Friday, 26 August 2011

A different side of sunshine

On a recent visit with my husband's family, my sister-in-law played for me a Johnny Cash version of "You Are My Sunshine."  Upon listening, it became clear that it was recorded late in his career, around the same time he put his dark, wise, and soulful spin on Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt."  While I'd heard and played "You Are My Sunshine" countless times for babies, children, and seniors, something about that version made me hear the song in a different way, made me appreciate the lyrics and the sentiment in the song in a way I hadn't before. 

Have a listen:

Hearing Cash's version of the song opened my eyes (or ears, I suppose) to the fact that so much of what touches us musically comes from the performer's delivery.  Sometimes, it's the natural beauty of a singer's voice - I find that I'm moved by pretty much anything sung by Josh Groban, although I wouldn't consider myself a fan, per se...just an appreciative observer.

Sometimes, it's the unique quality in a singer's voice that touches us.  I think this is part of Johnny Cash's appeal.  Listening to his recordings, especially those later in his career, I feel like I'm listening to a troubled cowboy Grandpa, and this makes me feel comfortable and intrigued all at once. 

Sometimes, it's a person's passion coming alive through an instrument.  Whenever I listen to Yo-Yo Ma I hear this.  I feel like every emotion he's ever felt is being transmitted through his cello and out to the world, and my ears, to hear.  I feel connected with him, although I've never met him.  I feel comforted and supported in my own emotions as I realize I'm not alone in what I'm feeling.  I feel connected to the world around me as I know others are listening to the same music and feeling the same emotions.  Of course, much of this comes from the beautifully composed music, but what is beautifully composed music without a musician to interpret it perfectly.

This brings me back to "You Are My Sunshine."  Clearly, this is a well composed song that has stood the test of time.  I always say to people that it's one of the only songs that spans the generations.  From toddlers to seniors, almost everyone knows the least to the chorus.  And I think part of the reason for its staying power is its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.  The song has simple words and a basic, pleasing melody.  It comes across initially as a happy song - about sunshine, happiness, and love set in a major key.  But under the happy facade is a deep sadness about missing a loved one and the breathtaking sorrow that we feel when we miss someone.

I found another version of the song on You Tube.  The performer, Milindra Kulugammana, altered the chorus - typically the happiest part of the song - to include mostly minor chords.  His sweet, raspy voice and slow, tender delivery make the words of the song even more meaningful.

Here it is:

Mesmerizing.  Sad.  Thoughtful.  While this version may not appeal to everyone (as Kulugammana states in his intro, appologizing to the "traditionalists"), I appreciate how it made me listen to each word of the song from a different point of view.  Sometimes life isn't all roses and butterflies, and this is important for ME to remember as a Music Therapist.  Even happy sounding songs may carry heavy or even dark memories for some individuals, and I can never assume that everyone is hearing the same thing as me.

While life may not be all roses and butterflies, it isn't all storm clouds and tears either.  So I offer you a final version of "You Are My Sunshine."  This time, an example of the absurdity we sometimes need in life.  Enjoy.

I'm dizzy...and need to get this song out of my head now.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Treasure Your Personal Soundtrack

I had a moment the other day - a moment that swept me away from my current reality and back 10 years to young adult life.  A wave of emotions crashed over me as I felt like I was right back in my old car, worrying about some silly guy, excited about the promise of the future.  All of this was brought on by a song.

You see, I had recently acquired a smart phone on which I promptly uploaded many of my old CDs that had been sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  My CD collection dates back to the first CD I ever bought (Black Crowes - Shake Your Money case you were wondering) and includes CDs from my mid-adolescence, early University years, young adulthood, courtship with my husband, and current favourites.  It contains, in essence, the soundtrack of my life. 

This remarkable moment came as I was driving in my car (not the best time or place for a remarkable moment to happen, but fortunately, no one was hurt) and was listening to my old songs on my new device.  When one of my favourite songs began playing and I instinctively sang along, I was immediately transported to another time and place.  I remembered every word, every guitar riff, every little detail about a song I had not heard in 10 years.  I found myself FEELING if I was re-experiencing the emotions I felt when that song was important in my life.  Truly remarkable.

I'm not sure why I was so surprised by the moment.  As a music therapist, I try to provide this for my elderly clients every day!  I am constantly telling people about how music can help individuals reconnect with themselves, with their past, with others, and with life moments.  But I guess when it happens to you, it's just different...and unexpected.

