People Get Ready

Club Jaeb artist Kyshona Armstrong talks about the music that made her and her journey from a music therapist into a singer-songwriter in this exclusive interview.

Caught in the Act caught up with folk musician Kyshona Armstrong while she was on the road to Missouri for a gig. She appears next Monday, Dec. 16 as our featured Club Jaeb artist for December.

Caught in the Act: Let’s talk about the South. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your life there.

Kyshona Armstrong: I grew up in a town called Irmo, South Carolina, and it’s right outside of Columbia. We used to run around in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the house or playing out in the yard or whatnot. My grandpa played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, and my dad is the same. In the house, my dad was always practicing, so we would hear him playing old gospel songs on his electric or playing “People Get Ready.” [sings] People get ready, for the train’s coming. [laughs] He was always playing that or the solo from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Those were his go-to songs. Anytime I hear them, my brother and I are like, we think of Daddy.

When I was young, Mama put me in piano, and that was my escape. I loved telling stories through the music alone. I loved creating a soundtrack to whatever was going on in my mind. Whatever Beethoven or Mozart song, I always had a movie in my head when I was practicing and playing. That’s how I always wanted to emote.

I feel like singing wasn’t something that I grew up doing, though. I preferred getting an emotion across just through my hands. Even when I was playing the oboe, I wanted to tell a story through the music alone. I wasn’t wanting to use my voice. When I went off to college and studied music therapy, music became this ‘oh, we can create in the moment. I don’t have these notes right in front of me that are telling me what to play and what dynamic to play it and what speed to play it, but I’m able to create in the moment with my patients and with my other therapists or with my classmates.’

It got back to what I experienced with my grandfather, with my dad, of creating in the moment with others and creating an environment with the music.

CITA: Was there any particular reason why you didn’t think about singing as a part of who you were as a musician? Did you not want to speak? Did you feel like you didn’t really have anything to say?

KA: I definitely was a very shy kid, very much an introvert. I did not want to be the center of attention. I never want anybody looking at me. I didn’t want focus on me at all. Please ignore the fact that I’m in the room. [laughs].

But I didn’t really have anything to say, either. What I’ve always prided myself on, though, even when I was shy and the ultimate introvert, was the ability to convey an emotion through song. I wanted to give people the experience of going on a musical journey. I wanted to play Fur Elise by Beethoven completely different than anybody else did because I wanted the listener to have a different experience. I’ve always connected to wanting to give people a different emotional response.

But as far as me using my actual voice to do that, though … I didn’t find my voice until I was having to use it for my patients, and it was just my patients saying, ‘your voice is very soothing, your voice is very calming.’

When someone is telling you that, and they’re a person in a hospital bed, then that’s how I’m going to use my voice from then on. If someone has said ‘your voice comforts me,’ I’ll use it again in a comforting way. Slowly, I started to own the voice that was coming out.

My voice has changed for sure over the years from a quiet, comforting voice to one that is gritty. I growl a lot more. I yell a lot more, but I think that’s also because I’ve walked through the world a little bit more and I’ve seen so much more.

CITA:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into musical therapy as a job?

KY: I went to the University of Georgia. It was one of the oldest music therapy programs. Because I had so many years under my belt as a pianist and as an oboe player, I knew that if I was going to go to college and needed scholarships, music had to be the way to do it. I was also very fascinated with psychology. My junior year in high school, I met this guy at the cotillion for my church, and I was just talking about, yeah, I need to do music and I’m in the marching band so I know I’m going to have to major in music somehow.

He was like, well you know, there is this profession called music therapy. I leaped on it and started doing research, and I found the American Music Therapy Association organization’s website. There was a music therapist in Columbia who worked at Baptist Medical, and I shadowed her. I followed her around for my junior year class project, and at that point I was like, ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ It sounded awesome—to combine music with psychology and the ability to help people through music.

CITA:  Then you ended up working in some really hardcore situations, in prisons and with people who had mental illnesses. You went straight into what you’ve referenced before as “really heavy circumstances.” Did you feel called to be there? At any point were you aware that you were gathering materials as an artist, or did the work feel more like spiritual healing?

