Music’s Power to Heal

Performing music is good for the mind, body and soul. Organizations are harnessing this power to change lives all around the world.

Photo by Stephanie Waisler Rubin

An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s recognizes her granddaughter for the first time, a group of strangers leaves as friends, and an impoverished orphan creates art. How? That’s music’s power to heal and just a few of the benefits of recreational music making (RMM).

According to NAMM, recreational music making refers to playing musical instruments alone or in a group without the goals of mastery or performance; it emphasizes quality of life and non-musical outcomes rather than competition or heightened performance. Examples include drum circles, jam sessions or experimenting with instruments.

Companies, organizations and musicians are researching and implementing programs centered around RMM to help heal ailments such as depression, anxiety and even cancer as well as to improve morale and bring people together.

Remo HealthRHYTHMS

Percussion company Remo, Inc. created the HealthRHYTHMS Division to investigate, research and harness the power of RMM.

“It’s time to stop thinking of the drum as just a musical instrument,” said CEO and founder Remo Belli in a statement. “Start thinking of the drum as a recreational tool for every family, a wellness tool for every retiree, and an educational tool for every classroom.”

Neurologist Barry Bittman, M.D. and his research team created the Health- RHYTHMS Protocol, a ten-step method that includes drums and more.

“It starts with 10 to 20 people in a circle, but it’s quite different from a recreational drum circle because it doesn’t even begin with drums,” says Alyssa Janney, HealthRHYTHMS manager. “It uses the drum as a tool for communication. There are icebreaking activities, games that go on, opportunities to share verbally and non-verbally. And then one step is a recreational drum circle, but the rest of the steps are intended to eliminate any perceptions that this is about performance and to help people connect with others in the group.”

Through the research of Bittman and others, Remo created a list of seven evidence-based elements, or benefits, of HealthRYHTHMS Group Empowerment Drumming: self-expression, stress reduction, exercise, camaraderie/support, nurturing, spirituality and music-making.

“It’s pretty amazing to watch a group of strangers come together, and within an hour, people have gone from being strangers to acting and remaining like good friends,” Janney says. “It’s a really amazing way to break down barriers between people. It turns out the drum is a really great tool for that.”

The benefits of RMM even go into the biological realm. The HealthRHYTHMS Protocol “significantly increased the disease- fighting activity of circulating white blood cells (Natural Killer cells) that seek out and destroy cancer cells and virallyinfected cells.”

Further research by the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute showed that RMM had greater stress-reduction impacts than standard relaxation activities such as reading or conversation.

“You don’t need to be a drummer to facilitate HealthRHYTHMS, and you don’t have to be a drummer to participate,” Janney says. “The one common thread for people to come to the HealthRHYTHMS training are all looking for tools to help make the world a better place.”

Remo holds training seminars for facilitators to become certified and apply the techniques to their own industries and expertise. Past participants have included doctors, nurses, clergy from various religions, music and behavioral therapists, counselors, teachers, CEOs and more.

They use HealthRHYTHMS for programs involving multiple sclerosis, cancer, Alzheimer’s and stroke support groups; employee wellness; drug and alcohol rehabilitation; community stress buster circles; senior populations; assisted living facilities; caregivers; adults with intellectual disabilities; intergenerational groups and at-risk youth.

One HealthRHYTHMS facilitator, Bonnie Harr, led an intergenerational session on Mother’s Day. One woman brought her daughter as well as her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. All of a sudden during the drumming, the grandmother looked at her 8-year-old granddaughter and called her by name for the first time, enthralling the young girl as she jumped up to hug her Nana.

Harr writes about the experience in an essay, recording the woman’s statement: “My mother will never remember this day, but my daughter will never forget it.”

Muse Power

The roots to RMM can be traced back through natural history, far before scientific research came into play. “Community music extends back into tribal roots and how indigenous cultures and people around the world used music to keep community strong,” says Cheri Shanti, writer, drummer and dancer. “The tribal way of music is community-based, and everyone is involved. In many cultures the word ‘music’ automatically includes dance.”

Shanti’s book “Muse Power: How Recreational Music Making Heals Us From Depression and the Symptoms of Modern Culture” details how music went from a community tribal experience to a Westernized model where audience and performer are separated.

