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Music helps her help others Cynthia Roberston | Sun, Sep 11 2011 12:00 PM

Chula Vista resident Marquita Lawson was sweet 16 when she got her first guitar as a birthday gift. She became enamored by folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary along with the Kingston Trio. When John Denver became popular, she studied every one of his early songs.

"It thrilled me to sing with the exuberance that I felt through his music," Lawson said.

In 1974, she took a college class in which she was allowed to present a song choice in her own interpretation or arrangement.

"It was much like what American Idol is, but with class credits and much pressure," she said.

Lawson chose Cat Stevens' "How Can I Tell You?" for her final. After she performed the song in class, a classmate asked if she would like to duet with her in a famous restaurant chain.

"I had a family, but the restaurant was local and I really wanted to take the challenge and grow," she said.

But it was not meant to be. The family and marriage values of the 1970s had Lawson take her husband's words very seriously.

"He had strong opinions for those who put themselves on display, and he did not understand my desire to play and sing for others," she said. Because of respect for him, she put the guitar away. She played only for her children when her husband was not home.

Years later her sister introduced Lawson to a man who agreed to give her violin and mandolin lessons. He also invited her to an open mic in Chula Vista, where Lawson met her now longtime music partner, Peter Varhola.

They started practicing together in February of 2004 and in June made their debut.

Lawson's playing her music in public soon went to yet another level, in her work as a physical therapy assistant.

At the Sharp Chula Vista Hospital, Lawson helps people learn to move again and get back on their feet.

"At work, not as part of my job, I will encourage patients to sing while they are walking," she said.

Their singing does two things, Lawson explained. It helps them to automatically breathe, and it passes the time that they are working and before they know it, they've met their therapy goals for walking a certain distance.

"Not all of them like to sing," Lawson admitted, "but they usually all smile and enjoy the singing. Sometimes I'll bring my guitar to work and play for a patient who needs encouragement during lunch or after work.

"It is incredible what personal attention does for a person, even a small amount."

Lawson's love for music and its healing qualities has played a special role in the Veterans Home of Chula Vista, where she has performed.

"My heart went out to the people at the Veterans Home. The day I went and sang, I knew I would stay and have since May 2004," she said.

When Lawson isn't working at the hospital or singing at the veterans' home, she is composing her own songs.

"I try to look at the good side of things. There is too much negativity in this world and I don't want to bring anymore into it."

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