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The Ever-Deeper Gratitude of Lori-Ann Speed

Battling breast cancer renews Deep Cove musician's
commitment to her Muse.

By Trevor Carolan for The Outlook, December 8, 2000

John Lennon reckoned that life is what happens to us while we're busy making other plans. For Deep Cove pianist and composer Lori-Ann Speed, the full reality of Lennon's insight came crashing down less than three years ago.

Raised near Shuswap, Speed's impressive arrival on the West Coast music scene always had a made-for-TV movie quality about it. Learning piano at an early age, she gained a music degree at UBC before training in France to compose for films back home in Canada. Then a flock of feature performing gigs at the posher Vancouver hotels dovetailed with the highlife as she worked as a ski instructor on the slopes of Whistler-Blackcomb. Amid all this she recorded a pair of albums, establishing the fact that she really was an artist who knew how to play.

Add a near-brush with an Academy Award, a daughter who arrived en route, a growing reputation as a community supporter in the Cove, and then - the phone rang one February evening.

"I remember the moment like yesterday," Speed recalls. "My knees became weak; I felt stunned - a breast cancer diagnosis."

We are talking together above Burrard Inlet on a brilliant December morning. Speed looks toward the immensity of Mount Seymour and relates how she began her inner search.

"I sensed that my life was over as I'd known it," she says. "So I took the cancer as a big red flag of imbalance on the physical, spiritual and emotional levels. In order to come to an understanding of its message, 1 knew I had a journey ahead of' me - a pilgrimage to the deepest parts of myself."

Her cathartic experience strengthened and deepened Speed as a human being. The cancer, she explains, ultimately led her back to herself.

The illness is trying to get our attention," she says. "We can have a dialogue with this part of us that's ill and learn from it."

Speed sought grounding in her wounded body. A year previous she had followed her young daughter into the practice of Tae Kwon Do. She gave herself a goal - to earn a coveted black belt.

"On a certain level I like working away at something where there's a tangible result to show for it," she explains. "Sticking to a commitment is a good metaphor for life and Tae Kwon Do is ideal for helping us see the places where we've tended to quit on ourselves in the past - where we've wavered in our life.

"That's the 'art' of the martial arts."

Working through endless hours of treatments, Speed also renewed her commitment to music, a thing that had become a diminished presence in her life.

"I came to see that wellness comes from following your heart's desire," she says with a smile. "That's a common theme among cancer survivors - following your bliss, whether it's moving to the country or the city, or getting married or unmarried, whatever. I decided the best possible medicine was my own music, and much of my first new album in five years comes from the whole process of this cancer business."

Speed got her musician's chops back. Three months before recording her remarkable In the Wake of a Whisper, she performed in concert at Christ Church cathedral. Steadily, the return to her Muse brought Speed back to life.

"Working with music became a constant reminder to trust in myself, and ultimately in a higher power," she says with conviction. "It showed me that in the midst of all this chaos there's a place of real quietness and certainty. And knowing that 1 had to walk through that doorway - well, that became my mantra.

"Creating something of beauty is very therapeutic!" Her getting well again shows all over In the Wake of a Whisper. Exquisitely recorded with lush orchestral overtones at UBC's acclaimed Chan Centre, Speed's bravura work at the Steinway Grand packs a lyric triumphancy that cuts across traditional genres like a glistening pianissimo stairway. Sparkling classical technique marries North Shore soundscapes with just a taste of nightclub jazz that's flavoured with all the soulful richness of the Beatles and the simple magic of the laughing Buddha. One listening tells you this is soulful stuff, an adult contemplative music for counting your blessings to.

Could any artist ask for more?

"When I consider the alternatives, I don't think so," Speed laughs. "As an artist, finally finding your own voice is what it's all about, whatever payment we might have to make. Can we be reminded often enough of how important it is to know gratitude?"

Trevor Carolan is a Deep Cove-based writer.
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