Learn more about: The Music, Healing and Transition Program (MHTP)
In this episode, Jim interviews Rachel Allen—a Certified Music Practitioner, Sound Healer, Reiki Master, and Registered Yoga Teacher with a trauma-informed/social justice framework.
For 20 years, she’s been working with hospice patients & their families; caregivers; patients in a variety of health conditions; survivors of sexual abuse; adults with mental illness; & most recently, incarcerated populations.
Rachel talks about the radical ways she’s witnessed music transform all walks of life.
DISCLAIMER: The following episode contains discussion around the topics of death and trauma. Some may find the subject matter upsetting.
Listener discretion is advised.
Today on the Sound Health Podcast:
It’s a high-security facility, and again, I have the privilege of not knowing why people are there. It’s not relevant to my work to know why people are there. But the first time I went in, and again, this large facility. I usually had a group of men first and then men and women. And I definitely feel much more comfortable in a group with the females.
But the first time I was there, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is really intimidating and overwhelming.” And these people are glaring at me.
They’re like, “Why are you here?” And there’s guards everywhere.
Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to take advantage of a free resource I made for you. It’s called the Sound Health Newsletter. In it, I share the latest research in music and health. Plus, you’ll learn music and wellness exercises that you can use every day to feel your best. Just come visit me at DonovanHealth.com to get started today. That’s DonovanHealth.com.
Hey there. This is Jim Donovan. Welcome to the show. I’m show excited for today’s guest. I think you’re going to love her.
Her name is Rachel Allen. And she is a Certified Music Practitioner through a wonderful organization called The Music For Healing and Transition Program.
She does music and healing work in prisons, mental institutions, and with survivors of trauma and abuse. She’s also a professional trauma-informed yoga teacher with a specialization in social justice issues. Rachel has presented at conferences and retreats internationally. And she’s one of my favorite people in the whole world. I can’t wait for you to meet her.
Hey, Rachel. How are you doing today?
Good. I just went for a walk in the snow!
Oh my God. It’s good to hear your voice. Yeah. We’re just going to jump into this.
So, what initially inspired you to start using music for healing?
Well, I became very interested in music that arose from a purpose…
Folk music that people used when they worked…
I became very interested in how the labor movement was an arts movement… How do you get that they engaged in it to changes to hearts and minds? And that’s sort of the beginning of my journey.
It sort of comes from all these different places.
I also had a dear friend who was dealing with multiple myeloma. And he was an artist. And his wife had to continue to work. And she would travel for her work. And I would go over and clean and cook and play music for him. And that was really meaningful.
And he used to say to me, “Hey. You ought to get into this therapeutic music stuff.”
And I’d be like, “Nah. Too intense.”
And then, I eventually started doing work in my community with adults with mental illnesses. And National Alliance for the Mentally Ill doing programming that would include being on a creative team. And we would be guided by people that dealt with mental illness to state issues that were relevant to their lives.
And then, the creative team—including people in that community—would develop programming with poetry, music, dance, and theater. And I did that work for like eight years. And that was really just humbling, being alongside people who had very real struggles. And using specifics about them to allow them to tell their stories. And we could support that.
I also started drumming with them. And then, I met you!
And so, that’s sort of a segue. And also, at that time—2000—the turn of the century. I was also working with the Bottleworks Ethnic Arts Center doing programming in schools and seeing how children responded to music and rhythm and movement.
And that was just… It was eye-opening to see the impact that music has on various, different populations for different purposes. And that sort of led me to the path of becoming a Certified Music Practitioner and doing other work with music and healing.
You and I have been friends for many years. And even from what you just said, I think people start to get the sense of the kinds of environments that you work in. One of the things I’ve always admired is that you go directly into some of the most seemingly challenging environments to do your work.
You do work in prisons. You work with people who’ve survived some severe traumas. People with mental challenges, older adults.
Why go into these circumstances? What is it about them for you?
I have a very acute awareness that many tools are not available to all people. Obviously, tools—our body, our breath, our voice—we have these with us all the time. But I know I wasn’t taught how to use any sort of tools to regulate my central nervous system.
So, I think it comes from a place of wanting to see equity and give people tools for being able to claim their own inherent worth and dignity in varieties of situations. And I also have an awareness that many people do not have beauty in their environment.
And to be able to reflect that in places that lack that is really something that drives me and guides me in delivering that. And being able to reflect that to people. To be that reflector through sound and movement and giving people a chance to claim their own worth and dignity.
