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There's just something about the power of music: It helps us heal, cope, brings joy

As country star Miranda Lambert and her band took farewell bows at the Sprint Center recently, the video screen behind them flashed a warm message: “Music Is Medicine.”

Lambert had spent much of that show singing songs from “The Weight of These Wings,” a double album that plumbs the aftershocks of her widely publicized 2015 split from country artist and TV celebrity Blake Shelton.

As difficult as the year of her divorce was, she told the crowd of about 12,000 earlier in the show, it at least inspired some “really good songs.”

Music is medicine in many ways. It can provide catharsis for a songwriter navigating grief and sorrow. It can also soothe premature infants, provide comfort and distraction to cancer patients and build self-esteem and inspire ambition among adolescents and young adults coping with abuse or abandonment.

On a broader scale, music can also inject joy and transcendence into the grind of everyday life. And in an instant, it can bond 15,000 people in an arena.

In an interview with The Star in 2016, Nolan Gasser, composer, musician and architect of Pandora’s Music Genome Project, expressed his view of the breadth of music’s mystic powers.

“Music can play a role in healing the body when it’s in need of healing. But even when it’s not, music can make life better, richer and more successful.”

Helping sick kids

Liz Nowak Barden takes care of some of the tiniest and most vulnerable patients at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

A graduate of the music therapy program at KU, Barden came to the medical center after her initial immersion into music therapy in an oncology unit at a hospital in Phoenix, working with children and adults.

Music therapy can help children cope with cancer in two ways, she said.

“Kids get nauseated a lot when on chemo and radiation,” she said. “So I’d apply music to help them get to sleep.”

The other goal was more long-term: developing goals and social skills.

“I’d set up appointments,” she said. “I’d say, ‘We’re going to practice 30 minutes tomorrow.’ Or have them pick out a song to learn that they really liked. Sometimes I’d push it even further by stripping out some of the lyrics to that song and putting in their own lyrics.”

So the children were establishing goals — including learning to play instruments — and pursuing them, and the process was positive in several ways.

“They were processing things emotionally and talking about themselves and building self-esteem,” Barden said. “And they were developing a relationship with me — all things they might not be doing if they were just sitting in a room.”

Barden is now at KU Med, working in pediatrics and the neo-natal ICU, which includes coaching and comforting the parents as well.

She teaches parents to keep their voices at appropriate volumes and to employ appropriate vocal tones. And she records parents singing songs or reading books so the recordings can be played when the parents can’t be at the hospital.

As tiny as they are, she said, the infants can display overtly positive reactions to the power of music.

“They’ll give you what we call a relaxed face or positive eye contact,” Barden said. “Or they will coo at you.”

Helping teens

Synergy Services in the Northland offers an array of services and assistance to youths whose lives have been disrupted by abuse, neglect or homelessness. Among those services: a music program that includes a recording studio.

Since late 2016, Barb Jurgensmeier has directed Synergy’s music therapy program. Her role is to help youths open up and express themselves, to discover voices and talents and develop confidence and self-esteem.

The recording studio is equipped with a drum kit, xylophones, keyboards, guitars, a ukulele, a set of tone chimes, amps and a full recording soundboard. It can be an immediate icebreaker with some youths.

“I feel like I have a magic tool that lets me connect with them right away,” Jurgensmeier said. “It opens some kids up as soon as they walk in.”

Jurgensmeier gives her clients wide berth to dictate their weekly music sessions. Some kids just want to escape by listening to music, some want to try out the instruments and learn to play them, others want to create, perform and record.

During a recent session, Jurgensmeier helped coach a client, K.K. Morris, through several songs on keyboards and xylophone.

The teen came in prepared to play a song they’d practiced during a previous session. After he runs through it twice nearly flawlessly on keyboards, Jurgensmeier praises the teen’s performances.

The session ends with him learning a new song.

When he gets flustered trying to conquer a tricky measure, Jurgensmeier coaxes him through it and he ends the session performing it all the way through.

“I really think I got this,” he says brightly as he gets up from the keyboard to leave.

A week later, K.K. returns to the studio and he is noticeably more confident and at-ease, both while talking with Jurgensmeier and performing. K.K. also assisted with another student who needed some tutoring on the drums.

"When I am able to see a client several weeks in a row like K.K., to be able to see that growth over time is really fun," said Jurgensmeier. "Growth not only musically for K.K. but just in his confidence in interacting with me, and today his confidence in interacting with another youth and teaching him. I don’t always get to see that, and it’s really really rewarding."

Jurgensmeier recalled an experience with another client, a freestyle rapper.

“He’s an incredibly talented musician,” she said. “Recently I’d been noticing a change in him, maturity and confidence in himself.”

After he’d finished recording a new song, Jurgensmeier had him listen to some of the raps he’d recorded a couple years ago.

“Right away he recognized how much younger he seemed to himself,” she said. “And how he’d grown, not just in the quality of his music but the depth of his lyrics. It was rewarding to see him make that connection on his own and talk about how that made him feel."

