Music to beat the isolation blues

  • Greenfield pianist Julia Bady. Contributed photo

  • Julia Bady, of Greenfield, plays the piano. Contributed photo

  • Evaline MacDougall and her son Gillis, 15, play music for Stephan and Lori Gordon of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Evaline MacDougall and her son Gillis, 15, play music for Stephan and Lori Gordon of Greenfield on Tuesday. Staff Photos/PAUL FRANZ

  • Evaline MacDougall and her son Gillis, 15, play music for Stephan and Lori Gordon of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Evaline MacDougall and her son Gillis, 15, play music for Stephan and Lori Gordon of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 11:44:18 PM

From the first note, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Sonata No. 22, A Major K. 305” relays a feeling of energetic optimism. In tandem with a more gentle piano harmony, the floating violin, which is rich in timbre and tone, launches into a light — if sometimes staccato — melody that transports the listener into a space dictated by the 18th-century composer.

Anxiety floats away.

This is the power of music, according to Julia Bady, a Greenfield-based piano teacher who, in this time of pandemic-driven uncertainty, says the musical arts could be just what the doctor ordered.

“Music is vibrational. We are vibrational,” Bady said Monday, speaking from her home-studio on Oak Hill Acres, where she’s currently hunkered down with her husband, Violinist Bob McGuigan, who is a musician with the Pioneer Valley Symphony. “I don’t have scientific terms — but (music) affects our brains and our bodies, too.”

For the foreseeable future, Bady, 63, has moved her work online, teaching classes remotely via video conferencing. Bady, who holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Brown University in Rhode Island and a master’s degree in piano performance from Lesley University and Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, began playing music at age 7 and teaching at 19.

After delivering musical instruction professionally by day, she typically plays for herself for an hour or two in the evenings.

Lately, with her gigs canceled for the next several months, Bady says she and McGuigan have been practicing “Violin Sonata No. 22, A Major K. 305” together and intend to hold an isolation-inspired neighborhood concert once the weather is warm enough to throw open the windows so others can listen from the outside lawn.

They selected the piece by Mozart because “It’s in an uplifting key — the key of A major. It’s kind of fun; it’s playful; it’s energetic,” Bady explained.

About 10 minutes into Mozart’s roughly 15-minute composition, the song takes a nostalgic turn, dipping from brighter notes into a more somber experience. The emotional effect is immediate. It’s as if the composer, who died in 1791, is sitting in the same room relating the state of his emotions in-person. Notably, toward the end, the song takes another turn and concludes with optimistic flourish.

In this way, music, according to Bady, “transcends” time and space. As people are pushed apart physically by lock-down orders, music is urgently important, according to Bady, because it “reminds us of our humanity. … We need beauty and joy.”

Elsewhere in places that are in lock-down, Bady said music is actively being used as a way to build community.

“Some people think that the arts are a luxury. I disagree. I think they’re absolutely necessary. It’s being proven by what people are doing in Italy. They’re opening their windows, getting onto their balconies and singing. (Music) creates a deep connection and provides people with hope. It gives people an action. It reminds us we’re not alone. It breaks the isolation.”

Scientifically backed

Health experts agree with Bady’s assessment. Music is a powerful tool that allows people to jump-start endorphins, tapping into areas of the brain that produce happiness, according to Karen W. Nolen, a South Deerfield-based licensed clinical social worker who often implements music into her therapy sessions.

“We used to think that the part of the brain for music was just above the ears. Now, we know through imaging that the whole brain lights up when music is playing,” Nolen said Wednesday.

“It’s a language that is very imperative. It’s a language that I have to be exposed to; and I know, now, as a therapist, that it's also a brain thing. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way to download happy hormones. It is my Prozac,” said Nolen. “Especially in these times when we are on our own, that can be a blessing.”

Even before the term ‘social isolation’ became common, Nolen, who is a flutist, says she often played with others via video conferencing. A friend in New Hampshire, for example, plays the cello.

