Friday, January 31, 2014

Anita Kruse

Anita Kruse trained as a classical pianist and composer before becoming a singer/songwriter and has performed her songs internationally.  In 2006, Anita founded Purple Songs Can Fly, the first ever recording studio housed within a pediatric oncology center and in it she helps children undergoing cancer treatment create their own songs.  Working within Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers, Anita has helped over six hundred young cancer patients and their siblings create, perform and record their own music.  Anita has also made sure that these Purple Songs Can Fly – literally.  The songs have travelled all over the world – and beyond - on The Rolling Stones’ world tour, to the top of Mount Everest and even into space.  Thanks to Anita Kruse, many very sick children have made their Purple Songs – and their hopes and dreams – truly fly.
What’s your story, Anita?
I was born in Riverside, California. My father was a pilot in the Air Force so we moved many times as I was growing up. It meant that I had a very interesting childhood. I was fortunate to see other countries of the world, learning about other people and other ways of living. 

My mother was a pianist. She was amazing because, though she was a trained pianist, she could play anything that she heard by ear. That always impressed me because though I was naturally musical, it wasn’t my particular gift. So I was around music a lot and of course because of my mother, I wanted to play the piano too.  Wherever we moved, she always found the best teachers for me, but she was herself a great musical influence on me.  It was only much later in life that I discovered that my father was also musical too, but he didn’t talk about it very much.  He’d played the cornet in his high school and college bands, and I learned recently that he played in the inaugural parade when Eisenhower became President.

I got my degree in piano performance from the University of Connecticut and then I went to the University of Michigan for graduate school. I studied with the incredible pianist, Theodore Lettvin, and he was a great influence on me too.  There’s a famous book called The Great Pianists and he was one of them. I feel very fortunate that I got to spend time with him, to watch his hands and learn from his wisdom.  It was during that time, when I was in my second year of my Master’s degree, that I also decided to study composition.  There was a composer named Nicholas Thorne visiting the university on a year’s fellowship. The first thing I wrote was for piano and saxophone and when I took it into my composition lesson, Nick Thorne said, “Wow, Anita! I think you should keep doing this!”  So I didn't stop!  It just felt like I was just meant to do it.  I had never felt anything as powerful as the feeling of creating my own music and hearing it come to fruition.

At first, my composing was very classical, mainly art songs for piano and voice. I worked with a soprano because I didn't think of myself as a singer.  I was always very shy and very inward.  I was happy to play the piano in front of other people, but the idea of standing up to sing?  No, I just couldn't do it!   But I carried on writing songs which I would sing only in my own little bubble until one day a friend heard me and said, “Anita, you need to sing your own songs.”  That was many years ago and since then I've become more comfortable and less afraid, but I truly understand when children are shy and not ready to sing out.  That’s why I have made the Purple Songs Can Fly studio very intimate and secure for them.  There’s no big audience and they can create something that doesn't hold the same feeling of fear as live performance.

What is the story behind Purple Songs?
For several years I came up to the Cancer Center here at Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH) as a visiting artist.  I performed piano and flute duets with a wonderful flutist and friend, Jennifer Keeney.  The music was on the mellow side, and we used to setup in the central waiting area where the music could be heard throughout the Cancer Center. The patients and staff seemed to enjoy our music, so we were invited back to play every couple of months.

During that time, I was developing my own small studio at home and I was also teaching piano and composition.  I started taking my students into my studio to record what they had written. One of my composition students wanted me to help her write songs so she came in one day and I helped her write a song during her lesson. So within that hour we wrote a song, recorded it, and I handed it to her on the CD.  Thinking about that and also about my work at Texas Children’s, I suddenly saw an image of myself with my own studio in the Cancer Center.  I called Carol Herron, the Director of the Arts in Medicine program at Texas Children's and I told her about my idea. Carol already ran an incredibly extensive arts in medicine program with many artists coming in to work with patients – visual artists, creative writers, sculptors and musicians, but all the musicians were there to perform music, not to write music. Carol didn’t think that anyone had ever created a recording studio in a cancer center before, so I put a proposal together, we met the director of the Cancer Center, Dr David Poplack, and between us, we made it happen.

At first, we didn't have a designated space. I created a portable studio on a little computer desk with wheels that I could take in-patient. It had a keyboard, a microphone and a laptop and I attached monitors on Velcro. I even had a chair on it.  I was just like the Beverly Hillbillies with everything hanging off my cart!

Then I noticed that right behind the waiting area there were three little phone booths that had been built years ago.  Of course nobody used phone booths anymore because they had cell phones so it had become an unused space.  But those three little rooms were perfect for me, so I raised money to renovate them into a studio and we painted them purple. I have been obsessed with purple my whole life so I knew, as soon as I started this, everything had to be purple.

The Purple Songs Can Fly studio at Texas Children's Hospital

More recently, when they renovated the Cancer Center they gave us a different, roomier space and anyone can come and take part or just visit.  Like everything else in the Arts in Medicine program at TCH, it is completely open to any child who wants to take part. We include information about Purple Songs in every new patient handbook, the children might also hear about the studio from other patients, from the nurses or see our flyer in the reception area.  They can come and see the studio, and I ask them if they want to write a song.  I’m here every weekday morning, but we can arrange a time in the afternoons as well.

