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Brian’s Songs

Studying, playing and writing music has always come as naturally to Hershey native Brian MacWilliams as breathing, with each note and lyric as vital to his existence as that next breath.

The soundtrack of his life of almost 50 years has included stints as a self-taught pianist and guitarist, long searches for unusual recordings in music stores throughout New York City, and writing original music while juggling a young family and a busy job on Wall Street.

When he wasn’t working, hanging with friends and family, or spending time outdoors skiing, hiking or surfing, MacWilliams would be making and playing music. The Hershey High School grad, class of 1987, was a busy dude. During one three-year period, he worked late at night and almost every weekend to write some 300 original songs.

And then the music stopped.

MacWilliams started having difficulty playing Brian MacWilliams his instruments and singing; his body wouldn’t work the way it always had. He seemed sad and withdrawn. Then came the diagnosis: ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function.

His friends and family decided the illness would not silence the energetic, talented man they knew and loved. His music would endure. They began making a documentary about his struggle and recording some of the hundreds of songs he had written before he fell ill. “Brian’s Songs” was born, giving him a reason to keep living even as his body continued to deteriorate.

But this just isn’t a bunch of well-meaning buddies getting together to film a family video. The group includes an award-winning documentary filmmaker, a high-powered music publisher, a Grammy-winning songwriter, world-class musicians and, wait for it, Rod Stewart’s backup singers.

The group started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise the $55,000 needed for the ambitious project. It ends at 11 p.m. Friday. Michael Rossato-Bennett, the film’s director, won the prestigious Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for U.S. Documentary in 2014 for “Alive Inside,” a documentary showing the use of music in rejuvenating institutionalized Alzheimer’s patients. Rossato-Bennett and his family live across the hall from the MacWilliamses.

“When someone you love suffers, it breaks your hearts into a million pieces. These songs are our friend’s heart and soul. We are racing against the clock to catch and record his beautiful songs before the chance is gone forever,” the campaign website said.

MacWilliams, who moved to the Hershey area in 10th grade, said he is overwhelmed by the support. His wife Julia Faidley was the 1987 HHS valedictorian. The couple lives in New York with their two children.

“I feel immensely grateful that my friends have pulled together to help me realize my music. I am also humbled that so many, both friends and family, and people I don’t even know, have been willing to contribute to help us accomplish this,” MacWilliams said.

The Hershey connection runs deep in the campaign: Scott Reese has years of music industry experience including promoting artists in Asheville, N.C., and Jesse Engle’s helping on the marketing and promotional side.

“Like everyone, I was devastated to learn of his illness. He’s always been super fit and healthy and full of life. It just didn’t seem possible. When something bad happens to someone you love, you want to help,” Engle said.

“The fact that Brian had recently written hundreds of songs before he started getting sick created a perfect opportunity for his friends to be helpful in a very tangible way. It’s given all of us a project to work on, drawing us closer to Brian and Julia and to each other as friends. It’s given Brian a reason to continue fighting to be able to see the project to completion and is providing a source of joy and connection for him during what is otherwise a devastating time. So we really can’t fail.”

MacWilliams’ musical journey began when he was very young and ramped up when he came to Hershey. A self-taught pianist, he picked up the guitar as a teen because “my friends were doing it.” He started playing the acoustic and electric guitar and played in a band with fellow HHS alum Sean Chiolo.

“I would take the bus down to Long Beach Island and we would play all night,” MacWilliams said.

The friends wrote some original music for their band, but MacWilliams said he created the first song “that was all mine” as he walked his young daughter to school one morning in NYC.

“It wasn’t a great song, but it showed me that I was capable of writing what seemed to me a ‘real’ song. After I did that, it kind of became a personal challenge to write a song every weekend. It evolved into sort of an obsession, and I always worried about losing that ability,” he said.

“Sometimes, I’d write two or three songs in a weekend: I’d come home around 7 p.m. from a full week at Citibank, make dinner, drink some coffee, and play and write until about 4 a.m. I spent hours on the weekends writing, though I had to stop around 1 a.m. on Sundays to get enough sleep to be able to go to work Monday morning.”

MacWilliams’ cycle of work, write and repeat ended shortly after he received his diagnosis.

“ALS is a very strange disease; everyone who gets it seems to have their own unique trajectory. In some ways, I can’t imagine a worse disease, but at the same time, when you look around, any sort of life-threatening, debilitating disease not only changes your life, but also changes who you are and how you see yourself, what you hope for,” MacWilliams said.

“It’s very easy to feel sorry for yourself, perhaps for good reason. But there are never any assurances in life, and you just have to live each day as it comes, and remember that this affects not only you, but also your friends and family. My friends and family coming together like this has probably the best way for me to cope with this situation. Community, working together on a positive project like this one, this is probably the best medicine for diseases that don’t have any medicine.”

For more information or to donate to the Kickstarter campaign for “Brian’s Songs,” ( and-als).



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