Tuning Up:
Putting Music in Your Life

Remember when that insensitive band teacher told you you’re not musical?
Forget it—we are all wired for music. If you can get beyond those self-doubts
and readjust some preconceived notions about how to play and listen to music,
you can touch a medium that can touch you back in powerfully moving ways.

By Allan Richter

From October, 2008

If you feel musically inadequate, your personal history probably tells the story. “Band” was the last elective you ever considered in school. And when it’s time for group singing at religious services, you mouth the words, cower in the pew and wish for the confines of a shower stall.

But those self-doubts about musical talent may be for naught. We are all wired for music. And while few can match the output of a Schubert, Ellington or McCartney, many of us have the capacity to play an instrument and learn how to listen to music with greater appreciation and more clarity.

About 10% of the population simply does not like music, says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, PhD. “For those that it is accessible to, though, it’s never too late to play an instrument,” Levitin adds. “People who have been told all their lives that they’re not musical shouldn’t listen. When they were 10, some schoolmarm said, ‘Just mouth the words while the rest of us sing.’ So they never got this training that they could have used to be singing better. Most people are more musical than they realize.”

Those discouraging schoolmarms appear to have succeeded. Barry Bittman, MD, a neurologist who heads the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, points to census data that showed that less than 8% of people over age 18 had picked up a musical instrument in the course of one year.

Bittman says research shows the tangible health benefits of playing a musical instrument. In one study published in Medical Science Monitor (2/05), playing recreational music reversed 19 genetic switches that turn on the stress response believed to play a role in the development of cancer, diabetes and other diseases. The research showed that musical expression was three times more effective in reducing stress than simply relaxing with a newspaper, says Bittman, the study’s principal investigator.

Becoming a Player

A big challenge for adult beginners is to avoid getting hung up on years of listening experience. While music therapists employ recognizable strains of music with their clients, familiarity can work against adults learning a new instrument, says Julie Lyonn Lieberman, a violinist and composer who conducts workshops to help musicians avoid injury to body or mind while learning their craft.

“Adults become very agenda-focused because they know the difference between something that sounds impressive or inspiring and something that sounds simple or basic, like a scale or Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Lieberman says. “Adults want to create sound at the level they’ve already heard it” and give up when they can’t play it quickly enough. “That’s the biggest cause of problems for adult beginners.”

Adult beginners often become so intent on making an instrument work they forget to protect themselves from strain or injury, Lieberman adds. Proper posture, as well as breathing and shaking out muscle tension, are forgotten. “A lot of people hold their breath when they learn something new,” Lieberman says, “and the motor cortex will actually memorize holding the breath in order to play that instrument.”

But today’s adult beginners have an advantage: They can learn with a progressive approach that might not have been available had they begun studying music when they were younger. One emerging approach blends the tried and true by embracing yoga with musical training.

Finding the Peaceful Center: Music to Meditate By

You sit ready to meditate, gazing toward what you hope is the inner stillness within, but you are anything but still. In your surroundings, however, the sound of a meandering sitar begins to calm you, pulling you in deeper and deeper.

Or maybe you choose this contemplative East Indian melody to quiet the end of a hectic, overwhelming day while you chop onions for tonight’s dinner. Whether you use music as a meditation accompaniment or you just want to enjoy something meditative, you turn to calming tones and rhythms for relaxation and ease.

Some of the oldest music, found all over the world for thousands of years, was meant to encourage and enhance a meditative state while it was played or sung—think of the droning tambours of East Indian ragas and the groaning chants of Tibetan Gyuto monks, the flowing shakuhachi flutes of Japan and the moaning didgeridoos of Aboriginal Australia.

Most music that’s considered meditative is categorized as New Age. “But there’s a lot of schlock out there; the consciousness of its source is not true to the state of meditation,” points out Pauline Oliveros, composer, accordionist and educator in Kingston, New York. She is also founder of the 23-year-old Deep Listening Institute, Ltd., and is internationally known for her Deep Listening Retreats, with their focus on sound meditation. “If the music comes from a quiet place, though, even if it’s not a meditative one, it can still quiet your mind. Music certainly puts out wave forms, and if those waves are coordinated with your brain waves, and that brings about a calmness, peacefulness or openness that you’re seeking, then it’s working.”

“Meditative music should provide a space that you can comfortably enter, allowing thoughts to come and go, or be free of thinking, so you can go into more spiritual depth,” says Stuart Dempster, a Seattle composer and trombonist. For over 30 years, he has also played the didgeridoo, an instrument (historically made of eucalyptus wood hollowed out by white ants or termites) that, in his hands, calms and restores. “The didgeridoo is successful for this partly because the dynamic range doesn’t fluctuate tremendously.”

To find music that connects with your meditative center, seek out a CD store or a website where you can test-drive music before buying whatever resonates with you. Or make those soothing sounds yourself. You needn’t be a musician to create meditative tones on the piano, kitchen pot lids or a simple kalimba (African thumb piano).