So why am I sharing this? 

It became so clear to me that we need to treasure our personal soundtracks.  As smart phones and laptops and MP3 players are quickly replacing CDs, we run the risk of losing the ability to access the music of our lives when we need it most.  A downloaded album will easily be thrown away as outdated devices get replaced by newer, shinier models.  Sure, they may be transfered to the new devices, but eventually they'll be lost.  And lost will be an unexpected moment when a song you needed to hear begins to play.

I needed to hear that song.  It reminded me of who I AM.  It reminded me of who I wanted to be back then - of the dreams I had, of the wonder I had for life.  It reminded me that I still AM that person, just with a few more life lessons, a little less time, and a couple of kids pulling my attention in every direction.  It's easy to forget one's self when life just keeps coming.  My personal soundtrack helped me remember myself in such a gentle, beautiful way.

So treasure your soundtracks.  Save your CDs.  Pull them out and dust them off every once in a while.  Share them with your spouse, your kids, your friends.  They'll learn a lot about you...and you'll remember alot about yourself.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Musical Teambuilding Workshops

One of my favourite things to do in my music therapy practice is to lead musical teambuilding workshops.  This is where I am hired to provide time and space for groups to have fun creating music together while simultaneously strengthening working relationships and highlighting the importance of each individual's unique contribution to the group.  I love being the "fun" part of their day.  I love the looks of excitement (and nervousness) as I unpack my various percussion instruments.  I love having people try - and be successful at - new things.  I love seeing the groups really work together throughout the session.  I love spreading the message of truly and fully LISTENING to each other to have more successful relationships.

Musical teambuilding works because, I believe, music is an excellent metaphor for group dynamics.  Think of any song you like listening to.  Unless the song was written, recorded, performed, and produced by one individual, there was probably a great deal of teamwork involved in creating the final product.  The interesting thing about music is that we get to HEAR the final product and the individual contributions coming together to create the sound that we enjoy. We get to feel the rhythm, be moved by the harmony, attach ourselves to the melody, and ride along as the song journeys from beginning to end.  The music we enjoy is created by teams of indviduals with specific backgrounds and talents who come together with a common understanding of tempo, volume, pitch, and progression.

If any group is going to function successfully, there needs to be successful collaboration between individuals with unique backgrounds and talents, all of whom have a common understanding of the task at hand.  Through musical teambuilding, group members get to physically experience the elements of sucessful group dynamics because the music either sounds good or it doesn't.  They receive immediate feedback and can therefore work together (without speaking) to fix any problems and create an appealing sound.  And they get to ENJOY the sound of playing together when it does work.

I'd like to offer a quick list of needs that groups have in order to function successfully, and how music is a metaphor for these needs:

1) To be on the same page:  Music requires each group member to work together toward a common goal - starting in unison, stopping in unison, playing at the same tempo, and following a progression in the music.

2) To listen to each other's ideas:  When playing music together, the only way to achieve an appealing sound is to listen to what each other is playing, and to adjust our playing accordingly.

3) To find individual roles where we each use our talents:  Some people like being leaders and will choose the loudest and biggest drum.  Others like to offer decorative accents and will choose smaller more unique sounding instruments.  Some group members will create group cohesion with eye contact while others will be happy to follow along and be a valuable member of the ensemble.

4) To understand where each other is coming from:  In verbal sharing throughout the session, group members often reveal pieces of information about themselves that offer insight into their behaviour and thought process.  Because of the creative nature of the sessions, people are often willing to share more about themselves as they are using a different part of the brain than they normally use at work or in their role within the organization/group. 

5) To trust and respect each other:  The way people play music often reveals a great deal about their core personality, or about hidden parts of their personality. Someone who is normally shy and quiet may come alive when playing instruments. Conversely, someone who is seen as a strong leader may reveal some insecurities in the music session. These windows into a person's true self break down barriers and build trust, thereby strengthening relationships.

6) To know how to work together to overcome challenges:  When the music starts getting off track, group members can hear the dissonance and can feel the lack of cohesion.  Without a leader to direct the playing, each member must listen and adjust his or her playing to regain a pleasing sound.

I know from leading these sessions that music is not for everyone, but everyone in a group can benefit from musical teambuilding.  Afterall, who doesn't enjoy banging on a drum or stomping their feet?  Like it or not, our inate responsiveness to music has, and always will, bring us together.