That’s beautiful. And I know one of the places you go into is that you work with women in prison. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
What’s that look like?
And that program, due to change in the last election, is no longer happening.
Which is unfortunate. I’ve been doing that work since 2014. But I also go into the Torrance State Hospital. I go into the forensic unit there. And that is… I love that program. I do a combination, which is similar to what I did with the women in prison here.
I do a combination of movement, music, sound healing. Recognizing when I’m in Torrance, in the lockdown unit, I have a large group of people, women and men. And recognizing in that population, there are some people that are non-verbal, but can move. There are some people that maybe movement isn’t available to them, but they can use their voice.
So, coming up with this combination of linking music and movement. And giving people the experience to breathe and move their bodies and create sound.
And given that with the awareness that these are people that perhaps don’t get to go outside. They’d like a connection with the outdoors, with the Earth. So, trying to bring some elements of empowerment and tenderness into that space.
When you were working in prisons, do you have any stories about how working with music, working with sound helped the people that were in that condition?.
Oh yeah. I think with women that are incarcerated, what I’ve seen is that they all have a history of trauma. There’s a lot of revolving doors. And this is the county prison we’re talking about. And so, there’s a lot of people that just exist without real support, without tools.
And giving people tools to breathe, there’s a chant that I have shared with women: “I still have joy after all the things I’ve been through. I still have joy.”
And then they could use it as a song and still have peace. And they could define for themselves what they still had.
So recognizing, “Even here, I can recognize my resilience. Even here, I can claim that. I can claim that part of me.”
And giving people tools to recognize between the stimulus that something had happened. It occurs to you and the way you respond—in that space in between—that’s where your freedom lies. Whether you’re in the self, whether you’re outside…That space between that stimulus and that response is liberation.
And claiming that in that space. If you can claim that in that space, what else is possible for you?
So, you’re sending them within.
Yeah. And that’s what I’m finding, no matter what our condition, is really the place where the suffering lessons. It’s the stories I tell myself. It’s the way that I treat myself. All that stuff is inner. It definitely does have something to do with the outside circumstance, but there’s… The more I start to rely on what I can do to manage myself, the less things tend to hurt.
I know from my own experience, I have a lot of my own stories…I have a story…
But it’s there. And unpacking that story is a huge part of the work that I do and finding tools to recognize, cultivate, and witness. Beginning to observe our experiences. And then, what can you do to shift that if it’s not supporting our inherent worth and value?
And what we can we do to shift that to maybe dissolve the story, unpack the story, sing through the story. Sing something else into that space.
Yeah. That’s powerful stuff.
With the work that you do at Torrance State Hospital, you’re saying that you have larger groups of people. Is there any story that sticks out from your work there, of maybe seeing someone transitioning from one state to another where they’ve felt better? They’ve had some sort of realization, a positive change in behavior… Anything like that you can recall?
Sure. And in Torrance it’s a little different. When we’re in the prison, we usually have an intake form, and people are triaged. When I’m at Torrance, I might have 50 to 65 people in a space. We’re in this giant gym, and there’s guards everywhere. It’s kind of intense.
And I don’t know the history of anybody there. But I work with the social workers there. And the recreation staff and the chaplain. And they usually will reflect to me what they see. Because again, I don’t know what people’s typical behaviors are in that space.
But there’s always afterward, I always have feedback from the staff that’s like, “Oh my gosh. That person has been not responsive to any counseling. And they got up and danced!” Or the thing is, I can tell. I can just look at people’s faces when we’re singing and I generally walk around the circle with my guitar. And sort of try to engage people with eye contact, the song.
So, if they’re hard of hearing, they can see my face. They can see my lips moving. And just seeing the shift in people’s eyes… The light coming on. That’s a really sad place to be, that facility.
And just to see the power of a song. I write a lot of little chants and easily taught mantras, specifically for these type of purposes, that are really easy to learn. And people can quickly join in and just to see–
What’s an example of one of those?
So, I have one called “Love is Love.” And that’s the only word.” So “Love is, love is, love is love.” And the chorus is “Allelujah.” There’s a piece that I… I do a lot of music and movement pieces. There’s one on the elements, “Earth Beat, My Heart Beat,” “There’s Water Flowing Through Me,” “Fire,” “The Air I Breathe.”
So, I write a lot of little pieces like that, that are very easy for people to connect to, and they can learn. But the melody’s repetitive. And it’s just… It’s invitational.