KA:  I definitely was not aware of gathering any kind of materials. I think it was more self-centered than that.

For me, if somebody says, ‘this is a population that is hard and it might be difficult for you, we don’t know if you can handle it,’ then I’m always like, ‘cool.’ That’s what I want to do.

My senior year, we ended up doing some clinical work in the jail that was a couple counties away. I loved the challenge, and the patients challenged me all the time. They kept me engaged. It started off like ‘I dare you to tell me I can’t work with this population because you think I’m too quiet and I’m too sweet and I’m too nice. That’s not who I am.’ After a while, I found out that I actually had the tools and the patience and the desire to go where a lot of people don’t want to go. I enjoy going into places that are difficult for me. I enjoy going into dark spaces with others. I like being stumped. I like sometimes not having the answer.

But, I also found that what I liked about going into those into the hard places was just the fact that not everybody had a positive voice for my patients. Not everybody was seeing them in a positive light.

I found I was able to truly be an advocate for those people who the medical team might have given up on. My work as a musical therapist helped me realize I have the heart and the tools to show up and speak for these people.

CITA: We’re super intrigued by what you just said about being an advocate. We’ve been thinking about your evolution as an artist. In your other interviews and in your Ted Talk, you speak about finding your voice as something that must be an advocate for all people. Is that an evolution that you felt consciously, that your voice needed to be an advocate for healing in these troubled times?

KA:  It was an evolution for sure. What made me pull back from music therapy was the fact that I realized I was getting walls thrown up in front of me when all I was trying to do was good.

The more I spoke up for the kids, the more heat I got from the team. What I realized was, the moment I stepped away from the institution of it all, from the rules and the hierarchy, I could do more work by coming in from the outside. It’s almost like I have more credibility, too. I feel like I can reach people on a deeper level because I’m not confined by any kind of position. I’m not worried about my job at this point. Now, my job is to come in and be a voice. That’s it.

CITA: Who are your big musical influences?

KA:  I’m all over the place. As far as what they stood for and their mission with their music … Definitely a major fan of Nina Simone. Also Sam Cook. I’m listening to Hozier right now because he’s doing the same thing. His music has a meaning and there’s a purpose behind it. He’s trying to create change through it, but sonically it feels so good.

I love that Nina [Simone], her whole thing was that it is the point of the artist to be a reflection of what is happening in this country. That is a responsibility on the songwriter, on the artist to tell the story, of what is really happening in the world. I feel like she’s been definitely an influence of how I walk through the world with this new hat that I wear.

CITA: When we were watching your “Same Blood” video, we wondered if you had any inspiration from Nina Simone. It seems like what she was doing at the time she was visible is very similar to the times that we’re in right now and what you are doing. We’re in a social moment we’re we can no longer assume people are going to have a rational response. Because of that, we’re seeing the kinds of public social violence Nina confronted. Do you feel that too?

KA: Absolutely. Also, from the videos that I’ve seen and interviews that I’ve have heard of hers, her audience was also very similar to mine. It was mainly a white audience, and so she was a reflection of what else was happening, the other side. That’s something that I have to think about every time. Oftentimes, I show up to performing rooms, and I’m the only one who looks like me. Therefore, I try to make sure that I get it right, or as right as possible, and I speak truth.

I don’t have the comfort to just pull up in a gas station, especially if I’m in middle Georgia or South Carolina. I can’t just pull up anywhere. Oftentimes, I’ll pull up to a gas station and be like, ‘oh no, this isn’t a safe spot.’

But people think, oh, you’re a songwriter, you’re out on the road, that must be magical. Yeah, and a little dangerous at times.

I have to really think about where I am and where I’m going to rest my head. That’s not a reality people think about when it comes to what it must be like being a songwriter and storyteller. Some people see it as this awesome experience, but I’m also seeing real America, and not only am I experiencing those moments of ‘is this a safe place for me and a safe space? Can I say what is on my heart and what I’ve experienced?’

