Waking the Spirit is a very educational and uplifting look at music therapy from a world class musician who, not only plays for a critical care unit at a hospital, but was also saved by music himself. I’ve always known about the healing power of music, for the spirit, but I didn’t realize that it had such marked effects on the body itself. When I’m having a bad day or just need to relax, I plop down in front of the piano and play the stress out. What I did not know, and that Andrew discusses at length in this book, is that music has been used throughout history to treat sick people and the astonishingly positive effects that it has on the critically ill.

The idea behind music therapy in the ancient world is that everything is vibration. If you play harmonious and balanced music, the human body will, in turn, put itself into harmony and alignment because sickness is a simple imbalance: “Early records have been discovered from ancient Egyptian medicine, Babylonian medicine, Arurvedic (Indian subcontinent) medicine, and classical Chinese medicine that incorporated musical healing. The ancient Greeks valued the relationship between music and medicine in the god Apollo, whose gifts included both the musical and healing arts, and the first use of the term “musical medicine” began with Pythagoras, the fifth-century philosopher-mathematician. The Romans are said to have used musicians in their battlefield hospitals as a form of anesthesia.”

Before I read this book, I didn’t realize that music therapy was even a “thing” in hospitals. It seems like, at least here in the US and this is entirely my opinion, that medicine has moved ever so much farther away from holistic treatments. The preference is for high cost drugs and highly educated doctors to perform surgery… something concrete that people can hold in their hands and say, “Look! This is what I paid for. This thing right here.” If something, like music therapy, works, but we can’t explain why it works, then people don’t value it as much. That’s where Waking the Spiritcomes in.

Andrew provides tons of examples of beneficial music therapy treatments as well as studies to back up his real life experiences. I think that this book could be very helpful to doctors, nurses, anyone who is looking to try something inexpensive to make the environment within their institution more appealing.

Take this experience- the patient was in pain and talking to herself (a side effect of the brain surgery she had just undergone). Then, Andrew shows up with his guitar: “At the sound of the first note she turned her head toward me, looking at my face and then at my right hand as it plucked the strings of the guitar. Gone was the scattered expression from her face as her eyes gained focus. She stopped talking, her mouth half-open in surprise, silent. Her face and shoulders relaxed, and she smiled. Not the plastered grin of before but a real smile of pleasure. She was here now, in this room, and not wherever she’d been for the past few hours. Something was connecting. We were just ten seconds into the music.”Powerful.

“Over the years, I’ve witnessed the most remarkable ways in which music can help the healing process, the ways it can calm a patient or lift their spirits, or reach them when they seem locked in a place that no one else can access. It can soothe a staff member’s exhaustion or anxiety and let them refocus on helping a patient, and it can provide a connection for a patient’s family, perhaps bring back old memories and open pleasant topics of conversation. I’ve also seen the beauty that music has brought when nothing could save a patient’s life, as it eased the transition from life to death, floating above the sounds of medical machines.” Bringing beauty and dignity back to medicine with music.

In this passage, Schulman is talking to Dr. Richard Kogan, a professor of psychiatry, about how just the act of composing music has soothed individuals who are suffering from mental illness and then, their masterworks have gone on to help others: “While it’s important not to overromanticize mental illness- most depressed individuals are too paralyzed to write a symphony and most psychotic individuals are too disorganized to produce a work of art that is coherent- the suffering associated with mental illness can led to bursts of creative inspiration that are less likely to come from an individual that is emotionally content. For many of the greatest composers, music has been profoundly therapeutic.” In other words, artists who used their music to alleviate their own suffering composed some of the greatest music ever written, which in turn as the effect of ameliorating the suffering of others.” It’s a circle of healing.

You don’t have to be a musician to fully enjoy Waking the Spirit. I recommend it for anyone who’s interested in non-traditional treatments for pain and suffering. Thank you to NetGalley and Picador for a free digital ARC of this book.

Thank you for reading! -Heidi

This review also appeared on Heidi’s blog.

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