It has been an emPowering week. I'm at Unity Village, MO for Sound Connections with some of the most amazing talent I've ever met. Even better, my roomie is the fabulous Cathy DeWitt who has been kind enough to share more than space with me, but also some of her heart.
Cathy, you say that you began playing music in early childhood. Would you ever have believed back then that you would be where you are now?
No, I never really expected to make a career of music. My brother was a prodigy pianist and I never really felt like I could compete--but music was always my constant companion, whether it was church choir as a child, the choral ensemble in high school, or coffee houses in college...
Yeah. Then there's Music in Medicine program. Can you tell us how you got involved with it and what you think the future of music in healing will bring?
Even back when I was playing in bars and restaurants, I felt a sense of responsibility; I noticed that music could really make a difference in how people felt. But I never expected to end up playing in a hospital setting. I’ve always been the kind of person who faints when they prick your finger to draw your blood!
When I heard about the Arts in Medicine program here at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, I thought it was great and kept telling other people about it. Meanwhile the artists in the program kept saying, “YOU come play and be one of us.”
Finally I did, starting with putting together an evening concert series for children on the pediatric oncology unit. Then I wrote a proposal to get a grand piano in the lobby and started bringing in piano players. Now we have piano music every day, several concerts a week in settings that include chemo/infusion centers and dialysis units, and I train volunteers and students who shadow me when I do music at the bedside. I play at both Shands hospitals in Gainesville, travel to hospitals and hospices around the country, and also play for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia as part of a program I’m involved in called Arts & Aging.
In a way, it seems like a natural evolution for me, even though I resisted it. Sometimes it seems that the things I resist the most turn out to be the most amazing experiences of my life!
I think there is a great deal of openness towards the idea of music and healing now, and it just seems to be growing...
Where do you find your inspiration?
As far as songwriting goes, my songs are often inspired by dreams or unusual circumstances. But I also find inspiration in the most mundane of things--a bumper sticker inspired my song "Arms are for Hugging", a favorite singalong in our community for over twenty years now. I am inspired by great iconic musicians like Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald; along with contemporaries like David Roth, Sloane Wainwright and Sue Kroupa-Riley. Energetically, I'm also inspired by the people I play for, in the hospital, at festivals, on the radio and in other settings.
You have touched many people's lives with your art. You say that your fans and the people you play for have inspired you?
Many people in the hospital have touched my heart. When you walk into someone's hospital room, it is a situation where you have an immediate intimacy with someone, and I am honored to be welcomed into that intimacy.
Along the way you have had opportunity to perform with some fantastic talents. Who was the most awe inspiring person you've worked with?
I've interviewed lots of folks and sung with some big players, from Dave Brubeck to Earl Scruggs to Garrison Keillor, but the person who kind of put me in that awestruck state was, surprisingly (to me!) Arlo Guthrie. I was actually kind of tongue-tied when interviewing him. I think it may be because his whole family is so iconic and he was able to navigate his way through that to find his own place in the world--and do just as much good! I love his storytelling--to me he is a great oral historian-- and the way he purveys the message that music is for ALL of us, not just the people you see on MTV. This message is a mission for him, and for me as well.
I've done some stalking around your career. (laughs) You've gotten some pretty nice compliments - awards and accolades. What are you most proud of?
I think my song "Everybody's Somebody's Child", which won an award in the Unisong International Songwriting contest in 2006, is a very special song, inspired by a very deep source, which speaks of unity, tolerance, and forgiveness. I also think I'm very good at creating community with music everywhere I go, in celebration events, poignant events, political gatherings, and especially in the hospital, where I bring people together in the most difficult and painful circumstances, often bringing joy, tears and laughter.
It's a very touching song. Do you have any other favorites or memorable experiences associated with a particular song?
Well, I've had a lot of those--the power of song in the hospital is an amazing thing--we often do "This Little Light of Mine" and change the words to "Right here in this room..I'm gonna let it shine" etc. I've also enjoyed doing my own songs for special events, like at our annual Veterans for Peace Winter Solstice concert, where I did my Joy Chant and had hundreds of people standing up, dancing, swaying, and singing along-- an incredibly high energy level.
I guess I'd have to say the most requested song in the hospital is Amazing Grace--and I've certainly had amazing experiences with that song. One of my favorites was when I was singing AG at the bedside of one patient who had a family member visiting, and they were singing with me. The curtain was closed between the two beds, but I heard the family in the next bed singing as well. "Mind if I open this?" I asked, and then they sang together and I kind of got them started talking. The first family was white, the second black, and it turned out that the second family, which had several visitors, included some ministers. So we carried on with more church music, and when I left the room they were still singing together.
So where do you go from here?
I love my life! I love where I live, I love traveling and I feel very blessed to be able to make my living with music here in my home town--through my recordings, my work at the hospital, at the Unity church of Gainesville, and with my 5-piece women's band Patchwork (www.patchwork.us) and my jazz band MoonDancer (www.cathydewitt.com), which includes my husband! I do hope to continue to broaden the positive message of music in ways that I haven't even imagined yet, and to see more of the world!
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting out?
One of the most important messages I ever got was to make the most of every encounter. You never know whose life you might change, or how, so be as present and passionate as you can be in every encounter. I try to remember this, but I'm not always successful.
As a musician, this also means that you give your all whether playing for an audience of 10 or 10,000.
One last question and then we need to get dressed for tonight's banquet. It's been an amazing week, and even though we've been busy and sometimes greeting the morning on a limited amount of sleep, you never seem to lose enthusiasm. But what do you do when things aren't amazing and life throws you curve balls? What is your strategy for staying motivated?
I guess just wait it out till the next good day comes along--it always does.