Life Music

 The morning began with a lovely solo sung by Riley, serving as her impromptu accompaniment to a loud siren hurtling down a country highway. She has a beautiful voice. Sometimes Phillip and I start a “howl song” just to have the pups join in. It seems to be a deeply bonding experience for them. A pack song, a family theme; an ancient call, heart to heart.

Music is almost always playing at Full Moon Cottage, just as it was in our childhood homes.

I was born with music inside of me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me—like food or water.  ~ Ray Charles

Phillip’s dad was in a Milwaukee barbershop quartet called the Cream City Four, and sang 30’s and 40’s standards in another group, when he wasn’t singing with Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera or directing church choirs. Phillip’s sister has had a successful career as an opera singer and is now a sought-after vocal and performance teacher. His other sister is an accomplished pianist, and his brother sings with the symphony chorus is Madison.

There was always music in my home, too. My mother listened to NPR from morning till dinner time. In those days, this meant that between Morning Edition and All Things Considered at day’s end, classical music was played all day long (except during Chapter-a-Day at noon). Both of my parents loved Broadway musicals, and my father had a special fondness for big band music. And then, late at night, jazz would be playing on the stereo as I drifted off to sleep.

I was always singing and “banging on the piano,” and later pursued a theater degree in part because of my love for musicals.

I can carry a tune; Phillip’s voice stops hearts. I’ve experience this “Phillip effect” for almost 20 years, and have seen it happen to others over and over. It is an amazing gift and I’m grateful every time I hear his voice and witness the way it touches people’s spirits.

Music is usually playing when I write, clean house, cook…we like every kind of music, and our CD collection is proof of this. We have it all arranged on lovely carousels that hold hundreds of  CD’s stacked vertically—500 CD’s per carousel—and then we can “program” the CD’s by genre, or artist, etc., and whether we want the music to shuffle and play random songs within the selected genre, play an entire album, etc. Very old-fashioned, almost a Victrola, but without the handle to wind…

We haven’t yet upgraded to digital music, and this is mostly due to the years we imagine passing while we burn  the CD’s and convert hundreds of old albums to digital signals. I imagine our hair turning white and walkers appearing in our hands as we trundle back and forth between our CD and album stash and the computer…and then I imagine finishing this Herculean task just in time to learn everything we’ve done is outmoded. (Kitty gasps; falls to floor; dies.)

No, wait! I couldn’t die at that point, because I have a Master List of music that I would like played at my Memorial Service…the service will have to last about a month at this point, but it will be a wonderful aural experience; I promise! If we can locate the right technology.

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.  ~ Victor Hugo

Music heals; it stimulates and inspires; it changes us; it connects us and make us whole. I use music in my spiritual direction and I used it as a chaplain. There is a practice called “threshold singing.” It started here (http://www.thresholdchoir.org/), and promotes rehearsed, a capella songs offered to those waiting at the threshold between life and death. There are also harpists trained in “music thanatology,” and other musicians trained in techniques for accompanying those on healing journeys. You can read more about this here: (http://www.growthhouse.org/music.html)

I knew a nun who found a beautiful harp in the attic of her convent, had it restrung, polished and restored, and then taught herself to play it. She lugged it around to her city’s two large hospitals and played her harp for years, eventually receiving donations to purchase smaller, more portable harps.

It was no surprise that families and staff members at these hospitals felt the positive effects of her music, and she had some deeply graced experiences with patients as well. One woman lay in a coma that physicians had predicted she would remain within until her death. While the nun played her music just outside the patient’s room to soothe the family’s loss, the woman was gentled into wakefulness.  She later told the nun, “I was disappointed to still be here; your music led me to understand I was in heaven!”

Balfour Mount, one of the founders of Palliative Medicine in North America, wrote, “Music has touched the human soul across all boundaries of time, space, and genre…Perhaps, in its vibratory nature, music opens us to a greater appreciation of our essential connectedness to the cosmos, our oneness with all that is.” If you’ve ever watched one of the many flash mobs cause a breakout of spontaneous joy at a public gathering space, you know how music can affect and connect our spirits.

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. ~ Berthold Auerbach

I love watching the crowds at the flash mobs: they stop and notice–something I fear our increasingly busy lives don’t allow us to do—and then they are delighted. Their inner children often come out to play. Here is one of my favorites, in Antwerp, when a flash mob performed “Do Re Mi” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EYAUazLI9k People often cry in response to such joyful invitations. Music can so quickly touch deep memories, unconscious needs, losses, and desires. And how healing it can be when we allow our bodies to move freely in response to the impetus of melody and rhythm.

