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Understanding the True Impact of Your Performance

Understanding the True Impact of Your Performance

By Carolyn Brandenburg
Originally appeared in The Harmonizer, Jan/Feb 2019

Don't ever assume that you are the only person who gains a lasting benefit from the singing you do. For me, the impact was greater than you can imagine.

I was drowning-- exhausted, isolated, and months beyond the end of my rope as the 24/7 sole caregiver to my dying husband. Another video or group might have had the same effect, but it was a then six-year-old upload of the Ambassadors of Harmony's "76 Trombones" that first reached me during my darkest hours. Online barbershop performances became my one respite from an exhausting trial.

I clicked the Facebook video shared by my son, and for the next five minutes my heavy burdens disappeared. The singing and tight harmony were amazing, and I could actually understand the words! I was fascinated. I watched it again and again trying to figure out how they did everything.

That was barbershop?

I thought barbershop was quartets who wore strange hats and sang "Lida Rose"-- not choruses singing contemporary songs with such showmanship.

Listening to the Ambassadors of Harmony and then countless other chorus and quartet performances helped me cope. I sent an email to Jim Henry and told him a little about my life and expressed my gratitude for the blessing that Ambassadors of Harmony had been to me. Jim asked if he could share my email with his chorus and I agreed. At Nashville's 2016 International Convention near my home in Gallatin, Tennessee, I shared my story with the Ambassadors in person. Now I share it with you.

You cannot know the burdens of those who watch you perform

I rarely share this much detail, even with my closest friends. But saying "I've been through a lot" doesn't tell you how difficult, lonely, and depressing it was.

The heaviness of my burdens built gradually. It started a few years ago, when I was trying to keep up with my newly expanded duties at my 14-year-old hospital office job. I was barely afloat when I learned my 90-year-old mother was having severe back pain and needed full-time assistance. It was a long, difficult challenge to wrap up her life in Florida and set her up to get the care she needed near us in Tennessee.

Before this transition, I learned by job was being outsourced. After mom arrived, I was working in two departments and traveling 45 minutes to the assisted living facility, and it was more than I could handle. We then learned that her back problems were caused by bone cancer. Six months later -- two weeks after I started a new job -- she passed away. The same week, both my HVAC system and hot water heater broke.

The prolonged stress may have been a trigger for what became a months-long struggle with acute bronchitis. Yet, I didn't dare take time off from my new job. After my health declined for four months, doctors insisted that I take time off to recover. While at home recuperating, I realized that my husband, "Dutch," and his years-long struggle with Parkinson's disease, was doing far worse than he'd told me. He was falling often and not telling me. He needed full-time care. I wasn't sure I was either financially or emotionally ready, but I retired from my job-- there was no acceptable alternative.

Hard times become unbearable

Carolyn and "Dutch" Brandenburg in 1990

Over the next four years, I watched the man I loved have his life stolen from him. At first, only some days were bad. Eventually, all were bad. Some days he could hold a decent conversation and walk with a cane; other days he would argue with the wall and couldn't walk without my constant lifting. He fell often, and I struggled to get him off the floor without injuring him or myself. He thrashed and hollered in his sleep, and was humiliated that he couldn't button his shirt, tie his shoes or cut up his food.

On good days he told me he loved me; on bad days he was paranoid and cursed at me-- far out of character for him. The once lively, happy man who loved to tease had lost his personality, his zest for life, his sense of humor, his dignity, his sense of self-worth, and even his ability to smile.

As the months and then years wore on, my isolation and loneliness deepened. As his sole caregiver, I was exhausted from months with high stress and little sleep. When I could get on the computer, it was mostly to research Parkinson's so that I could help Dutch. It was in these bleak and weary circumstances that I saw my first barbershop video.

I don't know what either I or Dutch would have done without this lifeline. Every chance I got, I tried to watch barbershop chorus and quartet videos. The beautiful music made by men singing with their hearts lifted my spirits and helped me cope.

During the last few months of his life, Dutch's stomach pain was so severe that he begged me to overdose his painkillers and let him die. That was one thing I could not do, but I was desperate to ease his suffering. Listening to barbershop music soothed his soul, too, and was one of the only things that provided an escape.

Pulling others from the "miry clay"

I share these details only so you can imagine the weight that some people in your audiences feel -- so that you may realize how much joy your music brings and how much it helps people having a rough time. There are so many other people who need a few minutes to forget their problems and be joyful. People battling illnesses, people going through a divorce or a death in their family, someone dealing with a child's severe illness or addiction. Someone experiencing employment challenges, financial problems, people with PTSD, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

According to the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study, 28 percent of people over 50 are affected by chronic loneliness. Any of those things can completely overwhelm you and cause you to feel trapped, with no way out.

There is an old gospel song called "He Brought Me Out" that we used to sing at camp meetings when I was a teenager. One phrase kept going through my mind: "He brought me out of the miry clay." Miry clay is sludge, mud, gunk -- thick, almost like quicksand. It's difficult to pull yourself out from the physical and emotional pain because of the weight that pulls you down.

It took a while before I finally remembered two more phrases from the chorus. "He brought me out the miry clay, He put my feet on the Rock to stay, He put a song in my heart today."

Putting a song into hearts

Author Carolyn Brandenburg with Ambassadors of Harmony co-director in Nashville, 2016. It is fitting that the performance that first swept Carolyn away came under the baton of the man who coined the phrase "gold medal moments."

Putting a song into hearts -- that's where you come in. When you meet to rehearse and sing together, you minister to each other -- you support each other. When you perform, you touch audience members, who can forget about their problems. Sometimes you can see the effect you have on them. Every time someone listens to your music you touch their lives -- thousands all over the world who accidentally find you just like I did. Music goes straight from the ears to speak to hearts and souls. I believe God works through you and your music. You don't have to be in a medal-winning group to touch peoples' lives. You just have to sing with your heart and sing in harmony -- harmony of music and of spirit.

I thank you on behalf of all of the people whose spirits are lifted by listening to your music, those whom you will never meet if even know they exist. Most of all, I thank you for lifting me up from the miry clay; that weight that was holding me down is lifted when I hear your music. You put a song in my heart that I can sing over and over and it helps me through the times when I feel so overwhelmed.

I cannot express enough how much you have blessed my life and the lives of countless others. Keep spreading sunshine, harmony and love. The world needs that now more than ever. You truly do touch peoples' lives through your music!