The idea for Swan Songs, a non-profit that fulfills musical wishes for the terminally ill, began in 1992 at a house concert musician Christine Albert performed for a friend who found himself at the end of his life – at only 40 years old. A few months later, Albert (a solo artist and half of the Americana duo Albert and Gage) teamed with gifted pyschotherapist and friend Gaea Logan who recognized the need to make music more available to patients in hospice care.
Today after having been involved in almost 600 hundred end-of-life concerts, Albert exudes great passion for Swan Songs because it allows patient, family and friends to focus beyond the illness and come together through the medium of music.
This is more than evident as she recalled for us a few of the concerts given. When asked to talk about some of the notable concerts Swan Songs has given, her response was “They are all notable” as both musicians and patients are profoundly affected by the experience.
We are going to give you Christine’s own words, spoken with the eloquence of someone who cares deeply about fulfilling musical last wishes.
CHRISTINE ALBERT: A woman who was from Ireland, her caregiver daughter was there. The request was on Tuesday, we came on Friday, she was trying to hold on. They requested Irish songs, and we got an Irish artist named Mark Gunn. He sang for her at Christopher House. She requested one of her favorite songs from Ireland, a song that she had learned as a child and taught to her daughter, who was born in The States.
They were holding hands. It was something full circle to me, a song she had learned as a child. Now sometimes when we are called it is in the middle of a process that can take a week, or several months. But in this case, she left during that song.
The daughter, who was holding the mother’s hand, asked the musician to keep playing. He played for another 10 or 15 minutes, and the music became a way for her to transition, to comfort, and to accept that her mother was passing – then realized that her mother had just passed away. There was a very profound moment, and I can’t help but think that the music gave her closure and peace.
That’s what is unique about Swan Songs, you can request whatever style of music is meaningful – it’s not our idea of what might be helpful at that time.
The music comes in when the recipients are nonverbal. But even if they are verbal, at that point there are so many things that are so hard to say for the family.
The first time I did this was actually for a fan. He and his wife were fans and had become friends. He had a brain aneurysm and couldn’t speak or walk. Because I was coming over to play they invited all their friends and family, and what I noticed is it gave everybody a common focus, something to focus on besides the illness, and a way to be with him beyond the illness.
The music becomes a container for a lot of emotions that are hard to articulate. Too me it’s almost at a cellular level. We do things for people with dementia and music always bring back memories – they remember the words to songs. It really transcends a certain part of your brain. You really see that. Even if you don’t have dementia, it serves that purpose.
That concert was really profound.
There were actually two concerts for a woman that had a brain tumor. The first time they requested Jimmy LaFave, who is a good friend. Their courtship had been to Jimmy’s music, though they had never met him. His music meant so much to them they had his lyrics inscribed in their wedding bands.
Here was Jimmy in their bedroom singing all these love songs that meant so much to them. They were reliving their whole relationship with him there.
A year and a half later her husband called again. She had gone into remission after the concert. He said “I swear the music brought her so much joy, it energized her, and she was able to hang on.” But now she was really close to the end, and they wanted another concert. I asked if they wanted Jimmy to come back, and they said no. This time they wanted Eliza Gilkyson, who also happens to be one of my best friends. So I was able to bring Eliza and her music.
Her music is reflective and spiritual. She had a lot of songs about letting go, crossing over, transitioning. They wanted all those songs. They gave her a list. At that point they were past all the things of their relationship and they were facing the unknown, of letting go of each other, where she was going, and what that might be, and what that meant to each of them, and finding the courage.
Eliza’s songs spoke directly to that, and that’s what they wanted. Eliza told me later she wouldn’t have done those songs, she would have felt uncomfortable because it was so close to what they were experiencing. She has a song called “When You Walk On.” So this same couple got two concerts. They happened to be with two people I’m very close to, and really love. I really undertsood why they chose each artist at the stage they were at. I thought it was very intuitivelly telling why they chose those two artists.
My original vision of Swan Songs was a local person who passionately loved a local musician but didn’t know how to get in touch with them…you don’t want to go through their booking agent, becaues when you have someone close to you who is dying, the last thing you want to do is get online and try to manage, or maneuver something like that.
