A graph of a heartbeat with a built-in heart and piano keys to represent the way music can affect our physical bodies positively.

I Believe Music Can Heal

Music is amazing and mysterious. You have probably already heard of various studies about the healing power of music. I’ve even talked about it in other articles on this blog, such as How to Improve Mental States by Playing Music. However, when reading such things it’s hard to understand the extent to which this healing power can actually change our lives. That’s why today I’d like to write about how it changed mine.

When I was a kid I got a lot of headaches. It was never clear what they were from, but they were frequent. Eventually I figured out something incredible: When I played the piano, quite often my headache would go away!

I began using music as if it were pain medication, just sitting down at the piano any time my headache was acting up again. I didn’t understand why this was happening; It felt like magic!

Eventually the magic faded. Again, I didn’t know why, but I knew I could no longer rely on playing piano to get rid of my headaches. I didn’t think much of it, I simply moved on and started using more conventional medications.

Fast-forward 20 years and I’m only now starting to discover what was actually going on behind those seemingly miraculous music healings I experienced. This discovery has prompted me to share something I haven’t been so open to the public about until now.

My Chronic Illness

As of this writing I’ve been struggling with health issues for over a year and a half, ever since I tested positive for the virus that leads to Covid-19 in September, 2020. I have what they’re calling “Long Covid“.

For over a year and a half I was extremely fatigued, weak, plagued with body pain in different random places every day, and had horrible stomach aches almost every day. I spent most of my days in bed, to the point that I put up a bird feeder outside my window, visible from my pillow, so I’d have something to look at. (Side note: As a result I’m now totally obsessed with birds. Birding is such a great hobby for musicians because of the audio aspect of identifying bird sounds. If you already have a good ear it’s a blast, and if you don’t it will definitely help with your ear training!)

For most of my illness I was unable to sit at the piano for more than about 5 minutes. It was incredibly tiring just to hold up my arms high enough to keep my fingers on the keys. Needless to say, practicing the piano pretty much went out the window.

As is my nature, I spent what energy I had scouring the internet, as well as the minds of my wonderful team of healthcare providers, to figure out how to feel better. Some things have helped here and there. Cleaning up my diet definitely helped, improving my sleep quality definitely helped. But there was always a cap to my improvement. Something was missing.

The Turning Point

A few months ago, after hearing a long covid patient talk about it on this episode of the Long Covid PodcastI started studying the nervous system and the tremendous impact it can have on our physical wellbeing. In recent years there have been more and more scientific studies, like this one focused on chronic back pain, that show that while the pain is absolutely real, it can be the mind that’s causing it.

Since discovering this phenomenon I’ve been voraciously seeking out any more information I can find, reading books and articles and listening to podcasts from leaders in the field such as Howard Schubiner, MD, and Alan Gordon, LCSW.

I’m not a doctor, but here’s my understanding: The nervous system is in charge of keeping us safe. If it perceives danger, it will let us know via pain signals, such as giving us a burning pain when we touch a hot pan.

However, the nervous system can’t always differentiate between immediate physical danger, like the above mentioned hot pan, and perceived danger from the ongoing stresses of life from things like running late or worrying about the environment.

Again, I’m not a doctor, but it seems to me that when I got Covid (I had a very mild acute case by the way), somehow my nervous system became stuck in the “Danger Zone”. Once I started paying more attention to the relationship between my stress levels and my symptoms, I noticed that when I experienced heightened levels of stress, heightened levels of symptoms soon followed. When I managed to relax and feel more light-hearted about my situation, my symptoms also seemed to ease.

Just identifying that these very real physical symptoms might be created in the brain had a huge impact on the trajectory of my recovery.

Calming the Nervous System

So now that I understood how my symptoms were related to the state of my nervous system, I needed to figure out how to convince my nervous system that, in fact, there was no danger. But how does one do that? One option is to simply remove all stressors from life, but most of us would agree that’s probably impossible. Even if one could get rid of all sources of stress, inevitably life would bring in a new problem or challenge.

Another option is to learn how to send safety signals to our nervous system. There are a few ways to do this. The book Burnout by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A., lists 7 science-backed ways to calm the nervous system:

  1. Physical Exercise
  2. Sleep
  3. Imagination
  4. Creative Self-Expression
  5. True Laughter
  6. Crying
  7. Connection

(Check out this video by Amelia Nagoski about the stress cycle for a very animated, clear explanation of these!)

Some of these were impossible for me in my long covid state. Physical exercise, for example, for me was usually limited to a very slow daily walk around the block. I was lucky if I could reach 1,000 steps in a day. I also found it difficult to express myself creatively since my regular method, the piano, was beyond my physical capabilities. But I certainly had been making use of most of the others without even being aware of it.

