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Music from and about the heart

Thu, 02 Aug 2012 04:45:46 CDT
By: Charlie Schlenker

Music from and about the heart It's not always easy to say things to our loved ones. One young man has finally told his mother how he feels about her heart transplant, but not in words. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker reports on music from and about the heart.

Sandy Schaller pictured
Hear a performance of DO-nation.

Listen to Judy Ryder tell about her son Connor, whose heart beats on in Sandy Schaller.


It started 12 years ago with a massive heart attack that wasn't caught and diagnosed at first. Most of Sandy Schaller's heart died. It had fifteen percent function left.

"They said I was not eligible for a heart transplant."

Sandy has two sons, Jeff and John. John was 12 at the time. Jeff was in fourth grade, ten years old.

"There was a night when they took her off the machine keeping her alive and were gonna let her pass away, and she didnít."
Sandy's brother flew across the country to be at her side in Normal as she declined. During a delay in Atlanta he talked with a friend who was a doctor. The friend told him to fight for a place on the transplant list. Sandy Schaller received a new heart on Valentine's Day 2000. It came from an 18 year old brain dead boy who had been riding in a car during a southern Illinois traffic accident, Connor McKenzie. Twelve years later, Jeff Schaller is now studying music at Illinois State University. Jeff has written an orchestral piece for his mother.

"I spent a lot of time with small details. One week I'd have just a little bit done and just a little bit here and then it wasn't coming together. And then suddenly one week I told my professor I'd have it done next week for some reason. I'm not sure why. It was a dumb idea. And I just spent every night, lots of coffee."
Jeff says the music has hints of Mahler and Samuel Barber in it. The work explores the emotions of that time for Jeff's younger self.

"Confused . Sad. There's kind of two voices in the piece one is tragic and the other triumphant and the triumphant one wins out. But at the same time I didn't want to just be a happy, it's also kind of a lament for Connor."

Judy Ryder of Edwardsville is Connor's mother.

"It's just really great to see that they were able to grow up with a mother too, not just for her, but the family."
Judy Ryder was in the audience earlier this year when a university orchestra played the work. Judy says she hooked into the emotion of the piece, the sadness and the excitement.

"A lot of things go through your head. You know its been a long time ago. It isn't anything you get over."

The title of the work is DO-nation, a play on "donation," for organ donation. Jeff Schaller says his professor had doubts about titling a serious thematic work with a pun, but he kept it.

"If people walk away with that title in their head then maybe they're thinking about donation rather than some title that sounds real poetic or something, I don't know."

Connor's mother Judy Ryder says she has received letters from other people Connor helped with a liver and kidneys. When she met Sandy Schaller some years ago, Judy wanted to listen to Connor's heart in Sandyís chest. She says she feels invested in Sandy and her family, connected by that metronomic repetition.

"And it's just sort of a weird thing you know, 12 years after your child died to still sort of be worrying, is his heart still beating, you know? Sort of odd."

After the performance, Jeff went off with his friends in the 19 piece orchestra he'd arranged to play it. Sandy says heís not one to show his feelings and just sent her a text message, "for you and for Connor." She says they havenít really talked much since then either.

"In what he wrote and what he created, that was his way of letting me know how he felt. And we're kind of back to status quo, you know everyday life now."

Sandy says the new heart let her go back to work and raise her two boys to adulthood. Her other son John is in California making films. Jeff is finishing up at Illinois State. He says composing DOnation helped him think through what happened.

"I need to be reminded that as bad as things get, that's one really great thing in my life. And then just to be aware that (laughs) I need to be good to my Mom."

"The ending just chilled me," Sandy says.

As the orchestra concludes the piece in the concert hall, Sandy Schaller sees the first violin stand up and play what sounds like a heartbeat on a machine. He turns and walks off the stage slowly, playing softer and softer.

"The heart went from him to me and it kept beating. It never stopped beating."

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