It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to remind us of what’s important in our lives, but, over the past months, that’s exactly what’s been happening in homes and communities around the world. Even on farms, which after all have more experience dealing with these issues, some are feeling the loneliness and boredom of isolation from family, neighbours and business contacts, while on the other hand we can also be thrust into close quarters with loved ones for much longer than we might be ready for.
Both situations can lead to stress, and are an interesting parallel to what a lot of people feel when they retire from actively working.
There are few occupations as all-consuming as farming, so it’s hardly surprising that farmers are often reluctant to even contemplate retiring. And when they do, they find it hard to cultivate interests or activities that are as meaningful as driving the combine was.
Thankfully, music — whether it’s making it or simply listening to it — is one activity that everybody can relate to and that offers not only an engaging and soothing way to fill some spare time, but is actually beneficial to your physical and mental well-being, and goodness knows everyone could do with a little extra stress relief these days.
“There is no other activity we know of that lights up more areas of our brain than when we listen to music that means something to us, that matters to us the most,” says Jennifer Buchanan, who has been a music therapist in Alberta for 29 years. “A huge level of engagement begins to happen; our mood begins to improve and we stop worrying about things because we’re completely in a new area of the brain — our hippocampus (which is involved with emotions and memory). So, music and talking about music helps us feel healthy.”
To some extent, music has a place in everybody’s lives. Who hasn’t turned on the radio and heard a favourite song that just makes you feel happy or triggers a pleasant memory?
“When we hear music that is making us feel good, it’s doing that at a neuroscience level where hormones are being released from our brain, like dopamine, which is our feel-good hormone and oxytocin, which is our social bonding hormone,” says Buchanan. “Those hormones are being released into our bodies just like we’re taking a pharmaceutical drug and it’s pretty incredible that music has that capacity.”
A combination of music and counselling
Buchanan, president of JB Music Therapy, has a team of 23 therapists who use a combination of music and counselling to help people with various issues at different stages of their lives.
“Our sessions are very different for everybody because we see the entire spectrum of people from all different phases of their life,” says Buchanan. “Some people are trying to find more joy and comfort in their lives, or are planning on retiring, but want to continue to have meaningful experiences, and others want an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve been through and set new goals, and make new, positive memories. Music is a lovely way to do all those things because it’s a part of everyone’s lives.”
Generally, Buchanan works with a small group or individuals and begins with some simple, relational questions. “Perhaps we would talk about the music from our childhood, or the music we listened to throughout high school,” she says. “From there, all the stories start coming because of how music interacts with the brain. Our feelings and memories are stored in the limbic system of the brain, which is activated when we talk about music.”
These stories often lead to helping people compile an intentional playlist of music that can help with whatever it is they need help with. “Someone might be having a hard time sleeping, for example, so we will work with them to help them put some music and a routine together to help them with sleeping,” says Buchanan. “Or it might be that they are feeling lonely, so we will help them put together some familiar music associations to the people they love and care about.”
The signature 12 playlist
Having a therapist help guide this process makes it easier for a lot of people, but Buchanan says there are also things that people can do on their own, and she encourages them to go a little deeper than just playing their favourite song or music piece, by putting together a signature 12 list.
“I suggest to people that they put together a signature 12 personal soundtrack of songs or music that have meant the most to them during their lives and to journal about the stories and memories attached to them,” says Buchanan. “It is difficult to take all the music you’ve ever heard in your lifetime and curate it down to just 12 pieces, but the process becomes very meaningful and telling, like why am I picking that song and not this one.”
The outcome is hopefully to have 20 or so minutes of music that is soothing to that person. “The language is important, which is why I say soothing, not relaxing,” says Buchanan. “To have 20 minutes of music that really does feel like a big hug if you’re feeling lonely.”
Since taking their music therapy services online due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Buchanan says she has seen a big spike in interest.
“For anyone who is seeking a counsellor, or just someone to talk to, music therapy may be another option that they didn’t even know existed, so what we’re seeing is people just wanting to give it a shot,” she says. “It’s the immediate relational quality of music that then brings people together.”
Learning to play
For some, learning to play an instrument might be a lifelong dream, and as a new hobby, it couldn’t be a much better choice from a health standpoint.
Learning a new instrument involves co-ordination, and developing a new skill, that exercises different areas of the brain. Research shows this to be hugely beneficial, especially as we age.
One thing that can hold some older adults back is the fear of not being able to do it or being too old to learn a new skill, but in fact the opposite is true, says Buchanan.
“It’s actually easier for an adult to learn an instrument for the first time in many ways because they have life experience and certain concepts are going to make more sense to an adult than to a child who is still developing,” she says. “In learning even the simplest song, the mature adult is able to put feelings and emotions into that melody in a way that a child typically can’t do yet.”
It often boils down to finding the right instrument, which isn’t always someone’s first pick.
“I’ve had a lot of adults who are learning instruments and they thought they wanted to learn the piano and got frustrated, but as soon as they picked up a ukulele or a different instrument, they felt they could accomplish more in a shorter period of time and feel a greater reward,” says Buchanan. “Like everything else it might be trying a couple of different things.”