Changing Lives: Christy Merrell and Children’s Hospital’s Music Therapy Program

Christy Merrell, music therapist at St. Louis Children's Hospital
Christy Merrell, music therapist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital

[This week’s music features explores the music therapy program, headed by Christy Merrell, at St. Louis’ renowned Children’s Hospital. Writer Jaime Lees had more on the subject to discuss than our print wordcount constraints would allow.]

I wrote the music feature this week, and in the eight or so years that I’ve been writing for the Riverfront Times, I don’t recall ever being so concerned with doing a good job on a piece.

The story explores the music therapy department at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. It’s a topic that has been on my mind for a long time. And after I did some research and didn’t come across much information about the program, I decided to go find out about it for myself.

I have exactly one rule for the assignments that I accept: I only write them if I’d want to read them. And I’d definitely want to read this one.

Usually, my little rule expresses itself in fun ways– I’ll write something if I think I can make it entertaining or if I have a unique perspective to offer. But this feature was very serious. This was journalism. My dumb opinions or jokes wouldn’t be needed this time. In fact, they would only get in the way of the story.

On the day of the interview I put on my best music-writer-attempts-to-look-presentable outfit, tied back my wild lioness hair, packed up my micro cassette recorder and went to the hospital.

The woman at the heart of the story, Christy Merrell, does more than put her patients at ease; she put me at ease, too. She very obviously loves her work, but her self-deprecating humor while discussing such a serious topic was more than appreciated.

Because of space constraints, I wasn’t able to include many of Merrell’s spontaneously hilarious quotes. For example, when describing how she always seems to get along well with young boys, she said it’s because she lives by the policy that “farts are always funny.”

With her knowledge, experience and upbeat bedside manner, I got the feeling that this is exactly the kind of person you’d want around if your kid was sick. Kids seem to think highly of her, too. The boy mentioned at the end of the story, Joe, came up again and again in conversation.

When the interview was over, Merrell showed me a video collage on her laptop that she had made of Joe. In the collection of clips, Joe is seen in various stages of sickness– sometimes chubby and vibrant, sometimes thin and thoughtful.

A few different times during the course of the video, Merrell seemed lost in her own memories, temporarily forgetting that I was sitting beside her as she stared at the computer screen, hand covering her half-smiling mouth, eyes wet with emotion.

The end of the video features Joe, the Beatles fanatic, wearing round hologram John Lennon glasses while sitting on his hospital bed. He sang an animated a capella version of “I Am the Walrus,” making various beatbox noises and throwing his hands up during the “Woo!”

That little video clip kind of changed me forever. In addition to (once again) renewing my faith in the Beatles, I suddenly understood the depth of the work in this program and how deeply rewarding it must be to help out sick and injured kids.

So, you see, sometimes I get to write the stories and sometimes the stories end up writing all over me. I’ll never again hear that song without thinking of that video, good people like Christy Merrell and an awesome kid named Joe that I was never lucky enough to meet.

If you’d like to donate to the music therapy department at Children’s Hospital, call 314-454-6178 or mail donations here:
Child Life, Music Therapy
St. Louis Children’s Hospital
1 Children’s Place
St. Louis, MO 63110

link: Riverfront Times

Full Circle with The Flaming Lips: 2012 In Review

Flaming Lips at LouFest. Photo by Khoolod Eid.
Flaming Lips at LouFest. Photo by Khoolod Eid.

Full Circle with The Flaming Lips: 2012 In Review
By Jaime Lees
Thu., Dec. 20 2012 at 11:54 AM

Editor’s Note: The end of 2012 is upon us (also the end of the world, if you believe in that sort of thing), so we thought we’d put a cap on things by sharing some of our personal favorite shows, albums, events and general shenanigans. Join us as we indulge in some navel-gazing!

When I write articles for RFT Music, I’m not just reporting on music happenings — I’m writing about my life. One day my priorities might change, but for now what matters the most to me is music. Maybe that’s wrong or unhealthy or something, but it’s true, and luckily most of my favorite music moments of 2012 have been documented in some way on these pages.

I’m lucky in that I have a lot of freedom in this space. It’s curated not only by people who give a crap, but by people who value what I have to offer. After seven years of writing for this publication, I’m still grateful and excited for the opportunity. I absolutely adore my job here at RFT Music. My life is my work and my work is my life, and I’m honored to share it with you.