We’re currently right now driving from Nebraska. We were in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, and that experience … I got to see a different part of America that not many get to see. These are the people who are feeding America. You know what I mean? Their wants and needs are different, their desire is different, and I’m playing in rooms where there was no one there that looks like me. These are towns of 200 and 300 people. I’m a representation of a people, another way of living in a region that they don’t know. But the thing that I’d like to get across to them, too, my storytelling, I always start off by talking about my family and where I come from, because that’s something that many of us have in common—we have roots. We have people who fed into us. We have someone who inspired us, either from traditional or nontraditional families.

That’s something in common. I might look different than you, but somebody raised me and instilled me with qualities and with a purpose and with morals. That’s where I start, and by the time I get to the end of the show, we’re talking about how we’re walking through the world and how are we seeing one another. Are we being truthful with one another and kind with one another? I’m telling the stories of everyone that I’ve met that is incarcerated, that is dealing with mental illness, that is walking around quote unquote free in this world, but in their own prisons because of the wounds they’re carrying and the trauma they’re walking around with.

Yeah. In that way I find I have to always look back at the work that people like Nina Simone and Mavis Staples have done in just telling the stories and singing the songs and keeping the thread going. That’s the only way to bridge the gap between all the regions and all the different ways that we live, not only in this country, but in the world.

CITA:  It’s a hard walk to be true, so we’re glad you’re doing it. How do you let off steam? How do you care for Kyshona?

KA: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I just got a membership at Massage Envy.

CITA: Good idea because Massage Envy is everywhere.

KA: But this is something I’m trying to work on because I’m in a season where I’m working really hard. I’m gone a lot. I’m fortunate for it, I’m grateful for it, but the same thing that happened to me when I was a music therapist has happened. I stopped taking care of myself. I’m feeling again a little run down and a little heavy. I’m trying to just take little moments of joy. When I go home, I shut down. I might turn on some trash television. My new thing has been Schitt’s Creek, catching up on what I’ve missed over the years and just trying to find a way to zone out and maybe not think about anything. A couple of weeks ago I tried to really stand in the privileges that I have, and I went on a because-we-can trip to Barcelona for four days.

CITA: Did you love it?

KA: I did. We had no plans, other than to walk around and eat food and drink wine.

CITA: Well, what other plans do you need in Barcelona?

KA: [laughs] Right? That’s the other thing that music has done for me is pulled me into different countries, which I never thought I would be able to do as a child, or even as a young adult. I never thought I would get to travel the way I have because I have a guitar and stories and songs to share. It was great to travel to Barcelona and experience a whole other culture and a whole other way that people live, to have no job other than receive, right?

CITA: We’re pumped that you’re bringing your music to Tampa. Is this your first time to this part of Florida?

KA: No. I’m actually down there often. The first thing that brought me to the Tampa area was a songwriters’ festival that I did in Safety Harbor, Florida.

CITA:  Oh wow! Yeah, that’s right up the road.

KA: Yeah, I’m always in 30A for this 30A Songwriters’ Festival. and I’ll just keep on coming south. I was just in the area a few months ago to play at Fogertyville.

I’m playing house concerts, which are nice, intimate songwriting series that are in these communities people just built up, and they’ve created a really cool network in Florida, especially around the Tampa, Clearwater, Safety Harbor Area. Florida has surprised me by their love of the singer-songwriter and their love of storytelling

CITA: Well, we’ll be glad to see you here soon.

KA: See you soon!

Learn more about Kyshona Armstrong when she appears live and in person at Club Jaeb next Monday night, Dec. 16.

Girl Power

The Straz Center arts education partnerships program with Tampa’s The Centre for Girls

In addition to our many performances, lectures, classes and workshops, the Straz Center hosts a super cool outside-of-the-spotlight arts education partnership program which brings us into fruitful, fun and inspiring relationships with many organizations around the area.

