🎶The Power of Music

Labor Day weekend of this year, my friend Mark and I went to the annual outdoor Duke Symphony Orchestra Pop’s concert on Duke University’s east campus.  This was a pilgrimage of sorts for me.  My daughter Natalie, had played this very same concert as a freshman 12 years earlier.  It’s an amazing feat for the musicians as it was the first week of school and they had just auditioned, been selected and rehearsed together for a mere 6 hours before performing for a crowd of several hundred on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September. It was my experience 12 years earlier at this very concert that started a dream that eventually brought me to Durham to live.  So here we were, Mark and I, sitting in camp chairs, the orchestra players under a white canopy and all walks of life surrounding us from babies, toddlers, freshman with back packs, families with picnics, couples with wine and cheese and senior citizens barely managing their folding chairs. We waited to be entertained by the music.

Children dancing at the Duke Symphony Orchestra performance

The experience reminded me of the power of music:

Music moves.  I usually write while listening to classical music.  It’s amazing how I instantly wanted to nod my head or tap my feet.  As written by Daniel Levitin for Psychological Science, “Researchers have shown that music stimulates the cerebellum, a region of the brain crucial to motor control. He says connections between the cerebellum and the limbic system (which is associated with emotion), may explain why movement, emotion, and music are tied together.” At the outdoor concert it was intriguing to watch the young children coming together to dance and swing and run and sway.  It was apparent that most didn’t know each other but they were drawn in by the music to dance in joyful exuberance. 

Music is nostalgic.  I had no idea what music they were going to play.  I may not know the name of a song but regardless I can be suddenly transported to another decade. They played part of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring which has in its seventh section a rife on the Shaker tune Simple GiftsSimple Gifts supplants me to a beach on Dan Hole Pond in Ossipee NH at Camp Merrowvista at the age of fifteen. There we are – skinny teenage girls in overalls and t-shirts sitting in a circle under the moonlight singing, “’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right.” I was in the right place 45 years ago and I was in the right place at that concert.  Time travel in the matter of a few seconds without a time machine or plane ticket. 

Music engages. The last song of the concert was John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the Maestro had us clapping in time.  At the flamenco performance I saw a month earlier in Barcelona, I was dying to stomp my feet and grab up a large flowing skirt.  The children at the outdoor concert were compelled to grab each other’s hand and spin in a circle. At the last choral performance I saw in the Duke Chapel, the entire group joined in singing Hallelujah. I remember my last day of work and my coworker Kiesha asking what walk out music I wanted.  I said I didn’t have one.  She selected one for me on her phone and played it as I strutted out of the office with my coworkers coming out of their cubicles to witness my last day of work to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”.  Music calls you to be a part of it.  To engage in it.  To participate and belong to the experience. 

Music connects. As an undergrad at Cornell in the early 1980’s, we had a group of us that worked at the Pancake House called “The PhD’s” (pancake house drunks) that used to go out most Thursdays to bars around Ithaca, NY.  We only went to bars that had a jukebox with the song “Mack the Knife” sung by Bobby Darin on it.  There are hand movements (neh, body movements) that go with the song.  There would be twenty or more of us singing along with Bobby crooning away. I think every wedding I attended post-graduation, it was a “must play” song as well as Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” It was a PhD anthem. Anything from Pink Floyd connects me to my brother, Rick while sitting on a bean bag chair in the basement of our house between two giant speakers listening to “Wish you were here” or “Money”. My children and I took a terrific 2,000 mile road trip around the southwest United States when they were in elementary school.  We had a video player (very new age at the time) in the back seat.  We listened to Lion King countless times.  “Hakuna Matata” was the anthem for that trip. Music weaves connections in my life.

What is so powerful about music is that its meaning is different for each one of us.  I hear the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” and I am taken back to riding the subway to work in Manhattan with my Walkman cassette player.  For you?  You may have never heard it or it takes you to a hospital room or a senior prom or a marching band performance.  Its power is endless in its connection, nostalgia and engagement in countless ways. How does music move you?

