Forbes and Fifth

Tune Up Your Wellness

Childlike Wonder 

My mom loves to remind me that I was a baby raised in a choir loft. The old Lutheran churchgoers with their soft leathery arms fought to hold me next. They lulled me to sleep with their voices, the timeworn pipe organ, and the chimes of handbells. 


Maybe my inclination to music is thanks to my pure immersion within it. As soon as I could speak, I was singing with that choir. I shamelessly swayed between the pews and bounded on the red cushions unable to control the grip music had on my muscles. I was a machine on my toy piano, and my Disney music box played any accompaniment I could not. 



My grandma heard my tinkering and sat me beside her on the piano bench. I mimicked her voice, and my fingers were tethered to hers like a shadow. Somehow even horrible renditions of “Hot Cross Buns” enlivened me. 



Music has underscored every part of my life. The piano became my sanctuary when things at home were frightening. The tension in dissonant chords could bring the tears that brewed deep in my stomach to my eyes. My repertoire was limited to a few old, yellowed hymns and my one pop songbook, “Adele 21.” There was magic in those melodies. This special brew of sound, words, and tradition was the one thing that soothed my churning stomach. I could feel my emotions and then release them. 


My relationship with music changed as I grew older. My behavior was too wild. Soon I was held still between the church pews. Exuberant jam sessions in my bedroom were exchanged for staunch piano lessons with a cold lady nothing like my grandmother. Not overnight, but almost as quickly, my childlike relationship with music died. In its place was a cold sweat on my skin and knots in my stomach. Embarrassment for missing that note again and again in my lesson, after spending all week practicing it. I drilled flashcards. I played scales. I still sang but stopped halfway through because I could not hit the high note well enough. 



Heartfelt interpretations turned brittle. Humiliation seeped in. My fear of not measuring up stopped me from sharing. Shame rotted something beautiful. And I am not alone. Modern music education practices have simultaneously created harm alongside the good.. How could something that made me feel so alive have been corrupted? Could that rich connection ever be restored? 


To many people, musical practices that were once a unifying, sacred part of culture have shifted. I believe it’s been narrowed into something it is not. Can we shovel off the muck to rediscover the roots of our connection with music? I invite you to put on your toddler shoes again—the ones that made you run lightning fast and dance without inhibition. I will put on mine as well. Maybe they light up as you stomp. Let’s explore how we can create and enrich our music practices to promote wellness. 


Getting to the Core of Music 

Music is a cultural activity that can actively engage the mind, body, and spirit. History has documented the music of cultures across the globe, and the science and medical communities have explored music’s effects on health, community enrichment, and self-expression. Despite our growing understanding of music as an invaluable resource, I sense a rift between the average music lover and the knowledge that they can promote their health by doing something they love. Tia DeNora and Gary Ansdell have been exploring the connection between music and wellbeing and offering pertinent new ideas in their research: 

"We suggest that health and well-being be subsumed under the concept of flourishing. By flourishing we mean something that eludes neat categorical divisions of health versus illness . . .whether physiologically, psychologically, socially, or culturally conceived . . . it is possible to ‘be flourishing’ while nearing death, mentally deranged, or in pain” (“What Can’t Music Do?”). 

Considering the recent boom in music technology and our ever-evolving society, I think it is time to reimagine how we play with music. 


The benefits of music as a therapeutic tool have been difficult to study empirically. However, the growing heap of research is catching up with what communities across the globe have known for centuries. It’s a powerful therapy for people struggling with many ailments, and music’s healing effects are not exclusive to the music therapist’s office. Self-care practices are not substitutes for professional medical help, but they are tools that can empower us to improve our health. 

Musicologist Even Ruud defines the active practice of “musicking” as “a technology to regulate a body-mind relationship.” Musicking is active. It doesn’t sedate or entertain (Can Music Serve as a ‘Cultural Immunogen’?). Some of the most natural music makers are children. They’re often reactive to what they hear and unafraid to authentically express their reactions through movement. 

William Westney explores this special connection and what it may teach us beyond childhood. Throughout his book, The Perfect Wrong Note, Westney argues that inside of us all lives an inner musician brimming with creativity, energy, and enthusiasm. Young children who haven’t yet felt embarrassment are incredible examples of this: “there is real purity and contagious joy in such un-self-conscious participation in music, and we adults sense it,” (16). Too often this free- spirited nature is squelched in music lessons and elementary music classes, almost never with mal intent. We turn inward and become self-conscious in an activity meant to encourage the opposite. “Vitality seems surprisingly perishable, despite its naturalness and it requires nurturing in order to thrive,” (Westney 29). Unless we carefully nurture that vital childlike wonder in music, it can fade, whether in music study or discouragement. 

Until I read Westney’s work, I didn’t realize how brittle my relationship with music had become. What had been a blissful asylum morphed into a haunted practice room as I pursued my music degree. My inner critic tore me apart. That’s what killed music for me. I left school during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t play a note for a year. But I kept in mind my childhood connection- my hope to experience that joy again didn’t die. 