This semester, one of our musical theater teachers extraordinaire—Sarah Berland—traveled to The Centre for Girls each Thursday afternoon to give an afterschool theater workshop on the theme of “soaring to great heights.”

Sarah works with various organizations through the Straz Center partnerships

Sarah built her curriculum around the upcoming Broadway show ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, a calypso retelling of The Little Mermaid story, which features a courageous young heroine, Ti Moune, who risks her soul to save a man’s life. Interweaving Caribbean island history, drum and dance culture and fundamentals of storytelling, Sarah and a few guest artists guided the girls into a tight-knit ensemble who wrote and performed their own stories of personal courage. This Thursday, they’ll all attend ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as the culmination of their work together.

“Our partnership with The Straz has been nothing short of amazing,” says Sartura Shuman-Smith, director of The Centre for Girls. “Our girls are so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with professionals in the various areas of performing arts. Through the Straz Center’s program, the girls are not only given an “up close” view of the inner workings of performance, but they are also gaining knowledge in public speaking and confidence building.”

The Centre for Girls exists to create positive change for girls ages 5-14 through innovative programs in fine arts, STEM-based instruction, fashion and ceramics. The center offers a safe place for girls in highly formative developmental years to find empowerment and constructive outlets for self-expression.

Guest artist leading a Caribbean dance class at The Centre for Girls

“Through our arts education partnership program, the participants at The Centre for Girls get a glimpse of all three performing art mediums—music, theater and dance—as well as an unforgettable experience with a mainstage production where Caribbean culture is represented and celebrated,” says Heather Clark, our community partnership coordinator. “We are thrilled to be able to encourage these girls to find expression through the performing arts.”

Art as a Survival Tool Series: V

Speak and Be Known

The theater as a place of personal and social power

Stella adler quote

This blog is the last in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

When pernicious ideas overtake the rules of man, performing arts emerge as an antidote to social ills. Theater, in particular, acts as the literal stage for protesting inequalities, persecution, cruelty, and all manner of governmental power trips from tyranny (Caryl Churchill’s The Mad Forest) to illogical unreasonableness (The Capitol Steps).

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

Theater, as a survival tool, serves as a knife, rope and matches: in any circumstance, theater preserves culture, giving people hope and shelter when all feels lost. In some historic instances, theater allows the voice of the people to survive under censorship, brutality and strange disappearances of significant people (Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman). Theater also allows us to say what can’t be said or talk about difficult subjects. From Greek anti-war works like Lysistrata, operas such as Madame Butterfly that subvert the colonial appropriation of the East by the West to Tony Kushner’s AIDS opus Angels in America, theater history teems with passionate works speaking up and speaking out for people and cultures under the threat (or in the process) of being overpowered.

angels in america

Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer  Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Amiri Baraka was pivotal force for understanding racism in America.

Writer, poet and music critic Amiri Baraka was pivotal force for understanding racism in America.

One such group making the rounds in America recently is Belarus Free Theatre, an underground group resisting the country’s authoritarian regime under Alexander Lukashenka. Subject to raids, imprisonment, expatriation and beatings in Belarus, the troupe members and audiences who come to see their clandestine performances in such spaces as private apartments and woods persist despite these political and police threats. Their defiance of state-controlled art and subject matter to continue to talk about social issues in Belarus won international support, inspiring documentary filmmaker Madeline Sackler to create Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. The troupe performed their latest work Trash Cuisine in New York this summer, raising awareness about their philosophy of theater being a crucial voice in the cross-talk of society

Despite the growing social reliance on screen technology, theater continues to enervate the human condition precisely because it is immediate, it is in-your-face. There is something undeniably effective in being with living, breathing human beings enacting, feeling and speaking to some piercing truth of the human condition, especially when we ourselves may lack the ability to express it. This way, we can speak and be known—even when it is another speaking for us.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: IV

Remembering Oliver Sacks and Musicophilia

This blog is the fourth in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

Sacks_music quote1

“For anyone who has ever wondered how the climax of Beethoven symphonies can move us to tears, or why the pounding rhythms of a festival can cause us to lose all inhibitions, his [Oliver Sacks’] 2007 book Musicophilia is a revelation.” – Tom Barnes, Mic.com

On August 30, 2015, the beloved neuroscientist Oliver Sacks died in his Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan surrounded by loved ones. This great visionary, whose work started with Awakenings and ended with this article in The New Yorker, made an astonishing scientific contribution to the performing arts with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, published in 2007.

