Sound of Spirit
Douglas and Brin Taylor
October 22, 2017
“I’ve found that music is one of our greatest wisdoms and one of our greatest tools for going through life’s challenges. It’s like laughter, it’s like orgasm, it’s like tears. Our consciousness shakes, it vibrates into the new world and new concepts. Music has been used throughout history to facilitate that. Every religion and spiritual practice understands that music has the capacity to bring us to our best … The simple truth is that we are vibratory beings, and when the vibration stops, so do we. In the words of T.S. Eliot, ‘You are the music while the music lasts.’” – – Michael Rossato-Bennett
I, Douglas Taylor, being of sound mind and body, do strive to be also sound of spirit. I long to be made whole and well in my spirit. It is interesting, yes? One of our English words for wholeness and wellness is “sound.” It is fitting. Let me offer a sound argument. Music is one of those human activities that promotes soundness of spirit. When we sing together, when we listen to music, when we play an instrument – our brains not only do that amazing thing of taking in all the different sensory signals and organizing them in a comprehensible fashion, our brains also are impacted by that music. Music integrates us. It helps us create meaning in our lives. Music helps us become sound of spirit.
I recall, quite vividly, a time when I was sitting by a large outdoor fountain, waiting for a friend. I listened to the water splashing down the many rocks and basins as it made its way to the lowest part of the fountain. As I sat and listened, I because acutely aware of all the simultaneously occurring sounds. I heard the splash of water on rock. I heard splash of water on water, and its varying pitches. And I heard variety in larger splashes versus smaller droplets. As I listened, I began to hear a symphony in the fountain. Rhythm, melody, and phrases sprung out of the water pipes and danced in my mind. I lost myself in the sounds.
When my friend found me, I explained what I had heard, and pointed out all the different sounds. He was fascinated, and began creating a drum beat on the side of the fountain while we listened to the water cascade down the rocks. I began humming and dancing along to his beat. Soon, a few strangers joined in the dancing. Music brings people together. It is a universal language. This experience moved me immensely, and I still remember it, years later.
I studied Music Therapy at SUNY Fredonia. I became interested in this field during community college when looking over the various music degrees and paths they offered. I had been taking harp and piano lessons most of my life, and I knew I wanted a career in music. I asked the department head about the Music Therapy program. He said it infused psychology and music together. It was a way of using music as a therapeutic tool. I was sold completely on the idea. I figured, “well, I like helping people, and I like music. I should do both.”
I did the program at the community college, and then transferred to SUNY Fredonia to finish my undergraduate degree. I loved the program at Fredonia. I was placed in clinical Music Therapy setting immediately, and I began to see what music therapy was all about.
Music Therapy (as described on the website for the American Music Therapy Association – http://www.musictherapy.org) is the “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional.”
It goes on from there, but basically, it explains that music is used as a tool to accomplish non-musical goals including physical, verbal, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social goals of the individuals. Music Therapists work alongside other professionals to achieve similar goals to physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, etc.
Music Therapy is different from similar practices such as sound healing and bedside musicians. Music Therapists provides services, and are licensed professionals; they are held up to higher standards along with other therapists (such as dance therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, art therapy, occupational therapy). Similar practices (such as sound healing and bedside musicians) can be therapeutic, but should not be confused with or mislabeled as Music Therapy.
My interest in music is less professional than Brin’s. I appreciate the value of a professional hand when we are talking about music as a healing modality, one that can have an impact on the body, on physical healing, recovery, and recuperation.
My interest, though, is in the way music can offer healing for our spirits not just our bodies, for our connection to the holy. Music can be a bridge between people, and between a person and the holy. It is a form of communication that transcends regular speaking. Many religions include music to aid in the communication of the religious message. Special hymns, sung responses, introits, and cantatas: music gets through to us in a way the spoken word cannot. If you speak something, and then sing the exact same thing – our brains receive that information in two different ways. Music serves as a bridge of connection between people, and between a person and the holy.