And what I’m hearing to is it’s not that you’re just standing there making music for them, you’re engaging them. But then, you’re also adding this extra human touch where you’re making eye contact with them. You’re meeting them. You’re in physical proximity. It’s not like it’s a concert or a performance…
You’re integrated with them. Not that you’re one of them, but you’re also not above them either.
Absolutely. Decentralizing power in those spaces is absolutely essential for doing that work. Not making yourself the focus, but orienting people to their own experience. Asking them to notice what they notice. Feel what they feel. I also bring my shruti box in there. And we do the humming.
And again, it’s just this invitation that the intention… My intention is to always give people tools that they can take away with them. Whether it’s repeating that song when they’re moving through their daily life in that facility. Whether it’s a breathing technique. Or whether it’s tapping or moving, humming, any of those things.
My intention is always for people to notice what works for you. Use what works, leave what doesn’t. And decentralizing while I’m making eye contact with people, I’m doing it from a place of the way you said, coming into space and being with them, not above them. And decentralizing the difference as much as humanly possible, the power differentiation in those kind of settings.
Yeah, because anyone who’s ever been in any kind of facility like this where the people can’t leave… Whether it is a state hospital, a prison, or to a lesser extent, maybe a rehab facility… To give people a sense that they have say over something. It’s something that we tend to take for granted.
But for someone who their entire day is regimen—probably with a lot of “no’s” and “cant’s” and “shouldn’ts”—just giving them this time and these exercises. And even just, I know you so well. You’re always smiling. You’re bringing joy to the situation, no matter where you are. It’s a big deal. And I love that you do that work.
Thank you. I always try to incorporate choice. Anytime I’m doing any trauma-sensitive work, giving people choices. And I know you do that very well in your work. Giving people choices.
So, if I’m doing a piece of music to movement, they’ve got the choice to engage in the music, the movement. One of them, both of them, none of them. You just receive. So, that’s always important anytime that I’m doing work with whether it’s the trauma sensitive yoga, [inaudible 00:15:15] music. Or the music and movement program at Torrance or other places where I also do programming.
It’s giving people that choice and that invitation, rather than directional language. It’s more… The language is very much coming from an invitational place.
Yeah. And that tells them that you trust them.
And you might be the only one that tells them that. That communicates that, “Hey. Wait a minute. You’re good enough to trust. I trust that you are doing the exact thing that is best for you in this moment.”
Well, the first time I went in there, it was… I think I went there early. I sent in the list of everything I’d bring in. So, my guitar picks to my little metal bowl that I ring so that we can practice.
I go through… It’s a high-security facility. And again, I have the privilege of not knowing why people are there. It’s not relevant to my work to know why people are there. But the first time I went in, again I’m in this large facility. I usually have a group of men first. And then, men and women.
I definitely feel much more comfortable in the group with the females. But the first time I was there, I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is really intimidating and overwhelming.” And these people are glaring at me. They’re like, “Why are you here?”
And there’s guards everywhere. And so, the first time that I facilitated a breathing exercise, I’m like, “I have to close my eyes.” I give people the choice. But I’m like, “They have to see that I’m willing to be vulnerable in this space with them for this to work.”
And I can tell you that the energy in that space, with me closing my eyes and allowing that vulnerability, completely shifted in about two minutes. And I’ll never forget that.
It was a really powerful lesson for me to allow myself. Because I knew the guards were there. If anything was amiss, that would be addressed.
So I’m like, “All right. I’m just going to do that. I’m going to let myself be vulnerable in this space.” And it literally changed everything. And it was really very powerful.
[“Be I, be free” musical interlude]
I’m wondering if we can pivot to your work with this organization called The Music For Healing And Transition Program. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Sure. The Music For Healing And Transition Program, MHTP. That is the certifying body for training musicians and certifying them to be therapeutic musicians, certified music practitioners. And MHTP has programs all over the United States and Canada. And most of the training happens in hospital facilities.
So, I went to Baltimore for a weekend a month. It was about two years. And you learn how music interfaces with the physical, the emotional, the spiritual. And you learn a lot about different paradigms of healing. And how to use music therapeutically, which is completely different from a performance.
You don’t carry music around with you. You don’t have a set list. And you go through this whole training program. And you’re going to get the clinical practicum and the internship. And then, hopefully you get a job!
So, I was on the Board of Directors of MHTP for nine years, which was amazing. And the organization, currently now, has its first partnership with a non-clinical facility. It’s the Longy School of Music in Boston and the Berklee School of Music. There’s a conference that’s happening in June. It’s virtual. It’s all about music and healing. And you don’t have to be a music practitioner to attend.