And here is Ben E King’s Jerry Leiber’s, and Mike Stoller’s, Stand by Me, performed by musicians throughout the world: http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=2539741, another lovely collaboration.

Music is vibration and so, at minute particle levels, are we; we’re bouncing particles, moving in waves, and everything is music. I wish we could hear more than the limited bandwidth we humans can manage, but I love the music of this beautiful cosmos that I’m able to hear: birdsong and rain, wind and beating wings, life’s breath, laughter, children’s voices, singing dogs, and my husband’s voice.

Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music, but the truth is that life itself is music. ~ Hafiz, Persian Sufi poet

8 thoughts on “Life Music

  1. Beautiful post… and there is even more that could be told about music; each from his own perspective and different history… but let me tell you two things. First, I haven’t had much experience living with dogs, but I spent many an evening listening to the jackals howls around sunset, here in the mountains; often with my children. And each time it was a moving experience… as if I was listening to the creation in prayer. And secondly, I have a huge musical library, that started out on 78 records, went through reel to reel stage, and then cassettes, and of course, CDs, and I have been digitalizing those recordings that I still love. It is slow, and it takes time, but I have discovered some beautiful pieces along the way, and so far, it has really been worth while. Thank you very much, Catherine.

  2. Love music as well Catherine! I think it is as essential for living as air, water and food. I don’t know if you have seen this video, but it is wonderful to see the healing of music in action! Blessings….VK

    • This is so beautiful, VK; thank you! I did this with my patients and had the same experience of seeing them come alive; sometimes, just singing old standards, hymns, and Christmas songs brought patients with severe dementia and Alzheimer’s to “animation,” as Oliver Sacks says. I had one patient, Irene, who came from silence/incoherence into a kind of lucidity and ability to converse, briefly, when we sang together. I wish more nursing facilities made use of music therapy. So often I’d see a circle of patients in their wheel chairs facing a TV running endless meaningless pap, or listening to the staff’s favorite rap–again, meaningless to the patients.

      Speaking of this, You might enjoy listening to David Greenberg’s work: http://www.duplexplanet.com/. He gathers memories from these patients and sets them to interesting music. I love the ways he elicits their sharing and the respect he shows them. One of these CD’s (Cherry-Picking Apple Blossom Time) was produced here in Milwaukee with musicians I’ve enjoyed for decades.

      When I sat and breathed with dying patients I often played their favorite music softly. I’ve also learned that the beat/rhythm of the music at such times is best if it’s sometimes syncopated; people’s hearts sometimes “come into rhythm” with the beat and at the end of life, this can “force” their hearts into continued beating when it’s time to let go…”syncopation” can help the heart with this “gentling away”…seemed to help. Very interesting and mysterious.

      • Thanks for the link Catherine….I will check it out later. Sounds very interesting. Glad you enjoyed the video…Have a wonderful day…. VK

  3. A wonderfully written post. I am not so musical though I enjoy vocals. I sing, whistle and hum to the dismay of those around. I dream of a “Phillip” voice. Thanks for sharing.

    • I hope you’ll continue to sing, whistle, and hum “your song” as earnestly as you can! It blesses you and the world uniquely.( And yes, if we are recycled into another kind of life, I want long legs, a rapid metabolism, and a gorgeous voice! :))

  4. Oh Catherine, what a fabulous post! You so eloquently expressed much of what I feel about music and its role in my own life. I actually have a background in music therapy; I never pursued certification but have always tried to implement what I learned in my other work as a musician. I loved the way you integrated the videos and links. My father had a music therapist while in hospice; she was there on his last day and I could see him relax and respond to the music and her presence. And I also enjoyed reading about your own personal experience with music (especially the part about the CD changer!) And finally – “Music is vibration and so, at minute particle levels, are we; we’re bouncing particles, moving in waves, and everything is music.” So beautifully put and so close to the way that I am aware of music. Thank you for your wonderful words and your wisdom. I’m bookmarking this post so I can find it again and read it more than once 🙂

    • Thank you and thank you, too, for the grace and healing energy of your own music in this world; how greatly it’s needed and what blessing it offers…joy to you in its creation and sharing!

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