With a lot of mental work, I have begun to heal my weedy relationship with music. I returned to school and felt refreshed by music for the first time in years. DeNora suggests, “music may help individuals to make knowledge, including self-knowledge, and within this focus, to transcend the difficult, stressful or extreme times and circumstances. It may also, adjacent to this task, facilitate narratives of self,” (“Health and Music in Everyday Life” 279). By carefully processing my negative self-talk, a new patch has been cleared in my life for healthy musicking. It’s energizing again. I feel more like the kid dancing in the choir loft than I have since I was seven. Former tormented music kids, this practice is still for you. Music lovers of every skill— address your insecurities with music as you explore it. 


A Million Ways to Music 

One way to engage in musicking is through personal music practice. This can be any number of behaviors: singing, playing an instrument, keeping a beat, songwriting, improvising over songs, creating rhythms, or dancing. Practice can carve out a space and a time for you. For your ideas. The nature of this practice space should be warm and inviting. Happy mistakes are welcome here. Committing time and focus to this craft, whether five minutes or two hours, can reap results. 

Professional musicians know practice time can be sacred. It is a purposeful time with yourself to cultivate creative energy. Killer guitarist Freddie Franken can speak to the power of this habit. As a kid growing up in Aruba, one day his neighbor handed him a guitar, and he never put it down. Something drew him to the instrument. Today he is an incredibly skilled, successful musician playing gigs all around Chicago and recording for other artists. It isn’t raw talent that got him here. He says it is a hunger to learn—a commitment to developing his skills and an uninhibited love for music. Each morning he wakes up at 5:30 A.M. excited to be back on the strings (Franken). This morning ritual is a sacred time with his instrument. It is time dedicated to self-coaching and discipline. He has built a sanctuary to process his feelings and his life 

through his craft. 

By altering the sound waves around us, music transforms a space’s energy and influences our minds. I bet you already curate a personal soundscape by popping earbuds ears. DeNora calls this kind of musicking a “removal activity”—letting private music sweep you away from experiencing the elements present in a physical environment (62). Some days just being on campus is overwhelming. My anxiety begins to brew at the sight of people and potential conversations, my looming deadlines, and the sounds of the hustle and bustle. Just by pressing play, I can reset my nerves with a few deep breaths to a familiar song. In just a moment, I have redirected my bubbling brain with a hard reset. 

While acknowledging their ability to offer support, DeNora points out that removal activities do not contribute to or enrich one’s communal environment (“Music Asylums” 62). We all know a teenager at family gatherings that refuses to take the earbuds out of their ears and connect with family. Detaching from one’s environment limits connection. It feeds the beast of disconnect that has grown rapidly in this digital age. However, it can be a healthy choice. Because it’s a powerful self-regulatory tool, it’s commonly used by neurodivergent people who experience sensory overload. 

With gratitude to technology, I think music is even bigger. Innovation has made music both more remarkable and more removed. If passively consuming media can be that powerful, imagine the potential of engaging with intentionality. If we keep in touch with the ways our ancestors made music, we can use modern music technology to do infinitely more good. 

Musical behaviors are often physical, giving them the ability to impact our bodies positively or negatively. Singing, for example, uses the body as an instrument. When singing you must coordinate breathing with lyrical phrasing. Sound resonates in the upper body, the vocal folds determine pitch, and articulators like the tongue and lips enunciate words. It’s a great task of coordination! Playing an instrument is no exception. You must consider deep breathing, finger placement, reading music, recalling notes, good posture, and little tension. More succinctly, it’s mental gymnastics. These habits don’t just live in the practice room. Their effects bleed into everyday life. 

This physical endeavor paired with emotional interpretation is a powerful combination. It can provide an opportunity for a very physical release of emotion. It explains how I find myself at a piano pounding away my worries in heavy bass notes. These times in solitude have often sparked healing. As a child who felt very alone, I found a lot of solace in music with just my voice and toy piano. 


Share and Watch Joy Multiply 

Music, like other art forms, is slippery. It’s subjective. There are as many genres as avenues sprawling across the globe; down each alley are clusters of people bonded by the streets that led them there. Soundscapes help people discover community. The rise of online streaming platforms has allowed people from unlikely areas of the world to find each other through music. As a result, niche music communities have formed unlikely bonds over sounds and lyrics.  

Whether we play or listen to music alone or in groups, we are always doing it with others. Mutual understanding, as implied by the notion of collective action, is essential for social wellbeing, or the individual’s wellbeing in a social context. If we don’t understand one another, the dissonance will undoubtedly not only affect our psychological wellbeing, but also make all things social and collective harder to do. (Nikoghosyan). 

Music has always brought people together. And it seems uncoincidental that the powers of music multiply exponentially as it brings people together. Art is most powerful when an act of coordination. 


Beautiful sounds have made my skin ripple in goosebumps many times, but it has felt nothing like that one freezing day in January of my junior year of high school. I was singing in an Illinois Music Educators’ Association All-State Chorus with probably about 100 other students. We were in a breathtaking church polishing a piece called “Hallelujah” by Shawn Kirchner. I remember being exhausted from practicing all day, and we must have been lacking energy. The director felt it and asked us to form a square around the sanctuary. We hesitantly obliged, and we began the piece again. “Look into each other’s eyes,” he urged, “feel this together.” Goosebumps erupted across my skin in the first measure. As I looked across the room, I met eyes filled with 

eagerness to create. To make something beautiful. To connect. The electricity zapping between us was tangible to every person, and it was purely music. Divine and creative. In that moment, I knew I had to recreate that moment for others to experience—a safe, vital space to connect. 