But I’ve been doing the music practitioner work for 17 years.
Wow. And I’ll make sure I include that link in our show notes so that people can go and check out that webcast. Now, when you are working with people…
So now, these are people. Are they all in hospice or no? Is it different kinds of populations?
So when I first started doing the work, I worked with people in acute care. People in critical care. People that were in palliative care. And now, my work primarily is palliative care. It has shifted a bit. But I have worked in all of those different settings.
I’ve had you come to some of my classes at Saint Francis University. And you’ve talked to the students about some of the things that you do. I remember you talking about how you’ve played music as somebody passes away. Which I think is an intense thing and a beautiful thing, all at the same time.
You bring a harp into the circumstances.
Tell us a little bit about that. Do you remember the first time that you played and somebody passed away as you were playing?
Absolutely. Yeah. So, I played the Celtic harp which is… The harp is just an instrument that evokes a lot of responses from people because it’s not one we see often.
I have a Celtic harp that has about 26 strings. It’s absolutely beautiful… beautiful craftsmanship. So, it’s something that people are just very intrigued by the sight of it, let alone the sound of it.
The first time I had played for someone. I played for people on hospice. And there can be lots of different ways present, including obviously transitioning to the next phase.
Oftentimes, I might have seen that person for a long time. And the music will change as the person’s condition changes.
But the first time I played for someone who’s passing, I can remember like… When you’re with somebody who’s transitioning, everything’s changing for them…
The physiology, most of the organs have shut down. The last thing to remain is the pulmonary system—the heart, and the lungs. And there is just a lot going on.
And the breathing, usually what I do is I look. And I just sit and observe that person. And just kind of find a place to enter sound in that space. And it’s usually very simple.
And I remember the first time doing that and just seeing the person there, and just letting the music just emerge from that space.
And like, “What can be supportive to someone going through this transition?” I know how hard it is for me to let go, even in meditation. I can’t imagine what this would be like and, “What feel’s supportive?” Finding that space with music. And then seeing that interaction with that person’s breath and the harp.
And I’ve played for people, like I said, in various transitions. But I can usually tell when someone’s connected to the music in a way that the music is going to usher them out. There’s something very subtle in the body—with even just the muscles in the face… around the eyes… the hands.
And I can just remember seeing that for the first time, that connection. Just being in awe of it and just allowing it to happen. And it’s sort of like an anointing that music provides for someone who’s there making that transition.
Afterward, it’s just so profound. Just to sit there and be in that space. It’s just really a blessing.
Yeah. I can’t imagine. And what I’m hearing you say is that you are deeply observing the person. You’re present with them. And then you’re improvising to them.
So beautiful. So beautiful. How do you think that helps the person?
It’s so interesting because there’s music-thanatology is sort of the study of music that is designed… it was pioneered by the Chalice of Repose, Therese Schroeder-Sheker. And who I’ve heard speak. And I’ve taken some courses from her.
Yeah. There’s something about everything changing. Having something support that. And there’s a mystery. I think part of it is leaning into the mystery of it all.
It’s not a definitive science. But it’s largely based on observing people. Like, what’s changing in someone when they’re dying when music comes? And how can that… What do we observe that allows us to see that can be supportive?
And that could be an un-clenching. I call it this “great unfolding.” And that’s something that we’re observing in someone. So, it’s really based on that, I think. That observation of “What’s present before the intervention?” and “What is the intervention providing?” And going from that.
And having people that are engaged in this work continue to make these observations. And document that, and share what they know towards how this field is emerging.
Yeah. Because it is subjective. And yet, as the observer, as the person who’s in the experience with the person, you can observe facial expressions.
You can observe breathing patterns. And you even mentioned this idea where you said the music changes when they’re condition changes.
What do you mean by that?
What I do, when I go into space with someone, is I observe their posture. I observe their ability to respond to me verbally. Are they oriented with space and time? What does their breath look like? If they’re in a palliative care unit or if they’re in their home.
Are there any items that show me that they have a support system… Family members or religious affiliation? Doing this work for 17 years, that’s an assessment I can make pretty quickly without needing to talk to the patient. And that is going to determine what I play. If I’m going to play in a major key, minor key. If I’m going to sing or just have harp.
And of course, if I see the same person the next day, if they’re situation is different. Where they were oriented and alert and responsive. And the next day, they weren’t. The music’s going to be reflective of that shift.
