“Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It’s transporting… It can take you right back, years back, to the very moment certain things happened in your life. It’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.” — Aretha Franklin
I’ve mulled over a blog post for days, uninspired and struggling with the blank page staring back at me each morning. I’ve blamed it on the lingering malaise from a prolonged pandemic, the political and economic unrest, news headlines I try to avoid, and a lack of inspiration. Yesterday I realized the solution to my struggle had been close at hand all the time: my long-standing morning diet of classical music, playing softly as I write. It’s been a lifetime source of comfort, contemplation, memories, even inspiration. In the prolonged period of COVID’s continuing waves, necessary restrictions and isolation music has been the best medicine for my spirit.
As I began to write, I realized that music has played an important role in my life for a long time. My father’s family loved to sing together at family gatherings. My parents danced around our living room to the big band music of Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller. I showed “musical aptitude” in grade school and was soon enrolled in piano and violin lessons. Any promise of a musical career, however, was short-lived. Despite weekly lessons, my preference was to play popular tunes “by ear” on the piano rather than practice the assigned keyboard exercises. I quit violin lessons, and my piano lessons soon met a similar fate. For my final recital piece I chose Chopin’s somber “Funeral March,” signaling a conclusion to my piano career, despite the despair of my piano teacher. I settled on the school band as my next musical challenge but I was assigned a French horn to learn to play, since, as the band director explained, the horn section needed “beefing” up. My band experience may have permanently soured any inclination to pursue a musical career.
Our high school band was predominantly a marching band. The members were outfitted in uniforms reminiscent of toy soldiers—unattractive for any developing girl. The band accompanied small-town parades and halftime entertainment during high school football season. Worse, the repertoire of marching music for French horns translated to little more than bruised lips bouncing against the brass mouthpiece and a monotonous succession of after beats, “te ta, te ta,”. Only when football season ended, did we have an opportunity to play more engaging music. In the Spring of my senior year, our band leader chose Dvořák’s “The New World Symphony” to play for the regional competition.
When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed though our cross fire…
I like to believe our enthusiasm for leading with those first few opening measures of the symphony was entirely understandable. Given the opportunity to finally “shine” in the opening measures of Dvorak’s symphony, we made certain we were heard, blasting out the opening notes with no attention to subtlety or modulation. I still remember the look on our band leader’s face.
By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some Music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.
From: “The Junior High School Band Concert,” by David Wagoner; Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
I gave up French horn when I left for college, opting instead to sing in the college choir my first year. Despite ultimately veering into psychology, my short-lived musical forays had lasting benefits, fostering a deep and lasting love of music. Many years later, as a young wife and mother living in a small university town in the Maritimes, music returned to my life, this time in the form of a recorder quintet with four friends. We practiced diligently each week, even occasionally performing in our community. The weekly practices were a source of happiness and temporarily took me out of my unhappiness.
A few short years later, my first husband drowned, and again, I found comfort in music during the long nights of grief and sorrow. I recorded a musical history of our marriage, comprised of songs from the 70s and 80s, listening to it until the tape was finally too stretched and worn to be played. Many years later, by then remarried and living in Southern California, I enrolled in African drumming lessons, learning and playing West African rhythms on the djembe and dunun. Whatever pressures I felt during the week vanished in the drumming classes. Drumming together with others was an inspiring and joyful activity, one I still miss doing.
As I look back on my musical life, what emerges is not only love and interest in music but my understanding of how beneficial music has been in my life. I understand why music had such an important role in medicine and healing throughout history. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul. Ancient Egyptians and indigenous peoples used singing and chanting in their healing rituals. After World War II, the U.S. Veterans Administration incorporated music as an adjunct therapy for shell-shocked soldiers. Today, music therapy is widely used to promote healing and enhance the quality of patients ’lives.
The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental. It is the profoundest non-chemical medication. — Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of Awakenings
There are many ways in which music is good for us, something I’ve experienced many times in my life. Music is beneficial to heart health, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing. Used with cancer patients, it helps to decrease anxiety and ease nausea and is also effective in pain management. Music helps us to relax, reduces fatigue, stress, and alleviates depression. Used during exercise, music can enhance physical performance and help us exercise more efficiently.
I now appreciate that however undistinguished my musical achievement was in my teens, there were still benefits gained from my experiences. Music has the potential to enhance youthful self-esteem and academic performance. As we age, it helps to protect mental sharpness and brain functioning. Among Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, music has been shown to play an important role in enhancing memory, triggering life stories and face-name recognition, something I witnessed in interactions with my mother in her final years as an Alzheimer’s patient.
Music continues to inhabit my daily life. It’s been an important source of comfort and solace during these many months of COVID, helping to diminish anxiety, stress, restless nights and even the doldrums. It has been my most available and comforting balm in this prolonged pandemic.
I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.
—George Bernard Shaw
Writing Suggestions: How has music influenced your life?
- Consider the role music has played in your life. How has it been beneficial to you?
- Was there particular music that helped you through treatment, recovery from surgical treatment or another difficult time? Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
- Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
- Take any favorite musical recording and listen to it. Keep your notebook nearby. Capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind as you listen. Once the recording ends, begin freewriting. Re-read what you’ve written and underline one sentence that has power for you in some way. Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. This time, set the timer for 15 minutes and see where your writing takes you.