Mark Ash: Healing Through the Power of Music
by Robert Flis / February 9, 2021
The Sincop8ed Noize Foundation is proud to kick off its second edition of Music Industry Talks, with a guest who embodies the spirit of perseverance in the face of challenge. Mark Ash is a Vancouver-based musician who suffered a serious brain injury in a car accident. Through enormous persistence and the power of music, Mark has overcome many challenges associated with his injury and we were fortunate to have him speak to us about his path to recovery and the large role that music had to play.
Mark entered the Vancouver music scene in the early 80s studying bass under the legendary jazz musician René Worst. Throughout the 90s, he toured across North America and opened for bands like Mr. Big and Blue Oyster Cult. During this time, Mark also owned and operated the New York Theatre in Vancouver. However, in 2001 a devastating accident left Mark partially paralyzed. Unable to walk or speak, Mark underwent months of treatment and rehabilitation and was ultimately placed in a group home, expected to never regain his independence. But that was not the end of Mark’s story. Mark credits the healing power of music for helping him recover and today, he plays keyboard in several bands and uses music therapy to help others heal the way he did.
Life Before The Accident
Mark’s mother was a music teacher in Moscow, Russia. When he came to Canada as a kid, Mark found an enormous sense of freedom which he never had back home. In Russia, listening to bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones was prohibited by the communist regime which did not want people to be exposed to popular music. “All the music was censored. Every song had to go through a committee and be judged,” explains Mark. “So Russian music and Western music are very different. But the notes and the melodies are the same.” In high school, Mark grew out his hair, joined a band and embraced the music that he never would have been allowed to enjoy back in Russia. After finishing school, Mark’s father made him join the army “to make him a man.” In the army, Mark played the snare drum each morning as they raised the flag. After six months, he began to play the guitar and bass, the latter of which he was particularly drawn to because of artists like Paul McCartney and Geddy Lee. As the years went on, Mark continued to develop as a musician and had the opportunity to tour across Canada and the United States with various artists. He speaks of his early success in the music industry as a series of building blocks. “Opportunities come up and nothing is for certain,” he says. “You just have to make your own destiny. You make your own choices in life and see where it takes you.” Mark’s destiny took a serious turn in 2001 when a car accident changed his life forever.
Life After The Accident
When Mark woke up in the hospital, he couldn’t move his fingers or speak. “My accident was a pivotal moment,” Mark recalls. “That was a big reality check. I was trapped in my own body.” Recovery was a slow and arduous process. Even after the first couple of years, Mark didn’t see much progress in his recovery, so he decided that the path forward was through education and learning more about how the body works.“Every night I would pray "just make one finger work," recalls Mark. “But that’s a miracle. Miracles happen instantly. Recovery is baby steps. I learned how the brain works. I learned about neuroplasticity, how the brain can heal itself. Doctors are limited in what they can do. It’s the body itself that needs to heal.”And heal it did. While at the time doctors told him that he would never again be able to live a normal life, Mark had other plans. Today he has regained his ability to speak, although as he humorously points out, due to his brain injury he has regained the Russian accent he once lost. Mark also emphasizes the importance of receiving help from others when working through a tough situation. He credits part of his recovery to friends who helped him get better, including one who submitted his story for the Courage To Come Back Award, which he won in 2010.
The Healing Power of Music
An immense part of Mark’s healing process involved both listening to and creating music. “When I could not speak for 5 years, I would listen a lot to every genre of music,” Mark says. “What happens in our bodies, when one sense is diminished, other senses will elevate and try to compensate. So my ears improved.” Mark used music therapy to build new pathways in his brain and start to repair the damage caused by the accident. “They did brain scans while I listened to music, and part of the brain would light up and begin to fire,” he explains. “It built more neurons in that area.” This, combined with many other practices like specialized exercise and nutrition, resulted in extraordinary progress the likes of which nobody expected. While music was instrumental, Mark claims it was one of many factors that contributed to his progress. “Recovery to me is like a puzzle,” he claims. “It’s not one thing.”
The technology available to Mark allowed him to create music even when he couldn’t physically play an instrument. “When I first began playing, we lived in a different world. We lived in an analog world,” says Mark. But with the use of digital recording technology, he was able to not only record his ideas, but make his music more precise and more sophisticated than before. “I relied on technology,” he continues. “And that’s where VAMS come in.”
Working With VAMS
The Vancouver Adapted Music Society is an organization that makes creating music more accessible for people living with disabilities. Mark’s journey with VAMS began just as they were setting up their music studio. With the help of VAMS Engineer and Community Event Organizer Graeme Wyman, Mark got the opportunity to transform his ideas into song and had the chance to play on stage with other people in the program. “When there are 5 people playing with disabilities, we lose them,” Mark says. “We’re just making music. When you play music, you’re thinking about playing your part and you’re not thinking about your problems or your bills. You’re just focusing on music, and that’s priceless.” Working with VAMS has allowed Mark to meet some amazing people, and while no one has gone through exactly the same struggles as him, they all share the common passion for music. “VAMS has many artists that have nerve damage or brain damage,” Mark explains. “So I’ve met many people whose injuries may not be exactly like mine, but they use music as their doctor.” Mark’s recent work includes having written a song about Vancouver called “Let It Rain” and another about the state of the world during the Covid-19 pandemic entitled “Little Flu.”
“There are many different ways of composing songs,” says Mark. “When you’re in the studio today, looking at a producer’s screen, music is 100% math. Everything has to work together. At the same time, it’s 100% soul. How it makes you feel. That’s what music is to me. It’s the feeling and the accuracy of putting it together like a puzzle.”
Having worked so hard and for so long to get back to the point where he can create music again has left Mark with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for hard work. His wisdom for those struggling with recovery from injury can just as easily apply to anyone striving for self improvement.“Will power takes time,” says Mark. “You have to develop it and work on it. When I first started at the gym, I could only do 5 minutes on the machine, but now I can do more. So every day I try to improve myself. Don’t get discouraged. Look at stories like me. I didn’t think I’d ever be playing bass again or even speaking or having a normal life. But slowly, by nature, we heal. Our bodies are made to survive and adapt and we just need to help them. That’s my advice. Be your own doctor, your own therapist, your own nutritionist, your own personal trainer.
You can listen to Mark’s music on his SoundCloud page and follow VAMS for updates and information about upcoming concert productions and events.
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