Don't let the 'children's music' label fool you. Coming to us from Lenexa, Kansas, Jane Christison is a serious musician, performer and songwriter -- seriously fun, silly and experienced. While at UMKC working on a Bachelor of Music degree in Accordion Performance, Christison had the opportunity to travel internationally as part of the USO. For this edition of Listen Local Christison shares stories from her extensive touring experience, how she tailors the music she writes for both children and senior audiences, and her advice for aspiring professional musicians.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get interested in music and performing?
When I was nine years old, my Mom received a phone call asking, “Would you like to give your child a free musical test?” She said “Sure, come on over.” Since I was the oldest kid in the family, I got to take the test.
I don’t remember much about it other than the man told my parents that I got a good score. He then signed me up for six weeks of accordion lessons and rented us a little accordion.
At the end of the six weeks of lessons, I was given another test. My parents were told, “Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Christison, your daughter is so talented!” I’m guessing they told all the parents that because that’s when they sold us an accordion, and I’ve been playing the accordion ever since.
I loved playing the accordion right from the first lesson, but I wasn’t all that excited about performing. When people would come over to our house, my Dad would always say, “Janie, get out your accordion and play something.” I’d trudge down the hall to get my accordion and a music stand and a chair, then head back toward the living room thinking, “Don’t make me do this.”
I was really shy, and I would get so nervous. And recitals, oh my gosh, I’d get nosebleeds from nerves. Yet, despite all that, I ended up moving to Kansas City to study accordion with Joan Sommers at the University of Missouri - Kansas City Conservatory of Music.
While at UMKC, I had no choice; I had to do performances. And the more performing I did, the easier it became. Now, performing and sharing my music with others is something I really enjoy doing.
Your musical education and experience are quite extensive. As a member of the USO you have performed pretty much everywhere. How did you involvement with USO come about? Care to share a story or two?
While at UMKC working on a Bachelor of Music degree in Accordion Performance, I was in a performing group called The Accordionaires. We played pop music and some light classics, plus some of us in the group also sang and danced in addition to playing accordion. The group auditioned for, and was selected, to be part of USO Shows, in conjunction with the National Music Council.
On my first USO tour, we traveled and performed for 11 weeks in Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Guam. What a great experience playing for our US military personnel. They were definitely very appreciative audiences! Two summers later, we were picked to go to the Azore Islands and Germany.
Traveling to and from performances was always interesting. We had buses that broke down before we even left the parking lot, travel by jeep, truck, train and helicopter. We played on a Navy ship, but it was too windy to play on deck as planned, so we had to move below deck to perform in a room that wasn’t nearly large enough to hold all the sailors who wanted to come to the show.
Several of us flew four hours to a small island to play for a Coast Guard station in the middle of the Pacific. When the plane was unloaded, most of our equipment couldn’t be located, so we improvised a show using whatever instruments were on hand. We got to tour a submarine. We were invited to cruise the harbor in the captain’s cruiser in Japan. And to this day, I’m still not sure if the captain actually gave his permission for that excursion!
Besides the performances, the best part of this experience was getting to see and experience life in faraway lands. From sitting at the table where the peace talks were held between North and South Korea in the DMZ, to being invited to attend a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. From touring beautiful castles along the Rhine river to learning to dance the polka in a tent at the German-American Volksfest in Berlin. Being part of USO Shows is something I will always remember and be thankful for.
As part of the UMKC Accordion Orchestra, I’ve also gotten to travel and perform in at least a dozen more countries. One of my favorite memories was when we were in Moscow, which was still part of the Soviet Union at the time. We shared a concert with a Russian accordion orchestra. Our groups had exchanged music in advance so that we could play with them on a Russian piece, and they would play with us on an American piece, then we would split the rest of the concert.
During the rehearsal, I turned to the accordionist sitting next to me. He didn’t speak English, and I knew only a few Russian words. We managed to converse in German, but the blending of the two groups in concert showed that music is indeed the international language.
How long have you been a songwriter? Describe your creative process.
