Music’s Next Frontier: Healing

One of the fundamental responsibilities of an executive director of a music related non-profit (MusicForEveryone.net) is advocacy regarding the value and impact of music in our schools and communities. As I was a novice in this regard when Music For Everyone was founded in 2006, my learning curve has been steep. And the learning continues to this day.

As a lifelong musician, I certainly experienced and understand the impact of music had on my life. Playing music brings tremendous joy to my life and feds my soul. As Plato wrote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Music’s value in this regard is very powerful and it rests at the core of the justification of investment in the arts “for arts sake”.

Being that MFE was created to raise money to provide instruments and support to school music programs, it became clear fairly quickly that simply using this “arts for arts sake” as a central narrative to convince people to open their hearts, minds and wallets to MFE’s cause was simply not enough. While musicians “get it”, it is hard to explain to people who don’t. Thus, a wider and more thorough narrative was necessary. That being the case, I immersed myself in the research regarding music’s educational and character development benefits. That was low hanging fruit as there is an enormous amount of evidence of music’s positive impact in these areas. From improved academic skills, test scores and student “engagement” in school to teaching lessons in teamwork, discipline, communication skills and personal responsibility, it’s benefits are very clear. Music is math, music is reading, music is logic, music is language and music requires discipline. And driving all of that is its potential to teach and nurture creativity.

The more I researched and witnessed those impacts through MFE, it became apparent there were other benefits. The most obvious was music’s power and potential to create and build community. Music is the universal language and thus, it’s potential to serve as a bridge of understanding to build community and connections between cultures, races and generations is unparalleled. Music’s power in this regard was made clear to me when MFE created a program that places between 12 and 20 fully designed and painted pianos throughout the streets of Lancaster with 24/7 access for the public for four months in the summer.  “Keys for the City”, which will celebrate its tenth year in Summer 2019, has provided a platform for literally tens of thousands of magical musical moments around those pianos where people of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs come together to share and experience the community building power of music.  Keys is now an important part of the fabric of the Lancaster community and a source of great community pride.

But Keys also opened my eyes to another important benefit and impact of music – economic development. This aspect of music’s benefit as a community investment was not something I had given much, if any, consideration to until we witnessed the community impact of Keys. For the past two decades, Lancaster City has had as a major component of its economic development plan, a commitment to the arts. And the city has been wildly successful in leveraging the arts to build a vibrant, thriving and dynamic economy, making it a “hot” arts community and tourist destination. Keys for the City has contributed to this community-wide success.

But music is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to developing narratives about its positive impact. While I was beginning to feel comfortable and competent in my ability to articulate a broad, cogent narrative regarding the value and impact of music in our schools and communities, I was missing what is fast becoming the next frontier in music’s ability to positively impact our populace and society.  

Specifically, it is becoming increasingly clear that the next big frontier in advocating effectively for societal investment in music is in the area of music for healing. There is an increasing amount of research, writing, experimentation and application of music as a broad healing tool. In one sense, music’s potential and power to uplift and inspire as well as to calm and sooth has existed for as long as it has been played. But in another sense, it’s full power as a healing tool seems to finally be beginning to be fully embraced by a wide array of medical and health practitioners. It is being used for everything from managing pain and addiction, to treating dementia, depression, anxiety to improving motor coordination in people suffering from cerebral palsy. And scientists, researchers and medical practitioners are discovering and developing additional ways to utilize music for healing virtually every day.

Following are several quotes relating to music’s power and potential to heal.

“Music might provide an alternative entry point to the brain, because it can unlock so many different doors into an injured or ill brain. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion — all components of music — engage different regions of the brain. And many of those same regions are also important in speech, movement and social interaction. If a disease or trauma has disabled a brain region needed for such functions, music can sometimes get in through a back door and coax them out by another route.” Harvard University neurologist, Dr. Gottfired Schlaug.

