Auditions and Life Lessons

Auditions offer life lessons

Auditions are like job interviews for musicians. We prepare for hours but have one shot in front of the judges. It’s frightening, thrilling, and weird.

My musical children have not shown interest in studying at a high level or performing in competitions, but I am familiar with the experience, having participated in competitions and auditions for music school.

Non-musician parents will appreciate the perspective of Penelope Trunk whose son recently took an audition at Julliard.

My 11-Year-Old Son Auditioned at Julliard. (http://www.businessinsider.com/my-11-year-old-son-auditioned-at-juilliard-2017-5)

I like her perspective on practicing, that “the art of practicing is finding a process of repetition without boredom.” Some ideas for this kind of practice can be found elsewhere on this blog in the following articles:

Resilience and grit are the new buzz-words in parenting, and music is one of the best ways to teach these skills. Whatever the outcome of Penelope’s son’s auditions, she is raising a resilient child. If you liked this article, another perspective to consider is Amy Chua and her book about being a Tiger Mother.

When we visited New York last year, we took the kids for a tour of Julliard. My husband’s mentor and friend is the head piano technician for the music school. Here’s a picture of my 11-year-old son at Julliard. We weren’t there for an audition, of course, but the building is impressive.

auditions

my son at Juilliard

We can debate the pros and cons of training children to high levels of musical aptitude, but I think Penelope Trunk is doing a good job teaching her child not just about performance but about life. Her perspective as a non-musician strikes me as healthier for parent and child than Amy Chua, whose children have drifted away from music.

Music Making Sandbox

Come play in the music sandbox!

My flute student James told me about a new “music sandbox” website that provides mini lessons for the budding composer. James’ friend, Dennis DeSantis, was involved with the project.

https://learningmusic.ableton.com

These mini music lessons are perfect for people wanting to learn more about composition, especially in apps like Garage Band. My 12 year old son, who likes to work with loops in Garage Band, will enjoy these simple lessons. Lovers of electronic music will find this especially helpful.  The lessons are progressively more difficult so if you can skip ahead if it’s too simple. I promise you will find something in these lessons that will challenge the way you think about music composition, digital or acoustic.

I learned something new. As a classically trained musician, I understand tempo markings like “Adagio,” “Allegro,” or “Andante,” but I didn’t know these:

  • Dub: 60-90 bpm
  • Hip-hop: 60-100 bpm
  • House: 115-130 bpm
  • Techno/trance: 120-140 bpm
  • Dubstep: 135-145 bpm
  • Drum and bass: 160-180 bpm

Everything on this website is presented in a simple, visual interface that allows for discovery. There are parameters, but we are free to experiment. Music has rhythm and pitches, but the magic is made in the infinite combinations.

I enjoyed the section on writing bass lines. As a flutist, this is not something I have a lot of experience with!

music sandbox

screenshot on section about composing basslines.

 

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Note Reading: Following the Contours

Note Reading is one of the most fundamental, but difficult, skills for beginner musicians.

In this blog post, I will share with you one of the novel approaches invented by a student and her father for reading simple melodies.

Rachel* (not her real name) was having trouble with note reading. She is nine years old and began playing the flute about a month ago. At a previous lesson, I had worked with her on seeing how a melody walks up and down by steps. We drew lines over the notes indicating the rise and fall of the melody. Rachel is a beginning student and she has learned the notes B-A-G but has trouble identifying them on the staff.

Over the next week as he helped Rachel with her lesson assignment, Rachel’s dad came up with a great new way to think about reading the contours of the line. This is a page from Rachel’s book showing a simple melody with the notes B-A-G.

note reading ideas

BAG notes

 

Rachel’s dad asked her to draw dots in a line to represent the pitches. Then he asked her to connect the dots. The first four measures looked like this:

reading notes by contours

Reminding Rachel to begin on the note B, I asked her to play the melody while looking at the dots. When the dots went down, she added one finger. When they went up, she lifted a finger. Success!

After playing the melody this way a couple of times, we compared the dots on her paper with the dots (notes) in her lesson book. It was easy for her to see the contour. Rachel was able to play the entire exercise with few mistakes. She was happy and so was I.

I wish I could take credit for this innovative approach, but it was Rachel’s dad who came up with this solution. He understands better than anyone how Rachel thinks. He knows that she is a visual learner but needs to have the information simplified. The regular music staff in the book had too much distracting information for Rachel to process. She was confused about the stems on the notes and was having difficulty focusing on the five lines. This very simple method eliminated all the unimportant information and made the contour easy to see.

