Thursday, December 31, 2015

Music As Medicine

Two central passions have always moved through my life: music and heart-centered healing. Early in my life, the two passions seemed to be separate and hard to combine. And in order to make a living, I had to focus on one, without much room for the other. Mind-body medicine seemed easier for me to carve a niche in than music, since people seemed to naturally gravitate towards the heart-centered work I developed, and my ideas were welcome and valued at professional conferences and in professional forums. As a 20 year old singer/songwriter, radio dj's loved my songs, but in a world that liked to put musicians in genre boxes, I did not neatly fit in any one box. (I still don't!)

Over time, however, my musical passion kept bubbling up, demanding my attention. And I realized how much music was not only a deep sense of expression and connection, but also a healing force. In fact, when I led personal growth workshops, I always brought along an eclectic collection of songs that touched many facets of the heart. Sure enough, moments would arise when a very specific song would be just right for the healing work a person was doing at that moment. And I would find myself joyful and grateful I had followed my intuition in bringing that very song along. Sometimes I would find myself playing the piano and singing one of my own songs in one of those special healing moments. And sometimes I would invite the whole group to sing together to co-create a healing moment. I became aware, whether in an intentional healing context or not, music itself was medicine.

I know that songwriting has given me a voice for some of the deepest felt experiences that words could not express. And that songs written from that soul-deep place touch the hearts and souls of others. There is a power in the energy and spirit conveyed not just by a singer, but by the words and music of a song. Giving voice to some of the most difficult moments has allowed movement and healing to take place for me. And I have received feedback from listeners that they too have felt movement and healing as their hearts have opened and been touched. Likewise, joy can be shared through music, and when listening to music with others in a live performance venue, the joy multiplies through the communion of our collective hearts.

This reminds me of a comment a cardiologist colleague of mine made many years ago when we both taught at a behavioral medicine conference. While sharing his thoughts about what healing really does take place during open heart surgery, he reflected, "I don't think it is the cutting open of the chest or the technical procedures we perform that allow healing nearly so much as the act of physically holding someone's heart in your hands, literally 'touching the heart.' For many of my patients, whose hearts are well-defended, it takes the act of pulling back the ribs to actually touch the heart. Might it be the intention and energy of my heart conveyed through my hands that allow the healing process to take place?" That reflection always stayed with me: we heal when our hearts are touched. And music is a powerful force that magically and poignantly reaches all the way in and touches the heart.

I was talking with a friend and fellow musician about "music as medicine," a few weeks back, and he shared an extremely touching story from a gig he had just played with Alzheimers' patients. When his trio arrived, the effects of Alzheimers' were very sadly present. The patients stared down at the floor. They did not talk much or interact. As my friend and his trio started to play, the patients began to respond. They became more alert. They became more alive. And then as my friend and his fellow musicians began to sing songs dating back to when these older people were young, the room started to echo with many voices singing along. What a miracle that familiar music could literally transform a group of advanced Alzheimers' patients to a joyful and alive state of being! Stories like this make it clear that music can reach deeply into the soul and evoke a part of our core humanity, even in apparently dire situations.

I have always loved creating musical benefit concerts both to give visibility to organizations doing important work, and to create a magical, healing community environment, where all are touched because of the music that is shared. I am delighted to be supporting Hildy Grossman and her UpStage Lung Cancer organization in producing "Singout! For Cancer: Music As Medicine," a musical evening designed to raise money for this important non-profit's work to raise awareness of lung cancer, and to encourage screening, prevention and research. Last month I wrote about my very special college friend, Art Olivas, who very sadly is suffering the end effects of metastatic lung cancer. Art, like far too many people diagnosed with lung cancer these days, is a lifelong non-smoker. In the face of such large and catastrophic illnesses like cancer, there is healing in taking whatever action can be taken to try to help other people. And feelings of love, grief, anger, overwhelm, hope and desire to make a difference become a well that fuels music to heal and transform. No wonder so many messages are best shared through song. "What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love." "We Are the World."

Music is medicine and it is available to all of us without insurance snafus or medication side effects. And its healing power is vast and timeless.