Chris Thomson and Emma Nadler use their vocations and creative pursuits to convey the emotions spurred by their daughter’s diagnosis.
As parents of a young daughter with serious medical challenges, Deephaven residents Chris Thomson and Emma Nadler have been facing a personal challenge common to parents who find themselves in that situation. What is not common is the way they have dealt with that challenge. Both parents have used their vocations—“callings” might be a better word—and creative pursuits to find a healthy balance between pragmatic acceptance of what is, and hopefulness for what could be.
Thomson, a professional musician (primarily saxophonist), and Nadler, a psychotherapist who also writes biographical nonfiction, are the parents of 4-year old Eden and 7-year old Avi. Eden was born with a rare genetic abnormality that caused a malfunctioning digestive system, making it difficult for her to eat and retain food. She has to be fed through a tube.
“She has always had a hard time eating,” Thomson explains. “She doesn’t understand hunger cues and doesn’t have a desire to eat.” Seven months after Eden was born in 2015, her parents consulted a neurologist, and DNA mapping revealed her extremely rare “genetic deletion.” There have been only a handful of cases documented worldwide.
For people who create music or other forms of art, difficult times can serve as creative stimulation. That seems to be the case with Thomson. His recently released solo album Celestial Being—released online under the stage name Cedar Thoms—was inspired by his family life. Thomson’s instrumental compositions convey in a slightly abstract way the kaleidoscope of emotions he and his wife have experienced. The “celestial being” of the title is Eden.
Thomson, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., has been playing the sax since the age of 9. In the early ‘90s, he came to the Twin Cities to earn a music degree at the University of Minnesota. The Thomson family moved from south Minneapolis to Deephaven in 2017, to be closer to Nadler’s parents and Minnetonka schools’ great special education program. Nadler, who grew up in Orono, has a psychotherapy practice in Wayzata.
Thomson has worked as a sideman with a number of pop and jazz musicians, most notably the chart-topping singer-songwriter Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), with whom he has toured Europe and the U.S. “I’ve had a lot of years of being in other people’s groups and always loved it.” But, as a sideman, “I’m also not doing my own work,” he says. Expressing himself through creating music has also helped him feel better about being a father, he says.
Thomson had made and issued a couple of previous recordings with his jazz quartet. He likes the digital release format. “Last time, I made a CD and ended up with a box of several hundred CDs. I didn’t want to do that again. Anyway, everybody has access to new music through their phones and online. There will be need for that in the future.”
Thomson’s music is informed by years of studying and teaching music theory and technique. But, to create his first album since 2007, he made a conscious effort to tap into his subconscious and let creativity flow, without being preoccupied with written melodies, scales and chords. Thomson wanted his new music to be honest and relatable, expressing “all the things I love in music and sound. It’s not just an album concept.”
He played all of the instruments – horns and keyboards – except for drums, which were added by local musician Greg Schutte. The album was mixed in Schutte’s studio in northeast Minneapolis.
In dealing with the feelings of frustration and powerlessness caused by his daughter’s illness, “I wanted to have a healthy way of expressing those things. We also experience feelings of gratefulness, hope and optimism, and I am stepping toward those, in the middle of what feels like a long and winding road,” says Thomson, who plays tenor, alto, and soprano sax, and bass clarinet. He teaches at the Performing Institute of Minnesota in Eden Prairie.
Over the years, some jazz players, listeners and critics have taken sides in an “acoustic versus electronic” debate. But Thomson thrives in both spheres. He loves playing the sax and “I also love the computer music world, which has a lot of richness to it.”
Jazz is a music of subtleties, mixing major and minor key elements and complex emotions, and that has influenced Thomson’s composing style. “I want to avoid coming off as either overly happy or sad; I want to make the music more nuanced.”
Since digitally releasing the new album on his website, he has showcased the music in a couple of live performances. “We’ve been getting a lot of positive response.”
Playing music is a labor of love that doesn’t always pay the bills. These days, when Thomson has a gig, he has to hire a personal care attendant, since caring for his two children typically requires two adults. But the immediate response of audiences is soul-satisfying and affirming, so he hopes to play more live performances featuring his new music.
Nadler notes that her husband’s lifetime commitment to creating music has proven mutually beneficial in the midst of major challenges: “He benefits from having music in his life as an outlet, and his music benefits from him being able to channel his experiences into it. I’m so glad Chris has used this experience to connect even more with his creative voice. It’s one way through a difficult time and a way to find meaning that’s been really helpful.”
And, it influences the autobiographical fiction writing she does in her spare time, and her work as a therapist. “Everything I do is informed by experiences I’ve had with Eden. Our whole world view has been shaped by how we have been changed and how we’ve sorted through that together. As a therapist, it has deepened the compassion and empathy I have for other people.”
In going through the process of helping her daughter, Nadler has learned first-hand that “there is a lot to be said for lived experience of challenges, in terms of personal development.”
On a positive note, Eden’s health is stable, and last fall she was able to start attending preschool. Her brother Avi attends elementary school locally. “We’re thrilled with the Minnetonka school system,” Thomson says.
What do the kids think of the new album? “Eden is currently in a children’s music phase, but she smiles when I play it and seems really receptive to it,” Thomson says. “She’s always smiling when I play something from it. And Avi seems to like it.”
The family really enjoys living in the lake area, which has proven conducive to creativity. “It’s very healing,” Thomson says. “Living around natural beauty like we have here is a great reminder of how small we are and our place in the world. Feeling connected to the outdoor world and each other has been a huge balm for me. We try to be outside as much as possible because it’s been healing for the whole family.
“It has really been a big change from when I lived in Minneapolis, but I’ve grown to love the trees, and the lake is beautiful. It almost has a country feel. Nature has quite an impact on my creativity. It feels like we’re in a really special place.”