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Music brings healing power to all walks of life

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 8/31/2021 Beth Wood

More and more, people are recognizing the healing power of music.

Just 30 minutes a day of listening to music lowered the pain and anxiety levels in patients who had survived heart attacks, according to a study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 2020 conference.

The Mayo Clinic has found that medical professionals can use music to slow people’s heart rates and decrease their blood pressure.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine is dedicated to research on the effect of music on neurological diseases. The center aims to use music to help treat Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and stroke.

Of course, most of us know that a good beat can get us moving and a mellow instrumental tune can help us relax or even fall asleep. When babies cry, many people reflexively sing to soothe them.

For music therapists, the connections between health and music are the foundations of what they do.

Julie Guy from The Music Therapy Center of California explained music therapy’s three areas of focus: cognition, speech and motor skills.

“Cognition includes everything from helping a young child increase their attention span, attend to a task or learn academics like math,” Guy said from her Mission Valley office. “Music is great for memory.”

She noted that when it comes to speech, it can be easier to remember numbers if you sing them — although, she warned, you may never forget them. Music uses multiple channels of the brain at once and your brain retains that information for a long time.

“Music is also amazing when it comes to motor skills,” said Guy, a board-certified music therapist. “With rhythm, we can help a person with Parkinson’s. They may walk without music, but they shuffle and can’t get going. With rhythm and with training, they can increase their gait and decrease their pausing. That also applies to people with strokes or brain injury.”

Just like Bob Dylan

Lindsay Zehren, program director of the music therapy and wellness agency MusicWorx Inc., has also seen music’s positive impact on those with Parkinson’s disease. MusicWorx, in collaboration with the Parkinson’s Association of San Diego, started the AudAbility program in 2015, focusing on improving speech through singing.

In 2017, AudAbility was expanded to include playing harmonica, which is now the 12-week program’s largest class. Zehren said the harmonica is the only instrument that requires inhaling as well as exhaling.

“Playing harmonica is very beneficial for people with Parkinson’s to reduce the chance of aspiration and pneumonia,” Zehren said. “The harmonica is fun and easy to play. For people with Parkinson’s, if they’re unable to hold the harmonica, they can wear the cool Bob Dylan (neck) harness.”

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has relegated many music and singing sessions to Zoom. Singing and playing wind instruments, which send particulates into the air, probably won’t return to prepandemic levels indoors and in person for a while.

When the Music Therapy Center’s nonprofit arm, Banding Together, had its 16th annual recital in July, it was the first to be held outside. Last year was its first virtual edition. Banding Together offers music-therapy services to families whose children have special needs.

“There are so many benefits students of all ages for performing in a recital,” Guy explained. “The difference between this and a regular music recital is that we’re more about the process and the skills we’re learning.”

A special playlist

Many kinds of music and instruments can help us feel better in so many ways.

Music therapists work with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder by playing and listening to music, as well as by writing songs.

Most of us, with a little concentration, can make music work for our benefit.

“There’s no cookie-cutter response,” Guy observed. “Music one person likes might drive another crazy. Listen to music with intention — be aware of the music. How do you respond?”

Zehren agreed that the more you approach music with intention, the more beneficial it will be. Have a go-to song for cheering you up, she suggested, and one that makes you sad, if catharsis is what’s needed. Build a special playlist.

For those who want to learn to play an instrument, Zehren recommends the ukulele, which is easy to learn and inexpensive. Drums are also a good choice.

“Drums are community-focused,” she said. “You can’t play drums incorrectly. That takes out the fear.

“I encourage people to try to get past the idea you have to be good to make music. It’s a detriment to our society. Especially during COVID, making music as a family can be so beneficial.

“I encourage families to do music together and try as much as possible not to add judgment. You don’t need a music therapist for that.”

Music to their ears

San Diegans reflect on the positive impacts of having music in their lives:

Mark Canilang, 17, Montecito

Student for a year in Young Artists in Harmony, a nonprofit mentoring program in music composition

“Being in Young Artists in Harmony has helped me by giving another outlet to express my creativity. Music is already a great way for me to express my emotions, but YAH has allowed me to push my expression further and convey a wider variety and a greater depth of my feelings, due to the help from all the teachers and musicians.”

Sammy Knight, 74, San Carlos

Seven-year member of Tremble Clefs, a therapeutic singing program for people with Parkinson’s disease and their care partners

“At Tremble Clefs it doesn’t matter what we may sound like as individual singers, because all our voices seem to meld into something that sounds really good. And, for a while at least, we’re not people with Parkinson’s — we’re just friends having a good time singing together.”

AJ Arciniega, 28, Rancho Bernardo

A musician who has Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder

“I believe that the healing power of music is everything. I play the drums every day and listen to music every day. It helps my heart calm down when I'm nervous. It feels good when I'm tired. It makes me happy. It definitely makes me happy.”

Andrea Moriarty, San Diego author of “One-Track Mind” and “Radical Inclusion.” (Her son, Reid Moriarty, 27, has five solo albums streaming on all platforms and plays in the band Jungle Poppins.)

“Music is a bridge that allows my son with autism to access everything from education to social engagement to employment. When he was a child, I said: `'Everything he knows he’s learned through music.’ Now that he is a 27-year-old singer-songwriter, every meaningful relationship he has revolves around music. Music engages his whole brain, is innately pleasurable, and allows for structure and freedom simultaneously.”

Music, in its many different forms, has the power to help:

  • Create community
  • Calm you down
  • Get you moving
  • Cheer you up
  • Keep you alert
  • Slow or quicken your heart rate
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Increase lung capacity
  • Decrease pain symptoms
  • Cope with bad memories
  • Improve sleep
  • Boost your memory
  • Help recharge your brain and keep it young

Sources: hopkinsmedicine.org;mayoclinic.org; Julie Guy (themusictherapycenter.com) and Lindsay Zehren (musicworxinc.com)

Wood is a freelance writer.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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