"A Brief Bio"
Every Heard is a Korean-American singer-songwriter.
This very idea used to sound like an oxymoron to me. I was raised almost entirely in the United States, and yet my maternal culture always kept a cage around my mind. Singer-songwriter, writer... any sort of artist was not a role one could aim to achieve. It was a status, attainable only through inherent blessing. As I grew up, watching so many talents greater than my own go unnoticed, I became convinced; I wasn't special. I wasn't an artist.
Convinced I was not creative, I made an effort to be practical. I became a nail technician to put myself through school. I earned an associate's degree in social sciences from Harrisburg Area Community College. a bachelor's degree in communication sciences and psychology from Queens College (CUNY), and a master's degree in speech-language pathology from Temple University. I worked at a large hospital to fulfill my training as a certified speech therapist. There I diagnosed and treated patients from the acute to rehab to outpatient wings. I spent my days with people suffering strokes, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injuries...
Years before I had even finished my bachelor's degree, I was working with people with disabilities. I imagined somehow, magically, when I had a string of letters added to the end of my name, I would know how to help these people- more. I kept believing that by the time I was making a living as a speech therapist, I would know how to fix people's problems.
After a year working in that hospital, under one of the best mentors in the business, I felt absolutely defeated. I watched people change. Some got better, others did not. I taught them the techniques from the books and journals. I helped them learn to practice... But at the end of the day, I could not help anyone who would not at least try to practice a little each day.
I began to feel like I was not a therapist- but a cheerleader! How could I motivate my patients?
...Then I fell through the mirror.
It may sound abrupt. In retrospect, I probably should have realized the ground was shifting out from under my feet for months... Months of watching people make end of life decisions about their loved ones. Months of watching people lose the ability to speak or string words together fluidly into sentences... encouraging individuals whose faces were now partially paralyzed to grow accustomed to the sound of their new voices. Yes, we were working on improving and recovering the quality and clarity with which they once spoke... But in the meanwhile, I had to constantly remind them the only way to take gradual steps in the right direction- was to practice every day.
The way I watched their movements and interactions, I became self-aware of my own. I had to become a good mirror for them to reflect. I had to acknowledge the incongruities between my thoughts, words, and actions; and change them to represent my best intentions. When both I and a patient could do this, the words did not have to be very articulate or specific. I had enough words for both of us. They would paint enough of a picture with the words they had- for me to reiterate what illustration appeared in my mind. I would to this with care to present opportunities for either agreement or the loss of mutual vision.
There is where music first introduced itself to me...
By then, I had changed around a lot of details in my life. By then, music had surely been knocking pretty hard on my door, but I was just too deep in thought to listen.
I switched from the intensity of the hospital to the calm of a skilled nursing facility. My client had a trache tube in her throat after cancer treatment. We would put a passy-muire valve; review the safety use information for the device and then chit-chat to practice for the rest of the hour I was obligated to stay "providing therapy".
(insert photo) one-way valve that allows enough pressure to build up in the throat to speak with brief puffs of air.
This tiny little grandmother was charming. She constantly put together large, multi-thousand piece puzzles on poster-sized pieces of cardboard. This task she allowed me to help doing while we talked over another sad episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Polvich. Sometimes, I would arrive while she was still receiving a breathing treatment, which prevented her from using the speaking valve.
I felt like a lazy asshole for taking this time to zone out. I found myself timing our sessions to allow this respite. Don't get me wrong, I could take breaks. I did- in an empty TV lounge, in a stairwell, in my car... But this was different. This was not a break. This was technically happening during time I was counting towards her therapy. Five minutes? Ten minutes? How much was I gaming the system?
The truth was, I liked spending time with this patient. She was someone for whom I would stay late to spend more time. She always insisted I come in and get comfortable. Usually there was a puzzle on her lap to share... Or sometimes I might steal a few minutes to write down my thoughts.
During one of these moments- that is when my first song introduced itself. Like music playing in another room, through the wall, you know its there. Perhaps faintly, soft; it's there tickling that place in the back of your brain that feels seductively familiar. You can't put your finger on it immediately. You comb through your memories for its origin... Then you realize, "This is the song I am writing right now."
Maybe I took a little extra time that day. I put my head to that mental wall and listened to every word announce itself onto the pages of my notebook. I hummed it to myself between exchanges with my patients and coworkers for the remainder of the day. By the time I got home, I was so excited to see a friend's guitar still there. I pulled chord charts up from the internet and tried each one at a time until I had written down the sequence which matched the melody in my head.
That was it. There was no going back. As soon as I wrote one, I always wanted another.
While singing felt natural, playing the guitar made me feel like a caveman with a cellphone. The guitar forced me to learn the humility I was asking my patients to practice. It reduced me to a child again, and made me thank it for every best moment of the last five years. By pushing myself to by my own accompaniment, I learned more about the nature of music than I may have had I relied upon others to provide all the noise. Performing in those early years was incredibly embarrassing. I still often stand in awe of the endless quest ahead of me as a player.
Hence- why the answer to everyone's question- How did I switch over from practical speech therapist with her feet on the ground... (Listening to: "Going Down" Jeff Beck) ...to a singer-songwriter philanthropist? I did what everyone told me in the first place: Just do what you want to do. Whatever you want.
I suppose it sounded to selfish -to do whatever I wanted. So I tried a lot of other jobs that seemed like they would help people- more. More than my music would. More than my words could. I tried... and kept trying to fill a responsible, hardworking role in this crazy world...
But at the end of the day, there were politics involved in speech therapy. Insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid; billing, productivity quotas, paperwork... It turned out the time I spent with the patients was the best part of my job, and everything else was making me insane!
Again, I didn't feel like a therapist. I felt like a paperwork machine with the right credentials behind her name to help a facility bill for their profit.
There was something unseemly about it. I earned a nice paycheck, but at what cost? More than half of the patients I saw were asking me why I was still coming to see them each day. I could not simply give up cheerleading them on to try- at least not for the 2-4 weeks that my superiors would prescribe. Occasionally I could say a patient refused therapy altogether, but it was rare without multiple documented attempts.
By then, I was being asked to perform in shows. By then I knew nothing could ever make me quit singing. I would be asked to host an open mic each month. I would gather groups of women like myself together for private parties to share our crafts. I would bear my bare mind to the world through a blog... and check myself into a hospital for a lifetime of suicidal ideation and dissociation. But back then, I had no idea- when I relinquished some of my responsibilities, I would undergo a years long process of releasing everything that had ever held me back.
Just like the guitar, I accepted that thirty was a late age in life to start something new... But I wanted to change my story. I understood some people have done it in their 60's, 70's, 80's. They were my patients over those years. They told me I would do it whenever I was ready-
Just like the guitar, I decided every day I wanted to work on being me. How to express myself. How to treat myself. How to be the best custodian of this meat suit I am borrowing-
Every day, every day... Just touch the guitar every day. Just let it become part of your body. Do not rush your fingers. They have to learn to crawl before they will learn to run. And as for prodigies, admire them for what they are... They will never be you either.
Gradually I find contentment in the process and watching it take its natural course. I make efforts to practice because I know it is good for me. I see myself improving, and then I remember I could have another 60 years of life to live. It gives me something to look forward to-
I juggled different jobs with music for several years. I dabbled in working with nonprofits. After years of wondering how I was going to begin repaying my student loans. Now... that process is just going to have to take as long as everything else.