Over the past year I have been a volunteer peer mentor on Quench Arts' Wavelength project. Wavelength provides music making opportunities for young people aged 12-18 referred across mental health services in Birmingham and Solihull, from early detection and intervention services through to acute and forensic services. Through one-to-one creative song writing input leading to supported group activity and performance, the project provides a supportive social network and builds musical and emotional literacy, resilience, confidence as well as a range of transferable skills - all key to the development of social esteem, acceptance and recovery.
My role on the project as a peer-mentor has been supporting and encouraging young people to express themselves in a group setting virtually. A perfect example of my role on this project was to support the music leader in initiating and starting a dialogue of ideas around song writing and supporting the young people to make decisions about their songs. Giving each young person a voice to be heard knowing that their opinion and expression was valid in this space. The amazing and unusual thing about the virtual experience of sharing was that each participant could share in a way that made them feel comfortable such as via video and speaking, by speaking alone without video or by typing in the chat. The growth of each young person could be seen simply by how they developed in contributing to the virtual conversation. In my role, I would input my own ideas in a way to start further conversation and expand on the image the young people had for their song. This led to further meaningful discussions about who the character in the song might be, how might they identify, how might they be feeling. Deep and powerful conversation were opened by a single description or word. The input of each individual in the song writing process brought together a collective experience and allowed for a deeper experience and understanding of each other. Even via a virtual screen, the community, connection, sharing and support for each other was ever present in every task the young people explored. This was demonstrated when all participants came together for their final performance and sharing experience with their families. The positivity and encouragement that was shown by each participant was heart-warming. For young people, with a range of different experiences of life, to share their personal work with each other was inspiring to see. To see their stories, unfold through their music truly showed the power and connection of music.
Sound is innate. It is the first sense in the womb to develop. In the womb, the foetus reacts to sounds from both the mother's natural vibrations and the vibrations from outside of the mother. Sound is the last sense to go before a person dies after the rest of the body has shut down. Sound and vibrations are so primitive, yet we look to many other sources to heal ourselves rather than looking to a natural source of healing. Thus, it is possible to tune our body with the natural vibrations around us to manage our pain. Using music and experimenting with sound is a path to explore and develop this natural source of healing through both a community of people around you and expressing yourself through sound.
I have had personal experience with the power of sound and music. I am diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome and spent most my teen years isolated at home in excruciating pain. As a musician, I had been told to stop playing my instrument and the professionals believed this could have been the root of my pain before diagnosis. Yet, as my journey unravelled, playing my instruments and being connected with music was the one time I was not in pain. I began to explore this idea further. With my mentor and guide we discussed at length how I could begin to connect my body with music. The basis of my project was to observe and listen to my body in many different situations. I isolated this idea further to look at observing my body when I play or listen to a tone. I formulated a system to map the notes in 440hz to my body. I made detailed notes of the particular sensation / pain my body experienced in each note. As the process continued, I identified that notes in the lower octaves were mainly affecting my upper body and there were no sensations in my lower body. This highlighted a disconnect as the vibrations should be resonating throughout your whole body. I began to learn to listen to my body in all situations, what is it telling me? How do I respond to such a sensation? I was tuning my body so that it could guide and direct me in life. As I progressed through this process, I began to be at one with my body and notice the pain and conflict created in my body when in the presence of negativity and distraction. Through a practice of repetition, by the time I had worked through the range of 2A to 6A for 440hz, there was a complete difference in my pain. My pain was still present but in a way that no longer controlled or dictated my life. It was not at the centre of my existence. The extent and experience of my pain was completely numbed compared to my teenage years where I would spend many hours asleep due to the un-controlling anguish of my pain.
Sound is so important, yet we so rarely utilise this to heal ourselves. From my studies, the importance of sound is demonstrated in the study by the German King, Frederick II in the 13th century. He took babies from their mothers; nurses were to care for them without speaking to them or speaking within hearing of them and they were to not touch the babies. The lack of auditory input for the babies and the lack of physical stimulus resulted in all the babies dying. Sound and vibration from the world around us are such an innate sense that by isolating these babies from a world of sound and vibration, they could not develop or flourish.
