By Lou Ann Pope, owner of Pope Piano Studio
When I was a Piano Performance Major in college, I took a freshman-level required class about Folk Music, which was a study of all cultures having music as a form of communication, no matter how remote the people were. In fact, many children sang a “Rain, Rain, Go Away” minor 3rd interval all around the world. I thought it was fascinating that someone dubbed that phenomenon an “Ur,” which refers to an original or something primitive. This got me thinking about how music is a universal language, one that all people enjoy and has been around forever! According to a Harvard Medical study, “the human brain and nervous system are hard-wired to distinguish music from noise and to respond to rhythm and repetition, tones and tunes.”
In Western culture, we often use music to occupy our minds in the hopes of relieving anxiety. I know that when I’m in my car in a traffic jam, I definitely play music to soothe my anxiousness and to pass the time more quickly. I find that music triggers sweet memories and thus puts me in a better mood. In other words, music is considered to be healing! So how does this work, you may ask?
According to Dr. David Brady, “Listening to music impacts the reward and pleasure pathways in the brain. Specifically, it may trigger the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter most closely associated with these feelings.” Not only does music do this for the individual, but it can connect an entire group of people! In fact, researchers think one of the most important functions of music is to create a feeling of cohesion and social connectedness. Brene Brown, Behavioral Researcher states in her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, “Connection is what gives meaning to our lives. Neurobiologically, we are made for connection.” So what better activity is there to connect us than music?
For the past year and a half, my piano students have regularly been in connection with each other since I have used the app, Tonara Studio, where one of the benefits is that my students can communicate with each other. However in March, when the pandemic hit the world, what I considered to be a great benefit to my studio, became my lifeline to my students and to our well-being! (I wonder if in the future we will refer to six months ago as Pre-COVID and the time it dissipates as Post-COVID?)
So, in a pandemic, with social distancing, how can musicians continue to make music connections to feed our souls? And especially how can our students, many of whom are young children, a vulnerable echelon of society, make these connections if they are forbidden to play with friends, have sleepovers, go to piano lessons, or dance class?
In looking at my own studio, we had a Group Chat, where students talked to each other and played for each other, usually in reference to a challenge I posed to the entire studio. However, as soon as the pandemic hit, something prompted me to change the name of the chat group to Pope Piano Performance Room, and what a transformation blossomed! I had several students suggest a few activities, such as “Lucy’s Beatnicks,” and Mary Lois’ Book/Sing as challenges to their fellow classmates. What fun to see videos of students performing pieces for each other with a beat in the background! Peers loved to encourage each other with genuine praise and kudos. Five students decided to take their favorite book and sing it for us, posting videos in the Performance Room. I’m blown away by the fact that they came up with distinguishable tunes that they carried throughout the book. This was a far cry from the simple, universal Ur!
Although our preferred method of performance is the piano, a few unusual performances organically sprung up in the Performance Room, which in turn, created a sense of community in my studio due to this unique twist. One was a ventriloquist act and another was a newly learned back handspring! Each time, the students marveled at their peers’ performances! There were countless original piano compositions as well. I have used the tagline, “Each One Teach One,” where I encouraged students to teach a piece to a family member or friend. We also had Moxie’s Musicians, which was inspired by my dog who often sings along with the music. Students had to practice more than my dog sang and post it in the Performance Room.
What started out as a fearful situation of social distancing and isolation, ended up as beautiful encouragement of my students performing for each other and enjoying the creativity that sprang from what could have been a lonely situation! Oh, the pure joy that ensued!