Dan + Claudia Zanes
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Dan + Claudia Zanes

Brooklyn, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2016 | INDIE | AFM

Brooklyn, New York, United States | INDIE | AFM
Established on Jan, 2016
Duo Folk Children's Music


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Dan + Claudia Zanes @ Chautauqua Institution

Chautauqua, New York, United States

Chautauqua, New York, United States

Dan + Claudia Zanes @ National Mall

Washington, D.C., United States

Washington, D.C., United States



"Dan Zanes on why sensory-friendly shows are ‘the future of family entertainment’"

When Dan Zanes won the Grammy for best musical album for children in 2007, it ratified the success of his second musical career. After fronting the new-wave band Del Fuegos in the 1980s, he reinvented himself as a children's music artist and has become a major figure in the genre, with 16 albums and tours across North America, Australia, Spain and England. So when the Kennedy Center was looking to commission a musical for all ages, Zanes was a natural choice. 
"Night Train 57," starring Zanes and his fiancee, Claudia Eliaza, has been promoted as a "sensory-friendly folk opera" in advance of its world premiere this weekend at the Kennedy Center. "Sensory-friendly" is the new buzz phrase in family entertainment, describing performances that are welcoming to audience members who are struggling with autism, verbal expression, overstimulation or short attention spans. 

Zanes did his first sensory-friendly show two years ago in Pennsylvania. "My show was exactly the same, but the venue had changed things out of consideration for different audiences," he says. "The sound was kept at a more moderate level. The lights were kept up in the house more, because more people were getting up and moving around. Language was posted in the venue that all behavior was welcome, that all reactions were acceptable. Within five minutes, I realized this was the future of family entertainment." 

He did some research and discovered that the Kennedy Center was leading the way. The venue's 2013 guidebook "Sensory-Friendly Programming for People With Social & Cognitive Disabilities" had become "the bible for this movement," Zanes says. He and Eliaza were in Washington in December to work on an album, so they asked to come to the Kennedy Center to talk about the movement. 
"It was such an incredible moment when we met with them," Eliaza recalls. "After a long conversation about sensory-friendly performances, they said, 'How would you like to create such a show?' . . . We came up with this idea for 'Night Train 57,' a musical about a train that can fly through the galaxies. We would be the conductors that helped the audience get to where they wanted to go. Kids find trains fascinating, and it seemed a cool way to talk about leaving the super-familiar to go someplace unfamiliar."

The railroad has long been part of Zanes's music. He won the Grammy for his album "Catch That Train!," and his new album, "Lead Belly, Baby!" boasts the immortal train song "Rock Island Line." That tune was made famous by the folk and blues musician Lead Belly and was a hit for Johnny Cash and Lonnie Donegan, who kicked off the skiffle craze that inspired the Beatles. Zanes encountered the song as a 7-year-old in 1968, when he found Lead Belly staring out from an album cover at the local library.

"It was like he was looking right at me," Zanes says. "I'd grown up in Concord, New Hampshire, and I'd never seen anyone like Lead Belly, nor had I heard anything like his voice with that 12-string guitar. What his music did for me was open my mind to a bigger world."
Lead Belly, who died in 1949, has been a touchstone for Zanes ever since. After the Del Fuegos disbanded and a solo rock album flopped, Zanes found himself in Brooklyn, singing songs for his daughter and the other families that gathered at the local playground. He combined a rock-and-roll energy with the folk songs he had learned from Lead Belly and Pete Seeger. The parents' enthusiasm convinced him he should record this new family music — or, as he prefers to call it, "age-desegregated music." 

"When my daughter was a couple years old," he says, "I went looking for the updated version of Lead Belly, who was a master of playing for young people. . . . I had this sound in my head, but I couldn't find it. When I went into a record store, everything was tied into a cartoon or a movie. So I decided to make that music myself. Rock-and-roll has always felt like folk music to me. I never made the distinction between Pete Seeger and Chuck Berry. I thought they were cousins, and not distant cousins at that."

