When a soprano hits a high C, she pushes worldly troubles aside. An ambitious high note, anticipated and then fully attained, triggers emotions that cannot be described. Listeners don’t need to be trained musicians to appreciate the high note. We arrive distracted, unhappy, carrying all sorts of burdens. Music accepts us, no matter what our condition as we approach. It has no admission requirements. It allows anyone to listen, and despite the barriers we erect, music finds a way to seep into the low spots in our souls, so it can refresh and enrich our lives.
We all react to music; we cannot help it. Even before we are born, songs affect us. It is as though human brains are hard wired to respond. Untrained listeners forgive minor failures in music’s concept or execution. Most of us don’t notice flaws that are apparent to serious musicians, because the melody, tempo or timbre passes below the radar of intelligent thought and strikes without permission.
Therapists use music to effect changes in cognitive, physical, communication, social, and emotional skills. They work in a variety of settings, including educational, medical, psychiatric, wellness, and gerontology facilities. Music heals, because it captivates and maintains attention and stimulates many parts of the brain. It is easy to adapt to, and can reflect any level of individual ability. It structures time in a way everyone understands (the last verse means the exercise is almost over.) It makes repetition enjoyable and sets up a safe, structured setting for verbal and nonverbal communication. It encourages movement, but it also accesses memories and emotions.
Music and the silences within it provide nonverbal, immediate feedback. People of all kinds can participate. A patient with chronic pain uses music to decrease the physiological results of stress, distract attention, and alter the perception of time bringing a decreased perception of pain. The music played in an intensive care nursery unit masks mechanical and electronic sounds. Young singers in children’s choirs, in particular, touch our souls.
Music worked wonders in my life too. When my son, Rich, was eleven years old, his father abandoned us. We went through some difficult times, but things started to turn around when a grade school music teacher recruited Rich to sing in a boys’ choir. In the past when Rich tried extracurricular activities, his father always managed to spoil or end his participation. As a result, he was untried and undisciplined, but Mr. Barton provided a strong antidote. This talented man started the choir and kept it going largely through his own strength of will. He tolerated no disruptions during practice. The choirboys stood tall and did not speak out of turn. They performed, wearing impeccable white choir robes or crisp sailor uniforms. In the process they learned intricate four-part harmonies. The choir practiced in a Congregational church several miles from our home. The setting became a memory that has remained vivid for decades. Towering trees lined the streets. The winding walkway and peaceful setting became an after-school sanctuary in more ways than one.
Once inside, Mr. Barton’s quiet but firm approach reassured us. In the weeks and months that followed he taught monumental lessons. If Rich was not going to be responsible, if he was not going to give his best, he should stay home. Music discipline was reinforced, not only in the controlled breaths required to hold the long notes, but also in other ways—posture, clothing, following directions and respect for others.
When Mr. Barton awarded Rich a soloist’s part, he took it in stride, and so I did until he stood in the front row of a cathedral, shoulders back and head erect, ready to sing the high notes. At some concerts he did well; other times notes slipped. But it was rewarding to see him do his best. The soloist spot set him apart and told him he mattered.
When the choir performed, we traveled to churches of different denominations and other venues. It was a privilege and a joy to hear the boys sing. On a cool, clear autumn morning we rose especially early to travel to an Episcopal church, an impressive structure made of stone. The damp morning air made the interior smell like a forest grotto. The boys stood in the chancellery to sing the liturgy. Their voices rose to the heights of the vaulted ceiling and rained down on the congregation. The structure amplified the sound like an ancient monastery. Boys in white robes gave us the gift of music, and other concerns dropped away. The choir blessed us with Ave Maria, and Rich sang the solo in a strong, clear voice, as if the grand setting inspired him. The notes entered my ears and pierced my heart.
We will be forever grateful to Mr. Barton for loving music enough to teach it to unruly boys. When Rich sang words of adoration, he was no longer an abandoned child. Difficult musical scores taught him not to be afraid to try. Sacred notes connected him to everyone who heard.
The high notes expressed the courage it took to reach for a goal outside of his grasp. Years of unhappiness had not yet killed off a desire to be part of something worthwhile. During performances, other people shared in the rapture of the sound. With its mysterious ability to reach the soul, choir music pushed our personal and collective pain away. From the reaction of others in the pews, the music touched them as well.
Experts list many advantages to providing children with music training. It promotes higher academic scores, more complete brain development, and teaches organization and the value of cooperation. Music teaches the value of the sustained effort required to enter the song at the right moment and harmonize with others. Music provides a means of self expression and puts children in touch with what they are and what they feel. Sacred music can put youngsters in touch with core beliefs.
From our experience, all of that is true. Rich has grown up to be the kind of man any parent would be proud of—not without further pain, but with much less sorrow than those early years. To all of the advantages of teaching music to children, I would add that music transcends the moment. It invokes a wider perspective, opens up the possibilities and gives birth to a sense of purpose. Melody drowns out the pain and disappointment of here and now. It connects us to larger events. Harmonies remind us that life offers more than what we can touch or take to the bank. Music gives us what, many times, we are afraid to feel—hope. A crescendo tells us that life has meaning.
When Rich joined the choir, it provided the comfort and reassurance of belonging to the group. Then it became much needed attention and affiliation with others. He began to trust grown-ups again and then learned to trust himself. Music became a means to let closeness back into his life. As his skills grew, he attained the spotlight and with it the knowledge that he could achieve ambitious goals. Now whenever I hear a soprano or tenor sing, I recall how much the choir meant to him and celebrate the subtle, pervasive power of music.
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An Imperfect Union by Georgiann Baldino
When Dr. Fred Dudley is wounded at Gettysburg, Cornelia Hancock risks her life and reputation to care for him and other Union soldiers. 'Imperfect Union' is a timeless story of love and survival during the American Civil War. Author Georgiann Baldino tells the story of two real people, a doctor and nurse, serving at some of the worst battlefields.
When Fred recovers from his wound and returns to the army, he convinces the medical director to send for Cornelia. She joins him at the...
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