This trick worked great today with a simple stepwise melody on three notes. It’s a solution for today, not a panacea. Tomorrow, it will be another challenge and we’ll find new, innovative ways to learn together.

 

Politics and Music

Music and Politics

Songs have been used to foster patriotism; national anthems, patriotic songs, and campaign jingles arouse the spirit. Anti-government songs are the other side of the political music spectrum: songs to protest war, folk music highlighting social issues, and subversive rock and roll. Even the Greeks understood the power of music to transform government.

“Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited,” Plato warned. “When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”

Political Musicians

The above Plato quote is taken from Eitan Gavish’s 2009 article in the New York Daily News Music Has Always Been a Tuneful Force For Political Change. In this piece, Gavish interviews singer and political activist Joan Baez, who has been active in protest music for nearly six decades. To maintain that energy over such a long career, it may come as no surprise that Baez talks about her music as a spiritual practice.

More recently, NPR aired a story on John Legend, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration. Many artists, actors, and musicians have been criticized for using their celebrity to speak out about politics. John Legend is unabashed.

Well, we’ve always been liberal. Musicians, actors — it’s almost by disposition. We deal with the gay and lesbian community all the time, so we’re gonna feel like they should have the right to get married just like we do. We deal with people of all colors and all races and we travel to different countries all the time to perform, so we’re going to have a more global view and more inclusive view. It’s almost by nature and by circumstance of the things that we do. So if America doesn’t want to consume the art of people who are liberal-minded, there’s not gonna be a lot of art for them to consume.

Effecting Change

Barrett Martin’s words in the 2013 Huffington Post article “Music and the Politics of Resistance” seem prophetic today:

One thing we do know: music in the United States has led directly to environmental action, the equality of our citizens, a movement against war and violence, and it has raised the voices of the working American. We now need to point it toward direct political action.

Music is a powerful form of non-violent protest. The song “We Shall Overcome” stands out as one of the most enduring symbols of the Civil Rights Era. Even before the 1960s, music played a role in other social movements. One hundred years earlier, slaves in the southern states communicated in code through songs such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Songs of the Great Depression helped bring attention to the plight of poor Americans in songs like “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Decades later, blues music would illuminate the injustices of Jim Crow laws in the South. In other parts of the world, songwriters highlight causes and soften our hearts.

Protest music has been used to help people “form effective political communities.”  The anti-Vietnam War protesters were galvanized and reinforced by the folk music revival of the 1960s. A recent study showed that musicians who engage in politics have followers who are more involved than the average citizen. Today, blogs and other social media make it simple for musicians to interweave their politics and songwriting while speaking to a large audience.

The Singing Revolution

music and politics

The Singing Revolution in Estonia

In 1987, Estonia was still part of the USSR, desperately trying to free itself from Communism. The Estonian Singing Revolution was a non-violent movement that brought thousands of people together in common cause. They sang together and held hands. An Estonian described the beginning of the Singing Revolution this way

“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”
Artur Talvik, participant.

People packed stadiums in huge singing festivals where they sang the folk songs banned by the Communists. In 1991, Estonians achieved their independence from the USSR. For the Estonians, it was a bloodless revolution.

#icantkeepquiet

One of the most moving images from the Women’s March on Washington was this video of women singing “I Can’t Keep Quiet” with the artist MILCK.

I watched this video with tears streaming down my cheeks. I recognize the power in the music. It is creative, positive, uplifting. Later, on a Facebook group, I saw that someone posted the video and wrote “we should do this.” Others, myself included, chimed in. “Yes!” But where to start? We were an enthusiastic small group with a vision of what we wanted to do but no idea how to get there.

One week later, we had our first rehearsal. That same day, MILCK released new sheet music on her website. About 35 people – men and women, kids and adults – attended the rehearsal. We learned the parts. We sang. And then we made a video. It was so much fun that we scheduled another rehearsal immediately. Our spirits filled, we made promises to keep the music going, to rededicate ourselves to social justice through music. Our next task is to take our musical activism on the road. Look for us at rallies, marches, and maybe you’ll even come upon us doing a flashmob at the mall.

Our dream is to sound something like this:

What are your favorite songs for social justice? Where should our little Central Ohio choir perform? Would you like to be involved in the #icantkeepquiet project? Comment below.

Silence: Exploring 4’33” by John Cage

Where Does Silence Begin?