“The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental.  It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.”
— Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks

“Half an hour of music produces the same effect as ten milligrams of valium.”   -- Dr. Raymond Bahr

And leave it to musician Bob Marley to bring it all together with one of his simple, straightforward universal truths, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Music for healing. It’s the next big frontier. And music advocates would be well served to begin to include this benefit, along with music’s educational, character development, community building and economic impact benefits in their advocacy efforts.  

Building Walls vs. Building Bridges: Music’s Role

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Despite the current political climate where efforts to build walls, ban travel and separate different ethnic groups is increasing, an argument can be made that over time, the forces of globalization are simply too strong and, ultimately, will prevail.

Whether it relates to the economy, the environment, religion or culture, the fact is, the world community is becoming increasingly interrelated and interdependent. Travel is faster, safer, more affordable and more accessible to the masses. A distance that once took a day to traverse is now only hours away. You can be in New York today and Tokyo the next.

Global communication is now instantaneous and accessible to almost everyone on the planet. From Memphis to Mumbai, Sheboygen to Shanghai, all it takes to access the global communications network is a modem and electricity. From the challenges associated with the spread of disease to the spread of terrorist ideology to the fact that our children are now competing against the children of India, China and Russia for the world’s best jobs. International and cultural boundaries are diminishing.

The result is that the U.S. is no longer a virtual island, protected by two major oceans. We can no longer isolate ourselves from the problems, issues and opportunities of the rest of the world.  We are part of a global economic and geopolitical system.  In so many ways, we are becoming one world.

In short, there is a big world out there and rather than trying to build walls we must learn to effectively deal with that reality.

This begs the question. What must our educational institutions do to effectively educate and prepare our children to succeed in this changing global reality? Increasingly, our schools are being asked to instill in our children not only an awareness and appreciation for these changing global circumstances, but also to prepare them to successfully navigate the challenges presented by an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural global community. In other words, proficiency in reading, writing and math is no longer enough. Today, a quality education must include an understanding of, appreciation for, and the ability to function in a multi-ethnic, multi-national, interrelated world.

If we expect our children and our nation to thrive in the 21st Century, our educational policies and programs must take into account these changing challenges and expectations, including priorities and policies relating to the role that music can play in the school curricula.

Music has always been viewed as a powerful tool in breaking barriers and promoting cross-cultural understanding.   That is why, for example, there is a long and strong history of the U.S. State Department using music as a vehicle to promote cultural understanding. The number of cultural exchange music programs involving countries from all over the globe are too many to mention. And, there is a long history of radio networks such as Voice of America broadcasting American jazz, blues and rock-n-roll to a worldwide audience.

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I was recently reminded of music’s potential in this regard by a fellow musician recounting a visit to Italy. He described two very unexpected highlights. As he and his family entered an open plaza in Rome, they heard, flowing out of beautiful cathedral, the sound of a choral group in full-throated Latin. Upon further inquiry, they were surprised to discover the group consisted of high school students from all over the United States. They were rehearsing for a performance, one of several they were scheduled to give throughout Europe. 

The second occurred at a café in Venice, where they noticed a play bill advertising an upcoming appearance by a choral group. Upon closer examination, they saw that the group was a high school chorus from a small town in rural Indiana. Imagine being a high school kid from a country town in middle-America singing in Florence, Italy. How cool is that!

Music is the universal language with an appeal that transcends language, cultural or religious boundaries. The notes played by a musician fall on the ears the same way whether you are American, Muslim, Jewish, African or Mexican. Engaging in music activities with people of another culture or country can increase cultural understanding and tolerance.  It is the ability to build bridges to other cultures and societies that makes music such a valuable educational and cultural tool.  

In an increasingly integrated global economy and diverse world community, providing our children access to music education opportunities is critical. Rather than building walls, school and community leaders should be working to leverage the power of music as a universal language to break down barriers and build community. In today’s world, harnessing music’s power in this regard is more important than ever.

'Strange Fruit' to 'Hey Jude': Music Protests Large and Small

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For my money, WBGO, which airs out of Newark, NJ, is the world’s finest jazz station. Founded in 1979, WBGO is “a publicly supported cultural institution that preserves and elevates America’s music: jazz and blues.”

