By Judith Toy
At the 1997 Grammy Awards, the president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Artists said, “Music therapists are breaking down the walls of silence and affliction of autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.” Meryl Joan Lammers of Black Mountain is a singer/songwriter/music therapist/Reiki master who is so Asheville that if everybody except Meryl moved out, it would still be vintage Asheville. She has the look, the music, the healing profession. She calls her music a blend of folk, Americana and soul. And she is a light in the life of children with autism.
My own experience with my friend Meryl in a music therapy session during a time that my husband was sick unto death was transcendent, dreamlike, healing. She blends her musical instruments with the thin, clear sound of her voice in a way that calls out the angels. You are on a massage table in a quiet room. She moves around your body, gently touching, combining the healing energy of Reiki with flute, drum and voice. You relax into the quivering, flowing harmonic sounds. Her touch is magic. You feel safe.
I cannot say enough for her work. Meryl’s marriage of mindfulness with her unique combination of the healing arts is no less than brilliant. She is one of a kind.
Meryl has been a pivotal presence in a volunteer project several of us women put together for vets at the Veterans Administratrion Hospital, a quarterly day of mindfulness called “A Peaceful Time for the Healing Warrior.” The vets love her: she is young and beautiful and her flute and guitar playing smooth; her music soothes. Plus she’s hip, but not hip for the sake of hipness – hip with heart.
She is one of the few people I know who says she completely enjoyed her childhood. Growing up in the Adirondack Mountains of New Paltz, New York in an in-tact family, Meryl started writing her own songs at age four. At nine she began on the flute, putting her ear to the speaker and playing back what she heard, her dad’s favorite jazz riffs. Meryl’s folk-loving mom introduced her to Joanie Mitchell and the Beatles. At age 16, with a deep longing to help others, she was already volunteering in a nursing home with guitar, flute and voice.
Then Meryl had a spiritual awakening that sealed her fate. She was performing on flute, Herbert Laws’ jazz arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” on stage at her high school: “I lost all consciousness of time and space. The music took me to another plane. I felt like I was one with everything. My worries vanished; I felt only peace. And when I opened my eyes there were parents in the front row crying. One of them came up to me and told me with tears in her eyes how she regretted giving up the flute. That was the moment I realized the healing power of music.”
And she’s feisty. When a college professor told Meryl she would have to concentrate on the flute and become a master of that one instrument, she flatly said no. “I play piano, I sing, I drum, I play flute, I write songs.” Music degree in hand, she landed a solid music therapy post in South Florida where she learned firsthand how her music was a channel for communication, working with children with autism.
“Most of the children there could not talk. But they could sing, they could drum in response to what I drummed. Some of the kids even started speaking through song. Eventually through music they were able to let me know what they wanted. One girl was obsessed with piano, and we were trying to get her to talk by handing her a picture symbol of the piano. When we showed her a picture of a xylophone, she grabbed it and threw it across the room. After two years of working with this speechless child, at that moment she said, “I want piano.” Indeed. Plato said the keys to learning are the patterns in music and the arts.
Flash forward to December, 2011, when Meryl and her partner Frank Iaquinta moved to the Asheville area, which Meryl has found lacking in awareness of music therapy as a valid, evidence-based profession. That put her in a creative slump which Meryl optimistically calls “a resting period to more clearly define what I want to do with my music.” I’ve heard it called “thatching,” like the thatch of the grass that falls to the bottom to fertilize new growth.
“I’ve been going through a recent reconnection with my music,” she said. “There’s that element, ego driven, the love of performance, and then there’s the ego-less side—the music therapy and ceremonial music. I want to do both. And there’s no reason to believe that in playing to an audience, you are not in the business of healing.”
Meryl is not one to rest on her laurels. She began a campaign to educate and raise awareness of music therapy in WNC, by providing workshops and volunteer events to demonstrate the proof of her profession. She’s writing songs again and performing. On Thursday, August 15 at 6:00 PM at Lake Tomahawk Park in Black Mountain, she will open for the Swayback Sisters. She has also performed at White Horse, Black Mountain.
“Right now I’m hired through the Autism Society of NC as a skills instructor. I help people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder to gain independence with daily living skills.” A teen client, when she’s having a difficult time, is soothed by Meryl’s music. They sit down at the piano and sing together; the girl doesn’t talk, but she will sing.
“I am not employed as a music therapist; the Autism Society is a nonprofit funded through Medicaid and the State. There is such a need for what I do, but no funding. So what I actually do is provide music therapy techniques free through my job. Part of me warns against this, but I have to be who I am. About eighty percent of my job is activism, educating people and lobbying for music therapy in WNC. Those who have come before me are working hard at a state level to ensure that licensure is in place so that we’re looked at as equals, recognized as a cogent profession.”
I asked Meryl about the glass ceiling. “Glass ceiling? What does that mean, some idea some journalist made up, a fearful tool. I don’t relate. Maybe it’s because I don’t like anyone telling me what to do.”
Meryl offered this song at one of Asheville’s Earth Sabbath ceremonies last year. I’d call it her theme song, mindful and true:
I’m no dream
I can feel what you see.
I know you’ll need time to breathe.
I’ll give air to you;
take from me, take from me
I’ll be your sanctuary.
But to get the effect, you have to hear her voice, listen to her music. For a small sample of Meryl Joan Lammers’ art, go to her website, Sound Sanctuary Healing Arts.
Judith Toy is author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness. She practices mindful meditation with Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living in Black Mountain. Upcoming events include a day of mindfulness August 17th at Cloud Cottage with healer Suzannah Tebbe Davis, “All Our Ancestors,” which will include the sacred art of altarmaking, and Toy’s 10th year at Southern Dharma Retreat Center, this year co-leading a four-day retreat with Dharma teacher Roger Hawkins, “The Dance of Consciousness.” For information, go to MurderAsACallToLove.com, CloudCottage.org and SouthernDharma.org.