NIAGARA CLOSEUP: Mendelt: The music of his life
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Momentum is a choir formed by voices and spirits of people who live with disabilities
He was nine years old when he bought his first cassette tape. Cyndi Lauper’s debut album, She’s So Unusual. He paid for it with his own money, at Sam the Record Man in the Pen Centre.
He played it, over and over again, in his basement, on a boombox he’d bought from his older brother.
He knew every word. Of every song.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
Time After Time.
All Through the Night.
He danced, and sang along. He connected with the words of inclusiveness, her voice and the strong pop beat.
Mendelt Hoekstra, now 42, was lost (completely, blissfully) in the power of music.
“I’d be in this magical place of music, singing and nothing else mattered,” he says.
“It was this beautiful world of music.
“It didn’t matter if I was tired. It didn’t matter if I was hungry.”
All that mattered, was music.
Whether he realized it then or not, music would become the symphony of his life. It would connect moments of his own narrative like phrase marks in a song, shaping and defining experiences.
Music is Mendelt. Inside, and out. It’s in his very genes and in the way his fingers connect to the keyboard with the intimacy of old sweethearts.
It has become his passion. His drive. And his career.
He is a music therapist at Bethesda Community Services, and executive and artistic director of Momentum, a choir formed by the voices and spirits of people who live with disabilities. He directs To the King Male Chorus. And last year he was awarded the YMCA Peace Medallion and nominated for a St. Catharines Arts Award in the category of Making a Difference.
Music is a glue that has strengthened his family, his faith and perhaps the most important ensemble in his life, his three children: Zion, Jacoba and Zekijah.
He is a single dad, who tells his children, ages 10, 13 and 14: “Find the good in things; find the good in people,” followed closely by, “It’s better to be kind, than to be right.”
Asked how he manages all this, he smiles.
“Good question,” he says, slowly and deliberately.
“Lots of lists.”
One day in January, at his home in Lincoln, he threw some logs into a wood stove in his living room and reflected on the significance of music.
The music, of his life.
Some might say, he was born into music.
His grandfather in Holland was a farmer to pay the bills, but a musician at heart. His parents, Gerzinus and Jeannetta Hoekstra, immigrated from Holland in 1966 and are musicians as well. His dad was a music consultant for the former Niagara South Board of Education and led a community choir called Cantata Singers and a Dutch band. His mom, a pianist and accompanist. As a family — mom, dad and their six children — they performed throughout the community.
Mendelt could sing four-part harmony before he was old enough for school. Soprano, first. And then, as he grew up and his voice deepened into alto, tenor and, finally, baritone.
His mother (he calls her Mem, a Dutch name for mom) remembers Mendelt at six, singing a hymn solo at a family wedding. “He was just little, but he had such great zest and exuberance,” she says.
“His arms were stretched out wide and he just belted this song at the top of his lungs.”
At home, there was always a smorgasbord of instruments to sample. Brass and woodwinds. Pianos. Guitar and accordion. Recorder. “When he mastered one instrument, it was on to the next,” she says.
In high school, he wrote rap music and his mother dutifully sewed him a pair of MC Hammer pants, distinguishable by generalized upper puffiness and a crotch that hung down to the knees.
She has known since he was very young, that his life would have purpose.
One day when he was about two, they were outside on their front lawn. In a moment of horror, she caught sight of Mendelt as he ran towards the road just as a car was approaching.
“The way Mendelt was running, and the angle, I knew he was going to be hit,” she says.
“I started running. But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to reach him. I knew he was going to be hit.”
In that moment of desperation, she cried out to God, “Oh God. God help me.” And Mendelt stopped, right at the curb.
“He didn’t stop himself. Something stopped him,” she says.
“I think there was a guardian angel there that stopped him, that held him back.”
God had other plans for Mendelt’s life, she says.
The plan, she already knew, would celebrate both music and people.
A few years ago, Mendelt was driving on the QEW, the Barenaked Ladies song Brian Wilson blaring on the radio.
He’s always appreciated the lyrics, the “quirky intelligence” of the Ladies, and as the music engulfed his senses, his foot dropped further on the accelerator. He was lost in music. Until, that is, he noticed the flashing lights behind him.
He explained to the police officer: “Sorry, this song came on the radio and I was super excited.”
She smiled. “You wouldn’t believe how many times I hear that,” she said.
And then wrote him a ticket.
“Music can take us anywhere,” he says.
“If I want to go to sleep, I can find that music. If I want to get super excited, I can find that music.
“If I want to relax, if I want to read a book, if I want to go back in time and be nostalgic, I can find that music.”
