We never fully appreciate what playing music can do for our overall health. As musicians, we likely don’t think about it at all. I mean, on some level we likely realize that music can relax us and our students as well as relieve stress, otherwise we likely wouldn’t be musicians—it makes us feel good. It does something for us that we just can’t explain. A colleague and I recently led a workshop called Wellness Through Music at the Prince Edward Island Teachers’ Federation Annual Convention. It was open to all teachers in the province and there were teachers from all subject areas in attendance. The idea was to present the material in such a way as to give those teachers in attendance musical tools that contribute to their overall personal well-being. We focussed on how jamming can not only lead to a healthy brain, but throw all your cares away. There is a large bit of research regarding wellness through music and it has been conceptualized for years. We presented
Wellness Through Music
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first named flow theory in 1975. It is constantly colloquialized to “in the zone.” We’ve all been there, it’s when we are in such a state of concentration or ‘flow’ that we are not worrying about our day, and are truly happy just doing the thing without a worry in the world. Music isn’t the only place where we feel a state of ‘flow’—It happens in sports, video games, art, and writing but every musician has felt this at some point, whether it is during a jam session or during a performance of an orchestral work.
The self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci) is truly the key to happiness. The theory states that if you achieve the 3 golden tenets, you will be happy. The three tenets are: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. So basically, if you feel like you’re good at something, are part of a community, and free to express yourself and be creative then you will be happy. In music, this could easily be applied to performing in a group. However, in a traditional school ensemble, the autonomy piece is often missing simply due to the fact that band, orchestra, and choir are, in essence, dictatorships. Where this theory shows its tri-force of power is during a jam session or other truly creative activity.
Daniel Goleman first popularized the idea of emotional intelligence in 1995. Studies have shown that emotional intelligence has a positive effect on job performance, leadership ability, and overall mental health  . People with high emotional intelligence have the ability to recognize and regulate their own emotions as well as recognize the emotions of others. Music, has been known to enhance emotional intelligence. In a study, “It was discovered that those with musical experience demonstrated enhanced perception of emotions. The strongest results, in fact, were with those people who initiated musical training before the age of 7” .
Music and Dementia Patients
It is known that dementia patients react positively to music therapy. Remarkably, the music part of the brain isn’t damaged by the disease. Perhaps the best thing anyone can do for a dementia patient is simply, play some music from their childhood. This is related to my next point.
Music and The Brain
Robert Zatorre of McGill University is the leading expert on music’s effect on the brain. He states that, “to solve diseases such as Alzheimer’s, we need to achieve a good understanding of the entire system…we are using music because it involves almost every brain system that is known to exist” . When involved in making music, more parts of the brain light up than when doing any other activity—equivalent to a full-brain workout. This significantly contributes to overall brain health. It’s not to say—to use the old mantra—that “music makes you smarter” because all learning makes you ‘smarter,’ but it is to say that it keeps your brain healthy.
There have been recent studies that suggest that singing daily can substantially reduce stress. It has also been found to improve our immune system and prolong our lives. One of the major reasons for this is that singing is a form of controlled breathing having the same effect as yoga breathing. It also releases oxytocin and endorphins into the brain which help release stress and anxiety .
After we went through all the research, we wanted teachers in attendance to experience what we were talking about. We had decided on a jam session because they are typically very informal and unrehearsed. Our hope was that they would, at the very least, experience flow during that jam session. As there were close to 70 music and non-music teachers in the same room, we were not sure what would happen. I mean, I’ve taught a group of non-music teachers to play in a rock band in 2 rehearsals, but I was not prepared for this.
We had more than enough guitars, ukes, pitched and non-pitched percussion to go ‘round, so we asked everyone to grab an instrument and “if you don’t know how to play, ask a friend who does.” I showed them a recording of the opening chord progression and vocals of “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers so they would have an auditory reference, then we just jumped in. We established a groove by playing C-C-C-C-F-F-F-F-C-C-C-C-G-G-G-G and went from there. For one, I was expecting more resistance from the non-music teachers and a little more explicit teaching but was I ever wrong. I should have taken a cue from my own book and told myself “they know more than you think they do.” We got through the entire song without stopping and everyone was playing along—it was really an amazing thing.
The most amazing part about it was after the song was finished and here’s why: We had ended the song much earlier than we had anticipated and had informally dismissed everyone but nobody wanted to leave! They all wanted to keep playing so I wracked my brain for another song they could play while they were all switching instruments for the next song. Eventually I thought of “Best Day of My Life” by the American Authors because of the easy progression (and it was the only other song I could remember the lyrics for at the time!) We got through that one too and they were hungry for more. It was clear that these teachers were not just ‘in the zone,’ they were also experiencing competence, relatedness, and autonomy: it sounded great, we were all part of the group, and were free to create parts that didn’t exist and make creative musical choices without judgement.
To the Extreme
But it didn’t end there either. After we finished “Lean on Me” and “Best Day of My Life,” we began to improvise and compose our own music. I started by giving the group a chord progression to play by just dictating the pattern as I was playing it so those that were following along on pitched percussion could pick up the pattern. I didn’t need to do that because if I just kept playing in C, everything would have been fine. There were a few music teachers who took solos as the song was progressing. Once we finished this my colleague suggested they get into small instrument groups and make up their own music together. As they were setting up I gave them parameters to get them started, but again I underestimated them. They didn’t need parametres, all they needed were the instruments. We let them improvise and compose for a few minutes until it was clear that a couple of groups had something to share. One group in particular didn’t have anything but the melody to the typical piano tune “Heart and Soul.” One of the group members played through it and goofed around at the end with a playful laugh so before she could stop I started playing the chord progression and everyone joined in. It was really quite magical.
Based on our experience leading adults in community music settings, we found that adults can more often than children, possess fixed mindsets about something like this. These adults were ready to jump right in which I suppose is why they were at the Professional Development session in the first place—we were certainly humbled. Everyone was enjoying themselves and having a lot of fun and they sounded great doing it. As an added bonus they were able to contribute positively to their overall health and wellbeing!
Have you ever led a jam session with adults? What about with children? Let me know how it went! I can help you if you like. I deliver workshops like this one and many others all around North America. Hit me up!
Until next time, Happy Musicking!
4. Steven Fick, and Elizabeth Shilts. “This Is Your Brain on Music.” Canadian Geographic, January/February 2006, 34-35.