I never ever dreamed I would be a composer. Growing up taking accordion lessons in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I never wrote a song. During four years at the UMKC Conservatory, I never wrote a song. I never thought I had that gift.
In 2000, I started playing for nursing homes, seniors groups and retirement communities. I needed a song as an opener for my program. A symphony conductor/ composer from New Zealand, Gary Daverne, had once shared with me how he sometimes takes a person’s name or a phrase, then converts the alphabet to musical notes to come up with the melody for a song.
On February 22, 2002, I had been to the eye doctor for my annual exam. Since my eyes were dilated, I couldn’t see to do any paperwork. I decided to get out my accordion and play something since it was the anniversary of my first accordion lesson. I remembered Gary’s technique and ended up writing my first song, “I Love Playing Accordion.” I’ve used that song ever since as the opening piece for my programs for seniors. And yes, I really do love playing the accordion!
During my programs for seniors, I reminisce a bit about things like “Do you remember roller skating or riding a bicycle in the springtime?” or “Do you remember coloring Easter eggs?” or “What was your favorite Halloween candy?” These childhood memories have also been the inspiration for songs.
Sometimes I wake up with a tune in my head. I keep a small digital tape recorder handy and hum the notes or sing the words into the recorder so I can work with them later. I’ve recently started using my iPhone to catch moments of inspiration since my digital recorder only holds 99 snippets, and it’s full. With all the hats I have to wear as an independent musician: performances, marketing, publicity and social media, it’s sometimes hard to find time to focus on song-writing.
Your music has a multigenerational appeal. Tell us more about how you adapt your musical approach for different audiences.
As I started writing songs, I would try them out during my performances for seniors. It came as a complete surprise to me that my songs ended up being children’s songs. When I finished my children’s CD, Come Sing Along with Janie Next Door™, I started playing for preschools in order to market the CD.
Seniors seem to enjoy my children’s songs because they are reminded of their childhood, or of experiences with their own children and grandchildren. Kids seem to enjoy my music because I have them participating in the performance, marching, singing along, dancing, clapping their hands. No matter what age group I’m playing for, my goal is for the audience to have fun with the music.
What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
Be prepared to work hard. If this was easy, everyone would be doing it. I have put a lot of time and effort into being a professional musician: years of music lessons and education, as well as hours upon hours of practicing and memorizing music. And now that I have a CD out, I’m learning about the business side of the music industry: sales, publicity, marketing and social media, things that I’m hoping will take me to the next level of my music career – whatever that may be.
Having said all that, if you have a passion for something, whether it’s playing the accordion, or writing songs, or painting or writing books, follow your passion, and dream big.
At the top of my book list has to be “Anne of Green Gables.” I love the Anne of Green Gable series of books by L.M. Montgomery with the smart, auburn-haired (not red!), always-well-intentioned- but-frequently-in-a-pickle, Anne Shirley. I have read all the books several times and was delighted when PBS offered Anne of Green Gables as a tv series, which is available on DVD.
I really enjoy Steve Berry’s books. One of his books is “The Templar Legacy.” Somewhat like Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” which I also enjoyed, there is a mix of international settings, history and a chance to ponder, “Could something like this really have happened? ”
Another favorite author is Vince Flynn and his thrillers. I’ve read every one of them – the most recent was “The Last Man.” What I like about them is that the main character may be anywhere in the world, but he always manages to survive whatever is thrown at him, sometimes not quite by the rules, but he gets the job done and saves the country.
My all-time favorite movie is “The Sound of Music,” starring Julie Andrews, my all-time favorite singer. The scenery, the music, the characters. I find myself singing along with the Von Trapp Family every time I watch the movie. The bonus material on a second DVD was really interesting to me as well, learning about the real Von Trapp Family, the real Maria and seeing behind-the-scenes clips of what it was like filming the movie in Salzburg, Austria. (I drove my friends crazy for weeks with Sound-of-Music trivia after watching the bonus DVD!)
It’s hard for me to pick favorite CDs as I enjoy so many different styles of music. The movie “Chicago” has a great CD soundtrack that I have listened to so many times that it should have been worn out by now. Another favorite CD is the music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”