Music – wash away my dis-ease

Music as Healer

Mr. G. was fortunate. His mother sang to him as a child. She also played music for him and even encouraged him to sing along (a supreme act of love!). He recalls being comforted by the rhythm, the sounds and the familiarity of songs. They lulled him calmly to sleep at night, provided the entertainment now sadly offered to kids by television and guided him gently through many childhood traumas. Music was a comfort, a reliable support for him. Through most of childhood, like a guardian angel, he had Music on his side.

Then, sometime around fourth grade he suffered an injustice as tragic as it is universal. Gamely trying to sing in the school glee club, he was singled out by the choir master and informed in front of the entire group that, for the sake of the upcoming Christmas performance, he must stand in the back row, mouth the word “watermelon” and make no sound. Apparently the choir master needed his body to fill space but had decided he could do without the voice and the soul that came with the body. As Mr. G. thought back on that psychic trauma decades ago, the most remarkable point is how willingly he accepted this judgement. He can’t quite remember, but supposes he did as he was told. “Perhaps I sang very quietly at some points in the performance, but probably I was a good boy and spent the two hours mouthing the word “watermelon.”, he reflects.

How strange that so many of us stopped singing in childhood because of similar criticism. Why did we believe our respective choir masters (or whoever it was that stopped our song) when they told us we should not sing outloud? Another of my patients was told not to sing by her mother, another by her boyfriend. One elderly man, finally learning to sing at seventy-five was asked by a minister to never to sing out loud in church. We all know friends who today refuse to sing along years after being told they have a bad voice. Why does not our humanity rear up and defend its birthright to sing and dance and be joyful before our Maker and our loved ones? Why do we so easily stuff our voice, the herald of the soul?

Mr. G. is no different from you. Unless you have had throat surgery or ear trauma, that is, assuming no anatomical handicaps, I know that you too have a superb voice stuffed somewhere between your soul and your lips. Yes, you! I know this because I have helped introduce many incredulous people to their long lost voices. Talk about joyous reunions. Quite frankly, I know of no medical accomplishment that can compare with the gratification I feel after helping people listen for their voices and then sing along with themselves (and eventually others).

A brief word about technique (this is the self-help part). Consider the wisdom of the bumper sticker I saw on a Los Angeles freeway that said, “Get out of your own way”. (If I had been a more capable driver that day and had been able to maneuver through that traffic, I would have followed that driver home and sat at his or her feet to seek enlightenment). So it is with singing; we must get out of our own way. Music is what the human frame and soul is designed to do; we need simply to learn to allow song to have its way with us. Next, we need to attend to breathing. The physics of voice involve air being forced past vocal chords which vibrate, thus making sound. The bellows must deliver an even and ample source of air in order to generate a pleasant voice. In Aikido and most of the traditional martial arts we are taught, “If you can control your opponent’s breathing by making him breathe at your rate and depth, you have the critical advantage”. So it is with song: if the singer within can encourage the criticized child within to breathe regularly and “soundly” then, quite naturally, the body does what it has craved all along, it sings! Later, fine tuning involves the art of listening, for the best singers sing mostly with their ears.

As a physician, I continued to discover how essential music is to health. For sheer power, magnificent in its splendor, observe what music does with the vitality and happiness of handicappped children. For a brief, thrilling period of my life I was charged with doing music therapy with severely physically and mentally handicapped children in a West German school. Seeing the richness of emotional experience in a child whose crippled hand I guided across a cello’s strings was as exhilarating as it was awe-inspiring. The empowerment these mangled children seemed to attain by initiating, being able to sustain and then, whenever they choose, to arrest a tone from string, wind, percussion or vocal instruments was profound.

Different instruments seemed to have different effects first the childrens’ mood, and later on their personalities. I began to consider prescribing different sounds as a doctor would specific medicines. Quickly, however, I found that these kids knew best which instruments they needed to nourish depleted aspects of their souls or personalities. Intuitively, they sought out the right energy; one day the soothing cello vibrations, one day the bleat of a poorly played horn, next the crash of a drum, then back to the string instruments.

My interactions with them were blinding, as when one stumbles out of a dark room into daylight. In this case, the intensity of their relationship with music made other aspects of my life pale by comparison. The eyes of my soul were not accustomed to the brilliant power of music as therapy. I had taken the job thinking it would be fun; it would provide a distraction from their handicaps, a form of amusement. I did not realize how profound a source of nutrition and therapy the sounds would be for these handicapped children.

When I finally perceived what powerful therapy was happening around music, I felt a bit the intruder, somewhat unworthy to be witnessing such pure therapeutic power. I felt as must have Phaeton, the son of Apollo, who took Helios’s sun chariot for the ultimate joy ride. Put yourself in the chariot as the wild horses surged across the sky pulling the mighty sun behind their thundering wings. Imagine the exhilaration young Phaeton felt riding that sun chariot. That is the feeling the music therapist feels in discovering and riding along with the extraordinary therapeutic power of sound. Phaeton’s ride ended in tragedy when the steeds, sensing an unfamiliar hand on their reins, flew too near the earth. To save the parched earth from catching fire, Jupitor destroyed them with a thunderbolt. The power of music in therapy is far more forgiving. I know of no toxic side effects from music therapy save unnecessary ear trauma related to excessive volume.

Working with those crippled children who grasped passionately for their musical birthright taught me to respect the power of music therapy. My belief in music therapy has been repeatedly reinforced in a myriad of ways as varied as the suffering people bring to my practice. Novalis, the German poet, wrote:

“Every sickness is a musical problem.

The healing, therefore, is a musical resolution.

The shorter the resolution, the greater the musical talent of the doctor.”

I think I understand what he recognized. One can never be certain with poets, but I think I have seen it too. And so I have come to believe that the part of us that sings is quite closely related, if not identical, to the part of us that grows and heals. The vitality released when the adult patient rediscovers his or her abandoned child-voice is miraculous to behold. It makes the practice of medicine rewarding and fun. Novalis wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the medical literature is completely unambiguous in finding fewer intra- and post-operative problems with patients whose surgeons talked with them prior to the operation. He would perhaps wonder, as do I, how much better the operative results would be if surgeons sang with patients prior to their surgery!

To your Health!

Bradford S. Weeks, M.D. © 1987

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