Friday, 25 March 2011

List of a few classic children's songs

Want to sing with your child but can't seem to remember any kids' songs? Here's a handy list of classics that will help jog your memory:

Head and Shoulders
Head and shoulders knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes
Head and shoulders knees and toes
Eyes ears mouth and nose

Itsy Bitsy Spider
Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout
Down came the rain and washed the spider out
Up came the sun and dried up all the rain
Then the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are

I'm A Little Teapot
I'm a little teapot short and stout
Here is my handle here is my spout
When I get all steamed up hear me shout
Just tip me over and pour me out

You Are My Sunshine
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy, when skies are grey
You'll never know dear how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
And when I woke dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy, when skies are grey
You'll never know dear how much I love you
Please dont take my sunshine away

Hokey Pokey
You put your right hand in, you put your right hand out
You put your right hand in, and you shake it all about
You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around
That's what it's all about

You put your left hand in...
You put your right foot in...
You put your left foot in...
You put your head in...
You put your tongue in...
You put your elbow/shoulder/knee/ear/bum/eye...(make up your own!)
You put your whole self in...

Mary Had A Little Lamb
Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb
Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow
Everywhere that Mary went, Mary went, Mary went
Everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go

Of course, there are many, many kids' songs out there. These are just some of the classic favourites that are good to start with. I know sometimes I want to sing a song and realize that I've completely forgotten every song I know! This list is simply to refresh your memory for fast recall.

Happy singing!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Singing with young children creates strong bonds and special moments

For the past few weeks, I've been singing more with my two-year old daughter. She's reached an age where she enjoys listening to different songs and can differentiate between songs. She is also developing preferences for certain songs (although this usually changes on a daily basis). She enjoys singing along and practicing finding different pitches with her voice.

Singing with her has highlighted for me the importance of singing with children - especially for parents or caregivers of young children. When we sing together or when I sing to her, I immediately notice a shift in our presence with each other. We both seem to be more aware, more connected, more in tune (pardon the pun). She slows down and I slow down. We breathe together because our vocal phrases are being sung together. When the better part of our days together are spent primarily in a tug-of-war state - me trying to understand her two-year old rationale, and she trying to make sense of her world and my requests - these moments of togetherness in song bring sweet and delightful respite.

Here are some great reasons to sing with young children:

1) A child listens differently to words that are sung. Humans are naturally more aware when a message is delivered in a musical way. Music enters our brain and immediately travels through the emotional processing area. We tend to pay more attention when something creates an emotional response in us.

2) When we sing together, we release a bond-forming hormone. It has been shown that oxytocin is released when people sing or make music together. This is the same hormone released when we embrace, when we make love, and during breastfeeding.

3) Singing together creates a physical connection. As you both sing the same sounds, phrases, and melody, you are both present in that moment in a similar physical way. You are also breathing at a similar rate and pace as the phrasing of the song dictates when you breathe. It's like holding hands without touching.

4) You both slow down. Taking time to choose a song, to listen to each other, to look at each other for actions and prompts all require us to slow down and really pay attention to each other. I've found that singing as part of the bedtime routine is an easy way to bring my daughter's energy level down at the end of the day. She often falls asleep halfway through a song.

5) Children love action songs, and most of them don't require much movement for a tired mom, dad, or caregiver. Wiggling fingers, clapping hands, raising arms, air honking horns - these are all actions that are part of simple children's songs and none of them require running around or jumping up and down. Children love learning new actions and love being successful when they perform the actions during the songs.

6) Most children's songs have a simple and predictable rhythm and melody. Children respond very well to predictability and thrive when they can be successful within predictable boundaries. Songs are like pre-packaged successful moments. Children know when a song starts and when it ends, they pick up the rhythm easily and get a sense of how fast it moves, and they quickly learn to follow the (often repetitive) melody. The predict where the song will go, they feel comfortable with the parameters, and they participate successfully.

Let me just finish by saying one very important thing: you do not need to have a good voice to reap the benefits of singing with children. Our children aren't music critics and don't know the difference between a professional singer or a sing-in-the-car-with-all-the-windows-up singer. Children like the rhythm, melody, words, and funny actions in songs. They crave the attention and the connection that comes with music-making. Be silly if you feel self-conscious. They'll love it even more!

Oh, and if your child covers his ears and tells you to stop singing, don't take it personally. My daughter regularly does this to me and I sing professionally every day as a music therapist.