Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Joy of Music

This post was inspired by a post about "[t]he neuroscience of music enjoyment and depression" over on Dr. Shock's blog. The post is about how brain images of depressed people listening to music "... showed significant deficits in activation of the most important reward areas of the brain"...but the "...depressed patients scored their subjective liking of there favorite music comparable to healthy subjects".

This post really got me thinking about both how my love for music is impacted by my mood disorder, but also the flip side, how my major depression is impacted by music. I wonder if the deficits in the reward centre areas of depressed people's brain images are related, not to our ability to enjoy music while listening to it, but rather to our ability to consistently recognize it as a rewarding activity?

Music has been extremely important to me throughout my life. Some of my best memories in childhood, and throughout my life, revolve around musical experiences I shared with my family. My Mom loved to sing and passed her joy and passion for singing onto my sister's and I.

As children we often played our ukuleles alongside our Mom playing her guitar. We would spend hours singing and playing all the songs we loved. Sitting around the living room and singing was treasured experience for all of us. As I grew older my sister "K" and I started buying our own records. We would spend hours listening to and singing along with our favourites bands.

My sister and I still sing together any time we are together. We sing karaoke, sing to the radio in the car, or sing by ourselves if no music is around. We have sung together so often that we instinctively know which person will sing the melody and who will sing the harmony.

There has been only one period in my life where music disappeared for me. The first year or so around the beginning of the Major Depressive Episode I am currently in. I was so depressed I just stopped listening to music. I did not enjoy it anymore. I found it suddenly noisy and irritating. I did not have the energy or the desire to listen to it anymore. I stopped listening and I stopped singing. Music felt dead to me.

At some point in therapy Dr. X (my psychiatrist) told me he played the piano. The information awakened the sleeping love for music inside me. Years prior I had had a girlfriend who was an incredible pianist. She used to take me to the university's practice rooms and play classical piano for me. The experience had been sublime. I loved the sound of her piano playing. When Dr. X casually mentioned playing the piano it reminded me how much I loved listening to classical piano music. I went out and bought two really beautiful and inspiring cd's:

For the first time in a long long time I began to love music again. I even went to hear Yundi Li play, not once, but twice. Slowly, I began listening to and enjoying music again. I bought an iPod, and started downloading my favourite music. I purchased an iPod contraption for my car so I could listen to it on the stereo. I began to sing out loud as the music played through the radio. My sleeping musical giant was awakening.

Then last year my husband bought me singing lessons for Christmas. I do not think I ever received a more valuable, precious and well thought out gift. I was scared stiff to go. I felt intensely fearful of rejection. I kept thinking, what if I can't sing? What if all these years I believed I had a good voice when in fact I sound awful. I was so scared I would be told my voice was not good, and the feedback would devastate me, because I loved to sing so much.

Instead, my first lesson my instructor seemed flabbergasted at how, without lessons I had learned to control my voice, and sing the way I did. She was immensely happy that "finally she found someone who wanted to learn jazz, the music [she wanted] to teach". That first night she invited me to join a choir she taught at the art's centre. My first lesson was such a positive experience, and it only became better.

I discovered my teacher was a beautiful, kind and welcoming soul. I have been able to tell her about having a mental illness; that I struggle with chronic depression, and that anxiety often scares me into not trying new things, or continuing doing things, even if I love doing them. She accepts that and is flexible about my lessons if I do not feel well enough to attend on our regular lesson day.

Throughout my depression one of the most difficult things for me has been being able to accurately determine my ability and desire to participate in things I love to do. Every single day I am scheduled to go to choir or to my singing lesson I have anticipatory anxiety: I feel a sense of dread about going, and a feeling that I am too tired, or too exhausted, or too depressed to go. About 95% of the time I find the negative voice, telling me I am too depressed to go, is wrong.

While I do periodically cancel my lessons, or decide to not go to choir, for the most part my scheduling in, and committing to these things as part of my personalized benevolent structure plan keeps me going even when my brain tells me not to go. With choir I usually make the right choice by forcing myself to go; the people and the activity of learning and singing together almost always lift my mood both during the evening lesson, and into the rest of the evening that follows. Once in a while it seems to be as overwhelming as I imagined. I think my social anxiety may be informing my experience on these days.

With my singing lessons I cannot think of a single time I regretted pushing myself to go, even if I was severely depressed. I get to my lesson, often having an anxiety attack. I begin with a feeling of not being able to breathe and a tightness in my chest. Within a few scales and different singing exercise I find myself breathing again. The more I sing, the more powerful and skilled I begin to feel. By the time I get to my third or forth song I almost always feel an intense sense of enjoyment and joy at how beautiful it feels to sing. I'm not the only one feeling this way. My singing instructor regularly extend my lesson so we can sing more songs. She says she loves to sing and play the piano with me.

I always leave my singing lesson singing the songs I am learning or have learned. I sing all the way home. I sing while I make supper. I sing throughout the evening. Sometimes I am still singing the next morning when I wake up. My desire to sing dissipates throughout the week, and again, every day a lesson is planned I have to make the decision to go in spite of feeling too depressed to go. I am always rewarded when I stick to my plan to go, even on the days I feel barely able to get out of bed. For me, singing is always the right choice.

I'm not sure how I can get my brain to remember, and consistently believe, that going to my singing lesson is always good for me. I seem to forget the joy my lessons bring each day I am scheduled to go to a lesson. I am trying hard to believe that over time my brain will train itself to happily anticipate going to my lesson, to have no doubts about the value of going when I feel depressed. Until then I just have to keep reminding myself that when I sing the joy I so often miss in my daily life always shows up again in my singing lesson. That is a pretty good incentive to get me there.

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