I’m going to be playing, probably, if someone’s agitated and in pain, I’m going to be playing something very different than if they were alert and oriented in space and time. And in terms of someone who’s actively dying, the music has so much space in it because that… If you’ve ever been with someone when they’re dying, the breath is completely different and oriented.
And I think the music creates a container, in all these spaces, to allow support for that person. And the energy in the space changes by music if you come into that space with a harp And you pay attention, you observe, and you offer what can be of support. It changes the energy with the family members as well as the patient.
So, it’s very interesting to be in that space, and see just how music can show up. And for me, I’ve been doing this work for 17 years. And part of doing this work, for me, is really grounding and rooting myself in just love. And I have the experience and the training to have the technical part of the music. But that doesn’t mean anything if it’s not offered with enormous love.
And so, anytime I go into any space with any of the work I do, I just ground myself and orient myself to show up with this really driven by love. And love not as a personal emotion, but just this as what we’re all connected in. And that usually… I don’t have to tell myself, “Oh. You need to play in the minor key.” It just shows up.
And in MHTP, it’s called the unitative listening. And it’s part of what we learn about in our training. Is to really ground ourselves in this unitative listening. And connect to that unified field of self-love and compassion that we’re all connected in and to operate from that space.
When I describe you to people that don’t know you, my sentence for you is that, “She’s kind of like an angel that’s embodied on Earth.”
Oh gosh, with a tarnished halo!
I know you’re wincing at that. But everybody, who knows you and knows your work, agrees.
Well, thank you. That means a lot coming from you.
I heard you mention… Obviously, there’s family members around during these experiences. And you said you noticed a change in them. How do you think it helps them, if at all?
It doesn’t really provide the sense of… One of the things that I observed in this work is that it’s frightening to see someone you love die. It can be frightening. It can also be sad, and obviously very sad.
And family members often don’t know what to do. There’s not often a script for how we are to be in these times and places.
And oftentimes what I observed, when I am working with patients in palliative care, I’m very intentional about where I place myself in the space because I want to be able to see the patient and their breathing.
But I don’t want to block, if they’re in a palliative care setting or in their home, anybody that needs to administer any kind of care to them.
And I also don’t want to be a barrier between family members and the patient. So, I’m very intentional about where I pick my time in deciding how I’m going to position myself in the space. And oftentimes, what happens is the harp seems to give people permission. It gives them a space to come up and maybe hold the hand of their loved one. Or say, “Hey. I love you. It’s okay to go.”
I don’t have to say any of that. People are like, “Hey. Come over here to the bedside and say goodbye to your loved one.”
And even to the loved ones, the harp seems to have this invitation. I’ve witnessed one of the many times I’ve gone into spaces where there’s been a lot of tension in the room. Maybe unresolved family stuff, which is often the case with people.
I went into this space once, and the patient was dying. And he was not very old. He was very jaundiced. And the family was all on the other side of the room. The patient was by himself in the bed. And obviously struggling for breath and seemed to be in pain. And I sat there, and I played. And the patient slowly started to have that unfolding, that soft meeting of the facial muscles, the hands, the breath.
And the family members came over to the bed. And they told him, “I forgive you. I forgive you for everything. And I love you. It’s okay.”
And I have no idea about any sort of dynamics or anything that is present in that situation. And I left the space. And I learned later that the patient died maybe a half an hour after I’d been there. The family members around the bed.
And the medical director came up to me and she said that this person had a history of alcoholism and abuse. And he had not been someone that the family… He had been separated from his family for quite some time. And the music gave the family permission to forgive him.
So, it was just really… Again, the power of music completely humbles me all the time. And that was really a blessing to be able to have that experience. That might have happened without the music. I have no idea. But the music sort of gives people permission. It’s like this portal. And it gives people permission to come and open their hearts to their loved one.
And again, it’s always a blessing. I feel like I’m in such intimate space with people very often. And I feel so blessed to be able to be part of this experience with people and their loved ones.
So powerful. And I can see how it’s almost like the music maybe takes a person out of their head and all the different stories that might be running in their heads at a time like that. And brings them just into the moment. And that’s really where… I know you know this. That’s really where healing takes place.
It doesn’t take place in the future or in the past. It takes place right now. And maybe the music brings all of us into that space and helps a deep experience like that to happen.
I can’t help but wonder how that family, over time, how that might have helped them to be able to say those things to that person at that time.
So, it’s not just healing or soothing for the person who’s going through the transition, but also for the people that surround them. That’s exponential.