Long-standing music groups can have even more profound effects than the fleeting moment I experienced. They create communities— comfortable spaces for people to gather, explore, and expand their social circles. These asylums can foster vulnerability and creativity as people share their skills and voices. They often release a vulnerable part of themselves, and they trust it in the hands of those around them. Together creativity is explored, and musical knowledge is shared. 


Play and See 

Are your kid shoes still on? There’s a mysterious power to musicking that we have yet to fully understand. Scientists may call it soundwaves that make our brains dance in a cocktail of hormones and chemicals. Psychologists and sociologists may call it a technology of the self and community. Even Ruud describes its impact on quality of life as a “provider or vitality—that is emotional stimulation and expression; a tool for developing agency and empowerment; a resource for building social networks; and a way of providing meaning and coherence in life,” (Can Music Serve as a ‘Cultural Immunogen’?). From every perspective, its effects are more multi-dimensional and vast than we can possibly understand, at least right now. And you have a musical inkling inside of you just as powerful. 

I hear some of your hesitations—naysaying you haven’t a musical bone in your body. But I urge you to keep exploring. There are more musical instruments and ways to engage than you may imagine. Perhaps you haven’t found the one that resonates with you. Or perhaps you still need to let go, like many of us still do, of the voice of perfectionism and self-criticism that hinders you from making a bang. Make a mistake. Let yourself play. 

I used to storm into a practice room to practice filled with dread for the mistakes I hadn’t even made yet. There was no room for experiments or play. But reforming my practice habits has changed the trajectory of my career and wellbeing. I walk into a practice room and recognize it as a space ripe with potential. From that moment on, I am my coach and cheerleader. My inner critic must speak constructively. Sometimes it takes a moment to shift. Breathing deeply, I consider where I’m at emotionally, physically, spiritually. One of my favorite practices is simple piano improvisation. Years of frustrated piano lessons made me no aficionado; this time is purely experimental. It’s an exploration of sounds and colors, and inevitably the tones of the day come pouring out. Just like when I was a kid. Bitter chords as I miss my brothers. My ear finds warm resonant tones recalling the conversation I had over lunch with beloved friends. It’s sacred. Most days it lasts only a few minutes, but the time spent caring for myself cleanses my soul. Over time, I have grown quicker to find the sound I want. My brain has grown a little more sonically clever, and my fingers are a little nimbler. 

Start by choosing a time. Maybe it’s singing in your car on your way to work. Join a local choir, band, or orchestra in the evenings. Explore different groups at your community’s cultural centers. Pick up that instrument you abandoned in middle school. Create in GarageBand. Write a silly song about your day at work. 

If you are frozen wondering where to start, maybe start with what you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be something you’re “good” at. What genres do you listen to? What have you always wanted to try? What did you enjoy as a child? Start there. Use what you have! Improvise with things around the house or borrow from a neighbor if investing in an instrument is not in the budget. A beautiful thing about the music community is the willingness to share. I have never met a musician unwilling to lend out an extra instrument if it means another person getting to play. 

Whatever you do, choose to invest in your wellness. Each day is an amalgamation of our habits, chosen activities, and obligations, and they all contribute to our health. Just as we incorporate time to exercise, spend time with loved ones, educate ourselves, and eat healthy meals, I urge you to consider musicking with new intention and possibility. I think Tia DeNora says it best: “everyday music practice is, in other words, a very rich seam for the study of human creativity and skill as applied to health performance and healing conduct” (“Health and Music in Everyday Life” 284-5). No matter your experience or skill level, your birthright to explore self and community through music should not be overlooked. 

Even if it is just playing a tune when making dinner or dancing alone in our bedrooms, all of us can uniquely use music to flourish wherever we are. This is a practice for all people. All abilities. All communities. All sounds. Imagine the world we could create if we put on our toddler sneakers more often and let ourselves feel and play. 



Works Cited 

DeNora, Tia, and Gary Ansdell. “What can’t music do?” Psych Well-Being, vol. 4, no. 23, 2014, Accessed 1 Nov. 2021. 

DeNora, Tia. “Health and Music in Everyday Life: A Theory of Practice,” Psyke and Logos, vol. 28, 2007, pp. 271-87.  

DeNora, Tia. Music Asylums: Wellbeing through Music in Everyday Life. E-book, Ashgate, 2013. Franken, Freddie. Personal interview. 14 Sep. 2021. 

Nikoghosyan, Nune. “Music and Wellbeing: A Sociological Perspective,” Musicalist, 2017. 

Ruud, Even. “Can Music Serve as a ‘Cultural Immunogen’? An Explorative Study,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Wellbeing, vol. 8, no. 1, 2013. Westney, William. The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus, 2003.  

Volume 20, Spring 2022