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  • Lisa Starbird

Board Profile: Gene Barnes

Lisa Starbird recently had the opportunity to interview performer and Board Member Gene Barnes. Gene started his involvement with Bread and Roses as a volunteer musician in 2015 and joined our board in 2018.

Bread & Roses 2019 Fall Benefit at the Sweetwater

(l-r) Gene Barnes, Dan and Sean Nowell| Photo by Peter Merts

LS: How did you know about Bread & Roses?

GB: I've lived in Marin since 1961, when my family moved here from Japan. I've been a student and observer of the Bay Area music scene as long as I can remember. Bread & Roses is part of that rich history, along with all the artists who've contributed their talents over the years.

LS: I know that you are a longtime friend of our Executive Director Dave Perron. In your volunteer application from 2015, you called him your “brother from another mother.” How do you know each other?

GB: We went to the same elementary school in fourth grade, and I’ve known him for 59 years! We were both athletes and played sports as we grew up together. Friendships don’t just happen and Dave is phenomenal at cultivating friendships. He does it so well. He has a good heart and is a good guy.

LS: I’m wondering about your background and how you got involved in music?

GB: My mom was really musical and her brothers and sisters were all great singers. I never took lessons but I tinker with and play the piano and I sing.

LS: When was the first time you performed?

GB: The first time performing was at an eighth grade dance. I remember singing Louie Louie, House of the Rising Sun, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, The Swim, Twist & Shout.

LS: Your group Heartstrings Bridge performed at our Bread & Roses 2015 Volunteer Appreciation party aka The JAM. I remember that day everyone was on their feet and singing along with you guys. It was so upbeat and lively. How would you describe your group?

GB: We are a Vocal Montage, a collection of vocalists whose focus is on the performance of the classics of all genres and eras. We have great admiration for the tried and true, songs that are proven to stand the test of time and have been loved by the masses over generations. We use the original, authentic tracks heard on the actual artists' recordings, which never fail to activate the heartstrings and memories for older listeners, and impress the young with their ageless quality.

Heartstrings Bridge at the 2015 Volunteer Celebration aka The JAM

(l-r) Gene Barnes, Kelly Thomas, Frank Mardeusz & Chris Cross | Photo by Peter Merts

LS: Tell me how you have been most affected by the healing power of live music.

GB: My musical associates and I have been consistently volunteering for several years independently, in various venues and settings, for the elderly, the sick and disabled, and for established charitable organizations. When my wife was ill, before she passed, I was made aware of the healing, soothing, and uplifting power that music and song can provide, and have been blessed to have access to that power, and to enjoy the fulfillment that sharing it brings. The members in our group share that compassion, and mostly treasure the joy we witness.

LS: With the pandemic where everyone is now isolating, how important do you think music is for people?

GB: The experience of sheltering-in-place is giving people the opportunity to understand how so many of our elders have been isolated and how much music means to each person. Music is a therapeutic indulgence for people.

LS: Have you been able to share your music during the pandemic?

GB: We have rehearsed in our backyard and the neighbors told us they wanted to see us as well as hear us. So, we have done a few socially distanced pop-ups in our driveway as well as Golden Gate Park. We also sang outdoors at a retirement home where people were in their balconies and on their back porches. We were on a mobile stage and moved to four locations where the seniors were happy, dancing and smiling.

LS: How do you feel about music and how it relates to our mission?

GB: I was aware of Bread & Roses from way back, but I didn’t volunteer to perform until Dave Perron took the lead. I feel like it’s such a powerful organization. I’d like to see it become more expansive in its reach and extend to so many others. There is no limit to people in every walk of life who need music, whose souls hurt.

LS: Can you share an experience that speaks to our mission, bringing healing music to isolated folks?

GB: One of the most moving experiences I had was at a senior facility in San Rafael. It started out as a rehearsal space for us but grew into a monthly thing for the residents who were shut-in. We saw a recurring group that grew in numbers. One day, there was a woman who was right up in front and she was singing along. I asked if she wanted to sing with me and I took her hand, walked her to the stage and she sang. There was a commotion among the 50 people, but we kept on. I asked her if she wanted to sing another song and she said yes. I asked her if she needed the lyrics, she said no and started singing.

Afterwards the facility attendant said, “I don’t believe what just happened. She has advanced Alzheimer’s and hasn’t spoken in five years.” The attendant called the woman’s kids who lived out of state and told them what had happened. The family flew out the next time we were playing and witnessed the miracle for them-selves. The family took her out of the facility back home with them and to see a specialist. Later we found out that in her former life, she had been a music teacher.

LS: That experience really touches my heart. I’ve always said that our founder Mimi Farina was ahead of her time when she started Bread & Roses over 45 years ago. It seems that science is just now catching up to her vision. We’ve seen in recent studies where the last thing to go in Alzheimer’s patients is the memory of music. Dementia patients may not remember our names but they remember the music of their younger days. We are seeing more and more of this type of experience these days and it validates the important work that we do at Bread & Roses.

LS: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

GB: Being isolated as we shelter-in-place during this pandemic is giving people the opportunity to understand how so many of our elders routinely feel as they are shut-in at home or in institutional settings. It’s important that we remember the role music plays in uplifting those who are isolated and that the healing power of music is a connecting force.

By Lisa Starbird, Program Associate/Event Producer


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