Right. And that approach is what we really drew me to MHTP. And becoming a trained and certified music practitioner is having that openness and the whole unitative listening process is really being rooted in more of an integrative medicine type of practice of showing up and just not having an agenda. But being able to meet the needs of whatever is there. That’s really the core of CMP (Clinical Music Practitioner) work.
And the difference is that for music therapy, I don’t work with groups of people. I don’t use recorded music. I’m not trying… I don’t walk in with a protocol. I come in with a sense of meeting what’s present, and then creating the space for the potential for whatever is necessary for that person to happen. And the music is what does the work. I’m not so much like the therapist. I’m not a therapist.
So, the music is what provides the therapy. So, it’s really very powerful work. And I feel enormously blessed to be able to be… I fall in love with all of my patients. Often, I have people, I go to homes. And often, I have people in this intimate setting in people’s homes. And I get to know the families.
And so, it’s a really… I feel blessed to be able to be this present support for people, especially if they’ve had a long term chronic condition. And their life has revolved around appointments and treatments. And when people come into hospice, things shift a bit. And there’s the opportunity to see somebody without a white coat or a medical person in the space of all the different people you become connected with when you’re in a delicate health care situation.
To be that person that is not going to have a needle or in sort of thing other than a harp is kind of… It provides a different type of space for people.
It reminds me of how, in the different research I’ve done of other cultures…
Whether we’re talking the various Native American cultures or folks in West Africa. How there is, at least in tradition, someone in the village who is the griot. The medicine man, woman, who holds the history of the villages. They accompany their stories that they tell people with music. They’re there during the births and the deaths.
It’s just interesting how we are… How old’s our country? A few 100 years old. And we’re finally maybe reaching back to some of those more ancient practices now in a way that’s more relevant to 2020. I think that’s a fascinating thing.
Right. And I thought the harp, the griots of West Africa, the bards of Ireland. And I play a Celtic harp. And I play a lot of music that’s known music. That is literally hundreds and hundreds of years old. And it’s so… I feel like, “Oh.”
And the Celtic imagination, the veil is always thin. So, it’s really… To bring that type of music into the space is always very… I feel very connected to those ancestral practices. In the West, we’ve sort of taken everything into… I mean the West is great for disease and traumas of the body. Studying disease and specific trauma.
But there’s not a sense of like with a lot of the Eastern practices—that were part of my yoga training and also part of MHTP—studying the life force energy. I’m studying the life force energies, studying that which gives people life.
And I think we are starting to see that those two things don’t need to be mutually exclusive. That we can integrate this idea of what gives people… Some people in health care, you’re going through the health care system. Being able to have part of your treatment be like, “Hey. You need to know ‘What is my life meaning?’ That’s part of who I am as a human being.” And not this compartmentalized, physical person with symptoms. But someone with a full life.
And we are starting to see that becoming more relevant in behavioral and allopathic medicine.
Yeah. And the fact that you and others show up at these places. These medical facilities with a harp. And you’re allowed to be there because they understand what it is. And there’s a system for it. That tells me that there is a positive change. Maybe not nearly as fast as we’d like to see it, but I love that it’s happening.
I know from my own writing, that I see every day, there are studies on music helping so many different ailments—whether we’re talking about the heart, we’re talking about depression issues…
The evidence for all of this is growing day by day. It’s a beautiful thing to be watching.
[African drums musical interlude]
Speaking of Africa, West Africa, I know that you’ve been to West Africa.
You’ve been there to learn traditional dance. I know this because you and I teach together. And you bring these beautiful dances and rhythms back home with you. And we teach them to our students which is so cool to have that. What prompted you to go and do that?
No. It’s funny because people say to me, “Oh. You do all these things.” And to me, they’re all connected. They’re all the same. They’re all about finding that place of where you come alive, and what feeds your soul. And creating spaces of healing with music and movement.
I love that.
Yeah. And the first time… The music of Ireland and the music of Africa are just like… I can’t even tell you. They turn me inside out. This sort of longing, the soul’s longing for itself. I just hear that in Irish music. I hear it in West African Music. And yeah. There was a group of us in Johnstown—seven, including my son—and we fund-raised for a couple of years. And we went and were there for about a month.
I’ve been there three times. Once with my [inaudible 00:39:56] students. And being immersed in the world of music over there. And I think primarily I wanted to also, being someone of not… Obviously I’m—well you can’t tell from the recordings—that I’m a white person.
One is to learn from the source. One is to be able to see where this music that captivated my heart came from, where it emerged from. And recognizing, again, “Oh my gosh… The rich culture.”
