For Ian Connell, both life and death deserve a soundtrack. On Sundays, you might recognize him as the drummer in the Peace Band, or as partner to Hope and father to their two young children, Saul (5) and Thea (4). Professionally, he shares his musical skills as part of his work through St. Croix Hospice. In his role of board certified musical therapist, Ian spends time with people who are in the process of dying and engages them in remembering their lives as he shares with them their favorite music.
Ian grew up surrounded by music in Huntsville, Alabama. His mother was a music director at church for 22 years, and his father has been a band director since 1978. This led Ian to get a degree in Jazz Studies at the University of Alabama. This didn’t lead to any clear career path, so he found work not affecting people’s ears, but focusing on people’s eyes— crafting eyeglass lenses for the better part of a decade in optometry labs. Eventually, he decided that working with whirring machinery was too risky for his hands and his health.
He returned to Alabama with his young family and did an informal internship with his dad to consider the possibility of being a band director. While that wasn’t a good fit, Hope saw a video that explained how Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who lost her speech and ability to walk because of a bullet to her brain, regained these skills through music therapy. Wondering why he had not heard of this before, Ian returned to his alma mater to become a board certified music therapist.
Ian discovered that using music to support people in maintaining comfort and dignity in the process of dying was both fulfilling and an opportunity to express his values. He is grateful to work for a company that has the resources to provide support and the opportunity for dying with dignity to people regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Ian’s faith sustains his ability to be with people during the dying process. “I have to be able to sometimes really get close to people and the end goal is for them to die well. But they still die.” In the face of that, he commented: “I don’t have to be devastated when my patients die because I have faith that they are going to a better reality. So, even if I don’t understand it. . . I trust that God takes care of us in this life and in whatever comes next.”
Ian also is inspired by the transformative nature of music in his work. “The power of music to touch people and really evoke emotions that nothing else can always strikes me. . .I’ll go see someone who doesn’t get along with anybody, who doesn’t want to talk to anybody, but will light up when I sing their favorite song and they are willing to sing along with me. And people can’t believe that people are transformed like that. It’s the power of the music that does it… and there is something neurological and spiritual going on there that we don’t understand.”
While Ian is able to be part of this transformation at work, he is also working on doing this in other aspects of the world. He is grateful for SURJ Northland for helping him learn to “stand up for racial justice.”
Like his patients, Ian finds inspiration in music. One song that is particularly meaningful to him is “We Are Winning,” by the Denver band, Flobots. Its message is “that no matter how bad things look, keep doing what you’re doing because ‘we are winning.’” The song ends with the lyrics:
If you are thinking,
you are winning.
Resistance is victory
Defeat is impossible
Your weapons are already in hand
Reach within you and find the means by which to gain your freedom
Ultimately, Ian’s days are filled with hope. Through music, through his family, and through his faith, the beat goes on in a song that takes him through life and death and back to life again. Here at Peace Church, we are grateful that Ian and his family have found their way to share their rhythms with us.
Interviewed by Doug Bowen-Bailey