Claude Debussy famously quipped “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Or consider this wisdom from an old Zen koan: “It is the silence between the notes that makes the music; it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger.”

Holding silence is difficult, musically and personally.

As a music teacher, I have noticed that the most common rhythm mistake is not counting rests correctly. We want to make the rest too short or add extra time. The correct silence, entered with intention and ended with beauty, is not easy.

In the headlong rush of our lives, creating space for silence requires effort. We turn on the TV or radio to create distraction. The noises of the house, office, people, and street are constant. Inward quiet is even more elusive.

4’33”

Composer John Cage has said that his most important work is 4’33”, an exploration of silence. In this composition, John Cage has written three movements of no music lasting exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The musicians simply sit on stage without playing instruments. The video below shows the soloist tuning her instrument and the conductor beginning each of the three movements.

The Musical Rorschach Test

How do you feel when listening to this piece? Impatient for it to be over? Curious about the sounds? Angry that people couldn’t be quiet in the hall? Perhaps you thought about the people at the concert who paid money to attend this concert.

I would argue that your perception of the piece reflects a bit of your subconscious. It’s like a musical Rorschach test. Everyone will see/hear something different. Your perception may change over time or with repeated hearings.

Rorschach test ink blot silence

Rorschach image

I first became aware 4’33” by John Cage in graduate school. A friend programmed it on his master’s recital. My reaction was, “That’s brilliant! Five minutes of music that he doesn’t have to prepare on his recital. Why didn’t I think of that?!” It seemed like a trick, a joke.

Now I am much more interested in the audience’s participation in 4’33”. In the video above, we hear noises during each movement and an explosion of sound between movements. This piece is successful because the audience has preconceived notions of what they are to do in a recital hall, ie. sit still and listen. But the hall is not silent. It never is. This helps me to remember that the audience is part of every performance. The audience creates an energy in a concert hall. Indeed, the audience is integral. Without an audience, the performance is just a rehearsal. Sometimes the audience is adding to the soundscape, as is made clear in 4’33.”

Finding the Stillness

In the days ahead, I challenge you to find some silence, realizing that it is never truly without sound. The beating of the heart, the hum of machines, are with us always. It is not necessary to silence the world, only to find peace among the sound. This is the spiritual practice of silence.

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.

Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.

In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power.

I will find true harmony.   -Carl G. Seaburg (based on a Unitarian Transylvanian text)

 

The Judges

Banishing Negative Self-Talkangry judges

For the first several years after I started my job as music director, I had a lot of anxiety about the job. I often came home on Sunday afternoons and cried. My husband will tell you that I would spend hours obsessing over something I said or something that I did in rehearsal that might not have come out right. My imaginary judges were constant companions.

Saturday nights were the worst. I would spend a lot of time preparing for the Sunday morning rehearsal, learning every single part. There were many sleepless Saturday nights and many anxious nightmares. The negative voices in my head were deafening. I told myself “You’re not good enough for this job. You don’t have the skills to lead a choir. The choir members don’t like you.” The judges in my head were loud and persistent.

Slowly, I came to realize that this kind of negative self talk was not making the music better. In fact, it was holding me back from joyful expression.

Now, 13 years into the job, I would like to say that the judges are completely gone, but they aren’t. I still have moments of self-doubt. But I’m learning to stare the judges in the eye, ask them to be kind, and listen to the constructive ideas they have for me.

I think most musicians are familiar with inner judges.

We must have a certain amount of self-reflection to correct mistakes during practice. Because music eaves us very vulnerable when performing or working with a teacher, negative self-talk can cause performance anxiety.

A loud inner dialog takes up a lot of space in the brain. We can only remember four to seven things at once. Playing a musical instrument or singing uses a lot of bandwidth as we shift from thinking about the body to the music to the instrument. If the brain is overloaded with inner conflict, the music will suffer. There is a limit to how many things we can be doing and remembering at once.

The first step in solving any problem is to recognize what the problem is.

Notice as you go through your music practice and your day what narrative is going on inside yourself. Listen to the voice within. Are there particular things that trigger negative self-talk?

A Soprano on Her Head

In her book A Soprano on Her Head, Eloise Ristad offers ways to confront the judges. She suggests an exercise, asking us to imagine the judges as people sitting around us.

If we stand in the center of our circle. We can look around at each judge with a sense of detachment and curiosity and find out what each one is telling us. We can also take the initiative and talk back to them; we can ask them to be more supportive and just stop tyrannizing us. We can let their cold imperiousness turn the judges into ice, then let a tiny warm glow at our center intensify little by little until our judges begin to melt away….

