Monday, October 26, 2009

The Healing Power of Music

"The healing power of music."  It's a phrase that's often bandied about.  I wonder how many people really and truly believe that music has healing powers?

Even as a kid, I knew that music had power over me.  When I was frustrated, I could play the piano and in a matter of time my frustrations were diminished.  As a volleyball coach, I sometimes used music to fire my team up -- and learned during one unnecessary loss that it was possible to get them too fired up!  As a schoolteacher, I occasionally incorporated my dulcimer into lessons; I'm sure the unusual nature of the lesson helped it to be more memorable, but I'm equally sure that the music itself created a positive atmosphere that lasted for days.

I have performed music in different professional capacities since I was in my teens.  However, until I began doing gigs of a more intimate nature -- a nursing home, perhaps, or a bookstore or an art fair -- I did not have much of a chance to observe the effect of my music on others.  One of my most cherished memories is that of a a nursing home resident, a former dancer for Bob Hope's USO tours who was seemingly lost in the grip of Alzheimer's, responding to a lively jig set with a little wheelchair dance -- the nursing home added music to her therapy as a result.  

It was the recognition of the soothing power of music -- and the dulcimer in particular -- that was the impetus behind the recording of Celtic Heart.  For a couple of years I'd be playing my heart out on one of the slow airs like "Crested Hens" (from The Celtic Ray) or "Jock O' Hazeldean" (from A Celtic Heritage) and a massage therapist or yoga instructor would comment, "That music would be so perfect for my practice."  But then I would play another cut from the CD -- say a rousing reel like "Sound Of Sleat" or "Whiskey 'Fore Breakfast" -- and the response would be, "So pretty, but much too upbeat for my purposes.  Why don't you record a CD of all 'slow stuff' for people like me?"  So with a little research I prepared a body of music that mostly fit several important guidelines: the basic pulse of the music must be slower than the average adult's resting heart rate, the arrangements must not be too "busy," the tunes should not be associated with familiar songs.

The first person to derive benefit from Celtic Heart was, in fact, my own mother.  Recording took place in February (2006); in mid-April, my mother suffered a slight stroke that had been triggered by a massive infection that, due to many complications, would prove to be untreatable.  When I went to see her that April, I took my demo copy of Celtic Heart to share with her.  She loved "Danny Boy" (my only nod to commercial marketing) of course but said she liked the sweet music overall.  And I got a chance to see its calming effect on her, as I was with her two months later on the day she died.  The hospice workers had been using Celtic Heart, along with Be Thou My Vision, to soothe her beyond morphine's capacity to ease her constant pain.  Though she spent most of that last day in a coma, I know she was aware of my presence and I know she was responding positively to the music.  When she heard the melody of a favorite hymn (from Be Thou My Vision), her expression changed subtly.  And when she heard the slightly discordant passage that appears -- briefly -- on Celtic Heart, she became slightly agitated.  What a privilege to be with her on that day! ... and what a privilege to feel that I had made some positive contribution to her care.

I am commenting on this topic at this particular time because it was brought to mind in two separate episodes this past Saturday.  In one, a young mother wheeled her eight-month old baby into my booth and asked me to play.  My choice was "Crested Hens."  The baby's expression visibly softened and she sighed in relaxation several times.  When I stopped playing and started to converse with the mother, the baby began to wail -- and she immediately calmed when I began playing ("Inis Oirr") again!  

The second -- even more powerful -- incident actually began unfolding early in the day, as a couple came by to listen a while and look at CDs.  Some time later, they came by with an older woman who was confined to a special wheelchair -- likely she had been the victim of a stroke or other serious neurological trauma.  She was convulsing uncontrollably, so I focused my energies into playing as steadily and sweetly as I possibly could.  Amazingly, her tremors eased and finally ceased altogether as she listened.  It was a powerful and humbling experience.

And if I were not already a true believer in "the healing power of music" -- I certainly would be now.