Due to the wonders of the internet, you can livestream WBGO anywhere in the world. In this case, I was at the Sun Gate at end of the Inca Trail in Peru. Looking down upon Machu Picchu, at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, a wild thought jumped into my high altitude addled brain. “WBGO? Up here?” So I dialed it up on my iPhone and was soon listening to WBGO deep in the heart of the Andes Mountains. What an amazing world we live in!

As our tour group was getting ready to move on, I heard only a snippet of an in-studio interview with a young jazz musician. I didn’t catch his name, but heard loud and clear him explaining the responsibility of artists to tell the stories of what goes on in society or culture. “As an artist”, he explained, “it’s part of the deal. You have a powerful platform. But you must wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.”

There has been a lot in the news recently about athletes using their platform to advocate for civil rights and social justice. Similarly, artists and musicians have a rich history of doing the same. Their music or art provides them a platform to shed light on social norms, beliefs and attitudes.

Nina Simone articulated it well, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

John Lennon also referenced this responsibility. “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try to express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher. Not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

Or, in the words of Trent Reznor, founding member of Nine Inch Nails, “I have influence, and it’s my job to call out whatever needs to be called out, because there are people who feel the same way but need someone to articulate it.”

It reminded me of the time, long ago, when I participated in a musical act to protest and to comment on the times and express what we, as peers, felt.

The year was 1971.

Granted, our little act of activism wasn’t something that led to the kind of cultural change spurred by the arrival of Elvis, the Beatles or Chuck Berry, but within the halls of Little Falls School #1 it reverberated.  It’s been argued that it drove Ms. Haynes, the school’s music teacher, to an early grave.

Rather than music class being a joyous and creative experience, Ms. Haynes wielded music like a club, virtually bludgeoning us into submission, all while primly perched behind her piano. She taught the school chorus “her” way, made us sing “her” songs that “her” chorus had sung forever.  Songs like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” Nothing against either of those songs, but did they have to be on the song list every show, every year?

It all came to a head during rehearsal for the spring concert. After the third run-through of “Waltzing Matilda,” we were restless. The times they were a changin’ and we wanted in on it. We wanted to sing at least one song that was timely and relevant. And to us, that meant The Beatles. And Ms. Haynes represented what needed to change.

I raised my hand. “Do you know Hey Jude by the Beatles?"

“Of course, I know the Beatles,” she snapped, eyes piercing over wire spectacles. No matter how hard she may have tried to deny them, those long-haired lads from Liverpool managed to slip through the side door of Ms. Haynes’s musical domain. “I am, however, unfamiliar with the song.”

“It’s a great vocal song with a cool ending. We’d like to sing it” I replied.

“I don’t think the Beatles would be appropriate for the spring concert,” she responded.

But we were dead set on singing it.  At the next practice, we asked again. Again, she refused.
So we walked. Five of us, including Skippy Brask, her prize student. We quit the chorus. Our demonstration caused quite a stir in our small suburban elementary school. A group of eighth graders walking out on Ms. Haynes? Quitting over the Beatles?  Maybe it wasn’t Woodstock , punk rock or Chuck Berry, but it was our own little rock ‘n’ roll revolution. We drew a line in the sand at “Hey Jude.” We had no clue at the time, but we were using music’s transformational powers to make a statement to spur change.

Yes, I know. It wasn’t Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit”. But it did shake up our little grade school in our little corner of our world for a couple of days.

This comparison is by no means meant to trivialize the power of an artist or a song to shake up the world. To the contrary, it is to illustrate the broad, far reaching power to do so.

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.  Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.
Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

There is no better song to sharpen that point than “Strange Fruit”. Written as a protest to the inhumanity of racism, it was penned and arranged by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish man from the Bronx after seeing a picture of a lynching.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This is one of the most powerful and haunting songs ever written. In 1999, Time magazine named it the “Song of the Century”. Clearly, it made an enormous difference in raising awareness and shaping the dialogue around the issue of racism in America.

