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Updated: Friday, 01 Oct 2010, 3:22 PM CDT
Published : Thursday, 30 Sep 2010, 8:02 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - In the "Live Music Capital of the World," there is plenty of music for the living. For the dying, not so much. Austin musician Christine Albert is determined to change that.
"In the Austin area, there are 5600 people a year in hospice care," said Albert. "That's just hospice care; there are other people dying that are not in hospice care and we do maybe 30 or 35 concerts a year. So there's a long way to go."
Albert and psychotherapist Gaea Logan co-founded Swan Songs, a nonprofit organization offering end-of-life concerts, after one of Albert's fans asked her to perform for him and his family and friends one last time before he died.
"He was at the point where he wasn't verbal anymore and it was hard for his friends to come and just sit," she said. "They wanted to be with him but it's uncomfortable to just sit. So the music gave them something to focus on and share with him and we were all blown away at how gratifying it was to do that and how important that felt to know that this was his last bit of live music."
Albert left John Swan's house with an idea.
"I remember exactly where I was, leaving his house and walking across his lawn and I thought, 'Wow, this was so powerful for me and for them. There must be a lot of other music fans in Austin who would love to hear their favorite music one more time, but have no idea how to reach musicians, have no idea how to make that happen and there should be a bridge between those communities. There needs to be an organization in Austin that provides that.'"
As the years passed, Albert and Logan nurtured the idea into reality. They joined forces with hospice workers to spread the word and concerts took off, sometimes featuring a particular style of music, other times a specific musician or group. Often, Albert knows just who to call; other times she does a Web search. She never gives up.
"We've done classical music," she said, "blues, Irish songs, Spanish music, French music, bagpipes, Texas blues, hymns, patriotic songs, rock and roll, folk, hymns, patriotic songs, big band."
All the concerts are free. Donations make possible a small honorarium for the musicians.
"It's not a lot; it's not based on market value," Albert said. "That was another thing I struggled with: You know, how do you decide; what do you pay this person that has a big name, as opposed to this person, and I just thought: 'It just needs to be the same. It's just about a gesture, really.'"
One day the phone rang with a request for a concert for a woman who was into western swing music.
"They said she loved the music of Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, and so they said, 'Anything like that, that type of music,' is how they approached it," Albert said, "and I said, 'Well, I'll call Ray.' So she ended up having her own concert with Ray Benson."
A couple called with a wish to hear the music of Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave.
"Jimmy sang, literally at her bedside," said Albert. "He'd never met her or her husband, but when we got there, they took off their wedding rings and they showed Jimmy that they had some of his lyrics engraved in their wedding bands. That's how much his music had meant to them and he'd never met them and it was almost inconceivable to her that he was sitting there in her room singing to her. It was very powerful and very beautiful."
An autoharp player and singer named Marc Gunn answered a request for Irish songs for a dying woman and her daughter.
"They requested a specific song that her mother had learned from her parents in Ireland and that she had then taught to her daughter," said Albert. "And they had sung it when she was a child and he knew that song. And they were holding hands and he played that song for them and before the song was through, the mother let go and passed away while he was playing."
The concert did not end at that point.
"It became a whole different concert," Albert went on. "We were all just suspended and, 'Now what?' And the daughter said, 'Will you keep playing?' And he played for another twenty or thirty minutes while she held her mother's hand and the music became part of the process of letting her mother go. We all left and got in our cars and burst into tears."
The stories never seem to end.
"I remember years ago, Gaea took Texana Dames, the Hancock women, to do a concert for a young man who was dying of AIDS," Albert said. "He was estranged from his family because he was gay. It was a long time ago and it was harder for his parents to accept that he had AIDS and was gay, and he hadn't heard from them in years. Gaea Logan took the effort to find his family and invite them to this music. And the only person that came was his father. He was from Mexico and he knew the songs they were singing and he sang with them and they did requests for him and he stood by his son. His son died, I think, a day later, but he died with his father back in his life because of the music, because there was something for him to come for. It made it easier for him to come."
Most recently, Swan Songs sent a women's voice ensemble called "Hilde Girls" to the Round Rock home of Claudia Flores, a forty-one year-old woman in the last laps of a ten-year race with cancer. The choice was a gamble but someone close to the woman had given Albert a good idea of what Flores was like.
"She said that she was a Hispanic woman, Catholic, practicing Catholic, but also very eclectic in her spiritual beliefs and practiced yoga and did chanting and loved world music and women's music," Albert said. "Hilde Girls" music comes from all these different traditions: Native American, African, the music of Hildegard, a saint from the 12th century, and it's women's' voices and so I intuitively thought that this might be the right music for Claudia."
Flores gathered her mother, her husband and her three young children, along with some close friends, around her in the family living room and the songs and chants began. At one point, Flores pointed to a small bird watching the goings on from a bird house on the outside back patio.
"It's paying attention to the music," she said.
As the women sang, Flores family members and friends stroked each others arms, hugged, kissed, cried and laughed. In the end, Flores summoned the strength and energy to stand up and offer hugs to everyone. Back on her couch, she offered thanks, as well.
"It brought healing to my life," she assured the singers. "Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Overwhelming, it's just been overwhelming. Thank you, she said, a tear sliding down her cheek. "Beyond words, beyond words. Thank you."
Albert watched it all from across the room, a sweet smile on her face.
"You know, you walk into that room as a musician and you realize this person has accepted and surrendered to the fact their days are numbered and they're cherishing every moment," she said. "And music means enough to them that they wanted music and they wanted the music to be a profound part of their life and you can't help but feel honored and feel like I'm going to rise to this. Every note you sing is so much more rich and meaningful than many other concerts that you do.
"In the context of an illness, your last memories end up being about the suffering and the grief of letting go, but when you inject some music in it, into that time period, it becomes easier; they focus on that and that's the memory that they hold on to.
"I want music lovers to think of this: If they have a loved one or friend nearing the end of their life, I want it to be in their consciousness that this exists and they can call on us and we'll create a concert for them, based on their request.
"Music is such a part of the Austin culture and that's why I knew it was right for Austin because it's so much a part of people's lives that how frustrating must it be when you can no longer go out and hear your favorite music, the whole concept is we bring your favorite music to you."