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The Power of Song: Spontaneous Songmaking for Integrative Health

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With so many great singers in the world, why bother to add your voice? Why not just listen and keep quiet? Why risk being criticized for a voice that isn't like those you hear on the radio, CD or stage?

Of course, it's up to you. But remember one thing before you decide to withhold your voice from life.

Each person's voice is unique, like a fingerprint. This is why a person's voice can digitally identify them.

Each voice is special. Without your voice added to the mix, life is less colorful. Like a species endangered to extinction, if you choose to withhold your voice, the world has virtually lost the singular species of your unique sound. Indigenous cultures believe a day without singing is unnatural as a day without breathing.

In a recent study conducted by brain researcher Prof. Manfred Spitzer of Ulm, Germany, new nerve cells were discovered to form by engaging actively in music. The study concluded that it doesn't matter if you sing in the shower or play concert piano- music de-activates those places in the brain designed for fear and stress. The climate of making music is the ideal place for these nerve cells to develop.

What's important here is that it's not enough to simply listen to music- it's by actively participating that the new growth occurs!

Have you ever heard kids playing with their voice, inventing songs by themselves or with each other? Or remember yourself doing it? Or perhaps you have made up songs for your own kids, when you thought no one else is listening. If you belong to this special band of voice rebels, those who didn't pay attention when the announcement was passed to stop singing and keep quiet, you are already ahead of the game.

Many years ago I discovered the joy of spontaneous songmaking. Over time, I developed SongCare, composing and recording new songs on guitar and voice in the presence of the recipient. I discovered the quality of musical intuition led naturally to delivering a message in the lyrics which spoke directly to the heart and soul of the recipient.

This method of spontaneous songwriting led me to a hospice ministry in 1992, singing songs of comfort, healing and reflection in preparation for a person's homeward journey. I produced the recording Graceful Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying together with Emmy-award winning composer Gary Malkin as a further expression of this intention- to reduce anxiety around dying, and support the meaningful conversations that want to occur.

I further offered this spontaneous musical intuitive service for:

  • pregnant couples and the birthing process
  • people with chronic illness, creating medicine songs to help move through their condition with courage, faith and trust in the process.
  • couples entering the initiation of marriage, celebrating an anniversary, or traversing difficult relational waters.
  • seeking one's soulmate
  • seeking one's vocation.
  • Healthcare practitioners

In 1998 I began offering these songportraits in groups, called SongCircles, and in 2008 began offering The Honoring: A Musical Ceremony of Empowerment, which combined spontaneous songmaking with group intention.

What I also learned is that this experience of spontaneous songmaking is available to anyone, and only takes a little space and encouragement to experience it. Beginning in 1995, I began offering SoulVoice, a workshop for anyone to practice the art of spontaneous songmaking. This method, now called 'SongSourcing', is applicable for children as well as adults.

The following is transcribed from an interview with Dan Siegel, MD, author of The Mindful Brain:

Spontaneous singing is an incredibly creative act that may have correlations with what goes on in our nervous system. Part of a way of understanding what spontaneity may be about is how things in the nervous system actually begin to come together, how separate areas become linked as a functional whole.

We call that integration, and there's a lot of reason to believe that integration may be a key to thriving, to flourishing in life, to well being, even to creativity.

So let me just share with you one idea of how spontaneous singing may tap into the innate ability of our nervous systems to integrate themselves as they create wellbeing.

When you are offered an invitation to create a spontaneous song, to come up with themes, to just feel the rhythm of the music, and then come up with a line that is your main line, and then also refrains- what happens I think in the brain is that the music itself begins to integrate in its rhythm the body proper, that comes up into areas of the brain that are in the skull, to match with the melody that gets created by your own words that you create- and that's happening in the higher parts of the brain, the cortex.

So the first kind of integration that spontaneous singing may create is called vertical integration.

Another kind of integration is that often the spontaneous songs we come up with have images in them, and describe emotions, and also are derived from autobiographical memory. All of those features actually come from the right hemisphere, but on the left side of the brain, the left hemisphere, what we have are words that are presented in a linear fashion, that are usually trying to find logical relationships among things that are being talked about.

So as a song emerges you have a bi-lateral form of integration, where the stuff of emotions, of autobiographical memory, even of our life themes, comes into play and integrates with the language-creating left hemisphere. So that besides just the vertical integration of the music itself, the actual use of words to combine our memories and our emotions is a bi-lateral form of integration linking left and right.

As if that weren't enough, you also have a form of integration called narrative integration. And narrative integration has this feature where you are creating a story.

We are a story-telling species. And yet so often what so often happens in schools and business life, even in everyday living, is we don't have an opportunity to spontaneously come forward with a creative story that reflects not only what happened in our life, but also what our dreams are, what our hopes are, our disappoints- something that actually integrates lived experience, dreams and fantasies, with the themes of our actual life story.

So a spontaneous song can create narrative integration by inviting the individual to participate, either by themselves, which is amazing, but also to participate in collaboration with one or more people. And then you go even from narrative integration to a fourth kind of integration, which is called interpersonal integration, where two minds become linked as one.

So in interpersonal integration, the co-creation of a song, you have interpersonal integration-

You're creating a story through the unfolding of the song which is narrative integration-

You're linking left and right as words are put to the emotions and the non-verbal stuff of autobiographical memory, and even your whole bodily sense is encoded in that right hemisphere, so you're bringing them together.

And then the rhythm of the music which comes from the body is linked with the melody which links the body itself with the higher areas of the brain which is a verticle form of integration.

There's a lot of reasons to believe that integration is essential for health. So the spontaneity of a song, like the spontaneity of lights going out right here, can make you suddenly start to create new things. So here we are, you thought we just had the lights go out. We did! But instead we continue with the story that I'm telling you.

So you have to improvise, and that invites the nervous system to integrate itself. Spontaneity goes along with health, creativity and a sense of vitality in life. What a wonderful opportunity Michael Stillwater is offering us with spontaneous song.

Why is this good for children?

In school settings, teachers of course are really busy. And they need to teach basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. We understand that, and those are really important basic skills.

But one of the skills that we could add to the curriculum is the skill of reflection, of children going inward, of having a kind of internal education that honors the invisible world of the mind, feelings, thoughts, and memories.

Yet when do children actually get the opportunity to explore their inner world- what's essential for social and emotional intelligence, what's a part of what I call mindsight?

Well, spontaneous song is an opportunity in schools to invite children to go inward, to reflect inward on the energy and information flow that is the mind. To know what they're feeling, to allow memories to emerge, and to give themselves the freedom of creativity, so they begin to integrate their nervous systems in new ways.

Now, they're not going to be told they're integrating things, they don't need to know that! They need to know they can have the fun and pleasure of bringing outward what is inside- and to be honored for that vulnerability, for the risk they take, and then for the sheer joy that can emerge by seeing what comes up.

So a teacher can create an environment of safety, of honoring the internal world, and then allow all these different levels of integration to happen. And as they do,

children will get more and more social and emotional intelligence. Studies suggest that when they're learning that even with other practices of reflection, they actually do better in schools.

They're going to feel better about themselves, and they'll also learn to honor the internal world of someone else. Thus spontaneous song is a joyful way to create these integrative foundation of 'mindsight', and to have kids learn to honor each themselves and each other in schools.

Michael Stillwater invites us to participate in this incredible experience of letting the inside out and promoting integration in our lives through spontaneous song. An award-winning musical artist, inspirational educator and co-creator of Graceful Passages and Care for the Journey. ChantWave, a community celebration in song.


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