February 27, 2022: Music Matters: An Rx For Troubled Times

“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.

September 14, 2020: Remember: Rediscovering Inspiration

In the long days of the continuing COVID pandemic, I’ve complained that my muse has gone into hiding.  My daily habit of writing has suffered.  Oh, I still open my notebook and write, often beginning, these days, with the weather–a few words to get my pen (and my brain) moving.  But I confess to a spiritual malaise, a lassitude, that I work to fend off daily.  My notebook pages attest to the lack of inspiration, the aimless paragraphs that seem to go nowhere, broken only by the periods I lead writing workshops for Gilda’s Club, buoyed by the inspiration that ignites in me.

It’s not just cancer that gets written about in these groups, but life–the places, people and experience that make up one’s whole life, not just the cancer chapter.  The shared writing in my cancer writing groups got me to reconsidering my other blog, www.writingtheheart.ca, previously focused on the lived experience of heart failure, a condition I have.  I’ve experienced decreasing motivation to create new posts for it for the past many weeks.  Ironically, my heart just hasn’t been in it. “Heart failure patient” is not an identity I want to claim—other than its necessity in the routine checkups with my cardiologist.  To continue to write about living with heart failure was only making me feel depressed.   I was heading down a rabbit hole. 

I decided to completely re-vamp the heart blog site from writing about theheart experience to, rather, what we “carry” in our hearts—events, places and people who’ve mattered; the memories of who we were at different times in our lives.    I returned to a favorite quote from novelist Alice Hoffman, whose oncologist wisely reminded her that that her cancer was not her whole book, only a chapter.  The same is true for any of life’s crises.   Many writers, well and lesser known, began writing from a crisis, as poet and MD William Carlos Williams once remarked.  Writing gives us a means to express the tumultuous emotions accompanying unexpected loss, trauma or serious illness. It’s one of the most important aspects of its healing benefits:  getting the words on the page as a way to make sense of what we’re feeling and release the negative emotions from the body.  But once the crisis has passed, then where do we find the inspiration and motivation to continue writing?   Er, Doctor, heal thyself? I needed a dose of my own advice.  

Where do we find our inspiration?  It’s in the raw material of life:  the people, places and experiences we’ve had.  I remember the inspiration of artist and writer, Joe Brainard, best known for his memoir I Remember (1975), described as “a masterpiece,” “completely original,” and “funny and deeply moving.”  Brainard captured his life story in a series of brief sentences, each beginning with the words, “I remember,” observations about his life growing up in the 1950’s.  For example, here are a few: “I remember Davy Crockett hats…,” “I remember Easter egg grass,” “I remember birthday parties,” or “I remember pink and brown and white ice cream in layers.”  Not surprisingly, his “I remember” lists inspire us all. A single “I remember” can take us into memories and stories of our own.  Poet Kenneth Koch was inspired by Brainard to first use “I remember” as a writing prompt in his classes.  Natalie Goldberg later suggested a similar exercise for writing memoir. I have used the same exercise in my writing groups. Sadly, Brainard died in 1994 of Aids induced pneumonia, but his book continues to delight and inspire anyone who reads it.   

Memories, the stories of our lives, are also triggered by our everyday objects, our keepsakes, the artifacts of life. I remember the first time I met Pat Schneider, former founder of Amherst Writers and Artists.  I’d signed up for a week long workshop with her at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley shortly after completing seven weeks of radiation and a painful experience of downsizing a nonprofit.  I hungered to rediscover something creative in myself.  Writing was something I’d done all my life and loved most.  But I did not expect to find so much inspiration in the ordinary.  I was very much mistaken.

 The enduring memory I have of that week is in the very first exercise Pat offered to the group. Once we’d introduced ourselves, she quietly spread a cloth in the center of our circle of chairs.  Without explanation, she began taking objects from a large wicker basket and silently placing each on the cloth.  The objects were random ones that seemed to have no connection to one another, things like a metal hook, a rosary, an old shaving brush, a wooden spoon, a ring of keys.   When her basket was empty, she began speaking: “Every object is full of story, she said. “Objects are how the world comes to us.” Then she invited us to take something from the assortment of items on the cloth, hold and study it, then begin writing.   

I remember staring at the objects, my heart racing.  We had only twenty minutes to choose something as our “prompt” and write.  I scanned the assortment and quickly chose a half empty pack of old Camel cigarettes.  It smelled of stale tobacco, and I was transported to my pre-adolescent years and a memory of my father, one hand on  the steering wheel of his old Chevy pickup truck, a cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, resting on the driver’s side window, opened to draw out the smoke, and allow his occasional flick of cigarette ash.  We were driving the back roads of Siskiyou county in Northern California, delivering appliances to rural customers.  It was something special to have my father to myself.  I listened with rapt attention as he regaled me with stories from his childhood—largely true but always adorned with fiction.  I began to write, pen racing across the page.  For a time, my father came back to life—he had died of lung cancer a few years earlier—his face, the twinkle in his eyes as he told me his childhood stories–all triggered by a half-empty pack of cigarettes.

Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined.  They trigger our memories, just as making a list of people, places, events you remember will do.   I’ve taken my own prompt in hand now as I dig my way out of the “dry spell” induced by the months of life being “on hold” during the pandemic.  I’m on a mission to write my stories and memories to share with my daughters and grandchildren.  It’s about writing from life, not just the tough stuff it hands us, but the innocence, humor, events that shaped us, the people who mattered.  In all these many weeks of feeling empty of anything creative, being bored with my own words, inspiration has been here–not hiding, but in plain sight.  All I had to do was remember.

Writing Suggestions: 

  • Try the exercise inspired by Joe Brainard’s book, I Remember.  Set the timer for three minutes.  Begin making a list of “I remember” …  be specific, but brief.  For example, “I remember my grandmother’s gold Bulova watch.”  “I remember the class valentine box in my kindergarten class.”  “I remember hiding under my raincoat when I went to see the film “Psycho.”  “I remember the smell of baking cookies in my grandmother’s kitchen.”  Once your time is up, read over your list of “I remember.”  Choose one.  Set the timer again, this time for 15 minutes and begin writing in detail the experience associated with that single “I remember.”  Chances are, you’ll want to write more than fifteen minutes allows! 
  • “Every object is full of story.”  What objects or keepsakes do you have tucked away in drawers or placed on shelves or tables?  What memories and meaning do they hold?  Think of those objects as the keepers of stories.  Choose one (or more) and write the story or memory that each represents. You might be surprised at how much you have to write about.