Music is the first language of the earth – the sound of the wind in the trees, the melody of birdsongs, running water tripping over rocks – and the language of music touches an ancient and eternal place within us, beyond the logic of the mind. Scientific studies now confirm that playing music helps premature babies gain weight faster, surgery patients heal faster and migraine sufferers suffer less, among other incredible results. Music has a positive effect on a wide variety of symptoms, as it lifts the human spirit in subtle and profound ways.
In my most unusual and rewarding profession as a "music healer," I take my healing concerts into hospitals and nursing homes, as well as work with individual stroke and hospice patients. The music is intended to uplift and inspire, touch the heart and nourish the soul, to help people through life's transitions – the changes, the losses, the pain, the triumphs and the dreams that are part of being human.
This song therapy of my program is based on the healing power of music, and includes singing, breathing, storytelling and ample amounts of audience participation. Even the most reluctant find themselves singing. For some, it's the first time in years they've heard their own singing voice. For others, the music provides momentary relief. Sometimes, the shift is almost imperceptible. But if I'm paying attention, I get to witness some small-but-mighty moments. And the rewards are huge.
For example, the night I sang with an in-patient psychiatric ward, I looked around the room at my audience, a poignant collection of humanity. Some looked hopeful, some looked bored and some looked nowhere at all.
There was a young man sitting to my right, wearing plaid pajama bottoms and his hospital gown. He stared straight ahead, not at me. He never even looked near me. After about fifteen minutes, he got up and walked out of the room. "Oh, well," I thought. "Can't reach 'em all."
A few minutes later, he reappeared and took the same seat, still staring straight ahead. But I noticed something had changed – he was now wearing jeans instead of pajama bottoms and had combed his hair. As Berthold Auerbach said, "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
What an honor for me to share my music in many healthcare settings, with the opportunity to reach patients and staff, mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, young and old, rich and poor, with songs of hope and healing. In any given audience, I never really know who will respond to what. I only know that everyone responds to something.
At grand rounds in a local hospital, a young nurse cornered me at the end of the program. With tears in her eyes, she said, "My mother used to play guitar and I haven't heard anyone play like that since she died. My husband asked me last night what I want for Christmas and I said I didn't know. Now I know. I want a guitar."
Music enables us to express all kinds of feelings and fears, passions and
pain. It helps reduce stress, elevate moods, helps us move through grief, fear and pain and express joy, peace and love. Music can literally change the way we feel – emotionally, physiologically, mentally and spiritually.
The special audiences of stroke and accident patients at a rehabilitation hospital continually amaze me with their enthusiastic and heartfelt response. When we sing together, we all forget the pain, if only for a moment. In that moment, there is peace. The music is like a filling station on the road to recovery.
Friends and family often ask me how I manage to face a room full of patients, in wheelchairs and hospital beds, pain and sadness everywhere. The truth is that as soon as I strum that first chord on the guitar, I no longer see their illness, but I see their light, shining as bright as day.
Working with hospice patients is another opportunity to see the soul's light shining especially brightly. While the music is a comfort to the families of patients, it is the patients themselves who benefit most. I sit by the bed and explain that they don't need to do anything while I'm there – not even smile. In fact, if they fall asleep, I know I'm doing a good job. Inevitably, there are subtle and not-so-subtle signs of connecting with the music. There, under the covers, a foot moves in time to the music. Or a raised finger keeps the beat. Or a deep, clear smile at the end of a song touches me to my core.
Grace sat on the edge of her bed, preferring to sit up to listen. She couldn't make eye contact with me while I was playing, but after each song, she'd lift her huge brown eyes, filled with warmth and light, and meet my eyes. With a smile she'd say, "That was real nice. Play another one." Of course, I did.
Another dear patient, Al, spent most of his time sleeping or dreaming, connecting to some dimension other than the one we were in. He hadn't said a word in days. On my first visit with him, after an hour of music, he suddenly sat up, opened his eyes wide into mine, smiled, clapped and said, "Thank you for such beautiful music." Then he lay back down on the pillows and returned to his dreaming state, as his wife and I wiped away our tears. I drove home filled with his gentle blessing.
Abe, my very first patient, will be with me always. A former folksinger and guitarist himself, we'd share music for hours at a time. His twinkling blue eyes and gentle spirit belied the fact that we both knew his time on earth was coming to an end. The music we shared sings forever somewhere. I know he can hear it, wherever he is now
The families of the patients have told me that the music soothed them into their transition. What an honor to be part of such an important and powerful moment in someone's life. I can think of no better way to share love in this world than by singing someone through the final passage.
Of course, I also love singing with people who are not moving on but staying here. I love how the music makes their stay better and lighter and filled with healing energy. For example, Anne is an 84-year old friend who is bedridden with degenerative osteoporosis resulting in compression fractures in her spine. A once-spunky lady, she was wilted and depressed when I started visiting her. While she enjoyed my songs and my singing, I felt that something wasn't clicking. One day, I asked her what kind of music she liked and she started singing a Jeanette MacDonald song. I asked her husband if they had a tape player but the antique machine he produced barely worked. I bought them an inexpensive stereo cassette player and put it next to her bed. Then I went through their tape collection and put ones I thought she'd like within her reach. Since that day, she's been singing non-stop with the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy tape, happy as a lark with a voice to match. And yes, she's been feeling much better lately, too.
Personally, I've been experiencing music's healing power since I was 11,
when I started playing guitar, writing songs and singing. My music helped me through my challenging adolescence, my parents divorce, low self-esteem and raging hormones. Who knows where I'd be now if I didn't have the comfort of my guitar against my body and my soul's voice to express the inexpressible? My music changed my life and led me from being a corporate executive to becoming a music healer, guiding me every step (and note) of the way.
Music is finally gaining recognition for its potential healing effects: Memorial Sloan-Kettering and many other prestigious hospitals, issue personal CD players for patients as they are admitted for surgery, with a list of available CDs attached.
My own recently recorded CD of healing songs called Transitions – Music to Soothe the Soul is being used in a myriad of settings – bedside at home, in hospitals for pre-op, surgery and post-operation use, in doctor's office waiting rooms, during chemotherapy, dialysis, and other medical procedures. The music reaches patients, their families and medical staff. It's being played to uplift people in their daily life as well as help others transition from this life. Personally, I can think of no better profession than sharing healing, loving energy through music.
As science continues to discover new ways in which music's healing vibrations effect our overall well being, I'll just agree with the philosopher Nietzche who said, "Life without music would not be worth living."
© 1998 S. Kimmel
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