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Opera, Self-care and Music as Medicine

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Lately, the election and the turmoil our lives have been tossed into by this pandemic has a lot of people talking about self-care. Self-care is a term used today to describe everything from a bubble bath to a session with a therapist. I have heard it invoked to encourage luxury item purchases, to justify an extra piece of cake after a breakup, and to label Millennials as self-centered and frivolous. I personally view self-care as the revolutionary act of pushing back against the cult of perfection and the idea that kindness to self, rest and vitality are only for the wealthy, the conventionally beautiful and the powerful. We all seem to resonate with a different interpretation of this term. Here is yet another angle to consider.

I think classical music and self-care have a lot in common in that they are terms and practices that are too often used as reductive, luxury labeling for much a more practically useful tool. In my opinion, and in the opinion of a large portion of the medical community, music IS self-care, and classical music in particular is tremendously healing.

Any opera singer will tell you that the act of singing, in our case with a bel canto rooted technique, is an act of self-care. Operatic vocal technique requires the body to become not only an instrument, but an amplifier. Think of an opera singer’s body as a wind instrument like a trumpet, or a clarinet. The regulated air pressure in our abdomen precipitates the embouchure or the reed into vibration (our vocal folds); and out comes a piercing yet round tone which then is sustained over the phrase. In another analogy, our voices are born from the same force (the Bernoulli effect) that is generated when a sailboat is sucked forward over the water by the wind meeting the precisely angled surface of the sail. Like life-long sailors we opera singers live in constant search of that magical effect, when all of the forces of our instrument line up and we ride the sweet spot of sound like a schooner flying right on the wind. There is a profoundly present and engaged state that is essential to the ability to sing an aria beautifully in real time, especially in front of an audience. That state is what many in meditation and mindfulness circles call “flow” and when the singer achieves that state whether in public or in rehearsal, it is a profoundly healing experience. Imagine, then, being surrounded by many other voices, and by instruments as well as audience members who themselves are drawn into this state of flow through storytelling, sound, color and light. Opera is capable of delivering immense feelings of catharsis, joy, passion and profound human connection; all of these elements are therapeutic for the music makers and the music receivers alike.

Music has been extolled as healing by the likes of Plato, and Shakespeare, but Music Therapy as a field was more formally born in the 1940s post World War II. Music, classical music as well as other genres, was found to be extremely helpful in reaching soldiers who had experienced trauma and loss. Music was successful, in fact, in ways that were impossible to ignore therapeutically. Live music in particular seemed to revive and boost morale as well as elicit positive cognitive responses in both physically and psychologically wounded patients. In 1945 the U.S. Military made music an official element of veteran reconditioning programs, and this is widely regarded to be the nadir of the Music Therapy profession. To this day the U.S. Military and the Veterans Administration employs thousands of Music Therapists to assist our military and their families with the stress of active duty deployments, societal reintegration, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, post traumatic speech and language issues and ongoing social engagement and psychological health. Veterans participate in music making, as well as witness live music as therapy. Song writing, composition, choral singing, instrument study, lyric analysis, and general music appreciation studies have proven to be vital tools in rebuilding our veterans lives after they have been in harm’s way. I myself was fortunate enough to sing the world premiere of a song cycle in 2019 based on poems written by veterans about their experiences in combat and upon returning home. I will never forget the expressions on the faces of those individuals as they heard their words become art in an opera house in front of an audience. They felt heard and represented in a way they had never imagined they would be. I was honored to serve them as they had served me.

Music is regularly used in medical settings to relax both patient and staff in surgery, to reduce anxiety and boost mood on trauma units, to soothe families in crisis, and to elicit precious moments of personal connection with Alzheimer’s patients. We all know that playing a favorite song can get us ready for a challenge or help to soothe our soul at the end of a hard day. Music can make us feel strong, sexy, in love with life, resilient, seen, and not alone on our human journey. Music gives us a language and a lexicon with which to speak love, hope and encouragement to our own physical and spiritual selves.

So, in closing I just want to invite you to give yourself a musical self-care moment: Lie down, face up with your eyes closed, somewhere safe and comfortable, and listen to a favorite piece of music. I like to do this with the first movement of the Goldberg Variations by Bach, the opening movement of Mozart’s Requiem, or anything that Maria Callas or Leontyne Price has ever sung. Don’t make your selection too long; ten to fifteen minutes or less. Try to feel as if every note and phrase is literally washing your mind clean of worry, of pain, of clutter. Breathe deeply in a designated rhythm, like four counts in, four counts held, and four counts out. Most of all try to feel the immense love that went into each musician’s entire career of perfecting their craft up until the very moment they made this for you. Know that they did indeed make this music, not only because it was what they were born to do, but so that one day you would receive it and feel their love; and feel…better.

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