Sadly, athletes and artists continue to face blowback and criticism for using their platforms to raise the collective consciousness of our populace regarding timely and relevant issues of the day. Far too many continue to believe and say that athletes, artists, entertainers and musicians should, “Shut up and play, paint, or sing”, and not comment on the important social, cultural or political issues that impact their lives in profound ways.

But the fact is, perhaps now, more than ever, we need artists, athletes, entertainers and musicians to continue to “reflect the times.” It’s “part of the deal”. And we will all be better off if they continue to meet one of their most fundamental responsibilities to wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.


Billie Holiday Performs the Song

Music brings people together in our shrinking world

PUBLISHED ORIGINALLY ONLINE at LancasterOnline.com /  May 1, 2017


Despite the current political climate where efforts to build walls, ban travel and separate different ethnic groups are increasing, an argument can be made that over time, the forces of globalization are simply too strong and, ultimately, will prevail.

The result is that the U.S. is no longer a virtual island, protected by two major oceans. We can no longer isolate ourselves from the problems, issues and opportunities of the rest of the world. We are part of a global economic and geopolitical system. In so many ways, we are becoming one world.

Rather than trying to build walls we must learn to effectively deal with that reality.

This begs the question: What must our educational institutions do to effectively educate and prepare our children to succeed in this changing global reality?

Increasingly, our schools are being asked to instill in our children not only an awareness and appreciation for changing global circumstances, but also to prepare them to successfully navigate the challenges presented by an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural global community. In other words, proficiency in reading, writing and math is no longer enough.

Today, a quality education must include an understanding of, appreciation for, and the ability to function in a multiethnic, multinational, interrelated world.

If we expect our children and our nation to thrive in the 21st century, our educational policies and programs must take into account these changing challenges and expectations. In particular, this includes priorities and policies relating to the role that music can play in the school curricula.

Music has always been viewed as a powerful tool in breaking barriers and promoting cross-cultural appreciation. That is why, for example, there is a long and strong history of the U.S. State Department using music as a vehicle to promote cultural understanding.

The number of cultural exchange programs that have music groups from countries all over the world travel to America and vice versa are too many to mention. Also consider the radio networks that broadcast American jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll to a worldwide audience. Teens are downloading music from around the world on their smartphones.

I was recently reminded of music’s potential in this regard by a fellow musician recounting a visit to Italy. He described two very unexpected highlights. As he and his family entered an open plaza in Rome, they heard, flowing out of a beautiful cathedral, the sound of a choral group in full-throated Latin. Upon further inquiry, they were surprised to discover the group consisted of high school students from all over the United States. They were rehearsing for a performance, one of several they were scheduled to give throughout Europe.

The second occurred at a cafe in Venice, where they noticed a play bill advertising an upcoming appearance by a choral group. Upon closer examination, they saw that the group was a high school chorus from a small town in rural Indiana. Imagine being a high school kid from a country town in middle-America singing in Florence, Italy. How cool is that!

Music is the universal language with an appeal that transcends language, cultural or religious boundaries. The notes played by a musician fall on the ears the same way whether you are American, Muslim, Jewish, African or Mexican. Engaging in musical activities with people of another culture or country can increase cultural understanding and tolerance. It is the ability to build bridges to other cultures and societies that makes music such a valuable educational and cultural tool.

In an increasingly integrated global economy and diverse world community, providing our children access to music education opportunities is critical. Rather than building walls, school and community leaders should be working to leverage the power of music as a universal language to break down barriers and build community.

In today’s world, harnessing music’s power in this regard is more important than ever.

Jazz as a Leadership Development Tool

What do Vince Lombardi, Tony Dungy, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis have in common? The answer is that to achieve the level of success they have all had to be great leaders.

Say what? Football coaches and jazz musicians are leaders of equal effectiveness and influence?

Absolutely. In fact, given that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, the following essay will make the case that jazz may be a more effective leadership development tool than football for the 21st Century.

