only Megan Ford.
"I've had that chorus stuck in my head all day," Megan said, smiling widely. "It's cool, fun and upbeat."
When she was told the man singing those words also has cancer, she wanted to send this message to him and all those Third Floor John guys.
It's cool what you do for me and for others, she said. It makes us feel better. It makes us feel happy.
Songs of Love
» For more information on how to donate to Songs of Love or produce one, go to songsoflove.org.
» To keep up with Megan Ford and her battle with cancer, go to www.caringbridge.org/visit/meganford or her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/megansmountain. To help the family: Megan's Mountain, c/o Community Choice Credit Union; 2710 S. Ankeny Blvd., Ankeny, IA 50023.