We can lessen the power of these nagging, bothers some judges that continually defeat us and stifle are spontaneity. We aren’t doomed to constant censorship from these commentators on our every act and thought. There’s even a chance that we can come to terms with them and find the good in them.

In her book, Eloise Ristad offers many exercises for diminishing the effect of these judges, including asking them to speak kindly or taking their power away. If your inner judges are loud, I urge you to read her book and work through the exercises Ristad suggests in Chapter 2.

When you hear your judges, counteract their negativity with affirmations.

“I am good enough; I am doing enough; I am loved.”kids playing music

Reflection can be a useful tool for growth, but it must be done with love and compassion.

Too much judgment holds us back from experiencing life in the moment. It keeps us frozen in the past because we are afraid of failure. Negative self-talk often causes performance anxiety for musicians and it prevents us from fully expressing ourselves artistically.

Finally, I believe that recognizing and counteracting judgmental self-talk is a kind of spiritual practice. It has helped me be happier in my career and in my personal life. But I have to keep practicing because the judges change form as I face new challenges. I try to stay aware of the voice within me, ever vigilant that my judges are fair and kind.

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

The Beginning

spiritual practice at church

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Like many people, I first began to connect music and spiritual practice while a young child. I attended a large, stone Presbyterian church with my mother. The church was well endowed and had a huge organ, robust choir, bell choir, several children’s choirs, and occasionally an orchestra. It was a rich place for music.

My favorite service of the year was Easter. The church was full of people, the altar adorned with lilies, and the choir was resplendent in their robes. At the end of the Easter service, organist Trudy Faber would take the organ to its full volume and open the trumpet stops. I remember the sanctuary filled with sound, feeling the floor vibrate under my new white shoes. Even now, just thinking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. As I listened to the organ in the grand sanctuary while gazing at the stained glass windows and flying buttresses, I felt divine ecstasy. This was an awe-inspiring experience that forever linked music with spirituality.

Music still has that power over me. When I am moved by music, I feel its spiritual force within me and a reconnection with the divine.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t know where I got the idea to play the flute, but my mom remembers me telling her that I wanted to play and insisting on it until she relented. Practicing the flute was a pleasant escape from the intensity of my home. While other teens were talking on the telephone or listening to the radio, I was playing the flute in the safe cocoon of my room. This is where I learned how to be alone to be comfortable with silence, and to direct my own learning. (Just to be clear, I had no guidance on how to practice and consequently had terrible practice habits that wasted a lot of time.)

Practicing also cultivated grit because my commitment to the flute was unwavering. In fact, I never missed a day of practice during the entire four years of high school.

Much later, I would learn to meditate. I have come to understand that my music practice is a meditation, reaching that same place of calm and flow.

Music has also opened me up to a range of emotions. For a melancholy piece, I must channel the composer’s pain and reference difficult moments in my life. On the other hand, jubilant music makes me feel energized. Little by little, music has expanded my emotional intelligence. It helps me to simply sit with people who are sad without trying to “make things better.” I am learning to be present with uncomfortable feelings… without trying to change them. Performing music demands that a musician stay present and fully engaged, no matter the emotional intensity.

Music practice can be a spiritual practice. I learned how to be still, how to listen, how to commit mind and action to a singular goal. Music cracked open my heart to the joy and suffering of life.

University Studies

degree

MM from CU

The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Top Chef… the judging tables in these shows are less intense than music school. Universities accept only a fraction of students who audition. Fewer make it through the first year. Every week, professors offer criticism in lessons and studio class. Then there are the yearly juries and solo recitals. Music students are required to make fast progress while working through stage fright and self-doubt.

While many teachers tried to be constructive with their criticism, the voices in my head were more destructive. Am I good enough? Do they like me? What if I shake/get sweaty hands/can’t breathe? Facing these fears has been difficult. At times, the negative self talk was deafening, paralyzing. My playing suffered from performance anxiety. So I took classes in Alexander Technique and performance anxiety. I developed a tough skin.  Eventually, I learned that obsessing over these minor details did not serve the music. We do our best and then we move on.

Confronting self-doubt is a kind of spiritual practice because it leads to love and forgiveness.

