Where There Is Music and Laughter, There Is Hope

By Jean Metcalfe

This past November Bob Mitchell underwent single by-pass open heart surgery and found it necessary to face stress and re-evaluate life values. In 1978 the company for which he worked 22 years went bankrupt, but music and humor helped him successfully cope with uncertainty.

If you are in the midst of difficult times, you may find some useful ideas in what Bob has to say.

His story began in 1959. As a Social Worker he dealt with child abuse and neglect every day. He says one of the first things for anyone to understand is the importance of interests "outside" the office. As a photographer he was able to focus on happier moments of life. In 1983 and 1984, the Kentucky Derby Festival published his work. But photography was also an extension of his social work values, as evidenced by a 1965 photo essay of Poverty in Kentucky for the Child Welfare League of America.

Over the past 34 years he has been employed by human service organizations. Throughout that time he also experienced the positive benefits of music and humor as coping mechanisms.

He also says the fact that his wife could live with him for 34 years proves that a sense of humor is a survival skill. Otherwise, he adds, how else could women live with men.

After the bankruptcy, he "moved" into finance and administration. Currently he is employed by Seven Counties Services, a Mental Health Agency in Louisville, Kentucky. His job title is Internal Compliance Auditor. Talk about a change!

He took a few risks and set new personal goals inclusive of public speaking. He is now a member of The National Speakers Association and has spoken and sung in 34 states and Canada.

In 1981 he submitted a conference proposal to the National Council for Community Mental Health Centers. It was accepted and he recalls being a "nervous wreck" before his first public presentation.

Although he had played guitar for 30 years, music was never used as a teaching technique. But in 1987 he saw Peter Alsop, another trainer, excite a group with songs. Shortly thereafter, Bob wrote his first song. Recalling the first time he included music in a program, he said it was as if he had never had a guitar in his hands. He forgot words, timing, melody and chord progressions. As he sang, he thought to himself, "This is a stupid idea. Don't ever do it again," yet when he finished, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Bob insists it took at least four years before he felt comfortable including music in his presentations.

In 1992 he produced his first recording, and in 1995 he released another recording, Some Days This Place Is A Zoo, 15 humorous songs about the home and the office. (Audio cassettes and compact discs are available at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers.) The current recording is unique because two local groups accompany him. Gary Brewer and The Kentucky Ramblers and Greg Walker and Derby City provide a variety of background sounds, i.e., jazz, blues, folk, rock and bluegrass. The 1995 Encyclopedia of Social Work said Bob's songs "evoke laughter and self-therapy for dealing with burnout."

He speaks from coast to coast and, regardless of topic, music and humor are always incorporated. The programs have proven so successful he has been asked back four or more times by some groups. A partial listing of his audiences include Mayo Clinic, Department of the Navy, American Red Cross, Housing and Urban Development, USA Small Business Association, Child Welfare League of America, United Way, International Association of Psychosocial Rehabilitation, The AIDS Education Coalition, Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, and the Association of Retired Teachers.

This singing Social Worker turned "bean counter" has produced two audio-visual training tapes and had a book published. He believes that if he was able to turn the disappointment of bankruptcy and the stress of open heart surgery into a "victory," anyone else can. He does not promise that it will be easy but here are the steps he suggests:

l Schedule 30 minutes of your favorite "soft" instrumental music into every day. Make it your private time without interruption. It can be especially helpful if you have difficulty falling asleep.

l Start daydreaming. One of the most powerful things in the world is an idea.

l Set specific goals for yourself and plan a way to get there. Understand that there will always be people who will try to convince you that it can't be done or that you are going about it the wrong way.

l Accept the fact that no one is perfect and trying to be so will take a heavy emotional toll on you.

l Remember, it is OK to cry, now and then.

l Collect and memorize slogans that have meaning to you. A personal favorite is, "I have never met a person who has given me as much trouble as myself."

l See a doctor. Not every problem is in your head.

l Exercise regularly, even if it is only 10 minutes every day.

l Get proper rest and eat nutritionally balanced meals. You only have one body; you'd better be nice to it.

l Work on developing a sense of optimism. Surround yourself with positive people. Pessimists may have a more accurate view of the world but they get sick more often and die earlier.

l Work at being flexible. As the song says, a tree that can bend with the wind lives longer than the rigid tree which breaks during heavy winds.

l Schedule 30 minutes of humor into every day. Read a book, watch a comedy video or do whatever will make you laugh. Enjoy life; this is not a dress rehearsal.

l Smile for economic reasons, it will improve your face value. Laugh with people not at people.

l Find a hobby or something that interests you and recharges your battery. Become a volunteer. (Bob has been involved with public radio, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, public television, Kentucky Center for the Arts, and the Kentucky Opera Association.)

l Be kind to yourself and keep a song in your heart.

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If you are interested in learning more about Bob's music or speaking programs, he can be contacted at Seven Counties Services, 101 W Muhammad Ali, in Louisville; 502-589-8600.