It was interesting, when we were first landing, people assumed I’m on a mission trip. Which I think is so interesting because it’s like, “No. We’re going to learn from teachers that are over there.”
And if I was saying I was going to Sweden or even Ireland, I doubt that anybody would say, “Hey. You’re going on a mission trip.” So, they’re sort of challenging the perceptions we have of Africa. It’s also very interesting to do.
Guinea is just… Culture and music is what defines that space. And it’s so intertwined in the activities of daily living. And the music that people’s ancestors created, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, is still very relevant to life over there.
Again, people know who Kanye is too. But this lived experience of being engaged in music is a huge part of what drives life over there. And what was interesting, I think, is being there and of course the drum.
Over here, we have the djembe and dancing are really at the forefront of West African music and outside of Guinea—but what really compelled me over there, each time I have gone back, it’s more the voice and the West African flute and the kora. Because those are a lot more subtle, but they’re really profound. In Guinea, you might have this performance. And it’s over the top. And the dancers and the drummers are all just like, “Oh my gosh.”
And then you’ll see… hear this low, flute come in at the end and a voice. And it’s just like, “Oh my gosh.” The openness and the just presence of people that engage in that music, it brings me to my knees. It’s absolutely amazing.
I think it’s incredible that a culture like this—and there are so many different ones, even within one country…
There’s multiple cultures and languages in Africa that, like you said, this is music that’s been happening for as long as they have recorded history.
So, music passed down from family member to family member. Community member to community member. Stories passed down. Rhythms passed down. The dances passed down. And I think about how rich that is.
And then, I look at my life here in the States. And it’s also rich in a different way. But there isn’t a whole lot like that.
That I can look back into hundreds of years ago where my people were doing the same music and the same songs and the same messages, over and over again.
It’s a lot more spread out, just by virtue of how we all got here. And how we had different people from different countries meet each other and make families, which is its own beautiful thing.
But I think about that. And when I listen to that kind of music, it’s the same thing. I listen to it, and I don’t understand the words. But I feel it. There’s a depth in it that is rare.
Right. And there’s such a presence there. I look at… And that very real connection with the past.
And Les Ballet Africains—which is really the cultural point in Guinea—when the French had left, the director of Les Ballet Africains, they actually gathered all of the songs from the different ethnic groups in the different villages. And like, “Let’s all share each other’s practices.”
And so, you had Fulani people learning the Mandige music. And the Susu people learning other ethnic groups. And of course, now you see a lot of those groups are intertwined, maybe more than they were in the past.
And it was a sense of wanting to have this pride after the brutal impact of colonization. That really kind of gave that resurgence and really landed people into the culture in really beautiful ways.
I didn’t know that. And for someone who doesn’t know about those regions, they can often be at odds with each other. And the fact that they would come together and share each other’s cultures and music in a state of non-competition is… That’s a big deal.
Just a little more here. I’m wondering… You do so much for so many. I guess what I’m trying to say is how do you use music to take care of yourself?
A couple of different ways. I love the technology of now. I love to curate my own playlist. And I love… There’s a movement practice called Five Rhythms that I sometimes facilitate, but I do for myself, moving through emotions.
And so sometimes, I might curate a couple of playlists and the music has helped me move through things like anger, fear, sadness. And to connect to joy, compassion. And so that’s integrating it with movement.
But oftentimes, when I’m feeling completely overwhelmed by things that are beyond my control. Things that are happening in our country. I just sit down at the piano or my guitar, and I just make these little pieces of music. I just emerge from this place of wanting to create something.
Like that soul longing… my longing to shift what’s happening. I can’t shift what’s happening outside me. But I can speak to it. I can speak to it with my voice.
And after Charlottesville happened, a couple of years ago—the White Nationalists displayed in Virginia—I sat down and just wrote this piece of music.
It’s just a little chant. It comes from this mantra. “May all be well. May all be free and safe from harm. May all have peace.” And it’s about hope. So, I kind of come to music to speak.
I’m incapable of burying my head in the sand. So, I try to use music to speak my pain and to speak my hope and to speak my love. And making these little pieces just a lot of times emerge from that space of needing to do something rather than stuff it down, which isn’t helpful.
Or do something equally unhelpful like going to the refrigerator and eating everything in sight. Or sitting on Facebook for an hour.
I’ve never done any of those things. I have no idea what you’re talking about…
Right. Oh, I’ve done all of them.
But yeah, I recognize that it’s healthier for me to sit at the piano or get my guitar. Move my body. So, I do that in those times.
