Music-thanatologist Ruth Singer works at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe. Here, she describes her work with patients.
About a year ago, I received an check with no explanation from the publisher of my book, Music at the End of Life, Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage. It was big enough that I knew it could not be royalties (Believe it or not, books about music and end of life care do not exactly fly off the shelves of Amazon.com). I sent a brief note to my publisher to find out more.
I received an apologetic email the next day explaining that the Japanese rights to my book had been licensed to a publishing company in Japan for translation in 2014. They were planning to publish the Japanese edition at the end of next year.
In the last few months I have heard from the Japanese translator of the book, with detailed questions about certain phrases and word choices. It is a very mysterious thing to be translated. When my book came out in 2010, I received an email from a colleague who said, “I just keep looking at it and thinking, ‘Jen chose that word, and that word, and that word…’” She was right. Writing, even when it is heavily researched and full of quotes from other people, is simply a choice of one word after another.
But in translation, writing is two people’s choice of words, one right after the other. I think about people reading my words, our choice of words, in a language I do not speak. There is an entire chapter of stories in the book, descriptions of music-thanatology vigils, that will be read and understood in a new language. The reach of the book will be much wider, thanks to this translator’s careful work.
What about you? Have you ever been translated? What was the experience like?
As someone who struggles with perfectionism, I was delighted to find this video from Jennifer Gresham. She reflects on the paradox that while most scientific discoveries occur as the result of a mistake, many of us are still afraid of making mistakes. We stay in situations where we are not comfortable or challenged in order to avoid making mistakes.
When Dr. Gresham noticed that she was teaching this type of fear to her daughter, they came up with a solution together. Take three minutes to watch this lovely piece, and see if you would like to take on their mantra in your own life:
My colleague Peter Roberts, a music-thanatologist in Australia, has published a book called The Harp and the Ferryman. Co-written with Dr. Helen Cox, the book traces Peter’s journey from businessman to music-thanatologist, as well as the research Dr. Cox has done on the effects of Peter’s music on patients. I had the pleasure of reading the book before it was published, and it is a moving account of this field and his work.
Peter’s recordings are exquisite. Spend some time listening to the samples on his website. You can learn more about Peter’s journey in this profile, “Compassionate Care Through Music.”
I have listened to this talk by writer Elizabeth Gilbert many times. I love her brilliant reflection on not being afraid to do the work you believe you were put here on earth to do – whether you’ve published nothing and are afraid to never succeed, or whether you’ve published a huge best seller and are afraid of never doing anything worthwhile again.
Are creativity and suffering truly linked? Why do we find it so easy to believe that artists must suffer? She examines the difference between being a genius and having a genius, and discusses the ways that creative people can get a certain distance from their work that allows them to be less afraid.
“And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that, is, don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Olé!” And if not, do your dance anyhow.” (Elizabeth Gilbert, 2009)
A Swedish study released this week finds that the heart rates of those who sing together synch up quickly, in relationship to the tempo of the song. The study was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. According to the abstract, “We show how song structure, respiration and HR are connected. Unison singing of regular song structures makes the hearts of the singers accelerate and decelerate simultaneously. Implications concerning the effect on wellbeing and health are discussed as well as the question how this inner entrainment may affect perception and behavior.”
The concept of entrainment is very familiar to music-thanatologists. While playing for people who are often unable to communicate with words, we follow the patient’s visible respirations during the music vigil. This provides an opportunity for the patient’s respirations and heart rate to move in relationship with the music being played on the harp or sung. Like the choir voices singing together, the music-thanatologist’s playing and the patient’s respirations and heart rate being to synch up, providing an opportunity for calm and relaxation.
This has always seemed quite intuitive to me. Although it sometimes seems strange or new to think of a harpist appearing in a hospital, I suspect that all of us have had the experience of listening to a piece of music for the sole purpose of changing our mood, and therefore our heart rates and respirations. Is there music you listen to for courage? For rest? For joy? Once you start listening, how soon can you feel the changes in your body?
I am currently reflecting deeply on Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech to graduating class of the University of the Arts. I’ve listened to it twice in the last two days, and will probably listen again today. In it, he gives the graduates advice about making art, encourages them to break rules and be themselves, and gives them the best advice he ignored – which he received from Stephen King.
Go ahead. Give it a listen. You’ll thank me.
I often ask people what their secret artist’s life is. Almost everyone – no matter what their paid job is – has an answer to this. They play guitar on the weekends or keep a photography blog. They are planning to take a watercolor class this winter or they sing with the church choir. Someone recently told me that his grandmother taught him how to quilt and sew and that he has an unfinished project in his closet that he’s about to get back to. I believe the human spirit has a drive to create, even though much of the culture undervalues art because it’s hard to buy heath insurance with it.
What I love about this speech is that Mr. Gaiman is so very clear that a life in art does not have a clear path, and that we have to make things up along the way – stories, knowledge, job experience. He urges us not to be limited by own own limits, to be playful even when we don’t know exactly how to do what we want to do.
“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped. So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.”
Mr. Gaiman is clear that in art, as in all other areas of work life, you don’t have to be able to do everything well. Two out of three skills works.
“People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Finally, Mr. Gaiman does something that the Capricorn in me loves. He describes that as he was starting out as a writer, he imagined his goal as a mountain:
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”
We would do well to remember, no matter what happens in life, to Make Good Art.
And, by the way, what is your secret artist’s life?