Post-Graduate

flute studio in 1997

studio photo 1997

After graduating with a masters degree in flute performance, getting married, and moving back to Ohio, I worked to build a career in music. Very quickly I learned that there were lots of other people trying to do the same thing and they were just as driven, just as talented (often more talented.) It was thrilling to land a good gig but it also sent me into a spiral of over-work, self-doubt, and anxiety. Teaching, however, has always been something I love. I have a terrific home studio of flute students, teach classes for preschoolers at recreation centers, and work as a music director for a wonderful church, which is aligned with my spiritual beliefs. This wasn’t the career I had envisioned, but I have a passion for it. All of these jobs allow me to help others find joy in music.

Finding my place in the music community has taught me humility and given me a sense of purpose.

Growing a Soul

Meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, fasting, and writing are all examples of common spiritual practices. I believe that studying and performing music can also be part of a spiritual practice. For some people, the point of spiritual practice is achieving a closer connection with a higher power. For others, it is liberation from this world. But for me, the goal of any spiritual practice is to grow a soul. Music has been part of my life since the beginning. I am aware of ways that it has shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I am learning are about

Traveling a spiritual path means greater self-actualization. Music continues to reveal new ways to explore the journey.

The End of Average – book review

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Are you average?end of average

Author Todd Rose argues that nobody is average. We all have unique, jagged strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists and statisticians use averages to draw conclusions about a group. However, applying the lessons of the average to an individual is not helpful, and can sometimes be harmful. This is called the “ergodic switch.”

Consider this example. A student takes a standardized test and the results show an average score. As you can see from the table below, this student is not uniformly average in all subjects. This student is above average in encoding and visual puzzles but below average in vocabulary. This student has some clear strengths and one area that needs attention. A one-size-fits-all education really fits none.

average?

composite average score

Age of Average

The End of Average discusses how we have arrived at blindly accepting the lie that the average is a valid tool for creating policy. I thought the sections on genes, traits, Quetelet’s social physics, and Taylorism were particularly interesting. The rise of standardization in American culture was slow, but it has a strong foothold in our educational and business systems today.

The central question of the book is

“How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”

The Benefits of Personalization

As a music teacher, I understand the value of a personalized education. Students come to me with unique problems, natural talents, and resources. Some have musical parents; others are the first in their families to study music. Some have natural vibrato; others require years of systematic instruction to learn the skill. Because I work with each student individually, I adapt my teaching. This makes taking private lessons so different than self-directed learning from a book or instruction in school band/orchestra.

My children are fortunate to be in a school system that allows teachers flexibility with the materials they use in the classroom. Through projects, the kids are allowed to choose the direction and intensity of study. For example, my daughter is working on a detailed diorama of Ireland, (shown here with our hedgehog dressed as a leprechaun.) My son who was in the same class last year, chose to write a report for that project. They have different interests and skills, but project-based learning allows them to maximize their jagged learning profiles.Ireland project

Online instruction has offered my son the opportunity to work ahead in math. An online math program allows him to take tests in various math concepts. If he passes the test, he can move onto the next subject area. When it’s new material, the program slows down and teaches him the concept, adding drills until the material is mastered. As parents, we are thrilled that he doesn’t have to complete worksheets on things he already knows. It’s this kind of dynamic, individualized learning that maximizes learning and minimizes frustration.

Wary of Averages

Rose’s book has opened my eyes to the times I have taken the average for granted. From now on, I’m will be much more suspicious when reading articles that try to apply generalizations to specific people. Consequently, I will take another look at the brain scans referenced in Brain Imaging on Musicians, but I hear the school bus… so that will have to wait for now.

Saving for Later

Stick a pin in it – Saving these websites for later.

I keep a running list of articles, websites, leads that I want to investigate further. Here are some of the most interesting ones I have found lately.

I’m saving the article on the Hurrian Hymn for a more comprehensive look at the role of music through history.  The Hurrian Hymn is the oldest record of written music in the West. Written in cuneiform 3400 years ago, the clay tablet indicates pitches to be played on an ancient harp. On this website, you see the stone tablet and hear the Hurrian Hymn played on a recreation of the 9-string lyre.

Our Bones Talk To Our Brains

Our bones create osteocalcin, but when the bones fail to produce enough it can cause problems with blood sugar, anxiety, depression, and difficulty on spacial logic tests… at least for mice. Some of the speculation about the findings suggests that exercise can help maintain bone density. I wonder if the authors of this study have heard about this next study.

