Musician Lets The Music Play Even During Difficult Times

Jan 5, 2021

Many musicians lost out on live performance gigs due to COVID-19 but one northern Illinois artist found ways to keep the music playing for herself -- and others.

Robinlee Garber.
Credit https://www.robinleegarbermusic.com/

Under pandemic restrictions, folk and jazz musician Robinlee Garber’s paid gigs turned into non-monetary internet shows. 

“This quarantine thing is nuts, man. It’s like a big pressure cooker. So, I work three days at the hospital and they’re actually hoping to bring me on full-time but who knows when that would be,” Garber mentioned in April, during her Facebook Live Dirty Laundry and Good Clean Entertainment show.

Garber found herself in her laundry room most nights washing scrubs from her part-time hospital job as an art therapist and licensed professional clinical counselor.   

Garber explained that her musical life was full before the pandemic.  

“I was running an open mic. I was, you know, playing gigs, three, four times a month,” she added. “I was also going around to different assisted living and retirement communities, doing a lot of baby boomer material and stuff. And that was a pretty steady stream.” 

Garber also sang at the hospital where she worked. But the singing had to stop. 

“Thank God, I do art therapy there. Because with singing, especially that's like how, you know the coronavirus gets spread,” she said. 

Garber sang and wrote songs most of her life but wasn’t interested in performing for a public audience. Growing up she had one solo observer, her rabbit Heidi. 

“And I was like five and I'm just like singing to the rabbit, for the rabbit, about the rabbit,” she explained.  

Garber grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Chicago when she was 26. She lived in several other cities before settling in the Windy City. Her parents introduced her to jazz standards at an early age and she started playing guitar at the age of 11. She said jazz standards was the only type of music she liked until her brother showed her something different. Garber explained that he came home from college one year and exposed her to a milk crate full of albums.

"He's like, 'Look, there's more music out there than this. You know, show tunes, I want to play this stuff for you,'" she explained. "So I listened and after that, you know, I was totally hooked into a whole other genre."

Although Garber loved music, she said she only wanted to use her singing as a form of healing by being an art therapist. Garber is also a visual artist. She received her master’s in art therapy from University of Illinois at Chicago in 1996. 

Garber didn’t start performing publicly until her early 40s. She met her colleague’s little brother who convinced her to go onstage during a night out.  

“He was sort of my entrée into the singer songwriter world of Chicago and beyond,” she acknowledged. “We went to Folk Alliance conferences together and I got to meet people from all over the country all over the world. And that was where I met my manager.” 

Garber’s first album “Resilience” came out in 2016.  

Garber said going out and doing shows was not only a form of income but a stress reliever after counseling others. She lost that outlet and then her living situation fell apart. 

Garber lived with two other people, but the fear of spreading the virus crumbled that arrangement.  

She finally found an affordable place by October. But after moving all her things in she had to move again due to unforeseen circumstances.

But those weren’t the most challenging things that Garber had to endure during this pandemic. Some of her loved ones caught the coronavirus.  

“I had friends back east getting sick, I had friends who were on respirators in March and in April. And then in April and May, people started dying,” she said. “And it was hard. It was really, really hard. And I was by myself.” 

Things have turned around for this creative. She is going to pick up more hours at the hospital as a therapist and she’s found solace in performing online. 

Garber is also a part of an online songwriter’s group. She said this, too, keeps her creative juices flowing.  

Her job asked her to write a morale-boosting theme song. She said she workshopped it in her songwriting class and the song was done in less in two weeks.  

“You heal me, I'll heal you with our smiling eyes. We'll make it through,” Garber reiterated song lyrics.

In a recent video performance for Woodstock Wednesdays, she mentioned that “Smiling Eyes” is a reference to the fact that masks are covering up the bottom half of people’s faces and that the eyes are the only things showing.  

Garber is continuing to think positive. She is Jewish and despite isolation, she found a way to celebrate Hanukkah with her non-Jewish coworkers. 

“I was like ‘We're having a Hanukkah party tomorrow’ and they’re like ‘We are?’ I said ‘Yeah,’” Garber explained. “I said ‘Nobody's getting together with their family for Christmas,’ I said, ‘No. Happy Hanukkah.’”     

Garber finally moved and is all settled in her new place. It’s the first time she’s lived by herself since 1998. Garber shared that she now feels flooded with creativity, and she wants to encourage other artists to continue to produce. She declared that artists shouldn’t look for inspiration but instead should just start creating.  

Garber explained that she learned as a therapist that “You get motivated by doing,” -- even if it is in the form of internet shows. And, she said, her experience proves that those actions will bring results.

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.