Music is something that can inspire that kind of growth among adolescents and young adults like nothing else.

“Most of the youth we see have experienced trauma,” said Rachel Francis, Synergy’s director of youth services. “Music has been a great way for many of them to process that trauma and heal from it. For most, it is much easier to put their thoughts and feelings into music than it is to sit down and talk to someone about it.”

Lauren Anderson, who lives in Nashville and is pursing her own career in music, spent seven years as a music therapist in the pediatrics unit at KU Med.

“The way music reaches people will surprise you sometimes,” she said. “There were times when music therapy would help somebody cry if they needed to or laugh when they needed to. A lot of times it drew a new side out of them. “

Lighting up

What is it about music that makes it so therapeutic?

Gasser said there is something innate going on between music and its hold on humans.

“Music is part of our overall evolution,” he told The Star. “Our species is only about 100,000 years old, and we have evidence of a man-made instrument going back about 60,000 years.

“So there is something within us that benefits from music and (it) probably aided our evolution. Music speaks to the human condition in ways very few other external stimuli do.”

William Matney, professor of music education and music therapy at the University of Kansas, said that connection, that “something within us,” starts with a combination of factors.

“When it comes to relaxation and anxiety-reduction and coping mechanisms, research talks about the importance of predictability and repetition,” he said. “What’s happening harmonically and melodically in the music is important. The phrasing of rhythms is important. Tempo is important.”

From there, more subjective matters come into play, like musical preferences.

Research shows slower tempos (below 80 beats per minute) are more relaxing for many people, Matney said, but that’s not the rule for everyone.

“Some people might be incredibly relaxed by speed metal because that’s what has become predictable for them,” he said. “It’s something they’re passionate about. And I can relate to that. There’s music I like that others would likely find too aggressive.”

In April 2017, Science Daily reported on a study by Dr. Jonathan Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The study looked at how listening to the music you like most affects your brain. One conclusion: No matter the style of music, everyone's brains are stimulated similarly.

“These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem,” the article stated.

Burdette told Science Daily he was a proponent of music therapy programs for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, including one in which they listen to music that was popular when the patients were younger.

“You can see the power of music,” he said. “People … light up when they start hearing music from when they were 25. What else can do that?”

Connections

Live performances can be a form of therapy for both the performer and the audience. The British website Independent recently posted a story with the headline: “Going to concerts helps you live longer, according to new research.”

It must be noted that one of two parties behind the study was O2, which owns some of the largest music venues in the United Kingdom.

The study’s conclusion: Attending a live show for at least 20 minutes can increase your “feeling of well-being” by more than 20 percent,” feelings of self-worth by 25 percent and feelings of intimacy with others by 25 percent.

Conversely, if you’re accustomed to going to shows regularly, the absence of that experience can have adverse consequences.

Todd Zimmer doesn’t go many days without seeing live music.

Zimmer is known around Kansas City for a few things. In addition to a full-time job, he runs a side business, Zim’s Sauces.

He’s also the guy with a camera, usually wearing a kilt, you see photographing shows in clubs and theaters around Kansas City. In 2016, he said, he saw shows at more than 120 venues. That’s roughly 2.5 every week. At many of those venues, he shot two or three bands.

Each show, he said, gives him a chance to experience “the joy of being around people all enjoying the same thing.”

“When I’m shooting, I’m focused on that, not always on the music,” he said. “But at really good shows, I’ll stop shooting and step back to enjoy the moment. And I’ll find myself smiling.“

Or weeping. One of his most memorable moments in documenting music came while attending a private showcase by songwriter William Chrighton.

“He sang a cappella a gut-wrenching song about child abuse,” he said. “It was so powerful my eyes still water thinking about it.

… Besides my family, that’s what I live for.”

Sherman Breneman’s job is also his love and hobby. For five years (three as manager) he has worked at the Vinyl Underground at 7th Heaven on Troost Avenue. Before that he was the proprietor of the Vinyl Market in Kansas City for several years.

Breneman has been going to live shows for about 30 years now. “Music and vinyl have always been my passion,” he said. “I love sharing music with others. … Doing what you love will only bring you happiness.”

He estimates he attends roughly 300 performances each year, many of those at large festivals. The addiction is real.

“If I go a week or more without live music I feel a weight pressing down on me,” he said. “But as soon as the music starts, that weight floats away.”

You could sense that same feeling throughout the Sprint Center at Miranda Lambert’s show, whether she was singing about divorce, her old childhood home or other points of sorrow, nostalgia or joy: weights being lifted; emotions being shared.

And in a culture in which we have become increasingly remote or isolated from one another, that experience can be deeply rewarding.

“When we hear a song we’ve listened to in the past, and we get to share it with other people, you become part of something that’s bigger than you,” Matney said. “And all of a sudden you can feel like you’re not alone.”

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