First, Renee Blue O’Connell was laid off after 15 years as a therapeutic musician at the University of Virginia Hospital. Then, her work playing music for nursing home residents dried up, as did performances connected to her singer-songwriter career. But just when it seemed as if the COVID-19 pandemic would silence the comforting music O’Connell thought people needed, she had an idea.
“I’d been laid off from all this work, and I thought to myself, ‘What could I do? I want to bring music into people’s lives, but I can’t do it live,’” O’Connell said.
Many of her friends in the music community began performing on Facebook Live and leading classes on Zoom and similar video conferencing apps, but that wasn’t quite what O’Connell had in mind. O’Connell, a certified music practitioner, has found deep satisfaction over the years playing music in intimate settings to soothe patients and caregivers and lift their spirits at stressful moments in their lives. And she realized that many other people could benefit from the healing power of music during the disruption and anxiety caused by the pandemic.
O’Connell decided to write a new songbook, “Seven Songs of Solace,” for solo fingerstyle guitar to empower others to perform stirring traditional selections, such as “Shenandoah” and “Loch Lomond,” and some of her own compositions, including “Owl’s Dream” and “Choose the Sky.”
O’Connell chose seven songs that can resonate with listeners of all ages.
“Shenandoah,” for instance, evokes the timeless beauty of the Blue Ridge.
“To me, it’s a comforting song to hear,” O’Connell said. “I think of the mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. When I play it for patients, they love it and find it uplifting.”
Another moving selection is “Finlandia,” composed by Jean Sibelius. The tune is used for a treasured national song in Finland and also for several hymns, including “This Is My Song.” O’Connell remembers being mesmerized by a vocal performance of “This Is My Song” by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Indigo Girls and Joan Baez.
Each month, 10 percent of the proceeds from the songbook will benefit a cause, such as Doctors Without Borders, and another 10 percent will go to the Association for Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss. In September, O’Connell joined fellow members of the musicians’ association to perform in a Virginia Symphony Orchestra “play-along” event designed to promote peace and unity, and it included a rendition of “This Is My Song.”
“It was a reaction to the [Aug. 12, 2017,] attacks in Charlottesville—a positive way to bring people together,” O’Connell said of the concert.
Another selection from the songbook resonates with O’Connell on a different personal level. O’Connell, who uses a cochlear implant, chose a work by a famous composer who lost his hearing and never had the chance to listen to some of his finest accomplishments.
She picked Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” because she marvels “how he could write something so inspiring, even though he could not hear it, and despite all the suffering of his own disability.”
The cover art by Carline Chess brings together visual references to all of the songbook’s tunes—especially the central figure of an owl. O’Connell was inspired to write “Owl’s Dream” to honor the barn owls that once cried in some woods near her home that were lost to development.
“Now I have this thing with owls, and I have all kinds of owl art,” she said.
Her project unites old-school songcraft with popular current technology. “Seven Songs of Solace” is in a PDF format, which can be downloaded safely from a distance without fear of contracting or spreading COVID-19. For O’Connell, it evokes memories of diverse ways in which people have shared musical experiences over the years, such as teens gathering to listen to eagerly anticipated new albums together.
O’Connell believes that “Seven Songs of Solace” can be not only a reference for musicians who want to bring others peace of mind, but also a keepsake to help document a remarkable time in history. Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser wrote the foreword and allowed O’Connor to use “No One Told the Daffodils,” a poem Lesser wrote about the pandemic.
“The guitar is very popular, and many people play it,” O’Connell said. “When I play for patients, I see how much comfort it brings. There is still beauty in life, and so much comfort. We only need to think so.
“This is a historic time in our world. In 20 years, we’ll be looking back, and they’ll have something in their hands—a souvenir of the way things were in the pandemic.”
O’Connell welcomes donations for the project, and the fact that part of the proceeds will help others “is a lot of what motivated me,” she said. “I’m very excited that I’ll be able to do that. What motivated me to do my work at the hospital was helping people. When that was taken from me, I really missed it.”
The songbook is available at paypal.me/sevensongssolace. For details, visit blueoconnell.com.