“We just bounce off each other. It’s so fun,” she said. Technology has made it possible for Nolen, “In the comfort of my own home, (to) pull up my guitar beside me and play with (others).”​​​​​​ 

Serenading for health

Locally, Greenfield Musician Eveline MacDougall, who leads the community singing group Fiery Hope Chorus, has started an initiative to help foster these connections in a tangible way. She is using her talents to foster community by singing outside houses — a program she’s branded “Serenade for Health.”

“There are huge opportunities for artists to come to the forefront in this time,” said MacDougall. While much of the recent focus surrounding the pandemic has focused on scientists and medical workers, she noted, “As an artist, I think of myself as an auxiliary — around the edges.”

On Tuesday, MacDougall says she sang for a half-dozen people from 6 years old to 90. It’s not the first time she’s engaged in music as a way to connect. She’s seen the impact of music “many, many times as I go into prisons, head trauma units and elder care centers.”

Once, for example, about a year ago, MacDougall recalled a time when her choral group sang at an area nursing home. One resident, who was sitting to the side, didn’t seem to be listening.

“When we started singing ‘Over the Rainbow,’ I went and sat down next to  her and took her hand,” MacDougall said. “Tears started coming out of her eyes. She said, ‘I’m crying, I don’t know why, but it’s wonderful.’”

Later, a few staff members commented they’d never heard the resident say that many words at one time.

Science backs up MacDougall’s experience. In her practice, Nolen, who previously worked at Farren Care Center in Turners Falls for eight years and now practices on her own, says she has seen music accomplish in patients what nothing else can.

“In the area of dementia and Alzheimer’s, music is the very last thing to go,” Nolen explained. “What that means — and you can Google this — is that if someone (plays) music from a patient’s age group — maybe they were a jazz lover — they go from a stupor to a huge smile. And they have a language they can speak with.”

As soon as the music stops, Nolen continued, “the brain goes back to the dementia state." In this, she said, music is able to leverage emotions and bring memories that are dormant — releasing stress and building neural connections.

As physical distancing continues, MacDougall said music is becoming incredibly important because of its ability to close “emotional distance.”

For that reason and as a way to beat the coronavirus blues, Bady is actively encouraging anyone who might be interested in learning to play an instrument to do so while the evolving COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing.

“If you have any instrument at your home — lots of people have electric keyboards, guitars, maybe a flute, whatever, pots and pans — just do it. Try it. Look for resources online,” Bady said. “Most people can sing, even if it’s awful. Sing. Get together with friends on a Zoom (online video meeting) and sing.”

Besides sweeping away depression and anxiety — a statement that’s backed by numerous studies including one published in 2008 by The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine — playing an instrument can be a great way to beat back boredom and keep the mind sharp even if the body is more sedentary than usual, Bady continued.

“If everything is slowing down, (music) is a great way to speed things back up. Especially piano, it’s so complicated. You’ve got two different clefs, two different rhythms, there’s so much interdependence that your brain is really getting a workout,” she said, noting the instrument requires “eye-brain-hand coordination. … Lots of people have been wanting to learn piano but putting it off. If they’re interested, please contact me.”

Have an idea you’d like to share with the  community to beat the isolation blues? Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

Bady can be reached through her website, juliabadypianist.com. As of yet, there is no date for her and McGuigan’s neighborhood concert. 

Nolen is actively accepting clients and is holding sessions remotely via a HIPPA compliant video conferencing service. She can be reached by calling 413-658-7514 or searching her name on Psychology Today’s website. Typically, Nolen practices out of an office in Deerfield Monday through Thursday and out of Hadley on Fridays. For now, however, she is practicing out of her home. ​​​​​​While she isn’t a licensed music therapist, Nolen says she tries to incorporate music as much as possible into her practice and encourages clients who don’t play to take lessons. 

“I tell (clients, especially those struggling with addiction) to pick an instrument. If you already have one, fine. Let’s dig in,” Nolen said. In these trying times, “If you have musical knowledge, in whatever form it is, use it.”

Anyone wishing to request a visit from MacDougall should call 413-773-8655.


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