Singing your sorrow away

When I was sixteen, I was going through a rough time. Fights at home with my parents, low self-esteem, worries about what my peers thought of me, moving between the houses of my divorced parents… quite usual for a Dutch girl that age I believe. One thing always kept me sane, and helped me to overcome or deal with negative emotions: music. I am not talking about ‘boy-band happy romance’ songs here, those that are meant to uplift your spirit and make you feel good. No, my music was dark, angry, and sometimes just plain lamenting. My friends at the time were confused by this choice of music and tried to convince me that listening to this sort of lyrics only made me feel worse. I disagreed, because this music gave me something crucial: a feeling of being understood, recognised, a feeling of being part of a group that felt just like me. Now, my sorrows were quite manageable and I grew up to be a very happy, confident young women. Nevertheless, I still want to feel understood and I still need to be part of a community when I deal with my troubles.

There are countless forms of pain, sorrow and illness, but there are also countless ways of dealing with these. One of these is music. Singing together, listening to music that relates to your feelings, making music as a group or by yourself; all can be ways to deal with anger, fear, loneliness or other difficult emotions. This might sounds a bit ‘kum ba yah style’ to you, or maybe you imagine a group of middle –aged ladies in new age dresses holding hands while chanting. Or maybe you know exactly what I mean by own experience? Have you ever been to a concert where you felt truly exhilarated? As if you became part of something bigger than yourself, and it gave you such a burst of energy? Try, and remember when music made you part of something bigger than yourself. Try, and remember the impact it had on your wellbeing.

Music is a well recognised way of therapy in many places all over the world. Andoline Dos Santos (2005) writes about a music therapy project at an HIV/AIDS hospice and orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa. She argues that this form of therapy had four positive effects: building community, creating safe spaces, the opportunity to give, and finally vitality (as opposed to death). I would like to look a bit closer at building community and the ability to give.

Many of the people participating had been isolated from their communities because of their illness. Dos Santos explains how music-making could help these people feel “part of this world” again. Although the hospice and orphanage  are institutions, the coordinator explained that “this is a village that is not a village”. The staff working here explained that music offered them the possibility of bringing the people together and being a tool through which they could show the patients they truly cared for them. Music also had the potential to create a sense of togetherness between both the staff and patients, as well as between the patients themselves. Furthermore, the staff at the orphanage highlighted that music-making provided the children with the opportunity to give. These children were used to always receive help but were not able to give something in return. Performing and making music together made them feel they had contributed to each other’s lives in a meaningful way, thereby building on their self-confidence. Music and performance are “capable of developing community, not merely reflecting it” (Dos Santos 2005).

The shelter that Mama Watoto and RICODE have created together supports street children from Uganda by offering education, food and a bed. I believe, that equally important, they offer these children community, ‘a village that is not a village’. At the shelter, singing together and making music together is an integral part of daily life. In the morning and evening the children sing as a group, often as part of daily prayers. According to Dirk Naaijkens, a volunteer at the shelter, the children become happy when they participate in this group activity, and he believes that this activity strengthens the “we-feeling” within the group. He also explains how singing together is a way of starting and ending the day together as a group. I personally hope that these children also experience a feeling of being able to ‘give’ to each other, as Dos Santos writes. The children participating in this project have very little material to give to each other, and are now also dependent on the shelter for their basic needs. Being able to share something with the others, and in this way being able to contribute to the ‘shelter village’, can be healing and supporting in itself.

Making music and singing together is a powerful way of therapy and healing I believe. It is creative, it builds community, it connects people in something bigger than themselves, and has the ability to make you feel understood. People all over the world use music and singing as a way of building on health and wellbeing. So, next time you feel blue, grab your favourite song (if you dare, even grab a friend, sister or brother to help you out), and don’t hold back singing your sorrows away.

Clip: The street children in the centre while singing togehter. Credits: Dirk Naaijkens. 

If you want to read the article Dos Santos wrote as a whole, check out