Zanes had long wanted to do a tribute to Lead Belly, but for the longest time he couldn't find a way to capture his hero's diversity and communitarian spirit. But in the Haitian neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lives, Zanes discovered the island's classic 1950s kompa recordings in the local shops. In the layers of percussion and vocals, he says, is the sound of "many people working together to make something bigger than themselves. It was the pinnacle of social musicmaking."

Social music also was the key concept for "Night Train 57," Eliaza says. As a certified music therapist in New York, she knows that individuals react to music in different ways. So for this tale of an intergalactic train journey, she and Zanes wanted to create songs that could accommodate a variety of responses. "People are invited to sing along," she says, "or if they'd rather move, the songs invite them to dance along."

"Artists like Lead Belly, Seeger and Berry," Zanes adds, "were trying to bring us together. Sensory-friendly programming does the same thing. If I look around a room and I see that somebody's not there, I don't want to be there either. I want to be at the party where everyone's invited." - The Washington Post

"Hold the Strobe Lights: Why 'Sensory-Friendly' Shows Are the Latest Trend In Kids Music"

In October 2015, Dan Zanes took the stage at the Ware Center on the campus of Millersville University to perform a concert. He had been doing that since the early 1980s when he played his first show as the lead guitarist and vocalist of The Del Fuegos, followed by years of making his own music, primarily for children. But this show was unlike any that he had played before: the sound was kept to a lower decibel, the house lights stayed on during his set, and the ushers didn't pounce when kids in the audience wandered out of their seats to dance in the aisles. It was a "sensory-friendly" performance, a trending type of live show that caters to fans with autism spectrum disorders, sensory sensitivities, or other disabilities.

At sensory-friendly events, the house rules are relaxed; ushers are trained to allow audience chatter and movement throughout a show. Sensory-friendly shows also cut down on the strobe lights and avoid total darkness so that attendees feel safe moving around the venue; sound technicians phase out any jarring sounds and keep the show at lower volume.

"We can allow a child who engages with music by being up, moving, and dancing, to do so," explains Zanes. "A sensory-friendly performance is really just a way of opening the door wider."
Roger Ideishi, the director of occupational therapy at Temple University in Philadelphia, traces the origin of the movement back to 2007, when AMC Theaters teamed up with the Autism Society to offer sensory-friendly movie viewing experiences catering to people living with autism that featured reduced noise levels and well-lit theaters. Four years later, the Theater Development Fund (TDF) launched the first autism-friendly Broadway showing of The Lion King. "The media attention to these developments triggered many other cultural arts institutions to explore and expand cultural arts accessibility," he explains.

The Kennedy Center was one of them: each year, the Washington D.C.-based venue helps to put on the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference, and it was during that annual convening that the performing arts center was introduced to the concept. The Kennedy Center hosted its first sensory-friendly performance in 2012 and has since worked to incorporate the special type of programming into as many of their events as possible. For the 2017/2018 season, they have 27 sensory friendly performances on the books.
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In addition to making the necessary technical changes, one thing that the Kennedy Center has noticed that has been crucial to pulling off a successful sensory-friendly show is the pre-performance education.
"We post what we call 'pre-visit stories' on our website to prep the family on what is going to happen in the environment before they come," says the Kennedy Center's Betty Siegel. "Prepping people for a sensory-friendly performance is not about taking stuff away. It's about letting people know what is going to happen in advance so that they are prepared to react in whatever way is most comfortable for them. If a child knows there is going to be a loud thunderclap during a certain part in the set, for instance, they can be mentally prepared." Siegel also notes that when people visit the Kennedy Center website to purchase tickets, a box pops up to alert them if it's a sensory friendly performance. "That doesn't defer people from purchasing tickets," she says. If anything, the venue sells more for these types of shows.
According to Ideishi, the sensory-friendly movement is expanding, largely in part to the venues that have been driving it. "It's primary growth is through education at the annual LEAD conference and it seems to take off from there," he says. In the UK, the concept is being dubbed a "relaxed performance."

One arena embracing the trend is Manhattan's Symphony Space. Jeff Cohen frequents the venue with his kids, including his 16-year-old autistic son, Ben, and notes that his family has enjoyed the way that its sensory-friendly shows have allowed them to interact with the performers. "In March we saw Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band. After the set, the band was walking down the aisle and Ben exclaimed, 'Hi Lucky, my dad is wearing a Billy Joel shirt! Do you like Billy Joel?' He stopped and it turned into a quick conversation about Billy Joel and his music," he recalled.

