Musician helps songwriter with Parkinson’s save his music

WILSONVILLE, Ore. – Ever since she was a child singing with her three sisters, Joanne Duffin of Wilsonville has been told she has the voice of an angel. She dreamed of one day sharing her music with the world.

When she was 19, Joan landed the lead role in the musical “The Music Man” at Brigham Young University.

“I had to pinch myself, it was such an honour,” said Joan.

Music would become her lifelong passion. Not only singing, but also songwriting. She even hired a songwriting coach in Los Angeles and wrote dozens of songs over the years, many about her own life.

“Music has been the most important influence in my life besides my family and those I love,” she said.

When her husband, Steve, crashed an experimental powered glider and nearly died in 1987, she wrote songs to help her cope. One, titled “Is This the Last Song?” helped get her through the years he needed to recover.

“I wrote a lot during that time. That way I could feed my soul during that time,” said Joan.

Credit: KGW

Joan Duffin plays the piano and sings while her husband, Steve, looks on.

After his recovery, Steve built Joan a home studio where she recorded her songs. She envisioned one day recording an album with a full orchestra. But raising four children and life’s challenges put the dream on hold. Then a diagnosis in March 2022 threatened to break him.

“I knew something was wrong. I fell a lot. I noticed that my voice had changed,” she said. “The doctor told me I have Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease that affects the nervous system. It affects the brain and muscle movement, causes tremors and affects Joan’s voice and ability to play the piano.

“I cried when I realized that this might be the end of my music. I might not be able to sing anymore,” she said.

When she felt her voice waver and her hands shake, Joan sat down at her Steinway piano and wrote “Is It Over?” with these lyrics:

“I used to have the voice of an angel, everyone turned and noticed me. I’m afraid my voice is fading like a picture. Are you done?”

A local musician helps save Joan’s music

But it wasn’t over. Another talented musician, Naomi LaViolet, would be the voice and hands Joan needed to save her music. Joan had learned of Naomi a few years earlier when she attended a concert at the old church in Portland.

In 2019, a friend named Steve Goodwin was living with Alzheimer’s and did a show-stopping performance of the songs he created but never recorded. His family feared that the songs that had become the soundtrack to their lives would be forgotten forever. But their friend Naomi, the rare musician with perfect pitch, worked with Steve for many months – she learned his songs, wrote them down and recorded them.

Joan sat in the front row for this concert when Steve and Naomi performed Steve’s album, not knowing that one day she too would need Naomi’s help.

Two months after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Joan contacted Naomi on Facebook and asked if she would listen to her songs and possibly help save her music. One listen and Naomi was captivated by Joan’s lyrics.

“I love her songs,” Naomi said. “I am grateful to have such beautiful music in my life now and to know Joan, her story and her heart. It’s a really beautiful thing to play and be a part of.”

Credit: KGW

Naomi LaViolet worked with Joan Duffin to learn and perform her songs.

Naomi and Joan would spend the next few months working together. Joan recorded her songs on her cell phone and sent them to Naomi. Naomi wrote down the notes and embellished them with her own suggestions. She added scores for other instruments to accompany the piano melody written by Joan.

The two collaborated on 13 songs, including “Is It Over?” But as they neared the end, Naomi suggested Joan write a final verse for the song:

“Is it possible with the help of others that the music in my heart can live on. Another voice can sing the melodies I wrote. Another pianist can play the songs. It’s not over. I’m so happy.”

As Naomi held Joan’s shaking hand, they talked about the future and how Joan would share her music by making an album of her songs.

“We’re going to make a real record. It must be heard. It needs to be shared,” Naomi said.

Joan’s dream comes true

Through Naomi’s musical connections, she was able to help Joan realize her dream of recording her music with orchestral instruments and additional vocalists. Naomi arranged for Joan to record an album of the songs they had saved in dead Aunt Thelma’s recording studio in Southeast Portland.

“I’m so excited that her music is amazing and we’re finally capturing it for real in a way that she can enjoy forever,” Naomi said.

“It’s a dream come true,” Joanne said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time, and with Parkinson’s I don’t know how long I’ll be able to play my music.”

Credit: KGW

Naomi LaViolet recorded vocal tracks for the album, which Joan Duffin wrote and arranged together.

During the recordings, Naomi and other vocalists lent their voices – giving back what Parkinson’s was taking away from Joan. Cello joined in. A professional sound engineer, Sascha Müller, added his expertise to get the right sound mix. And Joan sang her signature song “Is It Over?”

After a week in the studio, they had recorded Joan’s dream album, Apricot Sunrise. For Joan, it was the gift of a lifetime. As she listened to Sasha play the final mix of one of her songs, Joan hugged Naomi.

“Thank you, Naomi, thank you. This is the fruition of a lifelong dream,” she said.

He hopes to inspire the next generation

Back at her home in Wilsonville with Steve, her husband of 47 years, and surrounded by photos of their four children and nine grandchildren, Joan hoped the album would inspire them.

“I hope they grow up thinking, ‘If my grandma can do this at her age’ … someday they’ll be my age and it’s not over,” Joanne said.

As Steve and Joanne listened to her album, now available for streaming worldwide, Joanne knew – like the words in the last verse of her song – it wasn’t over.

One day Parkinson’s may take its toll, but it can’t stop the music. With Naomi’s help, Joan’s songs will live on for years to come.

Apricot Sunrise by Joanne Duffin will be available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Amazon and other streaming platforms. Physical CDs will be available on Amazon and at the album release concert.

The album release concert is at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 16 at Canby Pioneer Chapel, featuring performers Joan Duffin on vocals, Naomi LaViolette on piano and vocals, Oregon Symphony Associate Concertmaster Peter Frajola, cellist Erin Ratzlaff, guitarist Tim Karplus and Heather Schrock, Ali Bristol and Lizzy Soper on vocals.

Credit: Joan Duffin

Joan Duffin’s Apricot Sunrise album cover.

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