A common cultural belief is that nothing instills in participants, character traits such as discipline, personal responsibility and leadership skills, than participation in team sports. The leadership skills that are taught and developed on the playing field, it is said, carry over to effective leadership off the field. The notion that team sports and, in particular, football builds leaders is a long-held and very powerful justification for our continued investment in them as an effective educational tool.

But the fact is, music also provides opportunities to exhibit and develop leadership skills. There is no difference between a team and a band in terms of the requirements for reaching the predetermined goals of winning (football) and achieving a particular sound (music). In short, any team (band) setting offers tremendous opportunities to develop leadership skills.

But the elements and characteristics required of good leaders are not static. Effective leadership requires recognition that worker attitudes, work environments and productivity expectations can change. That being the case, desirable and effective leadership skills and styles must also evolve. There was a time, for example, when the iron-fisted “my way or the highway” style of leadership was considered very effective. But times change, people change and entire industries can change. Employees now demand more respect and collaboration.  As a result, effective leaders can no longer simply demand performance; they must nurture a more collaborative work environment if they wish to maximize worker and company productivity. Employees today don’t want to feel like cogs in a machine. They want to be respected and have a part in the decision-making process. Smart and effective leaders understand that. Employees who are more invested in the decision-making process are more productive employees.

Frank Barrett, in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, elaborates:

We have grown up with a variety of models of organizations, most of which have relied to some degree on a mechanistic view of top-down approaches to change. Command-and-control models of leadership stress routines and rules. They demand rigorous and clear organizational structures reinforced by rules, plans, budgets PERT charts, schedules, clearly defined roles, and the use of coercion or intimidation to get worker compliance. These might have worked well in the first part of the twentieth century when organizations were designed like machines, tasks were broken down into small parts that could easily be replicated, and people could be replaced as easily as machine parts. But as we enter the knowledge-intensive demands of the twenty-first century, we need to rotate our images and increase our leadership repertoire beyond these hierarchical models, so that we can more fully appreciate the power of relationships.

This begs the question. Given this shift in desired leadership style to a more collaborative focus, how does the traditional leadership style of the football culture hold up versus the jazz influenced leadership style outlined by Barrett? Barrett continues:

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals, encouraging ongoing learning and innovation rather than compliance to preordained plans. Leaders don’t have the luxury of anticipating or predicting every situation, training and rehearsing for it, and getting learning out of the way before executing. Rather, leaders must master the art of learning while doing and spread this mastery throughout their systems. That’s why jazz bands are such provocative models for us to consider as we create teams and organizations in the twenty-first century.

How do organizations thrive in a drastically changing world predicated on uncertainty? By building a capacity to experiment , learn and innovate – in short, by engaging in strategic, engaged improvisation. The model of jazz musicians improvising collectively offers a clear and powerful example of how people and teams can coordinate, be productive, and create amazing innovations without so many of the control levers that managers relied on in the industrial age. An improvisation model of organizing created a kind of openness, an invitation to possibility, rather than leaning toward a narrowness of control. “  (Barrett, 2012, pp.xiv,xv.)

In short, both football and music teach leadership. But is it possible that while football’s style of teaching was better suited to the Industrial Age, the jazz-influenced model of leadership style may be more effective in the creative economy and workplace of the 21st Century?

Now that’s something to consider not only during Jazz Appreciation Month, but year-round.

At the end of an arduous journey, a refugee family rejoices with music

LNP recently featured an article by Dr. John Gerdy, highlighting the power of music (and the role of music) in the journey of a refugee in Lancaster, PA.

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Another refugee family arrives in Lancaster, a family of six: Asukulu, his wife, Nyassa, and their four children: Temsi , 11, Vumilia, 9, Ivon, 5, and Maria, 2. 

They fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and spent the last eight years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Like other refugee families, they arrive here with few possessions. But after surviving a civil war and a long stretch in a camp, Asukulu came with his greatest possession of all: his family, fully intact....

 Read the entire article here.