Songs of Shawnee

Friday, January 17, 2003


For most of her adult life, Zola Van was a music teacher in the public schools who enjoyed the outdoors and playing the piano. She gave private piano lessons and played "The Wedding March" on many Saturdays. Thirteen years ago she became the mother of the first of her two daughters, Jessica and Katelyn. "Mommy" was and is a role central to her life.

But now Van is a pianist whose name and CD are riding high on the new age music charts, and her quiet life suddenly includes the possibility of hiring a manager to start booking concerts.

"Do you know anybody?" she asks.

It all started in 2000 when Van recorded a CD of piano solos inspired by her love of Shawnee National Forest. Titled "River to River Trail: The Hike through Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois," the CD provides a musical map of the 175-mile hiking trail that stretches from the Ohio to the Mississippi rivers. Some of the song titles evoke names familiar even to non-hikers: "Angels' Dance at Garden of the Gods" or "Mighty River: Tower Rock," for instance. The liner notes include her comments about each of the places.

Van's husband, Jack, is a retired English teacher who is on the board of directors of the River to River Trail Society.

The CD was sold on and at local wineries and became particularly a popular with hikers. American Hiker magazine asked her to write about the "River to River Trail" in a 2001 edition. Outdoor Illinois magazine and Backpacker magazine wrote stories about her.

The following year Van recorded another CD, "Paint the Forest Winter," a collection of more songs from the forest. To locals there are more familiar titles: "Chamnesstown School Trail at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge" or "Promise of Spring at Bald Knob." The CD was recorded at SIU's Shryock Auditorium.

Little attention was paid to the CD until a Canadian promoter who had heard her music began making sure people who program new age music for radio stations knew the name Zola Van.

She grew up hating her first name, but it's a good one if you're interested in name recognition.

In December, Van's "Paint the Forest Winter" CD went to No. 1 in New Age Voice, a magazine that charts new age music radio play. Her album on the NAV Top 100 Chart was ahead of such better known new age music names as George Winston, Mannheim Steamroller and John Tesh.

Van's is only the third album of piano solos ever to reach No. 1.

Van grew up in nearby Johnston City, Ill., and started playing piano at age 6. Her grandmother and mother were both pianists so she didn't really have any choice, but she did have an aptitude for making up her own music.

"I would lay down at night to sleep and I would be hearing all this music," she said. It disturbed her, but her mother had a solution.

"She said, Just turn it down enough so you can go to sleep," Van recalled.

As a girl she hiked with her family all over the Shawnee National Forest. Some of their favorite spots were the Garden of the Gods and Pound's Hollow, a swimming hole near Herod, Ill.

She graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a music education degree and began a teaching career at Southern Illinois schools that ended when the state began cutting its budget by trimming arts programs.

Some listeners ask if she hears music while she's hiking. It doesn't happen that way. Music comes to her naturally and unexpectedly, sometimes while shopping at the Kroger store. She immediately writes it down on a napkin or piece of paper or it will be lost, she says.

"If I have to sit at the piano and have to force-write a piece I will never use it."

Hearing the music herself connects it to an experience, such as "Winter's Kiss at Rim Rock Trail."

"I think in music, I feel in music, I emote things musically," Van says.

Not everything in the forest is pretty, she says. "Trail of Tears: Kyrie at Brownfield" is her evocation of the tragedy of the Trail of Tears and the penitential rite from the Latin Mass. "It forgives is all," she says referring to the rite. "Tragedy isn't the word when you read about what happened."

Many different kinds of music can be found in the new age category. "That's just where I fit in," she says.

Some new age music is overtly spiritual. Van, a Catholic, says she feels spiritual when she writes and plays her music. "Spiritual is just being passionate about how you feel about something," she says.

"... I love Southern Illinois and I love the forest," she says. She also grew up loving music. "I'm lucky that these loves were made to converge."

Her own tastes in music ranges from new age artists George Winston and Will Ackerman to such classical composers as Debussy and Bach. "There's nothing like Bach to keep your fingers and brain working," Van says.

One of her songs, "Shooting Stars on Trillium Trail," was included on a nationally distributed compilation CD titled "The HeartAid Project." The CD is a collection of piano music benefiting the victims of the families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Next week, Van begins recording her next CD, a collection of music to be called "Carol."

All this is still relatively new to Van. "We're trying," she said. "When we looked at this we took the approach, We're starting a business. When we started, we didn't even know how."

For information about Zola Van, visit

335-6611, extension 182

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