But I have a regular… Just to come into the places and spaces where I show up, I have to do an enormous amount of self-care. I stopped feeling guilty about taking so much time because I feel like I have no other choice.
I either do it, or I can’t do what I do. So, I do a pretty solid meditation practice. A movement practice, reading, writing. So I do a lot of self-care. And also, practice collective well-being. And doing circles of support for people that are in my life. “How can we care for one another?” That’s really important to me.
Not just in the professional work I do. But how can I be accountable and be in space with others while we’re collectively caring for one another? That’s enormously important to me as well.
So glad to hear that you got over the feeling guilty for taking care of yourself. I know I had that. I know so many people—especially people in the “helping professions” feel like they should be the last in line. And what I love about what you said is that without that self-care, you’re unable to do what you do, at least at a high-level. Maybe you can trudge your way through it.
But what good are we if we don’t fill our tank up? Especially over time.
Right. And one of the things that I teach in places that I go to, where I work with people that are marginalized. I tell them, “Self-care is a radical, active resistance.” Whatever the power differentiation is in your situation, you caring for yourself is a greater act of resistance than having an altercation with a CO. If you care for yourself, you’re showing maybe that you value yourself, even if you don’t feel valued in the space that you’re in.”
And then, I do a lot of work with women, trauma survivors, in a domestic violence shelter and crisis center. And a lot of women that have children and have grown up in really traumatic environments. And, “How can you model self-care to your kids?”
I didn’t have it modeled to me. “Work until you drop. Get exhausted and complain.”
It was that way. So, for women with children, how do you model that? How do you model? I try to do that for my own family.
And I feel like my son didn’t see much of it as my daughter has. Because when I was initially… had him when I was younger. I was a single mom for a while and things like that.
But modeling… “This is what taking care of yourself looks like.” And when we have this idea of mindfulness approach, we’re always engaging in an action. And we’re pausing after the action to notice its impact.
So, doing that throughout the day, rather than just like, “Okay. I’m just going to do everything on my list,” which is never ends. And then, fall into bed exhausted with a whole bunch of constriction and wake up. And do the same thing the next day. It doesn’t work. You get that.
It’s the truth. And the fact is that whether it’s kids, spouses, family members… I find that they listen to just a portion of what I say. But they really watch what I do. And I noticed over and over again, that they will tend to do what I do. The good stuff and the not good stuff. So modeling all that is such a big deal.
Rachel, this has been phenomenal. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you for asking me.
Oh, absolutely. I’m wondering, what is the one easiest way for our listeners to connect with you if they want to check out your work.
Sure. My website would be the probably central location. It’s www.YogaSong.net. And there’s a link to my YouTube channel. I’m not the most savvy with technology, but I’ve been adding a lot of content to my YouTube channel.
And there’s also the link to my Facebook page which is embedded in my website. I have music on there. There’s blogs. There’s all kinds of stuff on my website.
And all of that stuff will also be linked to your page at DonovanHealth.com/Podcast.
So listeners can go and check that out. All the stuff will be there. We’ll include the link to that virtual conference you mentioned at the beginning of the show. And Rachel, thank you again for taking time to talk with us. Maybe we can do this again sometime?
I hope so. Thank you so much. You have been such an influential teacher and friend in my life. And I’ve learned so much from you. So, I’m deeply humbled by this invitation. And I’m grateful to share on this platform. So, thank you so much for asking me.
Oh, you’re so welcome. And the feeling is mutual. And I can’t wait to do this again. And take good care of yourself, okay?
I will. You as well.
Well that’s it for today. I appreciate you tuning in. Remember to come see us on our social media channels, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Just search “Jim Donovan Sound Health.” Now before you go, I’d like to let you know about a free resource I made for you. It’s called the Sound Health Newsletter. In it, I shared the latest research in music and health in an easy to understand for.
I also share beginner-friendly music and wellness exercises that you can use every day to feel your best. When you sign up, you also get discounts on first access to all of my sound health products and events. Remember, it’s completely free. If you’d like it, just visit donovanhealth.com and enter your name and email address and I’ll start sending you new issues right away. While you’re on the website, you can also read full transcripts of this show and check out a ton of other valuable resources.
If you have any feedback, send me an email to [email protected]. All the information presented on this show is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Lastly, come and visit me on our Sound Health Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube channels. I’d love to see you there. The Sound Health podcast is produced by OmniVista Health Learning and Donovan Health Solutions.
For Sound Health, this is Jim Donovan. See you next time.
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