As I refer to pain, I refer to many different elements from physical pain to poor mental health to grief. Pain covers our experience of many different elements in our lives and observation of our own experiences of pain must not be dampened or constrained to a label. Everyone's experience is valid.
From my research, diverse cultures have explored this in different ways:
For example, in the Indian system of chakras, we can explore and identify where different vibrations resonate within our bodies. To sit in a room absorbed by one frequency, we can observe our bodies and recognise the impact sound has on various parts of our bodies, from pins and needles in your hands to pains in your knees. Once we begin to be a conscious observer of our bodies, we can experiment with releasing our inner pain. To acknowledge and observe our bodies is a step to being able to freely express.
Another example is the Indian Raga tradition where musicians tune to their own bodies. There is no standardised tuning so musicians would feel 'as one' with their instrument / voice and tune according to how their instrument feels more settled. The accompanying instruments would tune to the vibrations of the soloist/leader. Ragas are improvised pieces of music that are to be played at various times of day. A Raga is never played the same twice, they are personal interpretations and exploration. There is usually a spiritual message and connection to be revealed through a Raga to both the listener and musician. Ragas are used to cure the various ailments of the body.
In tribal traditions, music is used to call on the ancestors. This can be for guidance, healing etc. This use of music is to connect the community together and look to their ancestors for answers. In tribal traditions this connection to history and the ancestors that have come before us is extremely sacred. In western society we generally neglect the knowledge of our ancestors that have come before us. Inuit throat singing is a tribal practice which was traditionally used to sooth babies as the natural vibrations from the mother’s throat resonated through the baby. It was also used when women played games when men were away in the winter nights. It is a communal practice of two or more women, they are connected through each other's vibrations and is a form of improvisation. It is a tradition passed down and learnt from their elders. There are many different tribal traditions and practices of throat singing. Inuit is one version. In the Māori tribes from New Zealand, instruments are made from natural resources and each have an origin of purpose. Māori musical instruments were used for purposes such as communicating with the Māori gods or warning of imminent danger. The 'Hue' was a dried marrow-like vegetable which was a material used to make many different instruments. The resource 'Hue' is related to the 'Hine Pū te Hue' who is a spiritual entity who brings calm to the storm. Instruments related with the 'Hue' are believed to be her intervention to bring peace and calm. These traditions and understanding of spiritual entities are oral traditions passed down through generations.
Vibrations are at the core of our universe they connect and ground us to a higher form. Ohm / Om is the primordial sound of the universe thus can be used to ground us. Some understandings of the creation of the universe illustrate that sound waves created the universe. According to Hindu cosmology, ohm is the basis used in devotional song, chanting and religious mantras. It is considered a sacred sound and to be the first sound of creation. Hindus believe that everything originated in Om thus it is believed that once you can find silence within yourself, you can begin to hear, absorb, and experience the universal vibrations of Om. Many religions use sound to connect to a higher being and be connected within oneself. Music opens the opportunity to explore connection and spirituality, music often plays a significant role in retreats as a companion in sitting with oneself.
Music as a tool for healing pain is still an area that is under researched but holds such a strong basis in history and primitive cultures of having healing qualities. Many community music organisations and projects are at the forefront of practically experimenting with offering the opportunity for music to be a space of healing and self-expression.
'Wavelength' creates this space for experimentation. The participants are guided to explore their use of voice or instrument in a sense of relief from their own first-hand experiences of life. This freedom is to not be constrained by rules or conformities allows each individual to find healing and growth within a community of likeminded people. People who all have vastly different and valid experiences of life. No labels are placed on anyone's experiences and a common feeling of sharing and appreciation of everyone's personal expression is shared in a room of safety. You can begin to see a process of growth and development in each young person who begins to freely express themselves, find themselves in what can be a chaotic and overwhelming world.
*Please note, Wavelength is a community based youth mental health creative music making project run by Quench Arts. It was originally funded by Youth Music but for the past 3 years has been funded by BBC Children In Need, Services for Education, Solihull Music Hub and the Clive and Sylvia Richards Charity.