When I saw this list, I realized that we all do these things for most of our lives. However, since we’re unaware of how we can harness their power for this purpose, it’s easy to decide something else is a higher priority. That’s what I did as a child when I stopped being able to cure my headaches.

Music and the Stress Response

I’ve always been a rather anxious person. When I was a kid I would cry if my parents were 5 minutes late coming home, sure they had met some untimely demise. So it’s no surprise to me that my nervous system was often worked up, resulting in danger signals in the form of headaches. Then when experiencing those seemingly unexplained headaches I would go to the piano and make them go away, in essence employing number 4 from the list above, Creative Self-Expression.

At that stage in my playing I was memorizing everything, only playing pieces I loved, and getting fully immersed in the pieces as I played through them. I wasn’t worrying about perfection; I don’t even think I had a concept at the time of phrasing or tone. I was simply enjoying the music and the act of making it. So based on my research, I believe that this activity in turn sent safety messages to my nervous system, which caused it to stop sending me those headache danger signals.

I also have a guess about why this method stopped working for me: I got too serious about my music. Don’t get me wrong, I love music and becoming serious about it was basically inevitable for me. Furthermore, I highly recommend anyone who feels strongly about music become serious about it too!

However, when we become serious about something, a strange change can take place. As I became more serious about piano, I stopped playing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Instead, I became more strategic about my practice, working on specific measures, phrases, etc., that needed work. This is a wonderful way to practice efficiently and I still recommend it, but it’s not a wonderful way to calm the nervous system.

In fact, if we’re not careful it can be quite easy to stress out the nervous system even more through the way we practice piano. Serious musicians tend to be ambitious and perfectionistic. We also have tendencies to push ourselves too hard and beat ourselves up mentally when we make mistakes.

We may think that these types of behaviors help us strive for excellence, but the science shows that a stressed out nervous system actually hinders our ability to learn. That means that if we want to learn as efficiently as possible, we first need to feel calm.

I was already starting to figure this out intuitively when I came up with the Piecewise Practice Method. One of the main reasons I think this method works is that it encourages you to focus on tiny sections of music at a time, ideally tiny enough that it’s very easy to play calmly. By playing calmly, relaxation sets in and learning can more easily take place.

This works beautifully if done right, but it’s still easy to begin to expect too much from ourselves–always wanting to be more, better, faster–and we can still end up stressed out and frustrated. To avoid this we need to be very intentional about the way we set up our practice.

Incorporating Calming Activities Into Our Practice

In the book The Way Out by Alan Gordon and Alon Ziv, they talk about something called Somatic Tracking. Somatic Tracking is basically the act of feeling our feelings, physical or mental, particularly any unpleasant ones, while also feeling safe. Ultimately this is meant to cause the unpleasant feelings to slowly subside.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Even the items in the above list of ways to calm the nervous system don’t always work if we’re doing them in a stressed out way, trying desperately to feel better. We need to practice calming down. We need to work it like a muscle, like playing our scales on the piano until they’re so ingrained in our muscle memory that we can play them without looking while carrying on an unrelated conversation with someone across the room.

For me, this practice came in the form of meditation. In fact many aspects of Somatic Tracking sound exactly like a specific type of meditation I’ve done in the past called Vipassana meditation. For me something clicked about the relationship between my mind and my body and the huge role meditation can have in improving that relationship. It seems like all the research scientists are doing today on this subject are simply confirming what meditators have known for thousands of years.

I currently meditate for an hour before I practice the piano. I know that probably seems like overkill, but the meditation is my way of practicing calming my nervous system so that over time it will become habitual. I’m then able to bring that calm into my piano practice, thus reaping the benefits of creative self-expression and the safety messages that brings.

Recovering from Long Covid

Although I’m not completely recovered from my chronic illness, I would say my symptoms are reduced by at least 80%. I’m able to play the piano for as long as I want. I’m walking 7,000 steps or more per day and even going running and doing workouts. In many ways my life is pretty much back to normal, though definitely a much more intentional, health-oriented normal than before.

I’m not as good as new. I find I have a much more physical reaction to stress than I used to, or at least I’m much more aware of that reaction. When stressful things happen, my symptoms can come roaring back. But I’m learning how to deal with them, how to accept them rather than resist, and allow them to head back from whence they came sooner rather than later.

Now that I’m well enough to make music, I’m already incorporating it into my calming protocol. I’m currently working on a more well-rounded adaptation of my Piecewise Practice Method that will include my new findings (don’t worry, I won’t make you meditate for an hour, though I totally recommend it if that’s something that interests you). I’m hopeful that by becoming more aware of the calming property of music, as well as the necessity of calm in order to promote learning, I can help more people improve not only their playing, but also their lives, through music. I can’t wait to share it with you when I’m finished!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

How to Improve Mental States by Playing Music
5 Ways to Combat Musical Burnout
Preparing to Make a Practice Plan

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