I wanted to create a resource so people could go to the musicians they love and have them come directly to them. We were always being asked to do benefits for hospice, but I wanted to bring the music directly to the patients.
That was the original vision, and as it’s evolved it’s become more of a style of music that we get asked for, then we go find the appropriate musician. They don’t always care who it is…they just want bluegrass, or mariachi, or jazz…or Frank Sinatra. A few weeks ago we had a request for Supertramp.
It’s never our concept of what’s meaningful, so therefore it’s so diverse. It’s been really surprising to me how broad the range of musical styles is that people want to hear at that moment in time.
AMFM: What have you heard from the musicians themselves that have gone and done this? Maybe a musician that did it for the first time? Would they have a little trepidation about going into someone’s personal space like that? What would you say to a musician who has never done this before and might want to give it a try?
CHRISTINE ALBERT: Trepidation is definitely a part of it for first time. Honestly, some people can’t do it. Not very many, but I’ve had a handful of musicians who have been through a loss recently. If we know someone’s been through a loss we avoid it, and our volunteer liasons too. We’d like them to wait awhile. I’ve had a few that went and did it, got through it, then said it’s too intense, too emotional.
The majority, like 95%, have trepidation, but one of the things I say on the front end is remember – you are not intruding, because they have asked you in. They have asked for exactly what you do, and they are welcoming you into their space. We’re not going door to door and knocking on people’s doors who have not accepted or surrendered to the fact that they are dying. They know this is a musical last wish, so they know that their life is winding down. They’ve gotten to a place with themselves and family where they are trying to create as much meaning and as much memory that is positive, comfort. There’s a lot of different reasons that the family or the recipient wants it. I try to reassure them and remind them that the family have asked for this. They’ve reached out to us. We didn’t go knock on a hospital room door and ask “Would you like some music today?”
There’s a big difference, and as a musician I know that. You could really feel like you were being intrusive if it wasn’t this scenario. That helps, but then you get in there and it’s very emotional. I’ve always found that when I get into those very charged moments, you become a container for all the emotion in the room. You intuitively feel it, and and you know that they need me to rise to the occasion and to hold all this emotion and put it in to my music. I do have music to put it into, so if you start to feel shaky, you put it in the music and you can find that strength.
Part of my motivation for wanting to engage professional musicians, and also to compensate rhem, is to know that someone who has been in a lot of different environments and who have played music, that knows how to pull that up regardless of the environment and to stay grounded.
I think that’s the key to professional musicians, they have a lot of experience whether it’s in this type of scenario, or weddings, funerals…bars.
AMFM: Yeah, you’re right, they’re already doing this container for emotions in their daily jobs.
CHRISTINE ALBERT: The other thing I hear is “Wow, I thought it was going to be so depressing and have so much despair, but instead it was joyful.” It feels joyful because you see how meaningful it is and how much it is filling the hearts of everyone in the room.
When you leave…I’ve said this to myself many times, but if I have to give up everything in my life, I’m not giving up Swan Songs. Because you know that it’s important. You feel that you’ve just done something incredibly meaningful for someone.
For musicians who have played for some time and have played a lot of gigs, I’ve had them tell me you inevitably go through a period where you think “Does this mean anything? Am I just going through the motions? Is anyone really impacted by my music, or am I just lost in the shuffle here?” You never feel that way when you leave a Swan Songs concert. You know that you just did something really important, and had a profound impact on a family at an incredibly raw time. Every moment is important, and every moment can go into despair and feel terrible or create this memory to hold on to.
AMFM: I think it sounds like a really beautiful way to transition. Actually, it sounds like a…bridge.
CHRISTINE ALBERTS: Yes. Yes. The day I thought of the name (and I had created the program on a more informal basis with my friend Gaea Logan, a gifted Austin psychotherapist, was supporting a friend through his final transition , who’s a pyscho-therapist whose since moved away). We sort of hatched the idea together, and did it as musicians volunteering.informally. We didn’t really have a structure or a website or anything else. And we called it something else. It was dormant for a while, but it kept calling to me. And I was like “You’ve gotta create this.”
I wanted to offer the musicians an honorarium but I didn’t want the families to pay, so I thought the only way to do that was to create an nonprofit and and do fundraising, and have the money come from donations and grants.