Music has always been a powerful resource for me. As a kid, I was always writing songs in my head, daydreaming about producing my own musical with original songs. But songwriting proved to be instrumental in helping me discover my own voice again after my life took a dramatic turn.
When I was a child, the arts were my passion and identity. Later, when my traumas occurred, they became my lifeline. I grew up all my life in theatre. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality. Theatre was my language I could access to truly know who I was, no matter what was going on in my life, and I was singing, dancing, acting and creating from the time I could talk. I lived my life believing I would carve a beautiful career out for myself in the world of musical theatre, be on Broadway, and conquer the world.
However, at eighteen, just a week before my senior prom, I found myself in intense pain – very suddenly and randomly. I was rushed to the ER, and to summarize very briefly, my stomach exploded. I was in a coma for six months, and I was unable to eat or drink a drop of water for over three years. After twenty-seven surgeries, I was miraculously reconnected with whatever I had left. To persevere through those tumultuous years took great inner and outer strength. I relied on my creativity to get through.
My therapy was based in the world of theatre, art, writing, dance, music, and whatever else I could use to express myself appropriately. The arts were a way for me to communicate whatever felt too painful and overwhelming to put into words. They also helped me process what I was feeling. Most importantly, they served as a medium where I could still engage with my community, reach out to others, and make a difference in this world utilizing my passion. Arts were my way of connecting with the world, sharing my story, and spreading my message that hope, strength, and beauty can be found in whatever life brings you. To find myself again after so many medical interventions, I painted, I danced, I wrote, I sang – but it was the act of writing and putting those words to music – to sing them from my gut – that allowed me to accept my body again – a body vastly different from the one I grew up in. Songwriting was my therapy, and within a month, I had written over thirty songs.
“Hospital Song”, is the song I wrote to the body that I woke up to. It was how I showed appreciation and gratitude for the foreign skin I was in – how I came to find comfort in my body once again and show compassion for all that it had been through. I composed this song as a lullaby to myself. I thought of the old ballad “Someone’s Waiting For You” and thought of the message that I needed to comfort myself with. I was always told I needed to show love for the wounded part of me, even when I wanted to ignore it altogether. I tried to look at the weaker part of me as a girl who needed my love and support. The healthy, vital part of me needed to be there…for ALL of me. To compose this song, I sang to Wounded Amy as I would sing a lullaby to a child, afraid of the dark.
Having grown up in the world of musical theatre, using my voice came naturally to me. I was a loud, brash and outgoing kid – a hammy drama queen who loved being the center of attention. I was always humming a song to myself, belting along with the radio, or vocalizing as I multitasked. So, it was very unnatural to me when I literally lost my voice for several months. I had had plenty of bronchitis and strep throats as a kid, but nothing could prepare me for losing my voice completely with a tracheotomy and a completely new body. There were times when I literally could not emit a sound, yet felt so many emotions pent up inside. I could feel my vitality being compressed into the smaller container of an ICU cubicle and hospital bed – I was too overwhelmed to be upset or frustrated – I just wanted an escape.
I Want Out
In “I Want Out”, I finally reach my breaking point. As a feisty 18 year old, I could only be the goody two shoes patient for so long before getting antsy and fed up with my abnormal situation. I even remember yelling at my surgeon, “You can’t lock me up here – I’m not in jail!” All of my doctors sympathized, but also wanted to keep me alive. Although I understood this in concept, the audacious teenager in me longed to break free and get out. When I composed this on guitar, it started out as a laundry list of complaints. I was sick of being the “god patient” and just wanted out.
This song was my excuse to speak my mind – even the things I felt were not “okay” to say out loud. The tempo took off as soon as I started strumming, almost as if to represent the sprint I longed to take out of my cubicle, down the unit and back into the free world of fresh air. The most difficult part was finding a conclusion to the song, because I couldn’t stop myself from slowing down my rant!
The song “Picture Frame”, reflects on my life pre-coma, reminiscing about the carefree, childlike innocence I once possessed. Looking back on old photographs and memories, I often yearn for life “as it was” – a time when things felt simpler and fearlessly joyful. I wrote this song wondering if after my traumas, I would ever be able to reclaim that young girl in my new self.
Songwriting was my safe way to express all of these unwieldy emotions. Songwriting literally gave me back my voice!
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Amy Oestreicher is a 28 year old actress, musician, teacher, composer, dancer, writer, artist, yogi, foodie, and general lover of life. Surviving a coma, 27 surgeries and other trauma has encouraged Oestreicher to share her story with the world through her desire to create and help others. She has written, directed and starred in a one woman musical about her life, Gutless & Grateful, has flourished as a mixed media and acrylic artist, with her art in multiple galleries and is mounting dozens of solo art shows. Ostreicher’s work in theater, art, and music as well as her availability for leading workshops on the power of healing through stories can be seen on her website.