(Portions of today’s post previously appeared on July 14, 2013)
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…
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 thought again of Wagoner’s poem this past week as I dusted off my old alto recorder, struggling to remember fingering and play a simple piece I’d once done easily. I found the recorder and a stack of sheet music as I went through boxes of old belongings. When I opened the box and held the recorder it in my hands, my desire to play rekindled. My first attempts were awkward and unmelodic. I’d forgotten fingering, and my fingers lacked the agility I once had. It wasn’t unlike how I felt when I first learned to play the French horn as a twelve-year-old. I wanted to play in the band. Our music teacher and band leader needed French horn players, so I volunteered.
It wasn’t the musical experience I hoped for, but I went on to become first horn throughout junior high and high school The trouble was that the bulk of my musical in the high school band was relegated to football , September through November. I remember how the icy brass mouthpiece banged against my frozen lips as the band performed on the field at every halftime. Worse, I was forced to wear a most unattractive uniform covered in shiny brass buttons and gold cord, which only made look like the toy soldier out of “The Nutcracker. “
So it’s little wonder that given the opportunity to “shine,” as it were, in our annual spring concert, we French horns quite literally blasted out the theme to Dvořák’s “The New World Symphony.” We played with all the enthusiasm of musical students who’d been denied anything but the after beat in the dozens of marches that made up most of our repertoire. Our fervor over-rode our appreciation for subtlety and modulation. The look on our bandleader’s face has stayed with me all these years later. His surprise, no, shock, registering on his face as we belted out those unforgettable bars in our few moments of glory. I quickly gave up my career as a French horn player when I left for college.
It turns out that all those years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, doing pliés while a pianist accompanied my ballet class, playing French horn in the marching band–even playing in a recorder quintet as an adult– were beneficial in ways I didn’t realize at the time. Not only can music enhance youthful self-esteem and academic performance, musical training helps protect our mental sharpness and brain functioning. As I’ve aged, I’m now intent on maintaining my mental acuity for as long as possible.
It’s one of the reasons I signed up for classes in African drumming four years ago. I’d never played a drum, but I’ve played with the same enthusiasm as that youthful horn player I once was. I often joked that I’d remain in the beginner class indefinitely because an accidental shoulder injury cut my drumming career short. Now what? I love music and rhythm. Drumming in a community of other drummers was joyous and exhilarating. But it’s not just drumming: Anything to do with music makes me feel better. Music is good medicine.
“The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of Awakenings wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.” Music has a long history in medicine and healing. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul. Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans incorporated singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals. Even the U.S. Veterans Administration incorporated music an adjunct therapy for shell-shocked soldiers after World War II. Today, music therapy is widely used in hospitals and cancer centers to promote healing and enhance the quality of patients’ lives.
Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music.
- It aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing. In fact, music can actually improve the overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
- It helps reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
- In cancer patients, music can decrease anxiety. Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
- It relieves short-term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
- It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
- Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.
Music also improves memory functioning. Think about it: We associate songs and other musical pieces with the people, places and emotions we experienced in the past. Not only does music our trigger life stories, but it can enhance memory functioning and face-name recognition among Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. (http://clearinghouse.missouriwestern.edu/manuscripts/230.php).
My mother died of Alzheimer’s several years ago. On one of my final visits with her, I was shocked by the physical and mental deterioration in the few weeks since I’d last seen her. Unresponsive and no longer able to walk, and she sat motionless in a wheelchair, her head bobbing listlessly to her chest. I tried to elicit a reaction from her, but without success. I pushed the wheelchair outside and walked around and around the building, before finally stopping to rest, stationing her next to a Bougainvillea furious with red blooms hoping to see a glimmer of life—some sign my mother was still inside her wasting body. I took her hand in mine and impulsively began singing. It was a song she often sang when I was a child.
“Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,” I began, struggling to remember the lyrics. “Let me hear you whisper…” My eyes filled with tears, but I kept singing as much as I could remember. Very slowly, my mother raised her head to fix her eyes on my face. With great effort, she smiled. “Why,” she said, struggling for words, “it’s Sha-ron!” She nodded and smiled once more, closing her eyes. “I’m hap-py,” she said. So, as it happened, was I.
This week, think about music as medicine. What role does music play in your life? Have you used music as part of your healing during illness or loss? How did it help? What memories does a particular song ignite for you? What stories? Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing. Here are a few suggestions for writing:
- Perhaps there was some particular music that helped you through cancer 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 recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it. Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing. Do this for five minutes. When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you. Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.
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