Protein Responsible for Linking Memory and Exercise

We know that exercise is good for memory. (See the Healthy Brains blog article and How We Learn blog article for more.) Now scientists have discovered a protein that may be responsible for creating new cells and connections in the brain. Muscles release this protein, called cathepsin, during exercise. Somehow the cathepsin travels to the brain and helps form memories. I thought that the link between memory and physical fitness had more to do with elevated oxygen levels or giving the brain different tasks, but it appears there may be another explanation.

Science Says Silence Is Important for Memory, Learning, and Emotional Health

Add a few more hours to my day, please. In addition to exercising vigorously, I also should be spending significant amounts of time in silence to optimize my brain function.

Singing Changes Your Brain

I’m saving this to share with my church choir as we dive deeper into the mystery of music and spirituality. Bottom line: join a choir! And I’ve got the perfect one for you…

Want to ‘train your brain’? Forget apps, learn a musical instrument

Another article on the many benefits of playing a musical instrument, including greater brain power and better emotional processing. Also discusses the benefits of musical training for people recovering from strokes or struggling with dyslexia.

Science Has Great News For People Who Can’t Sing

The voice is like any other muscle: use it or lose it. But fear not! Even if you’ve “lost it” or never had it, the voice can be trained at any time.

“Music education has loads of scientifically proven benefits: It improves reading and verbal skills, raises IQ, helps in learning new languages, slows the effects of aging, betters memory, enhances self-confidence and so much more. Singing in particular has great physical benefits too. It’s an aerobic activity that increases blood oxygenation, improves heart health and exercises core muscles.”

TED talk on practicing
http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/03/06/518777865/the-most-practical-tips-for-practicing-according-to-science

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Since the beginning, music and spirituality have been inextricably linked.

Every culture in the world has used music as a spiritual practice in rituals for healing, connecting with the Divine, communicating with the spirit world, celebrating important events, and so forth. Ancient people knew the power of music and we do too. In the book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica- The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds, by John Powell, the front endpaper asserts

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions.

This blog series will focus on how music can be used as a spiritual practice. Religious or not, all people benefit from activities that foster more compassion, more love, more generosity, more wholeness.

Look for the helpers.

How do you respond when something awful happens? Perhaps you feel sad or angry at first. But in the days and weeks that follow, do these events leave you feeling hopeless or are you spurred to action?

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Once again, the news featured stories about the victims and about a world that was changed by senseless violence. However, alongside the tragic stories, the news this year also told about the people who were helpers.
Look for the helpers

The stories told about September 11 offer many examples of people who responded with generosity to the tragedy. For example, the people of  Gander, Newfoundland, didn’t seek out a charity project, but they offered generous support to the more than 7000 travelers who became stranded when American airspace was closed. Those travelers, after returning home, returned the favor by setting up a well-funded scholarship for the children of Gander.

There were many other hopeful stories too. Mental health professionals volunteered their time to talk with the first responders and attend to their emotional needs. Others went to NYC to help with the recovery efforts, risking their own health. And fire stations all across the country reported gifts of food, homemade cards, and other donations. I remember long lines at the Red Cross blood donation center in Boulder, where I was living at the time.

We have a choice when something bad happens: we can be paralyzed by fear and depression or we can work to make things better. Because we never know when we will called to be “helpers,” we have to be ready.

Be a helper.

I believe that the people who are best able to respond to a crisis are the people who are healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s normal to feel sad or angry when tragedy strikes, but I want to be the person ready to respond with action and love when called to help.

My goal is to stay balanced and spiritually whole enough that when the need arises, I will be able to respond immediately and generously. As a music teacher, I understand how important it is for me to be psychologically healthy when working with others. Music is my passion as well as my livelihood. It is also a source of strength when I’m not feeling grounded.

Music as a spiritual practice.

There are as many paths to the divine as there are people. Just as practicing yoga has multiple benefits, so too the study of music offers many spiritual lessons. For example, listening to music can help regulate our emotions. Participating in an ensemble can help us commit to something larger than ourselves. Practicing a musical instrument teaches us how to be comfortable when alone and how to listen deeply. Performing makes us confront negative self-talk. Vocalists must take a deep dive into the words, transforming text into something meaningful.

music and spiritual practice

music at NUUC

In this blog series, I’ll discuss ways to integrate music into a meaningful spiritual practice. I’ll offer some exercises and share my experiences as a performer, teacher, and church musician. I’m aided in this journey by my wonderful choir at North Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have made it a priority this season to explore the role of music and spirituality in our lives and in our community.

How does music play a role in helping you become the person you want to be? Please respond below with your thoughts.