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Rod Paton
from: Rod Paton
Category: Improvisation

Can Music Save The Planet

Community musicians may well be motivated by a variety of intentions, not least the need to earn a decent living, but however we choose to employ our skills the healing benefits which invariably flow from participatory music making will be readily apparent and, in many cases, I suspect will be intended as the primary outcome. This article aims to provide a brief overview of music and healing, an equally brief review of contemporary practice and an even more brief preview of the Chichester area gathering on March 10.

The healing power of music has a long history. In the 5th century B.C. the sage, shaman and mathematician, Pythagoras of Samos, taking time off from devising subtle tortures for future school kids, set out to measure both the physical and psychic properties of sound and music, observing not merely the (arithmetical) rationality of sound and vibration but also how different modes appeared to engender a variety of different moods in his subjects. His ideas and his experiments stemmed from his experiences in the east and in North Africa and were therefore based upon functions and properties of music which reach back to antiquity. So although Pythagoras was arguably the first recorded community musician, the orphic tradition, which he founded, has even deeper roots in ancient musical practices which link the human psyche with the natural world. And behind Pythagoras we have the mythical narrative of the archetype of all musicians, Orpheus, whose descent and (tragic) ascent is so clearly connected with the important if rather mysterious lessons music has to teach us: about the fine balance of the seasons; about the cycles of life and death; and about the importance of maintaining a state of equilibrium between the unconscious and conscious areas of the mind, the state of the human soul.

For a moment let’s consider the concept of the rain dance (I wonder are there any community musicians out there who include this in their repertoire?) The rain dance does not make it rain. Rather, it articulates and restores the connectedness of people and nature; then it rains. If it doesn’t rain, we can be pretty certain something has gone wrong! Now project this into contemporary life. The community musician (be they singer, drummer, choir leader, steel-pans tutor, composer/improviser/, group facilitator, music therapist, care worker or neo-shaman) has just ended a session, leaving the clients wanting more (hopefully) and the feel-good factor is tangible. How deep and lasting and how significant are these feelings? When the participants disperse to their various lives, what do they carry with them from the experience? What, precisely are the healing benefits of music and can they be quantified or measured? 

Anthropologist Victor Turner in The Ritual Process, 1969) coined the term “communitas” to describe the effects which significant rituals promoted in the tribally organised social groups he was observing. He understood that such activities were absolutely essential for the sustainability of communities and he was particularly interested to observe the “liminal states” through which a sense of community identity and social balance could be achieved. Music and dance naturally accompany and facilitate most such rituals and many observers have noted the transformative effects of music on group consciousness. The musician John Blacking, living amongst the Venda people of South Africa, listed around a dozen identifiable functions of music (in his book, How Musical is Man, 1976), many of which maintain individual and communal well-being or which articulate and promote the customs, myths, narratives and belief systems essential not only for social cohesion but for sustainable living, in harmony with nature.

The contemporary community musician has access to a plethora of models which demonstrate the healing uses of music. These may range from the well-grounded and boundaried professional practice of music therapy to rather less firm footed new-age style, sound healing practices. Music therapists have (rightly) maintained a firm hold on the strict codes of practice which govern work with often very vulnerable people but this should not deter us from recognising where therapy and community music overlap. The new training in Community Music Therapy, currently being launched by the Nordoff Robbins Centre points clearly to an opening of doors. The extraordinary work of the indefatigable Nigel Osborne with traumatised victims of violence in Bosnia and Palestine (which has so much more to offer perhaps than the much more widely publicised orchestra of Daniel Barenboim) feeds into therapy training in Edinburgh. And the enormous growth of interest in the healing properties of singing and voicework, well represented by Frankie Armstrong and the activity of the natural voice practitioners’ network, attests to a strong public appetite for a form of musical experience which may well have been frozen in the cold climate of classroom singing. 

But whatever the source or inclinations of individual musicians, all have a role to play, wittingly or unwittingly, in making music something more than merely an entertaining diversion from the “serious” business of living. As Joachim Berendt puts it in his book Nada Brahma - The World is Sound, “before we make music, the music makes us”. In other words, the musical act is a direct representation of living process, establishing that vital connection between “us” and “it”. 

So if music is truly going to be able to save the planet (!) perhaps community musicians might consider extending their vital work to groups and institutions which have the most influence on global well-being and may just be in the greatest need of healing – company directors, bank officials, health managers, police, the judiciary, the military and most of all, of course, civil servants and politicians. A favourite Celtic proverb of mine goes “do not give a man a sword, ‘til he has learned to dance”: is this a case for community music at Sandhurst? And just imagine for a moment how, if every cabinet meeting were to begin with a ten minute group drumming and chanting work-out how this might transform critical decision making to everybody’s benefit. And if Bush and Ahmedinejad find it so difficult to talk to each other , let them sing! Who is going to be the first to get that gig? 

Music is not just a pastime – maybe that is for past times! A sustainable future might just depend upon our willingness as a culture to understand and to use fully the deep properties of sound and our ability to weave it ever more deeply into the mix of community. And that can only mean an ever expanding role for the community musician.

Dr. Rod Paton is a senior lecturer in the music department at the University of Chichester where he runs courses in improvisation, composition, community music and music therapy.




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