The father of two, who writes about children's music on his personal blog, notes that as soon as the venue's schedule arrives, both of his boys beg him to purchase tickets to an array of upcoming sensory-friendly shows.

Children's musician Laurie Berkner says she's seen the benefit of working these types of performances into her repertoire. "For as long as I can remember, I have had a high number of fans with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum, and I have always wondered how I could do more for them," she says. The performer gets frequent emails from families explaining that they would love to bring their children to one of her shows but don't, fearing that the experience of a concert would be too overwhelming for them. So when she was asked to perform a "relaxed performance" at the McCarter Theater in Princeton in 2016, she hopped at the chance.

Guests who inquired were given a copy of list of Berkner's planned setlist before the show so that the kids in attendance would know what to expect. The venue refrained from having any flashing lights on stage and kept the audience lit during the show. McCarter Theater also provided professional staff on hand to assist the parents and caregivers, a family restroom, designated activity areas where kids could run around or let off steam as needed, and relaxation areas where children could take a break from the stimulation of the show and even use self-stimulating toys that were provided to help regulate their experience.

"I realize modifying my show a bit can bring the stress level way down for a family that hasn't come to a Laurie Berkner Band concert before," she notes. 

Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, who released a new children's album titled Lullaby Girl in October 2017, was unaware of the movement, but tells Billboard that she has noticed a need to cater to all audience types and has unknowingly been incorporating certain aspects of the sensory-friendly performance model into her show for years.

"I pay attention to the pacing of my set so that kids don't get restless. I start with some songs to listen and sing-along to, then sprinkle the beginning of the set with songs that have motions or vocal parts for participation. By mid-set, I make sure kids can stand up, dance, move, and participate," she says, noting that her sister is an educational specialist who has advised her on how to piece together her set so that it caters to kids of all abilities. "The mix should be well-balanced so that everyone can hear, but not blasting anyone out. The lighting should focus on the performer, and there should be space for the kids to move, as well as a setup that encourages them to focus and listen; the way the chairs are set up, the placement of the stage, and the lighting in the house all play into that. I create ebb and flow for the audience, a set length that is easier for kids, and a good eye on the audience to see where they are and if we need to change gears at any point."

Bill Harley, another Grammy-award winning children's act, only recently became aware of the trend. "One of the most successful things I ever did with an orchestra was to lead a parade of everyone around and through the aisles of the theater while the orchestra played march music. Anyone would have felt included in that. So, this growing interest in inclusion is a great thing."

Recently Zanes and his fiancé, Claudia Eliaza, a vocalist and former director of the music therapy program at Boston Community Music Center, worked with the Kennedy Center to put together its first sensory-friendly theater piece, a folk opera called Night Train 57.
"Since we've started doing sensory friendly shows, we've realized that there is no reason for anyone to not be doing sensory-friendly," says Zanes. "It's a win-win win. It's beautiful for the performers because we are playing for a wider range of people. It's great for the venue because more people come in the door." - Billboard

"Pete Seeger's Legacy Celebrated by Arlo Guthrie & More at Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Benefit"

One of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century, the late folk music icon Pete Seeger was born 100 years ago this month and his legacy was celebrated in song Thursday (May 23) in Albany, N.Y. -- not far from the waters of his beloved Hudson River -- by Arlo Guthrie, Dar Williams, Dan Zanes, Guy Davis, his goddaughter Toshi Reagon and others.

The Pete Seeger Centennial Concert at The Egg, the performing arts center in Albany, was one of scores of events that have taken place nationwide and internationally this month marking Seeger’s birth on May 3, 1919. But the Albany event felt most like an intimate gathering of Seeger’s musical family, sharing songs and memories of the man they knew and loved deeply.

“What a night,” said Guthrie, who led the evening’s bill. “I don’t do a lot of tribute things. But this is one I could not say no to.”