6 Reasons Why You Need Music in Your Life

My Rotary Club toured a local elementary Charter School a few weeks ago and there was a wall near the music room that had the question, “Why do you need music?” There were about 100 or so responses that had each child’s name, grade and individual response. It was really interesting but one particular response jumped out to me. Gavin in Grade 3 said, “It makes your mind explode”. Quite profound for an 8 year old. Explode is a powerful word and it resonates for me. It’s kind of like the old tag line for Coke: “Things go better with Coke”. Things go better with music; life goes better with music.

6 Reasons Why You Need Music in Your Life
For me different songs take me to a particular moment in time in my life. Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder transports me to the front porch 210 College Avenue in Ithaca, NY. My friend Mark and I sitting on a sofa on that porch watching folks walk by during the spring of my sophomore year. Who let the dogs out reminds me of my son at age 5 dancing to the music in the middle of Windsor Water Works transfixed by the beat. Mac the Knife with Bobby Darin is definitely my Junior year of college and my co-workers from Noyes Lodge making shark bites with our hands. I hear that song and I am there. As I was hitting the last .1 mile of my half marathon and Katy Perry’s Firework came on my iPod to carry me through. Transported totally.

Well there are a lot of scientific reasons why music is so good for you and here they are:
1. Brain Function. Music activates cross function between the left and right brain. According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “Rhythm and pitch discrimination are processed mainly in the left hemisphere whereas timbre and melody are found chiefly in the right…. listening to music would prime the activation of those areas of the brain which are concerned with spatial reasoning.” So if you want your left and right brains to connect, listen to some Mozart.

2. Better Grades. Another quote from that music room wall was “It helps you learn – try saying your ABC’s without singing the song”. I have to admit, when I used to have to actually file in a file cabinet (so old school), I used to sing the abc’s especially around l,m,n,o,p. But the American Music Conference has cited research that shows studying and creating music may help improve your capacity to learn other subjects and get better grades overall. Nothing wrong with that. Even to learn another language.

3. Universal. In an article by askmen.com, “Ask any American backpacker what subject comes up when they are at a conversation standstill with an Argentinean that doesn’t speak English – invariably Led Zepplin, Metallica, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam will be discussed.” I remember my tour of Colombia in my middle twenties. Everyone asked about Madonna and Michael Jackson. Everyone. It is the universal language.

4. Exercise. I never would have survived training for a marathon without my iPhone and my trusty ear buds. When you are running 15 miles for some 3 plus hours, the greatest motivation is the beat beat beat. According to Active.com, “Research suggests that music really can boost athletic performance. Liverpool John Moores University in England looked at the effects of music of different tempos on stationary cycling performance. The subjects’ average power output over the full 25 minutes was found to be 3.5 percent greater when the music tempo was increased. Their power dropped by 9.8 percent when the music was slowed down.” Music powers exercise.

5. Pain relief. According to the Journal of Advanced Nursing, music can reduce chronic pain by up to 21%. “The results from a clinical trial revealed that people who listened to music for an hour each day for a week had improved physical and psychological symptoms compared to those who were deprived of music.” Listening to music might just be the best medicine.

6. Emotional benefits. As I am writing this, I have iTunes playing my “Create” music list which has nothing but instrumental songs on it. Anything from classical to Zoe Keating to Ottmar Liebert. Well any time I hear Ottmar Leibert and his spanish classical guitar it transports me back to being 8 months pregnant with my daughter in Albuquerque, NM. I used to turn on Ottmar when I was cleaning the house or reading. I was pretty sure that Natalie would come out with a Classical Guitar in hand after all those hours of listening to Ottmar. It was relaxing and calming. I remember in the actual delivery room, we had tapes of Ottmar playing. I’m not saying it was easy but it was soothing.

This has really opened up a can of worms of memories for me. One more I have to mention is my dad playing Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez LP’s when I was a kid on the HUGE hifi in the living room of our house in Wilmington DE. “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”. Music becomes ‘that bridge’ between so many different things in life. It’s really amazing when you think of it. Music has even been found to help prison inmates relax and be less aggressive. It can be life changing for all of us. What song is a big memory for you?

