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Patricia Panzarino is a musician. Period.
The Massapequa native also happens to have been born with spinal muscular atrophy. This only means she must be creative beyond simply writing songs.
From her father rigging a lift to get her on his cabin cruiser, to her sister born with the same condition who was bold enough to live independently, Panzarino formed a mantra of “creative perseverance” from a young age. She said her two-word phrase means, “don’t give up, find a way.” It inspires everything from her day-to-day life to the artistic endeavors she holds paramount.
“I definitely don’t want to be segregated,” Panzarino, who now resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, said. “I’m a musician first — who happens to have a disability. I want the playing field to be equal.”
In April, Panzarino released her first solo album, “Just Breathe,” under her stage name — and her mother’s pet name for her growing up — Pidgie. Among other emotional highs and lows, the collection tackles anxiety, the loss of loved ones and unfaithful romantic partners, all while maintaining Panzarino’s self-empowerment.
The cruising-with-the-top-down feel of album opener “Accessory” pairs well with the track’s spirit of moving on from a neglectful partner, a sentiment that also drives the rocker “Kick Ass Boots.”
Shimmering chorus-laden guitars lay emotional foundations on “They Took You Away,” a song Panzarino penned after the death of her father.
“The pandemic hit, my father was in late stage dimension, he was in a nursing home and they locked it down,” she said. “Six months after that, he passed. It was awful not to see him.”
“It’s a little sad, but also comforting,” she added of the track. “I just think that I’m not the only one and it’s comforting for people to hear that they’re not the only one.”
The pandemic and other events over the past few years similarly inspired the anxiety-alleviator, “Just Breathe.”
“A lot of people went through and are still going through anxiety, PTSD,” Panzarino said. “Some people have trouble speaking or being heard, whether it’s biologically or maybe they’re oppressed.”
Panzarino said she hopes listeners to the her new album feel “joy, empowerment, validation and hope, and have some fun.”
Decades of advocating
Panzarino’s musical journey dates back to when she began piano lessons at 6 years old. She played keyboards in two different bands — Range of Motion and OLYPSYS — before her hands weakened, shifting her focus to singing and songwriting.
In 1986, she became a founding member of the Coalition for Disabled Musicians. Donald Jaeger, a drummer who suffered a severe spinal cord injury five years prior, spearheaded the concept to unite musicians with differing abilities who understood each other’s struggles, as well as their strengths.
“The response we got was enormous in 1986,” Panzarino said. “There were not any organizations for musicians with disablities that I had heard of. Now it’s bigger, there’s a lot of other ones.
“That was a really good spring board for me to feel comfortable playing with musicians who understood,” she continued. “In fact, on my album, I have a whole acknowledgment to Donald because he was a big part of my journey.”
In 2012, Panzarino was invited to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts. She won, and she later received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Ms. Wheelchair America Leadership and Advocacy Competition.
She said the empowering and educational event both pushed her to create and release music of her own and positioned her as an inspirational figure in the differently abled community.
“I loved seeing the gleam in their eyes, those young girls, 14 to 20,” she said. “They’re like ‘You’re married, wow!’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, and you can go to college, and live independently.'”
Prior to the pandemic, Panzarino held speaking engagements to inspire young women with disabliites, something she hopes to return to with the pandemic subsiding and songs from a new album to perform. During the talks, she encourages people with disabilities to make themselves seen in the world, either through the arts or by being present in daily life.
“You want to have people accept you, get out there,” she said. “Let’s be visable. I’ve become very visible with this record, that’s a cool thing for me.
“Go to the mall, go out to eat, take walks, smile at people, don’t hang your head down,” she continued. “I say hi to anyone that passes me.”
More work to be done
In the decades since Panzarino was at the forefront of advocacy for disabled musicians, several other organizations have formed to grant greater access and visibility to musicians who happen to be disabled. She has seen progress by way of creative technological innovation to help players, but society has not quite fully adapted.
“We have a long way to go, we’ve come very far, very far,” she said. “If I’m with my personal attendant and I ask directions, the person usually speaks to them instead of me.
“When I tell people I’m a songwriter and a recording artist [they are surprised],” she continued. “We have come far, but we’re a minority, people with disabilities. The world is better since I was a child, but it still has a way to go.”
It’s clear the equal opportunity Panzarino has advocated for throughout her life has not yet been achieved everywhere.
“My studio was very accommodating, but most studios are down a flight of steps,” she said. “A lot of venues are wheelchair accessible, but if you’re the artist, sometimes you can’t get on the stage to perform.”
But it’s not just local venues Panzarino hopes to make accessible for all musicians. She envisions musicians with differing abilities on the world’s grandest stages.
“I dream of a Grammy,” she said. “If I ever got one, they better put a ramp there. It’s a dream. I’m a go-big-or-go-home kind of girl.”
Top photo: Patricia “Pidgie” Panzarino after discussing her new album and lifelong journey with GreaterMassapequa.