At a time when many musicians seek to link their art to activism and climate change is the most urgent issue of our time, Seeger’s legacy is more relevant than ever.

Thursday’s concert was a benefit for the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, a 106-foot-long wooden replica of a Dutch sailing vessel, which Seeger launched 50 years ago on May 17, 1969. The most-enduring activist organization with its roots in music, the Clearwater is widely recognized for its role in the decades-long cleanup of the Hudson, for its advocacy of environmental and social justice campaigns and for its education programs to train a new generation of environmental activists.

The concert also raised funds for WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, and Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., known as the longest continuously operating folk music venue in the United States and now run as a nonprofit organization.

To support the Clearwater, Seeger and his late wife, Toshi, guided the creation four decades ago of the Great Hudson River Revival -- better known as the Clearwater Festival -- which each year brings scores of artists and thousands of fans to a riverfront park 30 miles north of New York City. (This year’s event June 15-16 features headliners Mavis Staples, Ani DiFranco, the Wailers and Railroad Earth.)

Longtime festival performers, Bill and Livia Vanaver of Vanaver Caravan, whose work mixes music and dance, opened Thursday’s show, accompanied by Linda Richards, who sang “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song).” Seeger’s lyrics -- written in 1966 but no less relevant now -- describe his desire to clean the Hudson as a metaphor for healing the nation.

Native American folk/blues artist Cary Morin offered Seeger’s version of the Irish ballad “Fare Thee Well.” Amythyst Kiah, whose rich vocals brought Odetta to mind, sang a breathtaking rendition of the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” and, fittingly, ahead of Memorial Day, the anti-war classic “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream.”

The sets by Puerto Rican singer/songwriter and activist Taína Asili, banjo player Tony Trischka and the banjo-violin duo of Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton paid tribute, respectively, to Seeger’s love of music of all cultures and his considerable versatility on his signature banjo.

David Gonzalez, before reading part of his epic poem “Oh! Hudson,” recalled the night in 2011 when Seeger performed at a theater on 95th Street in Manhattan, then walked down Broadway to join Occupy Wall Street demonstrators at Columbus Circle, a distance of nearly 40 blocks. Seeger was 92 years old at the time.

Davis, who accompanied Seeger on his final tour in 2008, performed “Midnight Special,” recorded by the great folk/blues artist Lead Belly, who mentored a young Pete Seeger and taught him the 12-string guitar after the two met in the 1940s.

Dan Zanes and his wife Claudia Eliaza Zanes sang “Stewball” a cappella, in the style of Lead Belly and Seeger’s group the Weavers, accompanied only by clack sticks -- a nod to Seeger’s love of chopping wood at his mountainside home in Beacon, N.Y., said Dan Zanes. The couple also sang “Turn! Turn! Turn! (“To Everything There Is A Season”) but with the lyrics written for children by Toshi Seeger.

Living not far from the home that Seeger built for his family in Beacon, Williams recalled the singer as a neighbor she ran into at the post office or saw putting out his trash. She remembered a day in 1998 when they had performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien -- and Seeger was eager to leave to get back home to attend a Clearwater meeting. In her lovely song “The Hudson,” Williams sang: “Even for us New Yorkers, there's a time in every day/ the river takes our breath away.”

Reagon, the daughter of civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock and named for Seeger’s wife, remembered when she was a young singer aspiring to perform at the Clearwater Festival. “Come be a litter picker” first, Toshi Seeger replied. Reagon urged the audience to remember the extraordinary contribution Toshi Seeger played in her husband’s global career. “All hail, Toshi Seeger,” she said.

For her set, Reagon chose to open with a song she said she first learned from an Earth, Wind and Fire album “and it was really shocking to me to learn my godfather wrote it.” The song was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and its message endures, said Reagon. “Let us all remember to grieve and then come back and fight for freedom.” Then, accompanied by Dan and Claudia Zanes, Richards, Williams and Davis, Reagon turned “Sailing Up, Sailing Down” into a blues romp.

No living artist had closer ties to Seeger than Guthrie. His father, Woody, was Seeger’s longtime friend, and Arlo toured with Seeger for some four decades. “He brought humanity together with his actions, not just as a performer but as a human being,” Guthrie told Billboard after Seeger’s death in 2014.