To make the most of meditative music, choose a quiet space and get in a comfortable position. “Have the intention of listening to the music,” says Oliveros. “Enter it and bring your attention to it, totally, so you can calm your mind enough to be open to the sounds and take them in. Meditation practice with music is all about noticing the ways that you’re listening.” —Claire Sykes

Mia Olson, a Berklee College of Music professor and author of the upcoming Musician’s Yoga: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Inspiration (Hal Leonard/Berklee Press), teaches the discipline so musicians can better focus and become more centered and confident. Olson recommends poses to help strengthen the lower body so musicians immersed in concentration can feel more grounded. “Many times people studying music tend to think too much,” Olson says. “These postures start to help you bring your attention back to the earth and root you.”

Ensuring proper breathing that gives musicians enough airflow isn’t just for woodwind and brass players. Every instrumentalist needs to work on breathing, Olson says. “If you’re a piano player you need to focus on the breath for phrasing and musical sense,” she says, adding that some of her yoga poses “open up” the rib cage.

Making Musical Memories

Adult beginners have a chance to learn by departing from some traditional methods that Lieberman asserts have hampered musicians. Lieberman teaches “muscle isolation exercises,” an approach akin to methods a dancer might use to train specific muscles. She frowns on memorizing a piece of music by simple repetition.

“Musicians bake it into the wrong memory centers,” Lieberman says. “They walk on stage, freeze up and they don’t have a clue why. The problem for musicians is that muscle memory is the first thing to get wiped out when they go into something I call the chemistry of nervousness. Without any backup, without having learned the music in their other learning centers, they’re going to freeze.”

Musicians can deepen their connections to the music and help avoid those painful moments by tapping into their auditory and imagistic memory centers. You can hone your auditory memory by whistling or singing a piece of music. Developing an imagistic memory, less objective and emotionally detached than simple visualization, involves mentally positioning your body and instrument and practicing. That trains the motor cortex without repeating the same movements and causing injury.

“Most musicians play something 10,000 times to teach the right brain how to map it,” Lieberman says, “but if you stop and map it first you’ve circumvented an enormous amount of time and effort.”
Intense rehearsal leads to pain and injury, usually in the hand, elbow and shoulder, in 89% of musicians, says Rebecca Barton, DHS, OTR, associate professor at the University of Indianapolis School of Occupational Therapy. She suggests a regimen of exercise, healthy diet and adequate sleep. For every hour of playing, musicians should take a 5- to 10-minute break to stretch and rest.

Guitar, piano and drums are among the most popular instruments for music students because they bring relatively fast gratification and are at the heart of many musical styles. Electronic keyboards can produce orchestral sounds relatively easily, with just the touch of a single key. Some ease of use is built into the guitar as well; because a guitar has frets, not every note has to be tuned and a capo can change keys quickly. And it shares the portability advantage with hand drums, among the most immediately accessible instruments.

Opportunities abound for group play, which can help new students learn more quickly. Drum circles can be found nationwide, as can many ethnic and folk groups, through Irish cultural centers, for example. Look for regional music like Western swing groups that flourish in Texas.

“Most people are searching for some key rhythm or specific tone or specific genre of music,” says Bittman. “I don’t think that’s as important as creating a nurturing setting that’s conducive not only to  the creative process, but also to  building bridges and enabling people to feel comfortable and successful.”

If a music teacher won’t travel to you, many instructional DVDs can recreate the experience in the privacy of your home. In the Murphy Method collection of instructional DVDs (Mel Bay), for example, the musical Murphy family recreates the down-home ritual of teaching bluegrass and other traditional styles through observation and group playing, the way Appalachian music would pass from one generation to another. If sitting by the computer is your thing, music publishers like Mel Bay say they plan to deliver more online instructional content.

Hearing with Different Ears

If you’re not inclined to pick up an instrument, you can learn how to appreciate music more by listening with new ears. Lieberman suggests trying to listen in ways you are unaccustomed: as background music while focused on another activity; with total focus on the music and no distractions; and listening as if you’re playing the music, much the way sports fans feel they’re running across a field with the ball.

Or study music history. Reading a musician or band biography, then listening to how their body of work evolved, can give the music new context. Many books dissect the Beatles’ recording sessions, for example.

Discover music on the web. Through Pandora Media (www.pandora.com) you can find songs and artists that match your tastes. Type in “Willie Nelson,” and the search engine finds music flavored with similar country guitar riffs and acoustic piano rolls. The site is built around thousands of musical attributes gathered by its founders in a “musical genome project.”

Listening to music can be powerfully moving. Danny Aiello, the actor, tells Energy Times that he listens to music in his trailer on set to motivate the character he plays. “Let’s say I’m playing a character who’s kind of depressed, not knowing where he’s going, and wants people to know that he’s more important than they think,” Aiello says. “I may sit in my camper and hear something from Bobby Darin like (singing) “One of these days you’re gonna miss me, baby. One of these days you’re going to feel so lonely...”

Freeing stifled musical talent and listening to something new—or to something old a new way—can open a world of sound that promotes harmony within and new connections with others.

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