Some children want to create an instrumental but in general I start with the lyrics. Houston’s creative writing organization, Writers in the Schools, has been involved in Texas Children's Cancer Center for many years and its writers are amazing.  In fact, the very first Purple Song was a Writers in the Schools collaboration.  I help the children create words, a beat, and we choose the sounds that they like. Some children, once they have words and an underlying harmony, will start hearing a melody. Some children hear a melody right away and I will ask them to sing it to me and I will accompany it. It's different for every child, but even if they only sing a fragment or have just a couple of words, I can hear where their voice would naturally go.

A Purple Songs CD signed
by Mick Jagger
Most of the songs are simply about things that the children want to share – things that make them happy or things they are thinking about, and they are often unrelated to their treatment. Many children have written songs to give to someone, perhaps to their mother or caregiver to say thank you. There have been many beautiful thank-you songs. One girl wrote a song to thank her karate teacher for giving her strength called 'Strong Heart, Strong Mind'.  There have been a lot of songs about faith and about God and about angels, and for some reason, lots of songs about butterflies. One little girl wrote a song with the idea that her wishes attach themselves to butterflies and the butterflies then carry her wishes to God.  We’ve had so many really beautiful ideas like that.

There was a wonderful boy, Jonathan, who was about seven years old and wrote a song called, ‘I Hate Shots’.  He also really loved to make origami and wanted to make cranes for me, so I got him some purple origami paper and he made the cranes that I included in all of the framed CDs.

It’s wonderful to record the children singing because most have never heard their voice recorded before. They take their song home on a purple CD to share with family and friends, though I keep all the songs in an archive too.  To date, we’ve written and recorded over 600 songs and a selection of them can be heard on our website.

Once we have them captured, we let the Purple Songs fly.  People tell us where they are going in the world and I give them a CD or all of the songs on a fly-drive and purple lanyard to take with them.  Then they send us pictures from famous places and I share the photos on our website. The Rolling Stones took our CDs on their world tour and Dr Poplack recently took them with him on a trip to Africa.  For several years, Purple Songs flew on the in-flight playlist on Continental Airlines and then United, which was amazing. 

They even went up into space on a Space Shuttle mission in 2007 with astronaut Scott Parazynski.  Scott then came back to the clinic to meet with the children and share a film of his mission. He’s been back to see us several times because after he retired from NASA he fulfilled his lifelong dream to climb Mount Everest.  He took our CDs with him and came back to the clinic to share his adventure.  In 2008, another astronaut, Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper, took Purple Songs up to the International Space Station.  When she came to meet with the children at TCH, she brought incredible pictures of the CDs floating in zero gravity.

I am often amazed to see how Purple Songs Can Fly brings many elements together which lead to further connections.  For example, I got permission to use Roger Payne’s famous recordings of the songs of humpback whales, so I mixed them with a Purple Song called, “That's Why I Don't Eat Fish”, written by a boy who wanted to be a marine biologist.  The song ended up being played underwater at the NOAA deep-water research facility. We set up two monitors in the Cancer Center and the children were able to interact with the undersea researchers via a live video feed.  Dancers from Hope Stone Dance Company also performed a specially choreographed piece to go with the song and performed it as a part of the event.  So many amazing connections have happened through Purple Songs, with people coming together to offer support and ideas, all of them understanding the importance of music and how songs can affect our lives.

Purple Songs Can Fly in zero gravity in the International Space Station
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
I have had so many incredible influences on my life, so many people, including the children I work with here. But actually, I have a sibling who is severely mentally ill and I think that he has been the greatest influence on my life. Seeing the fragility of life, the fragility of the mind and seeing that it could just as easily have been me, has motivated me to use my own gifts in ways that can hopefully help others.

What advice would you give to someone who, like you, wants to use their gift to help others?
I think it’s important to find inspiration, to strive to learn from other people and other ideas. I love to see people use the influences around them, filter them through their own particular way of doing and seeing and being, and then create something that has never been created before.

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I would say that is my biggest life challenge. I haven't found it yet but I do seek it. I know how much of an introvert I am and I do need quiet time by myself. It is interesting that I am all about sound and yet I really crave quiet and I need it daily. I am at the moment fantasizing about a silent retreat. I've never done that but I really think that would be good for me.

What does Houston mean to you?
I love Houston. It’s a great city, with an incredible arts community and an incredibly high level of arts involvement. There are so many artists here working in all different fields and from so many cultures too. I lived in so many places growing up, so I didn't ever have a place that was my home but after I came to Houston to visit a few times, I kept feeling a really strong connection, but I didn’t know why. Then I read a beautiful article about the Native American traditions of why we are connected to a place. It is said that if you have had an ancestor who passes in a place, that is where you will find your roots. My grandmother actually passed in Houston, in a car accident, though it wasn't the place she lived. So in my mind I have had an ancestor who has passed in Houston and that is as good as an explanation as any as to why I feel this connection to this city.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
My happy place is right in here in this purple studio.

What is your favorite restaurant?
I love to eat Japanese food and there are a lot of Japanese restaurants here, so I love anywhere where I can get really good sushi.

What is your Houston secret?
I lived in Japan when I was a little girl, so I have this strong connection to all things Japanese and there is a beautiful Japanese garden in Hermann Park.  Every time I go, it is quiet, peaceful and beautiful.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
My parents live near Seattle, so a long way away from Houston.  If I could change one thing, it would be to have them closer.

Anita was nominated as one of the many Inspiring Houston Women by Trish Morille. 

For more information about Purple Songs Can Fly and to listen to some of the songs Anita has helped the children write, visit the website here.

Purple Songs Can Fly has its own internet radio show on Voice America Kids, hosted by Zachary and Emily who are patients at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers and wrote Purple Songs with Anita.  To listen to the show, visit the website here.