At Thursday’s concert, Guthrie opened with a driving version of Lead Belly’s “Alabama Bound” on 12-string guitar -- but his choice of songs was almost secondary to his delightful, detailed, rambling tales of lifelong encounters with Seeger.

There was the day a young Guthrie bought a vintage English sports car from Seeger, which the older singer took for a test drive -- on the wrong side of a two-lane road. “I thought I was in England” Guthrie says Seeger declared afterward. “That’s when I started to mistrust authority,” deadpanned Guthrie.

Or that time at the folk festival in Denmark where Seeger played so many sing-a-longs that Guthrie questioned how to possibly follow his act. Guthrie said he decided to introduce a song “by that great American folk singer, Elvis Presley.” Seeger glared at him -- then played along on the banjo. As the audience did that day in Denmark, the Albany crowd beautifully sang along to Guthrie’s version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

For the show’s finale, Guthrie was joined by all the artists for a song which his father had written but Seeger had popularized. It is best known for its imagery of “wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling” from “California to the New York islands.” But the song’s lesser-known final verse is more important than ever now.

Affirming Seeger’s lifelong vision of a just and caring nation, the audience joined the artists to sing:

“Nobody living can ever stop me

As I go walking that freedom highway;

Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.” - Billboard

"Meet the Musical Duo Leading the Sensory Friendly Movement"

Dan Zanes is not your typical children’s musician. He founded the ’80s rock band The Del Fuegos, which was named “best new band” by Rolling Stone in 1984 and counted Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen as fans. Despite hit singles and releasing music on a major label, the band split up at the end of the decade. After becoming a father, Zanes began playing music for his daughter and the kids in the neighborhood. Several years later, Zanes has become a household name in the children’s music genre, winning a Grammy Award and collaborating with famous musicians on his extensive discography like Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, Sharon Jones, Bob Weir, Aimee Mann and more.

Now, with the help of his wife and musical partner, Haitian-American vocalist and music therapist Claudia Eliaza, he’s fighting for more accessibility and inclusivity in music through his work in the budding sensory friendly movement. While Eliaza received her degree in music therapy from the distinguished Berklee College of Music and had experience bringing music into children’s lives, Zanes stumbled into it by way of his daughter, now calling his work in children’s music, “the most satisfying thing” he’s ever done. The pair are eager to share the story of the sensory friendly movement—an artistic movement that’s growing and transforming the lives of children and families across the country.

So, what exactly does “sensory friendly” mean and why is it so important? Performances that are dubbed sensory friendly refer to the conditions that make a show more agreeable and comfortable for all people, especially those who are on the autism spectrum or who have other social, learning and sensory disabilities. Among other things, this means sound and lighting, venue rules and seating arrangements are modified in such a way that the show is safe and enjoyable for everyone. Zanes was immediately struck by how powerful and unifying his first sensory friendly show was and he’s been devoted to the concept ever since.

“I remember that the first experience really blew my mind because I’ve never seen that type of inclusion and accessibility before, but what was interesting about it was that I just did my typical show,” says Zanes. “The work was really the venue because they did a little bit of work to make the conditions more agreeable for a larger community and more folks were able to come to the show. There was no question in my mind that that was the future of family performances. It was absolutely clear that there is no reason that [my shows] would be anything but that moving forward.”

Eliaza, who performs onstage alongside Zanes, talked in depth about why sensory friendly shows are so vital and why there should be more of them. “We’ve had experiences where there have been families with special-needs children and it’s a challenge for them because sometimes these families are afraid to go into public spaces because of the judgement, the stigma, all these things that come along with the unpredictable behaviors of their child,” says Eliaza. “So, what we were finding was a lot of the families are split where mom might be doing something with this child who is neurotypical and dad is taking the other child to do other sorts of activities, but the families aren’t coming together and having these social experiences together.”