Caught in the Act originally slated a blog on music therapy for this, the fourth installment of our Art as Survival Tool series, but in light of Dr. Sacks’ passing, we felt compelled to recognize his ground-breaking work in neuroscience that illuminated the mysterious, integral mind-body connection between music and the human experience.

Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does–humans are a musical species.” — Oliver Sacks, M.D.

Sacks_book cover

When Sacks published Musicophilia, NPR’s Andrea Seabrook caught up with the scientist and writer on All Things Considered. We re-print the transcript of her interview with Dr. Sacks here, in which he discusses music and Tourette’s, the phenomenon of neurogamy, Parkinson’s disease and the peculiar ability of the brain to imagine music as effectively as actually hearing it. You can also listen to the interview and read an excerpt from the book on the NPR archives page.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host: Neurologist Oliver Sacks has spent a career investigating the brain and its capacity to confound us. He’s written about many of his patients, some of who have lost the ability to remember, others whose minds no longer control their bodies. Sacks earned national recognition for his book “Awakenings,” which chronicles the lives of patients suffering from the so-called sleeping sickness. That was in the ’70s.

Now, Dr. Sacks is out with book number 10, “Musicophilia.”

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Neurologist; Author, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”): Well, I’ve always wanted to get people’s stories. I also like to know what’s going on in the brain and how this wonderful two or three pounds of stuff in the head is able to underlie all our imagination, underlie our soul, our individuality. And music is a special part of this mind-body investigation.

SEABROOK: In “Musicophilia,” Oliver Sacks explores the brain’s relationship to music. It’s a relationship that’s both personal and universal.

Dr. SACKS: Certainly, music is central in every culture known to us. Darwin imagined that singing and music was part of a courtship behavior and other forms of behavior before speech. Some people have thought that speech comes first. Some people have thought that music is incidental and rather trivial. Steven Pinker sometimes calls it auditory cheesecake. But I get the feeling that it’s sort of been an essential – had an essential bonding power, you know, from the start.

SEABROOK: Let me pull back the lens for a second and say that at the beginning of your book, you proposed that we look at music for a second as if we were aliens from outer space. Say a Martian comes down and it lands here and it sees human beings sitting in a concert hall, listening to musicians play around with pitch and tone and all these things that are essentially meaningless. There’s no information involved.

Dr. SACKS: Well, there is certainly no information in the way that language conveys information. You can’t say where someone is or what they look like, but you can call up emotions and moods and states of mind. Quite how this happens is very mysterious but, certainly, this is central to music.

But then, there are also other aspects. One’s Martian would see that people are involuntarily keeping time to music – they’re tapping. The rhythm is in them. I mean if you go to something like the Grateful Dead, you can see 15,000 people moving in unison. It’s a most amazing thing. It reminds me an old term used to be used in the early days of hypnosis, of neurogamy – the marriage of nervous systems – and everyone is synchronized there by music.

SEABROOK: I never would have expected you to bring up the Grateful Dead, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: Well, it’s not exactly my sort of thing, but I did go there when I was dancing and sort of in the zone with everyone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Dr. Sacks, we hear music in our heads. How? Why?

Dr. SACKS: How is part of the fact that we are continually recollecting and sort of mapping our experiences – whether they’re visual experiences or emotional experiences and this imagining is very real. So that if, for example, you have electrodes on the head or you’re imaging the brain, and you ask someone to imagine a piece of music, you will often see activity similar to what you would have if they were listening to the music.

Having said that, to come to a why so many of us have music going through our heads all the while is something I think we should have puzzled the Martians even more than with the way in which we go to concerts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Some of your patients that you described in your book are professional musicians – others are not. What are the differences between musicians’ brains and others?

