Every Monday evening, I pack up my djembe, a rather weighty traditional African drum made from a hollowed out tree trunk, and drive to downtown San Diego for a drumming class with Monette Marino-Keita , an exceptional percussionist and teacher, and wife of Grand Master djembe player, Mamady Keita. Mamady is the founder of Tam Tam Mandingue, an international network of schools with the mission of fostering interest and participation in traditional West African drumming, dance, and cultural art forms as well as preserving the Mandingue musical tradition and fostering it as a tool to promote tolerance, understanding, equality, and peace. Tomorrow night, I’m in for a treat: Mamady will be teaching my beginner’s class. (For a glimpse of Mamady teaching a teaching a djembe class, click here.)
Given my age and stage in life, I’m sure to be in the beginner class indefinitely, but mastery isn’t the reason I drum. I love music and rhythm. I drum because it’s joyous activity. I drum because drumming in a community of other drummers is exhilarating. Drumming, dancing–anything to do with music–makes me feel better. The cares of the day disappear. Drumming has been one of the best medicines for my heart—emotionally and physically—since I began playing.
It’s no surprise. 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 used 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. Take a look at this week’s Coping with Cancer online newsletter, and you’ll find a number of tips for making music your therapy from Dr. Suzanne Hanser, music therapist.
“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.” In a number of scientific studies, music has helped reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression. 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.
The role of music in memory is also a powerful one. We associate songs and other musical pieces with people, places and emotions we’ve experienced in the past. In a number of studies, researchers have demonstrated that hearing music associated with past event from a person’s life evokes memories of that experience. Not only does music trigger life stories, but it has also can improve memory functioning and even face-name recognition among Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
My mother died from Alzheimer’s in 2000, and during my last visit with her, music worked its magic. I arrived at the Alzheimer’s residence that became her home for the final years of her life, shocked to observe the degree of physical and mental deterioration in the month since I’d seen her last. She was completely unresponsive to me, no longer able to walk, and sat motionless in a wheelchair, head bobbing listlessly on her chest. I tried without success to elicit a reaction from her and finally, decided to take her outside into the garden. I pushed her chair through the double doors and positioned her next to a Bougainvillea, furious with red blooms. I hoped for a glimmer of life, some sign of my mother in her motionless body, but she was completely unaware that the scenery had changed. At a loss, I took her hand and began singing, an old song from the 1940’s, one she had often sung to me as a child: “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,” I began, struggling to remember the lyrics. As I sang, I saw her slowly raise her head and fix her gaze on my face. With considerable effort, she smiled and haltingly began to speak. “Why,” she struggled for words, “it’s Sharon!” She smiled contentedly and closed her eyes. “I’m happy,” she said. It was all I could do to not burst into tears.
Music plays a powerful role in our lives. Why not write about the role it’s had in yours? Perhaps music has been important in your healing or that of a loved one. Music is a great trigger for our memories and the stories or poems that emanate from them. Even the song “Happy Birthday,” can prompt a wealth of memories. I know. I’ve had my writing groups sing “Happy Birthday” in laughing unison before they begin writing–and the wealth of stories that result surprises everyone.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- 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.
“If music be the food of love…” Shakespeare wrote. Imagine what the bard might have penned if he’d known about music’s power to heal!