The late, great rock musician Tom Petty once said, “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.”
During my internship at the Center for Discovery, I worked with an individual with severe autism. He was a tall, lanky boy, and was completely non-verbal. He would sit across from me, I sat at the keyboard, and we would sing with each other. I improvised simple melodies and chords on the keyboard, and did my best to match his vocalizations. Once he recognized that I was matching him with pitch, he began to match my pitches and rhythms as well. I would sing vowel sounds in his “key” and he would sing them back to me. I felt so connected to him during our sessions. I felt like we could communicate. Music has this strong power to connect people. As Douglas stated, music serves as a bridge of connection between people. I definitely felt that connection with this boy. By listening to his vocalizations, and observing his affect, I could tell whether he was feeling frustrated or happy, calm or excited. I reflected that in the music we created together. We even had back-and-forth “conversations” where we matched each other’s tone and inflection, or vastly contrast it. It was quite an empowering exercise, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
What are highlighting here is how music is a special form of communication. It travels along different pathways to reach deeper levels in us. As young parents, my wife and I decided to sing to our children as part of their regular bedtime routine. We wanted them to experience our presence, our love for them, not just with the words we say, but in deeper ways as well. We choose to use music. Every night. Sweet Baby James, The Water is Wide, Amazing Grace, Summertime, and more than a dozen other songs. Brin and I offer you one of those songs now.
Interlude: Everything Possible by Fred Small
Music has the power to trigger strong emotional responses in people. Like that song we just sang for you, it pulls at strong memories I have from my childhood, and having my parents sing me to sleep each night. We have also found that music has a physiological effect on our bodies in addition to emotional responses. When hooked up to bio-feedback machines, individuals listening to music show changes in: heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rates, skin responses, and muscular/motor responses. Each of these changes are unique to the individual, and different kinds of music will elicit different responses. Music affects our bodies, as well as our emotions.
“In the Ruins” By Lynn Ungar
A man sits on the rubble—
not just in the rubble, but on the pile
of what remains. No people
in the bombed-out houses.
No dogs. No birds. Just ragged hunks
of concrete and loss. And on his perch
he is playing an instrument constructed
of what is left—an olive oil can, a broom handle,
a bowed stick and strings. It sounds
exactly as it is supposed to sound.
The instrument cries, but the man sings.
Because sometimes loss is deeper than tears.
Because sometimes grief is resistance.
Because, somewhere down the very long road,
music is stronger than bombs.
We talk about music’s power to heal. In this passage read by Dorothy, the musician has not healed the bombed-out building, has not repaired the city, or transformed the destruction wrought by the bomb. But as Brin said just now, “Music affects our bodies, as well as our emotions.” The musician in the ruins touches the hearts of all who hear the music, all who hear the story of the music – and in that way, there can be a change, possibly a change leading to the repair of the broken places around us. The music changes us and we then go forth and change the world; but first, the music connects us back to life.
Music Therapists have used music to help establish more regulated breathing patterns in many kinds of people: babies in the NICU, individuals in hospice, and individuals with anxiety or issues with hyperventilation. I watched several videos of Music Therapists with babies in the NICU. They play music at the rate of breathing they see in the infant, then they slowly increase or decrease the speed the music is at (according to the needs). The infant’s breathing will often entrain to the music, meaning their breathing will change match what the therapist is playing. Over time, the infant will be able to breath at a faster/slower/steadier rate without the help of the therapist. They use similar entrainment techniques to steady the breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure of all kinds of people. I’ve used this technique on myself before, and on friends and loved ones. It creates a calming and powerful connection with a person.
I wish I had paid more attention to the power of music when I was doing my chaplaincy during seminary. I have had many experiences more recently of visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes, but there is still very little music playing in these settings. Where is there music in your life? Have you found that certain music evokes certain emotions or moods? Do you seek out particular music at the beginning or the end of the day, when you are driving or cooking or relaxing? How do you use music to pace your heartrate or regulate your breathing?