Dr. SACKS: Well, they can be very striking and there have been beautiful studies of these by a man called Schlaug – Gottfried Schlaug – up at Harvard. He used brain imagery to measure the sizes of different parts of the brain. He found first, for example, that the corpus callosum – the big band which unites the two hemispheres of the brain – tends to be larger in musicians. And then he found enlargements of the cortex, the grey matter, in the auditory parts of the brain, and in motor parts of the brain to a degree which may be almost visible to the naked eye. So that, say, if one looks at pictures of brains, you might not be able to say this man is a genius or this man is a fool, or this man is a visual artist, but you could probably say that man is a musician.

SEABROOK: That is just…

Dr. SACKS: And that’s…

SEABROOK: …astonishing.

Dr. SACKS: And he makes them…

SEABROOK: What do you make of that? What do you make of that, sir?

Dr. SACKS: It shows, in tandem, the power of music to affect many different parts of the brain and the plasticity of the brain to respond to the stimulus of music. If one is doing five-finger exercises, you can see changes in the brain in half an hour.

SEABROOK: What do you mean five…

Dr. SACKS: And the…

SEABROOK: …finger exercises? What is that?

Dr. SACKS: Oh, I’m sorry. Just doing scales. And that now, of course, the changes you find then will be temporary changes but with repeated practice, then the changes become anatomical.

SEABROOK: Let’s talk for a moment about how music works on people whose brains are ill, for example, Tourette’s. What’s going on with music in people with Tourette syndrome?

Dr. SACKS: All right. Well, as a start, I think a lot of people with Tourette would simply say they’re different. People with Tourette’s have all sorts of involuntary or compulsive movements but they can also have accelerated thoughts and movements and unusually vivid imagery. What was absolutely fascinating, which I saw in New York recently – I wish I could have filmed it – was a drum circle for people with Tourette syndrome. And there were 30-odd people with Tourette syndrome, all of them making sudden movements. Tics – all of them ticking in their own time. And then the lead drummer started, who himself was a gifted drummer with Tourette’s, and everyone fell into synchrony with him in the most wonderful way. One felt they were being orchestrated as a group but also that their nervous systems were being orchestrated so they were no longer sort of prone to sudden impulsive movements. They were with it. For me, this was almost an allegory of bonding and of coordination both between people and also inside the nervous system.

SEABROOK: What about people with Parkinson’s? You’ve worked with Parkinson’s patients.

Dr. SACKS: Right.

SEABROOK: How do people with Parkinson’s – how does music work on their brains?

Dr. SACKS: Well, in a way, this is where things started for me back in the mid-’60s when I came to a hospital in New York and I saw 80-odd patients with the severest Parkinsonism, who were really absolutely frozen or transfixed and not able to initiate any movement or any speech of their own. And at that point, there was no medication which could make any difference to them. But what was well known and what all the nurses knew is that music could unlock them…

SEABROOK: Hmm.

Dr. SACKS: …at least for a while. And they could move. They could dance. They could sing. They could think as long as the music lasted. I once took W. H. Auden to see a music session…

SEABROOK: The poet.

Dr. SACKS: …with these people.

SEABROOK: You took…

Dr. SACKS: The poet. And he was amazed at what he saw and he quoted an aphorism of the German poet Novalis, who said every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.

SEABROOK: World-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks is the author of the new book, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

Thank you very much, sir.

Dr. SACKS: Thank you, Andrea.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Now, these parting words: In this time of international complication and war, consider this from the ancient Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch – I think Dr. Sacks would appreciate this. Medicine, to produce health, has to investigate disease; and music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.

It’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

Sacks_music quote3

Find more great quotes from Oliver Sacks here: http://mic.com/articles/111150/11-beautiful-oliver-sacks-quotes-that-capture-the-power-of-music.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: III

Good Vibrations
Polyrhythms, sound healing and the significance of vibration

This blog is the third in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

tie dye baby at drum circle

Famed scientist Nikola Tesla once revealed “if you want to know the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”

Where we come from, this is called music and dance. And what would these art forms be without drums?

