Inspiration, hope and a song: How ‘The Spark’ came to be

January 20, 2022  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

Anyone who saw the documentary The Beatles: Get Back — about the legendary band’s 1970 album “Let it Be” — can appreciate how intricate, enjoyable and collaborative songwriting can be.

Combine a pandemic, hopeful nurses and a group of intrepid U-M students, and you find Michigan Medicine’s own inspirational tune, “The Spark.”

The song, written and sung by U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance students Andrew Cekala, Helen Shen and Chris Tamayo, takes listeners into the hearts and minds of front-line staffers during the pandemic.

The idea of a song started with Chief Nurse Executive Nancy May, D.N.P., RN-BC, NEA-BC, FAAN, who looked for a source of inspiration during spring 2021’s surge. From there, a connection with Lynne Shankel, assistant professor of music, led to focus groups with health care workers, who met with the musical trio to help guide the lyrics and melodies.

“I am so grateful to the students for their creativity and talent in making this wonderful song,” May said. “They took the words of our fantastic nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians and advance practice providers, and made this original, touching piece of music. As you listen to the lyrics it takes me back to the beginning of the pandemic, and all we have done together to care for those who needed our care and expertise. It is a beautiful tribute to our amazing teams.”

Opening with a melodic guitar riff, birds chirping in the background and Shen’s graceful voice, the lyrics “I sneak into the arb sometimes / just to feel the air,” are in reference to front-line workers taking their breaks in nearby Nichols Arboretum.

“It was an honor to be able to speak with representatives from U-M Health,” Shen said. “And we were incredibly inspired by their stories of strength, resilience and humanness. We wanted this song to showcase the true heroism of health care workers and to bring forward their bonds with one another.”

The composition features the trio’s voices and a beautifully orchestrated instrumental accompaniment of guitar, violin, cello, bass and drums. The sweet beginning is from a staffer’s point of view who is helping patients, while coming to grips with their own hardships.

The soft opening verses lead into the chorus, “In the dark / We light the way back while we are apart / Fighting for tomorrow’s chance, for the world that’s in our hands / We’ll watch fireworks and know we were the spark.”

The chorus leads into Cekala’s earnest vocals, drums in the background, along with his own cello and Tamayo’s violin. The song’s journey recounts walking the floors of a hospital, smiles behind masks and the wear and tear the worker feels, leading into another harmonious chorus and the song’s bridge.

“Getting to hear the stories of perseverance, hardship and community from some of the U-M Health workers was a great privilege and perspective shift,” Cekala said. “As students and artists during this turbulent time, we felt a desire and responsibility to do more than just record this point in history but offer some creativity toward its betterment. We hope this song serves as a celebration and gesture of ever-present gratitude for the U-M health care community.”

Tamayo brings the song home, which looks to the future with hope, while acknowledging that things aren’t done quite yet.

The song lifts one more time, with all three coming together to sing, “I can count on you,” before a final chorus draws the song to a close.

“The necessity of everyone’s work at Michigan Medicine can go largely unacknowledged and unappreciated, so this song was our small expression of gratitude for those tirelessly keeping us safe,” Tamayo said. “We truly cannot do this alone.”

A group of instrumentalists — Miles Aubrey (guitar), MaryAnn McSweeney (bass) and Joe Mowatt (drums) — aided Cekala, Shen and Tamayo in creating the arrangement as well. August Eriksmoen mixed and mastered the song.

Take a listen for yourself via YouTube above. And as always, thank you for all you have done for patients and each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. You truly are The Spark.

Want to learn even more about The Spark? The students behind the song recently appeared on The Wrap employee podcast to discuss how they got involved in the project, what went into writing the song, and how it’s been received by the U-M community. Check it out below!