Rap songs from artists like DJ Jazzy and the Fresh Prince sweep him back to Grade 10. U2’s The Joshua Tree takes him back to the university dorm at Redeemer College in Ancaster, with his buddy picking out songs on his guitar and “just being together for hours,” he says.
He met his wife, Marisa, to music. They were at a party, both students at Redeemer, and the Paul Simon single You Can Call Me Al was playing. Marisa knew all the lyrics. Mendelt was impressed: “Wow, that girl knows every single word to that song,” he thought.
They were married almost 10 years and had three children.
Late in 2006, when their youngest was just seven months old, Marisa was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. It had already spread to her liver.
“When days, when life was really shitty, finding music to connect to emotions was really easy to do,” he says.
They had music to heal. Music to comfort. And music to grieve.
“There is music that can take you to that sorrow and that depth,” he says.
Marisa died in December 2007 with her family gathered around her bed, singing hymns and some of her favourite Blue Rodeo songs.
“We sang, and sang and sang,” says Mendelt.
“Music helps people connect in a way that words can’t.”
Indeed, there are times when life simultaneously delivers the worst, and best. Shortly after Marisa’s cancer diagnosis, came news that otherwise would have given him great joy. Mendelt’s grant application to the Ontario Trillium Foundation to start a choir to promote the talents of people with disabilities, was accepted.
Momentum Choir would be born.
In its inaugural two years, the choir that is now an inseparable part of his life, he did not, could not, play a role in its development.
Momentum began with a simple observation. Mendelt was offering music therapy to a man in Port Colborne. “He could sing Elton John, better than Elton John,” he says. Another one of his clients was adept at performing Billy Joel “in an entertaining way.”
And yet, there was no stage, no professional outlet for them.
Momentum Choir began in 2007 with eight people. It has grown to 65 members, who rehearse weekly and have performed in venues across Canada, even internationally, alone and alongside other professional musicians.
Last November, a group of Momentum vocalists shared the stage at the Avalon Ballroom Theatre in the Falls with rock band Foreigner. And a couple weeks ago, the choir performed with McMaster University choirs. In all, it’s worked with more than 80 musicians, performed at more than 100 events and spent some 1,500 hours in rehearsals. The choir has events booked into 2018.
And yet, the true success of Momentum is measured in smaller, more intimate moments. In the stories of lives changed. Music is a catalyst, a means to self-discovery, confidence, and ultimately to believing in themselves, he says.
Audiences respect the musicians for their courage to take a risk. And Mendelt reminds them how there’s something innately brave about singing, never mind getting up on stage and performing in front of audiences.
“There are a lot of people afraid to sing,” he says
“There’s something mysterious about singing. People feel it’s coming from a place in themselves that’s scary. A place that’s deep and naked. A place that’s untapped in many ways.”
At a recent rehearsal at Jubilee Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in St. Catharines, a woman wheeled herself up to a microphone in front of the choir. She sang Leonard Cohen’s Halleluja,
Sam Gates, 27, uses a wheelchair and lives with cerebral palsy. And never in her most fearless dreams, did she ever imagine herself performing a solo, on a stage, with a microphone, in front of an audience.
When Mendelt suggested she do just that, her reaction was immediate: “There’s no way in hell I’m going to do a solo.”
Over time, and repeated words of encouragement, “I finally said, fine,” she says.
“He put the confidence into me,” she says. “Every time I told him ‘can’t’ he told me ‘can.’”
Patty Andrus, 22, never wanted to sing because she worried about being judged.
Also part of Momentum, for two years, she been a part of Mendelt’s music therapy group at Bethesda, an organization that supports people who have a developmental disability.
The woman who feared judgment, has since performed a solo of her favourite song, All of Me by John Legend. In front of an audience, no less. In her words: “He brings the good out of me.”
“It’s like getting an adrenalin rush,” she says.
“Your body feels so happy. It’s like being scared and nervous and happy all at the same time.
“But then it goes away, the scaredness.”
Patty’s caregiver, Lorna Chadwick, watches all of the Momentum rehearsals. “They never take their eyes off him,” she says. “They love him. They appreciate what he does.
“He respects them. He takes the time to talk to them. He takes the time to really show them he cares.
“He listens to them. If something’s bothering them, they tell him right away.
“That’s his calling.”
There is nothing magical about Mendelt. (His words.)
Music is the real magic. And Mendelt, simply a musician who encourages others to surrender their fears and trust in the power of music.
“You work on this craft together,” he says.
“You celebrate each other’s victories. And you console each other when there’s a defeat or when there’s a bump in the road.”
His story is one of thankfulness, he says. He is thankful to experience music in his own life. And thankful to share that experience with other people.
“We celebrate the power of overcoming obstacles,” he says.
“We celebrate the power of music.”