I spoke with someone last week about her experiences recovering from severe burns. This person had been in a coma following the incident, the recovery was slow and painful. She shared with me about a few techniques she used for coping. We talked about her spiritual practices, the support of her friends and her wife, the powerful connection to the divine she uncovered, and about music. We spent extra time talking about the music. The music helped her through the pain. She listened to music when they were changing her dressings on the burn unit. One of her favorite types of music is ‘cover songs’. This is music, like what we played for the offertory, that is familiar from the radio, but different because it is a cover – it is played by another group in a different way. I think cover songs were an interesting choice for this woman working through her pain because the words and the melody are the same; the tempo and style are changed. Thus, the songs are familiar enough to be comforting but different enough to be interesting.
Pitch. Rhythm and meter. Melodies and phrases. Timbre. Words and lyrics. These are all elements that make up music. Each one individually affects our emotions and our bodies in different ways. You can listen to all the pieces together and not even be aware of the different parts; but at one point or another, you may become aware of a particular element of the music because it stands out to you in a particular way. Each of these elements can have an emotional effect on a person, and, through this emotional connection, you can find meaning.
In Diane Austin’s book The Theory and Practice of Vocal Psychotherapy: Songs of the Self, she talks about the voice and what makes it so powerful.
Austin says, “Why is the singing such a powerful therapeutic experience? When we sing, our voice and our bodies are the instruments. We are intimately connected to the source of the sound and the vibration. We make the music, we are immersed in the music and we are the music. We breathe deeply to sustain the tones we create, and our heart rate slows down and our nervous system is calmed. Our voices resonate inward to help us connect to our bodies and express our emotions and they resonate outward to help us connect to others.”
My personal draw to music is from the perspective of a lay-person in the field. I love to sing. I love to sing in church, on stage, in the coffee shop, at the dance party, in the car, or in the shower. Here is something I’ve discovered: Usually when I sing, I am singing the melody; I am performing or leading the hymn. But when I join a choir and sing with other people, something different happens to me. When I sing like I normally do, alone or as the song leader: I feel emotionally lifted, energized. When I sing in a choir: I am listening to the other voices, I am blending my line around the melody. I feel more whole. I don’t know if this is how it feels for anyone else, I’m just telling you what I have found. Music does something to me. It shapes my experiences.
I love playing large stringed instruments. You just saw me play ukulele – which is quite small compared to what I also play! In addition to ukulele, I play harp, guitar, and piano. One of the reasons I like playing large stringed instruments is that I can feel the vibrations as I am playing; I feel it from my head to my toes, and it feels like I am a part of the instrument, and it is a part of me. When you are exposed to sound vibrations, it can resonate through your whole body.
I remember a time I participated in a gong therapy workshop. We sat with our eyes shut, surrounded by gongs of varying pitches and sizes. I remember the feeling of the sound washing over me; it felt like I was on a beach in the summertime. I could feel the vibrations become one with me.
The instrument you will feel the most vibrational connection to, however, is your own voice. Your vocal cords vibrate every time you talk, and more so when you sing. I am always fascinated that I can feel where the pitch is in my throat. Higher pitches are physically higher up in your vocal cords (and lower pitches are physically lower), and you can feel that as you move pitches up and down your vocal cords.
My voice is my most powerful instrument. It has given me confidence and creativity. The voice is so personal. Often, when I sing, it helps me relax, express myself, or just release emotion. I feel a connection with myself when I sing, and I feel a connection to the world around me and the people in it. Music has the power to connect people, build bridges, heal. I don’t know what I would do without music.
Who among us does not need a healing balm in our lives from time to time, for some – all the time. Music is among the amazing elements in the universe, flowing over us and through us. Music is a tool of blessing and connection. It is a form of communication and communion. It is a doorway to the holy. We can be healed by the music and we can become the music.
Listen. You who have ears to hear, listen. Sing, you who have voices to share, join with me in the chorus, keep the rhythm, keep the time and all join in to let life shine.
In a world without end,
May it be so.