“The book came from my own experiences and seeing how powerful music and community can be for the average person to get through depression,” Shanti says. “I think about how we can bring more community-minded music into the arts and bridge the gap between performer and audience, making it one entity. My argument is that the more we do that, the more connected we will feel.”

A junior high and high school marching band saxophonist and drum major, Shanti found her way back to music later in life through drum circles and the Pagan community. Now Shanti leads drum circles, seminars and retreats focused on RMM and nature.

“I think it’s important to empower students to recognize that you don’t have to be a musician to be able to create and express musicality,” Shanti says. “In many cultures music is an oral tradition, music is not about learning notes or being perfect. In the Western world, we tend to judge more, but in children and youth, it’s OK; you don’t have to be perfect, knowledgeable or schooled to create music, play an instrument or dance. That’s what recreational music making brings to us.”

HEARTbeats Foundation

For those in extreme poverty and hopelessness, the gift of RMM (or any music at all) can be an eye-opening experience or a life-altering inspiration. The HEARTbeats Foundation “strives to help children in need harness the power of music to better cope with, and recover from, the extreme challenges of poverty and conflict.”

Founded by renowned cellist Lynn Harrell and his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, the foundation’s pilot program launched with a 10-day trip to Kathmandu, Nepal, to implement and develop music and art therapy programs. HEARTbeats partnered with the Unatti Foundation, a previously established notfor- profit that provides food, shelter and education to underprivileged girls in Nepal.

“There’s great joy and uplifting qualities of music for anybody, but especially for these children who are in desperate situations,” Harrell says. “It was a program that didn’t necessarily teach them to play music, but to use music to enlighten their lives, and we were just amazed by how much success we had.”

The foundation conducted several activities such as performing for the children, drawing and painting what they felt while hearing music, self-portraits using mirrors (a rarity for them), learning and singing songs, and experimenting with instruments.

Most of the children had not ever made music or drawn for fun before. “Music and self-expression through drawing and art are keys to making a huge, huge change of opportunity for young people,” Harrell says. “Some of them are not cognizant yet of their moods and situation and how it makes them feel and how their feelings run their lives. Through music and art, they can get in touch with that and then can change their lives.”

HEARTbeats hopes to institute these programs year-round in Nepal with full-time staff and in the future to create similar programs in other impoverished countries. “For me it was one of the most beautiful and giving experiences I’ve ever had,” Harrell says. “I suppose I make some sort of connection to my own past because I was orphaned by the time I was 17 and was on my own. The world is closer to being one community, and our responsibility as human beings to reach out and give support to other people is the most important thing one can do in life.”

A soon-to-be-released album “Paint Me a Rainbow” will raise funds for HEARTbeats and Save the Children’s HEART program—the organization that originally inspired Nightengale and Harrell to create their own foundation. Primarily with original songs written specifically for HEARTbeats, the album features superstars such as Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Christine Brewer, John Williams, Joan Baez, Blind Boys of Alabama, Maroon 5, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sting, Paul Simon and more.

“It’s a very imtimate album,” Nightengale says. “It’s something that’s really unique because it’s just about friends coming together to help these children. It’s a beautiful centerpiece of what this project is about for us.”

Musical Therapy

Regardless of the method, there’s no denying the many benefits of RMM— physical, emotional and social. “It really helps people to stretch beyond their perceived boundaries,” Janney says. “It makes people want to try things that they thought were impossible for them and overcome the obstacles that they face.”

Perhaps RMM works so well because music is a truly universal and easily accessible language. “People are more and more aware that art activity itself contributes to all mental and personality developments,” Harrell says. “Any person who can cry at the beauty of a melody or jump up at the joy of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ recognizes this power. It’s mysterious, but it’s there. Music uplifts the spirit, and you can accomplish great things. Without that, we’re struggling through depression, and everything is a struggle.”

Whether mysterious or scientific, music education (structured or recreational) stimulates the brain and enriches the soul. “One thing that is well-documented is that musical people make much better team players in corporations,” Shanti says. “The musical students’ brains operate in a way that allows more creativity. Music opens the doorway for stronger foundations in students.”

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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