6 Strategies to Kick Stress to the Curb

This is the time of year when most companies are in the middle of figuring out if they are as profitable as they thought. As efficient. If all the effort in 2014 was worth it on the bottom line. Annual reviews are being drafted, bonuses figured out. The worker bee hamster wheel is in full throttle. Will we have red or black ink on the bottom of that Profit and Loss statement? Kind of stressful and overwhelming.Kick Stress to the Curb

It’s so important to be able to take a break. Touch the pause button. Tough to do in a deadline driven society. There are so many business cultures where the guy who stays the latest or works every weekend is the hero. Burning the midnight oil is a sign of fortitude and admired by the guys in the boardroom. All you have to do is read a book like “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss and you realize that in the long run (or even the short run) being stressed out and overwhelmed is not the end all and be all of life. We all need to make sure we are grabbing a little balance and honestly – Maybe a lot of balance.

Here are some strategies to right the boat and eliminate some of the stress in your life:

1. Exercise. Ugh no. I hate exercise. It’s snowing out. It’s too hot. It’s dark. I’m too tired. It’s raining. I have said all these things. I have come home at the end of a hard day of work and thought “just sit on the couch and watch the news”. But I force myself to go grab my sneakers, dress appropriately (i.e. rain gear, reflector vest or gloves) and head outside. I might dread the first 5 minutes it takes to get myself together but once outside, I am able to flick the switch. I’m not saying I don’t think about the day or start thinking about tomorrow but I’m out in the elements. I’m moving. I have a new perspective. My heart is beating, my brain is being restored and my stress levels melt away. I don’t care what it is. Get moving!

2. Music. Find some calming music. This is not the time to break out some AC/DC or Iron Maiden. According to P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D, there are two criteria for music to be calming, “Tunes slower than your heart rate, and ones that are classical music, appear to be the most effective at soothing stress.” Grab some Mozart or Windham Hill or Snatam Kuar and chill out. You can even take a walk with your ear buds in and kill two birds with one stone. There is a time and place for upbeat music just not when you want to de-stress. Take five minutes at work and pop those earbuds in and chill out. It uses a different part of your brain. You’ll come back to do better thinking. Find your music.

3. Reading. This is not the time to pick up the newspaper which can be stress inducing. Find a book that will bring you pleasure and escape, an adventure for your mind. I read “Gone with the Wind”. No small feat. But completely engrossing. According to the University of Minnesota, “a 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It works better and faster than other relaxation methods.” Personally, I think it’s due to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing from their perspective for a bit. Poor Scarlet and all her trials and tribulations. Suddenly I’m not worried about whether that client calls back. Pick up a book.

4. Meditation. Try just 5 minutes of meditation. I remember getting all wrapped up in doing it “right”. Let go of that. There are not meditation police that are going to come over and correct you. There are recordings, apps and books on the topic. Pick one up and give it a spin. Start slow and work your way up. Don’t go head off to a week long retreat at a Buddhist Temple if you are just getting started. Praying or Yoga can provide the same benefit. Pick what you are most comfortable with and get started. According to the Mayo Clinic, “When you meditate, you clear away the information overload that builds up every day and contributes to your stress. And these benefits don’t end when your meditation session ends. Meditation can help carry you more calmly through your day.” It’s like taking a de-stressor pill in the morning and it time releases throughout the day. Find your breath.

5. Control. It turns out that stress is dictated by our sense of control. So find things that are within your control. Strum a guitar, knit a sweater, paint a water color or write a blog. As Eric Barker wrote for Time Magazine, “Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can substantially decrease your stress level.” Bearing that in mind, reflect on what you are in control of. The time you get up, making lunch, your response to an upset customer. Realizing that you are in control of much more than you might normally think reduces your sense of feeling overwhelmed. Be in control.

6. Boundaries. Set clear boundaries. I leave my cell phone in the kitchen (far away from my bedroom) to charge all night. I don’t answer work emails on the weekend. I try to limit screen time (i.e. television, internet surfing, Netflix, etc.) to two hours a day. We eat dinner at the table with the television off. I try to do creative work early in the day and, as my willpower and concentration evaporates, I will work on more repetitive tasks like paying bills, social networking and returning emails in the afternoon. The world is constantly bombarding you for attention, set up some boundaries.

I have to say that having an empty nest has really helped my stress levels. No running out to school to drop off a book report or finding out about a last minute wrestling meet some two hours away. It might also be that I realize now that I am in control of my response to something that might be perceived as stressful. Take back control.