Zanes also makes clear that these shows aren’t just for those with special needs. These are shows that are designed to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, but he says that the term “sensory friendly” is often misinterpreted. “Because it’s early days in this movement, a lot of the families with what we would call neurotypical kids don’t recognize that they’re still included in this thing,” says Zanes. “It’s just a way of opening the door wider or maybe even a clearer analogy would be that just because a show and a venue is wheelchair accessible doesn’t mean that the show is only for people in wheelchairs.”

Eliaza speaks to the tangible benefits of these shows, even for those without special needs. “We’ve been blessed to hear from a lot of families after the shows who might not have known much about what sensory friendly was and they brought their, for lack of a better term, ‘neurotypical’ families, and they expressed how incredible, to the point where they were moved to tears, it was to be in a shared space with neighbors that they might not have met and to have this joyous moment with their children,” says Eliaza.

The Kennedy Center has been leading the sensory friendly charge for the last several years as their 2013 guidebook has become the movement’s go-to, all-encompassing online resource. Zanes and Eliaza’s latest project, the comic folk opera Night Train 57 became the first sensory friendly album to be commissioned by the Kennedy Center and it’s available now. Zanes describes the organization’s Director of VSA and Accessibility, Betty Siegel, as “the Bob Dylan of sensory friendly” and Zanes and Eliaza have lauded the center as being a valuable resource when they were brand new to the movement. The center helped them educate venues and promoters about what modifications needed to be made in order for them to put on sensory friendly shows and according to Zanes, they were quick to get onboard.

“We’ve never had a presenter say no,” says Zanes. “Once they get the information and they realize how easy and straightforward it is, everybody says yes. If we’re talking about sensory friendly and it doesn’t sound like it’s tons of fun, we’ve done something wrong in communicating it because it’s an incredible atmosphere.”

Eliaza recalls one particularly moving experience where a nonverbal child was moved by one of the duo’s performances. “We had a child who was wheelchair bound and we talked to her mother after the show and the child was just so cheerful,” says Eliaza. “She was nonverbal, but very excited. She was crying and the mother told us how this was her first live performance. I think the child was about 12 or 13. That really hits your heart.”

Zanes emphasizes that he doesn’t just want shows to be accessible to people with certain special needs. He wants to see sensory friendly become the new norm to make sure that as many people can be included as possible. One of the reasons that Zanes and Eliaza’s effort is so worthwhile and inspiring is that music and art both are crucial in the development of young children, so the more children that are exposed to the arts, the better.

“Whether or not the funding for music is cut in schools, what we get from our view, is this constant reminder of how deeply music affects people and how much music is a part of the human experience,” says Zanes. “Music is a way of communicating,” adds Eliaza. “Where words fail, music speaks. Music helps us learn. Music helps us stay grounded. Music helps us to connect. Music helps us to make sense of the world and it helps us express ourselves.” - Paste Magazine


  • Night Train 57 (Album) 
  • Rock Island Line (singe, Lead Belly, Baby!)
  • This Little Light of Mine (single, Family Roots Treasury)



Grammy award winning children’s performer Dan Zanes and Haitian-American music therapist / jazz vocalist Claudia Eliaza have been making music with each other since the day they met in the fall of 2016.

The two decided while sitting at Dan’s kitchen table that afternoon that they would continue singing together and, in the spirit of inclusion and good times, would work with presenters to try and make all of their concerts sensory friendly.

Inspired by their artful modern-day all-ages folk music and their commitment to accessibility, the Kennedy Center commissioned Claudia and Dan to create a theater piece for young audiences. Night Train 57: A Sensory Friendly Comic Folk Opera premiered in October 2017 and has been performed several times since. The soundtrack recording is available on Festival Five Records.

Their love of songs and communal music-making lead to a publishing deal with the Quarto Group USA and the result, a songbook entitled Dan Zanes’ House Party: A Family Roots Music Treasury, was released in late 2018. This has opened the doors to many new conversations with parents, educators, music therapists, and fellow musicians about how to work together to create a healthier, more musical (and ultimately, more festive), society.

While taking on these projects, Claudia and Dan have continued to bring their music to family shows, school workshops, community singalongs, and folk festivals throughout the U.S. and into Canada. They take their commitment to accessibility and inclusion with them wherever they go.

And – the icing on the cake – in the midst of it all they were married!

Band Members