She hears your song

Lisa McCormick teaches music with eyes, ears, and soul

I'm looking at a photograph of Lisa McCormick right now.

In it, she's a teenager in Paris. She's wearing a red sweater with dark cuffs, a slight dark vest, a black scarf tied in a cool knot. She's perched on the back of a high, curved stone bench, city and river behind her, legs in black tights crossed under a knee-length blue skirt.

Three small bags with obedient handles wait at her feet, to her right. Her sunglasses, round and gold-framed, fade over her eyes from copper to clear, as her red hair, pulled back from her face, lightens to gold in the sun.

She is not smiling. She does not waver. She looks precise, in congruence, an expression of the city and its determined young artist queen and you are lucky she looked your way because now, you're part of her too.

Now you are part of Paris; you're the river and the myth. She's listening to you and how is it you are singing now when all this time you thought you'd gone dumb? How is it possible that suddenly you hear yourself sing?

When you teach yourself, you must love to listen

McCormick is a professional musician, performing artist, and music teacher. She's lived in southern Vermont, or close by, since her late teens, when she moved from Albany, N.Y., to attend Marlboro College for a while.

When she left home, she was already a musician. She'd been playing guitar since the age of 10, in love with The Beatles since she was fairly in diapers and performing since she was about 16. She wasn't a kid who rammed around the neighborhood on warm summer nights throwing water balloons at commuters or playing pick-up kickball in the empty lot.

Those nights, Lisa was in her room. She was listening.

How does Paul make that note sound so sad?

How does James Taylor ripple the strings?

How do I move my hands and my body to do the same?

How do I want to sound?

How do I sound?

McCormick listened wholly and became a world-class level musician. But not right away.

[Dan had plans]

She said, "My dad worked as a marketing consultant and writer, and my mom was in higher ed administration."

To be practical, maybe to live up to her parents' hopes for her safety, McCormick eventually earned a degree in education from Keene State College.

"It was the fallback, the safe choice. Music was a hobby, something you did with friends around a campfire."

She took her first grown-up job in the mid-1980s at Landmark College, where she received intensive training in how to teach literacy to students with severe dyslexia. One of Lisa's first students was named Dan.

"He was a star athlete who didn't understand how the letters D-A-N spelled his name. He'd been passed all the way through high school, and he was totally illiterate."

But Dan was also driven by his interest in current events, which he followed through television and radio. When McCormick asked what he would love to read someday, he said he wanted to able to read an article in the New York Times.

"Dan and I met together five days a week, in two hour-long sessions every day. We went at it letter by letter, vowels and consonants, long A's and short O's, blends and diphthongs, the silent E. 'The Cat in the Hat.' Dan the man. He wanted to learn to read more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life.

"And in early June, on our very last day of lessons together, he did. He read a short article out loud to me, from the Times, about Winnie Mandela. We both cried."

Dan's example became an invitation and a challenge. McCormick, what is it that you want that passionately?

"The answer came out of me clear as a bell: I want my life to be about music. There, I said it. It's wildly irresponsible, I know, but I can't help it. If I wake up twenty years from now in the faculty lounge, wondering what would have happened if I'd actually listened to my soul's calling and pursued music as my life's work, I will go right out and jump off a bridge. Thank you, Dan. You saved my life."

[And then everything hurt]

Let's jump ahead a decade or so. Lisa has been teaching herself to be a top-tier musician through listening and playing, playing and listening, learning Talking Heads songs, Aimee Mann songs, Patti Larkin songs, more James Taylor songs.

She's worked a zillion jobs to cover expenses — waiting tables, doing piecework, manufacturing, childcare — so she can listen, learn and play. In the early 1990s, an unexpected musical partnership with rocker Jonathan Edwards juices her career, finally, big time.

She's playing bigger gigs. She's in a professional studio to record her debut on Edwards' label. She's a hot young rocker babe, with killer chops and lyrics that drop critics to their knees.

But that's when the pain in her back starts killing her, too.

Lisa has to stop. Everything stops. The recording. The gigs. The traveling. The walking. The being able to stand or sit.

A spinal injury stops her cold. Surgery prevents further damage, but a lot's been wrecked already. She is partially paralyzed in one leg

Forget about skyrocketing to music fame. Lisa has to learn to what it means to walk. Her legs don't know their own ABCs.

["You are hearing me, and we are engaging in a miracle"]

Lisa learned to walk — one tiny, excruciating nerve syllable at a time.

She finished her first album, "Right Now," which received three preliminary Grammy nods in 1997 and rafts of acclaim. She got back on the road, for a time with crutches, and then on her own steam, a full-time road-life with 235 gigs a year. She recorded four more albums. She fought for her career and on stage, deep in the music, she was as close as she'll ever come to flying, holding on to the hand of God.

And when she longed for a fuller life than the road could give, she became a teacher in how to make music on guitar, banjo and, now, ukulele.

Hundreds of in-person students — and hundreds of thousands of online students — later, McCormick understands that Dan is teaching her still.

She said, "That time is when I fell in love with adult beginners — grown-ups with a passion and a hunger to learn something they feel their life would be incomplete without. Even through the vulnerability and discomfort of being a total rookie, they soldier on, stuttering bravely through new and awkward territory, piecing their dream together bit by bit, letter by letter, note by note. As a teacher of music-making, I am honored to be a witness, a true companion, and a doting coach in this intimate process."

These days, she especially, joyfully spreads the sweet, generous gospel of ukulele, the lap cat instrument that just wants love. But however you make your music, McCormick listens. She sees the stories in your fingers. She hears your dream. She intuits and helps you take the tiny, thrilling steps to get there. She knows because she's done the same with her music and her body.

You're part of this now, the river and the city. You playing a bent note and you one that rings. Lisa listens, and you start hearing your soul. Lyric excerpted from Right Now by Lisa McCormick.


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