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Collaboration keeps Wilsonville songwriter's music alive after Parkinson's diagnosis

After Joanne Duffin was diagnosed with Parkinson's she thought her musical dreams were over. But with a little help, her songs will live on.

WILSONVILLE, Ore. — Ever since she was a child singing with her two older sisters, people told Wilsonville's Joanne Duffin she had the voice of an angel. She dreamed of one day sharing her music with the world.

When she was 19, Joanne landed the lead in the musical "The Music Man" at Brigham Young University.

"I had to pinch myself, it was such an honor," Joanne said.

Music would become her lifelong passion. Not just singing, but songwriting, too. She even hired a songwriting coach in Los Angeles and over the years wrote dozens of songs, many about her own life.

"Music has been the most important influence on my life besides my family and those I love," she said.

When her husband, Steve, crashed an experimental engine-powered sailplane and nearly died in 1987 and later suffered from viral encephalitis, she wrote songs to help her cope. One titled "This Is the Last Song" helped her through the years it would take him to recover.

"I wrote a lot during that time. It's how I could feed my soul during that time," Joanne said.

Credit: KGW
Joanne Duffin plays the piano and sings while her husband, Steve, looks on.

After his recovery, Steve built Joanne a home studio where she recorded her songs. She imagined one day she'd record an album with a full orchestra. But raising four children and life's challenges delayed the dream. Then a diagnosis in March of 2022 threatened to shatter it.

"I knew something was wrong. I had been falling a lot. I noticed my voice had changed," she said. "The doctor told me I have Parkinson's."

Parkinson's is a progressive disorder that impacts the nervous system. It affects the brain and muscle movement, causes tremors, and it was affecting Joanne's voice and ability to play the piano.

"I cried when I realized this might be the end of my music. I might not be able to sing anymore," she said.

As she felt her voice falter and hands tremble, Joanne sat at her Steinway piano and wrote "Is It Over?" with these lyrics:

"I once had the voice of an angel, everybody turned and noticed me. I am afraid my voice is fading just like a photograph. Is it over?"

Local musician helps save Joanne's music

But it wasn't over. Another gifted musician, Naomi LaViolette, would be the voice and hands Joanne needed to help save her music. Joanne learned about Naomi a few years earlier when she attended a concert at Portland's Old Church.

In 2019, a friend named Steve Goodwin was living with Alzheimer's and put on a show-stopping performance of the songs he'd crafted, but never wrote down. His family had feared the songs that had become the soundtrack of their lives would be forgotten forever. But their friend, Naomi, the rare musician with perfect pitch, worked with Steve over many months — she learned his songs, set them to paper and recorded them.

Joanne sat in the front row for that concert when Steve and Naomi performed Steve's album, not knowing she'd one day need Naomi's help, too.

Two months after being diagnosed with Parkinson's, Joanne reached out to Naomi on Facebook and asked if she'd listen to her songs and possibly help rescue her music. One listen and Naomi was enchanted by Joanne's songwriting.

"I love her songs," Naomi said. "I am grateful to have such beautiful music in my life now, and to know Joanne, her story, and her heart. It really is a beautiful thing to play and be a part of."

Credit: KGW
Naomi LaViolette works with Joanne Duffin to learn and perform her songs.

Naomi and Joanne would spend the next several months working together. Joanne recorded her songs on her cell phone and sent them to Naomi. Naomi wrote the notes down and embellished them with her own suggestions. She added musical scores for other instruments to accompany the piano melody Joanne had written.

The two of them collaborated on 13 songs, including “Is It Over?” But as they neared the end, Naomi suggested that Joanne write a final verse to the song:

"Could it be with the help of others that the music in my heart will live on. Another voice might sing the melodies I've written. Another pianist could play the songs. It's not over. I'm so happy."

As Naomi held Joanne's trembling hand, they talked of the future and how Joanne would share her music by making an album of her songs.

"We are going to make a real record. It needs to be heard. It needs to be shared," Naomi said.

Joanne's life-long dream comes true

Through Naomi's musical connections, she was able to help Joanne realize her dream of recording her music with orchestral instruments and additional vocalists. Naomi arranged for Joanne to record an album including the songs they'd saved at Dead Aunt Thelma's recording studio in southeast Portland.

"I am so excited her music is amazing and we are finally capturing it for real in a way she can enjoy forever," Naomi said.

"It's a dream come true," Joanne said. "It's something I've waited a long time for, and with Parkinson's, I don't know how long I will be able to play my music."

Credit: KGW
Naomi LaViolette lays down vocal tracks for the album that Joanne Duffin wrote and the two arranged together.

During the recording sessions, Naomi and other vocalists lent their voices — giving back what Parkinson's was taking from Joanne. A cello joined in. A professional sound engineer, Sacha Muller, added his expertise to get just the right sound mix. And Joanne sang her signature song, "Is It Over?"

After a week in the studio, they had recorded Joanne's dream album, "Apricot Sunrise." For Joanne, it was the gift of a lifetime. As she listened to Sacha play back the final mix of one of her songs, Joanne hugged Naomi.

"Thank you, Naomi, thank you. This is the fruition of a life-long dream," she said.

Hopes to inspire the next generation

Back in her Wilsonville home with Steve, her husband of 47 years, and surrounded by photos of their four children and nine grandchildren, Joanne hoped the album will inspire them.

"I hope they grow up thinking, 'If my Grandma can do this at her age' ...they will be my age someday, and it's not over," Joanne said.

As Steve and Joanne listened to her album, now available streaming for the whole world to hear, Joanne knew — like the words in the final verse in her song — it isn't over.

Parkinson's may one day take its toll, but it can't stop the music. With Naomi's help, Joanne's songs will endure for years to come.

"Apricot Sunrise" by Joanne Duffin will be available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Amazon and other streaming platforms. Physical CDs will be available on Amazon and at the album release concert.

The album release concert is at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 16 at Canby Pioneer Chapel, including performers Joanne Duffin on vocal, Naomi LaViolette on piano and vocal, Oregon Symphony Associate Concertmaster Peter Frajola, cellist Erin Ratzlaf, guitarist Tim Karplus, and Heather Schrock, Aliyih Bristol and Lizzie Soper on vocals.

Credit: Joanne Duffin
The cover of Joanne Duffin's album, "Apricot Sunrise."

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