Mixing energy, frequency and vibration in different rhythms happening simultaneously results in polyrhythm, a phenomenon that occurs in natural vibrations and sounds which humans captured and mimicked with the invention of the drum.

women drum polyrhythm

African, Indian and shamanic cultures employed polyrhythms to sacred purpose, intuitively applying frequency and vibration to heal physical or psychological wounds and treat illnesses. The drum literally knitted communities together, entwined them with their environments and “talked” across distances, communicating messages from one tribe to another.

So profoundly integral and powerful a tool was the drum that, at the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, European colonizers realized the easiest way to break the culture of Africans was to strip them of their drums—which they did; however, stripping a culture of its rhythm, embedded in its cells for millennia, is impossible. In time, polyrhythms, drumming and the power of beat dominated popular music in every country that utilized African slave labor, especially in the United States, where we witnessed the birth of intricate jazz and hip hop polyrhythms that would define popular culture for several generations.

drum connection tampa bay

Kathryn and Sally Robinson, the mother/daughter team of DrumConnection Tampa Bay, who use traditional African drumming for community building. (Photo: https://drumconnectiontampabay.wordpress.com/)

Today, neuroscientists identify the ability of rhythm and sound to affect neuroplasticity in the brain and their abilities to release chemicals such as the “stress hormone” cortisol, a natural anti-anxiety medication. Certain polyrhythms, as employed in African, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures, induce the brain into a trance state, which researchers now understand allows a person to re-tune her frequency, harmonizing the body’s vibration to well-being, much like tuning a violin or, as it were, tightening a drum head.

Grammy®-nominated recording artist Jonathan Goldman describes this re-tuning as “resonant frequency healing” and, when performed in a group, creates entrainment, a natural phenomenon of synchronizing that can happen without the listeners’ being aware of attuning to others in the group. Goldman’s sound healing, which may strike the more hard-science-minded as wishful thinking, gained scientific support in July when a study from the University of Bristol tracked ultrasound (high frequency sound waves) as having a vibration high enough to speed healing in physical wounds.

Polyrhythms got you intrigued? Then check out this online polyrhythm generator and let us know what you think.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: II

Art of Healing with Breast Cancer Survivors

This blog is the second in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

A phoenix.

A lotus.

A human heart.

These are some of the images women chose to design the tattoos that would reclaim their bodies from the ravages of breast cancer. Instead of reconstruction, tattooing, an ancient practice tracing to Neolithic societies, uses art to create a ritual celebrating the power of choice and self. The designs are personal, symbolic—and deeply healing.

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Tattoo designs on P.ink’s Mastectomy Tattoo Idea Pinterest board.

Mastectomy tattoos gained global attention recently when Australian tattoo artist Mim D’abbs posted a picture of her first mastectomy tattoo to Facebook: a double purple flower-petal design requested by survivor Alyson Anderson. Anderson, who gave her permission for the use of the photo, became an inspiration when the photo instantly went viral, getting 14,000 shares within the first 24-hours of being online.

If treatment and mastectomies are the descent into surviving, using tattoo art can represent the ascent of the new body into a new life. According to an article in USA TODAY, South Carolina tattoo artist Shannon Barron states the most common response from women seeing their completed tattoos from her is “thank you for making me whole again.”

In this way, the power of art to transform works in triplicate: physically, emotionally and spiritually.

"Every single time I see myself in the mirror, I am deeply moved. I feel something healing inside me." -Mari (Image and quote from http://p-ink.org/)

“Every single time I see myself in the mirror, I am deeply moved. I feel something healing inside me.” -Mari (Image and quote from http://p-ink.org/)

P.ink, a non-profit in the United States, stands for Personal Ink. Inspired by his sister-in-law’s battle with breast cancer, founder Noel Franus launched P.ink on Pinterest, creating a social media platform specifically designed to change the culture of healing. P.ink pairs women with tattoo artists to collaborate on the design, journeying together—through art—in the empowerment of the body. The effects on the survivor’s attitude and outlook are astonishing.

