Medicine of Music
The Songs of Love Foundation
The Songs of Love Foundation is the “medicine of music” in action. It provides personalized, uplifting songs, free of charge, for children between the ages of one to twenty-one who are facing tough medical, physical, or emotional challenges. I have been a volunteer songwriter/music producer/singer and talent recruiter for Songs of Love Foundation since 1999.
Here’s how we work: A parent or caregiver first fills out a profile sheet giving the name, age, gender, family members, friends, and pets of the child. Information on the child’s interests and type of preferred music is also gathered, and the pronunciation of names included. A songwriter puts all this information into a musical story, and then a professional-sounding track is produced, either by the songwriter or a music producer. An excellent singer provides the vocal. Sometimes there are backing vocals and sound effects; other times, the song is performed more simply. It depends on the song and the needs of the child for whom it is written. The song does not mention any disease or other medical or mental or physical malady—it celebrates the unbroken, inner spirit of the child.
An MP3 of the sound recording is due three weeks after receipt of the profile sheet. This deadline must be honored. The song and sound recording belong to Songs of Love Foundation in perpetuity. So if you’re wondering if you can retain ownership of any of what you put into your “song of love,” the answer is no. Songs of Love Foundation makes a CD with an insert containing the lyrics and mails it to the family promptly. The child often goes crazy with joy at getting her or his own song and plays it over and over and over again. We believe this is therapeutic. We have many testimonials and videos. Sometimes a child dies, and the song of love serves as a cherished memento.
You might ask, “What do the songwriters, singers, music producers, and musicians get?” One thing: the deep, eternal satisfaction of delivering the medicine of music to a child and family who really need it. I have known this satisfaction for eighteen years and would be pleased to tell you about it in greater detail.
We have delivered over 26,000 songs of love and earned the coveted “Best In America” Seal of Excellence from the Independent Charities of America. Recipients are judged based on the criteria of meeting the highest standards of public accountability, program effectiveness, and cost effectiveness. Of the over one million charities operating in the United States today, fewer than 2,500 have been awarded this seal. That’s one out of four hundred. Our integrity is unassailable.
Writing and producing songs for sick kids has made me a better person and music man. My sons have watched and listened all these years, and now they, too, are Songs of Love Foundation volunteers. It’s a thrill to see them grow to be kind and generous and hard working. Concurrently, they have honed their production skills with Garage Band, ProTools, microphones, amps, outboard gear, and more. (Outboard gear is used to alter how a musical instrument sounds. These external effects units can be used either during a live performance or in the recording studio. They are separate from the effects that may be applied by using a mixing console or a digital audio workstation.) They’ve become better musicians and learned to play a wide array of instruments. Now they don’t need to rely on others as often when a certain sound or arrangement is called for. Sometimes that need may arise at 2:00 a.m. We’ve filled the garage with drums, bass, keyboard, many guitars, pedal steel, mandolin, banjo, resonator guitar, ukulele, pennywhistle, harmonica, percussion, amps, effects pedals, and much more. It has stretched us and taught us to be resilient and resourceful. Meeting a deadline, even when it’s inconvenient, has promoted discipline. And doing it together has strengthened the respect, trust, and love between us. Plus we’ve had a lot of fun!
When I write a song of love, I approach it the same way I approach all other children’s songwriting assignments: I identify the child’s level of comprehension and decide what’s most effective regarding first, second, or third person point of view (I almost always choose first person). The song title is the child’s first and last name, and the child’s name is always featured in the chorus. I identify what information is best suited for the verse, chorus, and bridge, and mark each category with a different colored highlighter pen. Clearly the chorus must sail with the core meaning element(s) of the story, so I often write it first, and then check the profile sheet to see what’s left over. I keep in mind that I’m not writing the song just for the child, but also for the family, especially the parents. At times I take liberties with the storyline to liven it up, but I always know where that line is that I shouldn’t cross, and I don’t cross it. I just wrote a lyric for a two-month-old. I used the first person point of view and sang to the family, including the cat and dog. The parents like rock and roll, but I chose to do a tender waltz and gave a light-hearted nod to rock and roll in the bridge. I think two months old is too early to bang your head very much.
Many Songs of Love Foundation songwriters work independently, but many others, like me, usually collaborate. I have built alliances with other writers, producers, studio owners, singers, and musicians, many of whom I work with on paying projects. We often squeeze in a song of love recording when other talent is already in the room. I think of ways I can be of use to those who have what I need, and I keep the wheels well greased. Tit for tat is alive and well. Maybe the studio owner needs his grape ivy trimmed while she’s mixing the song! Most of the time my collaborators are happy to be part of the team with no payment or bartering. So remember, if you lack the resources to produce your song of love, simply ask those who do have the resources to join you in this wonderful gift. I’ve noticed that most people are glad to help when they believe in the project. There’s no need for you to pay out of pocket to get the job done. If you want more advice on this, you may call me on the West Coast at 626-441-6024.
Collaboration takes place in person or via phone, Skype, or e-mail. In one circumstance, I needed an electric guitar part. I e-mailed the track to my pal Randy Sharp, he added the electric guitar, and he e-mailed it back to me. I mixed everything and said to myself, “Now it’s right!” Another time I needed some character voices and caught my son Grady for fifteen minutes before he left for a gig. Earphones on, “mic check, check, check, remember to smile…GREAT!” And there’s the memory of falling asleep hearing a song of love come to life in my son Oliver’s studio, knowing he had forsaken a party to bring joy to a child and family. Or my pal Jimmy Hammer, who sent me a new mix of a song of love we’d worked on. He said he’d tweaked the bass. He gave the song of love the same devotion to excellence he gives his paid work. That gives me goosebumps.
Sometimes the foundation hears from the family that received a song of love and passes on a letter or picture or video link. On rare and special occasions, I actually get to meet a song of love child when a parent sees my name on a concert flyer and decides to visit after the show. But whether I ever hear from the family or not, I know in my heart that I did my best for them and that my gift will last forever. And I’m okay with that.
A last memory to share: Once, late at night (I usually go to bed early), my son Grady came out to my studio and saw me crying. Then he looked at my computer screen and quickly inferred I had become emotional over the lyrics to a song of love written there. Wordlessly, he hugged me, nodded an acknowledgement, and left. It’s not a sad event to write a song of love, but sometimes I see precious and poignant things on the profile sheet that make the child come alive in my mind and heart. Sometimes I become scared that things might not go well for her or him. If I forget to hold my stomach muscles tight, tears can come. Not debilitating tears. They pass and I get the job done. But make no mistake: writing a song of love is a big deal.
I’m proud that my back pocket often has a profile sheet and unfinished lyrics folded in with my other work. When I sit down, I feel it. I get out my smartphone and record a melody idea or a baseline or a drum beat. Maybe I’ve had a rough day—one an outsider might say qualified me as a loser. When you’re writing a song of love, you are a magnificent winner. No one can take that away from you.
To learn more about becoming a Songs of Love Foundation volunteer, please call 718-441-4588 in Forest Hills, New York, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.