That said, here was my life in 2012:

I rang in the New Year in Oklahoma City. My sweet old dog, Ruby, had just passed and I was in the middle of some serious grief. I ran away for the weekend to hang out with old friends and see two shows with the Flaming Lips and my spirit animal, Yoko Ono. At the stroke of midnight, I was tipsy on pink lemonade moonshine, bathed in kisses and standing inside a massive sonic blast fortified by a fog of rainbow confetti, flashing lights, jumping lasers, hundreds of bright balloons and the twinkling reflections off of a giant disco ball. The Lips played Beatles covers with Yoko and Sean Lennon and Nels Cline; it was absolute bliss and served as a strong reminder of the healing power of live music.

Flaming Lips and Yoko Ono - JAIMEVILLE.COM

I’ve been saved again and again by amazing music — most of it local. I’m a huge fan of so many of our local bands. Many people wait years for their favorite bands to tour, but for me, my favorite bands play all the time. As an extra treat, I get the opportunity to write about these St. Louis music makers: Lion’s Daughter, Prince Ea, Jimmy Griffin, Jans Project, Demonlover, Roland Johnson, Fred Friction, Nelly and the list goes on and on. I know that a lot of what I write reads as love letters to St. Louis, but I just can’t help myself — St. Louis just makes it too easy. Stop being so awesome and I’ll stop writing about you. Until then, the locals have my heart. (Extra double shout-out to people that I’m proud to call my friends, the hard-working folks at Big Muddy Records, Tower Groove Records and the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra.)

I’m not sure why, but this year I felt particularly productive. I was given space to write about music-minded locals who inspire me creatively (Dana Smith), about St. Louis music history (STL 2000) and I got to hype the touring bands that I was the most excited about (Future of the Left, R. Ring). I’m still not quite over the fact that I actually get paid to get drunk and watch Guided by Voices, to eat pizza and listen to Taylor Swift, to try to convince readers that Heart is badass, to watch classic bands like Kiss and Mötley Crüe, to review Madonna from the second row, to jump into the world of Juggalos, to get Sinead O’Connor‘s take on St. Louis (and Chuck Berry) and to praise my personal heroes like Bonnie Raitt and Henry Rollins. If you can find a girl that is luckier than me, I’d sure like to meet her.

Under the advice of my very favorite punk rock couple, I attended a show with a band I’d never heard before: I saw Useless Eaters at CBGB and it was the best damn show I saw all year. These kinds of happy accidents only occur when you actually listen to the suggestions of others, so try keep some cooler-than-you friends around.

And though I was stoked on the lineup this year at our big summer festival, LouFest, I had originally declined to do any LouFest coverage. I wanted a weekend of fun, without having to spend all night writing reviews. But there was a last-minute rescheduling and Kiernan came and found me right before Dinosaur Jr played. He needed someone to write about Dino’s set. I said sure, knowing that it would actually be easy– on some level I’d been prepared to review a Dino show for at least half of my life. Kiernan hunted down an empty beer box for me to write on and then he went back out into the crowd, off on his next mission. I found a pen, ducked under a friend’s umbrella and wrote my notes out on the cardboard. Improvising ain’t just for musicians, you know, and the Dino review turned out to be one of my favorite things that I wrote all year.

The second night of LouFest, I again found myself at the emotional mercy of the Flaming Lips live show, but this time as a participant. I danced onstage with some of my favorite people, and I absolutely rocked that slutty Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz costume, if I do say so myself. It was one of the best days of my life and it’s far too personal to write about here, but trust me, it was a good time and I felt absolutely smothered in love.

Since then my life and routines have gotten back on schedule, and this fall has been one great event after the last, and with the upcoming holiday season is bringing tons of shows that I’m excited about– I predict that I won’t get much sleep through the end of the year.

As for the future, who knows? I’m excited about the new crop of weirdness on the South Side. Magic City, Black James, Syna So Pro, Demonlover, Bug Chaser and Horsey Drawers have my interest right now, but nobody can predict what insanity will come in 2013. I, for one, can’t wait. Bring on the New Year. I’ll be lurking in the many venues, festivals, dark basements, loud practice spaces and fancy recording studios around town. See you at the barricades.

link: Riverfront Times