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The Carillon - ONLINE EDITION

Janzen crafts songs during recovery

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 04/6/2018 9:00 AM

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Mike Janzen remembers little about the night two years ago when he awoke to get a drink of water and ended up lying on a tile floor.

The Juno-nominated jazz pianist, who grew up in Steinbach and studied music at Providence University College, has opened up about his ongoing two-year recovery from the concussion he sustained on Apr. 3, 2016, and has released a free, Lent-themed solo album that was integral to his healing process.

"I got up in the middle of the night, went for a drink of water, took two steps, and that was it. I went crashing down," the Toronto-based artist recalled in an interview this week.

Though he hasn’t fainted before or since, Janzen said medical explanations for the episode have amounted to little more than "guesswork," and in the immediate aftermath he concentrated instead on getting back to his daily routines.

But in the weeks that followed, the fall proved to have far-ranging implications for his career as a self-employed composer and musician who fronts a successful trio bearing his name.

Janzen was forced to cancel performances as he began to experience telltale concussion symptoms including headaches, nausea, light and sound sensitivity, and vision problems.

"At first, the idea of cancelling gigs was quite difficult to swallow," said Janzen. "I spent a lot of time in a dark basement not feeling very good."

The situation bred financial challenges.

"As a self-employed musician and artist, you don’t have benefits when you get hurt," he observed.

But the father of two, whose youngest was born just six months after the concussion, was soon "overwhelmed" by generosity from the local music community.

"They would be sending me cheques in the mail from the gig that I was supposed to play," he recalled.

Prayers, notes, and emails soon flowed in from all across Canada, including the Steinbach area, where Janzen’s in-laws reside.

"It meant a lot to know that right across the country, but also right in Steinbach, there were a lot of people who every day were taking time out to think about us," he said.

A concussion specialist later gave him a brain therapy regime that included short walks, eye and balance exercises, and brief piano practices.

"Just really simple things, but they really helped," he said.

Reconnecting with music was especially powerful.

"I hadn’t listened to music for five weeks," he said. "It was very emotional for me when I finally got to listen to music again."

After two years of disciplined work, he is able to perform in short bursts, most recently at his church’s Easter services last weekend.

"I feel pretty good compared to how I did, but it’s a process."

Initially, he was hesitant to publicize his injury.

"I always thought I was going to get better right away," he said.

But last week, he decided to blog about his experience to thank the "hundreds of people" who have supported him over the past two years.

Still, effects linger. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Janzen to pour himself into a musical project for 14 hours a day. Today he must pace himself, limiting his playing to one or two hours.

"Now, when I play a few songs, I have to rest for a little bit after that," he said. "As soon as I overdo anything too much then I have to rest again."

He hopes another year of exercises will alleviate the last of the concussion symptoms, and said he already enjoys being able to hike and cycle again.

"Everything’s coming along. It just takes time. I’m a lot better than I was last year," he said.

Ever the artist, he found creative inspiration in his difficult circumstances.

"I’m hoping that this season has taught me more about breathing and relaxing, and letting my mind rest a bit more as I’m playing," he said.

"I’ve really tried to look at these last few years as an opportunity to learn, grow and be stretched in ways that I couldn’t if I was perfectly healthy."

In his backyard studio, Janzen began work last fall on a collection of eight solo piano recordings he released one at a time during Lent.

"This was a perfect match for where I was coming out of. The last two years for me have been this forced Lent season," he said.

Later this month, Janzen will rejoin his trio onstage in St Catharines, Ont. for an evening of reimagined Broadway tunes, accompanied by the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.

As he looks ahead to the summer, his main goal is to keep improving.

"My head will let me know when I’m ready to start performing again," he said.

Songs for Lent is available for free digital download at mike-janzen.squarespace.com/songsforlent.

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