Saturday, August 13, 2022

Music sets stage for wellness

by Margaret E. Davis
| July 3, 2022 12:00 AM

In my first column, I wrote about how much I loved music, especially live music. That was before I learned how good it is for us.

Panelists at the recent Music and Mental Health event organized by the Nate Chute Foundation and the North Valley Music School couldn’t say it enough: Music affects people in special ways, regardless of whether they’re performing or listening.

Music therapist Kirsten Allen found that hearing familiar songs helped a client with dementia recognize his daughter. Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center cofounder and professional musician Brett Holmquist talked about the practice of “songcatching” and reminded us that “we are here as instruments ourselves.”

Another musician, Emily Freudenberger, shared her personal struggles with mental health as well as her fresh songwriting. Nancy Thompson, a parent, talked about losing her son to suicide and quoted from his notes: “Music is not just fun, it’s important.” Playing her son’s mandolin and listening to songs recommended by friends have helped her navigate grief.

When humans process music “all parts of our brain light up,” Allen said, “especially the limbic system — our emotional center.” Researchers consistently find that hearing is our last sense to go.

I thought about my grandfather. He had spent part of his life living in a tent in Shelby with his family — and a piano (his wheelchair-bound mother gave music lessons). He performed in dance bands from Whitefish to Missoula and in the booming oil fields of Oilmont and Kevin before earning a business degree at the University of Montana, but played piano and organ his whole life.

His final gigs were perhaps the most satisfying. Despite macular degeneration, he organized and accompanied a “girl” vocal group at his retirement home that delighted fellow residents.

In his mid-90s, as his life drew to a close, I sat with him that last evening, playing jazz pianist Roland Hanna on a boom box. He may not have been aware of me, but he heard the music. His hand grew warmer, his breathing calmed.

“Music is who we are as people and always has been,” Holmquist said, pointing out that we wake up in the world to the rhythm of our mothers’ hearts.

Connection and expression go hand in hand. Freudenberger finds it “easier to confront challenging emotions” through songs that can be a “safer way of communicating honestly.”

“Even if you can’t sing, sing,” she said. “The expression is beautiful, not the polished product.”

The benefits of music belong to all of us. “We don’t just have to consume music from professionals,” Holmquist said. “Let’s get brave.”

I have long fantasized about a time when mental health professionals, instead of or in addition to routine therapies, prescribe going to live concerts, learning an instrument or just jamming with friends and family.

Last week I took my teenage son on a music tour of the valley: from a banjo-and-ukulele duo at the KM Bar and Jay Alm at the Craggy Range, to Colton C’s expertly hosted open mic at Bias Brewing and “The Queens of Country” tour de force put on by Alpine Theatre Project.

After this last one, my son and I got up to file out after the show and his face glowed from the rich harmonies and songcraft. Unprompted, he said, “That was good,” though the smile said it all.

Audience development director Margaret E. Davis can be reached at 406-758-4436 or

Recent Headlines