P.ink’s success and the groundswell of using artistic ritual to move to healing from surviving cancer inspired the company to create an app called Inkspiration. The app allows women to “try on” designs, demystifying the tattoo process. Especially, according to P.ink, if she isn’t a “tattoo person.” P.ink launched Inkspiration in 2014 for iPhones with an Android version in the works, and you or a loved one considering the option of tattoo can download it here.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: I

Creativity and Mental Illness
Embracing a Life ‘Touched with Fire’

This blog is the first in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

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VanGogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

VanGogh and his ear. Marilyn Monroe and her everything. Mozart. Robin Williams. Nina Simone.

The history of performing arts includes a long list of wildly talented artists whose lives, affected by mental illness, cantered along an erratic, inspiring road to a tragic end. The romantic notion of the “tortured artist,” a genius driven by madness or insanity, gripped the public imagination of artists, creating, by the late 20th century, a tangled, unproven belief that mental disorders play a root cause in high creativity.

While headlines reported that a recent study found a genetic link between creativity and mental illness, the headlines misrepresented the data, which only found that creative people—such as performing artists and entrepreneurs—are more likely to be predisposed to mental illness by genetic variants. In sum, it’s a weak link although helpful in advancing the overlap between creative brain functions (ingenuity, for example, or intense curiosity coupled with a desire to express it to other people) and their relationship to mental disorders, which are typically characterized by an inability to control brain processes like impulsivity. According to the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, a correlation exists between creative people and people diagnosed with mental illness. However, the study does not confirm a direct genetic link between creative genius and mental illness.

Perhaps, for now, it’s helpful to think of creativity and mental illness as roommates as opposed to conjoined twins.

The relationship between creativity and mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, remains a fascinating one, and bipolar comedian Joshua Walters discusses his “mental skillness” resulting from the “hypomanic edge” of his condition that drives him to do something everyone else thinks is impossible. Walters credits writer John Gardner with coining the term “hypomanic edge” to explain how to identify the gifts of an unordinary, unorthodox mind. In her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison links attributes of great artists like Virginia Woolf with bipolar disorder, citing a person living with the creative drive as touched with fire, an internal burning to express which may consume the person who lives with it.

The need, then, becomes reframing the notion of the tortured artist to a non-judgmental acknowledgement of the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Great artists do not need to be struggling with sanity in order to be great, but for many who do—and will—living with the disease depends upon their ability to creatively express themselves. We cannot overstate the importance of the performing arts in providing a vital function for millions of people world-wide and for allowing creativity—and madness—to have a productive outlet.

In the spring of 2015, pop singer Demi Lovato took bold moves to advocate for de-stigmatizing mental illness when she launched a media junket to tell her story of struggling with bipolar disorder and finding recovery. Her initiative, Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, encourages people to talk about mental illness, advocating for a supporting outlook on mental health issues and empowering people to make a difference.

"Heart Attack" singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

“Heart Attack” singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

Neuroscientist Adrienne Sussman, in her article for the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, notes that artists’ ability to see in alternative perspectives and present them in unexpected ways benefits audiences as well : “By altering images in particular ways,” she writes, “art can have a more powerful impact on the visual and limbic brain areas than reality—causing an emotional resonance, a sense of meaning and beauty that the real world rarely produces.”

After all, states neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason, whose work centers around studies of creativity, “people with mental illness enrich our lives. There’s so much stigma attached, but if you think about it, we wouldn’t have had VanGogh without the mental illness.”

The association, Andreason notes, between artistic people and mood disorders and mental illness, requires attention. “It’s wrong not to support people with mental illness,” she states, primarily because humans whose minds live in the common ground between creativity and mental illness do make great contributions to advance society.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Performing art and participating in art allows humans to navigate the fires within—in our hearts, our souls, and our minds.