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Let Them Play On

Every time you hear about school districts having budget problems, the first thing they seem to cut is their music and arts programs. Now, I’m a guitar teacher and musician, so I’m biased. But why are these programs always the first to get cut? Why isn’t it football? Basketball? Home Economics? Typing? (Yes, I know, I’m dating myself now.)

But seriously.

I don’t think some people know how important music is. For everybody, I mean. Not only is it great for you to learn an instrument at any age, but it does amazing things to your brain, even if you can’t play brilliantly! A lot of people consider playing chess or doing sudoku puzzles as a great brain exercise, but playing an instrument is actually a full brain work out.

I’ve seen it in action. Sometimes it takes all of a person’s focus and energy to learn a new piece. They are in the zone, and the rest of the world, all of their problems, are on the other side of the closed studio door. Sometimes they are in shock when they realize the lesson is over.

Being able to play an instrument stays with you all of your life, regardless of your mental capacity. There are countless stories of people with dementia, unable to remember what they had for breakfast, but well able to play the piano or the flute as beautifully as they did when they were younger.

According to classicfm.com in their article explaining why you should take up an instrument, it enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning and literacy skills. The science says it makes you smarter. Isn’t that what we all want?

Beyond what it does for your brain, playing an instrument can relieve stress, build confidence and can even help you improve your social life. Well, maybe not the social part right now, since we’re trying to keep physically distanced.

But why would school boards or districts even consider taking all of these positives away from their students?

Maybe some of them think playing an instrument is only for musical snobs. Or the exceptionally talented. They’ve probably never paid much attention to their school bands, like the one I played clarinet in when I was in school.

We were pretty mediocre. We occasionally entered into competitions with other high school bands in the district. But as soon as the other bands would start playing, we knew where we stood. Dead last.

Mr. Parkinson, our high school band teacher, was in the British military for a long time and did his best to keep us together playing those marches he loved. The theme to Hogan’s Heroes was my favourite. We didn’t actually march when we played, yet we still managed to have two musical left feet. But that wasn’t the point.

Because what I remember the most was the feeling of being in the middle of all of that music, especially when we had those moments where we pulled it together almost perfectly. It was not only uplifting, it was transformative. We played, we laughed, we tried again.

Some of the friends I made back then I still keep in touch with to this day. In fact, I married the snare drummer.

Both of my daughters used my clarinet when they had their turn playing in the school band. They also tried the strings program, and took private lessons in other instruments.

But not all parents can afford to send their children for private lessons, which is why the music programs in schools are so important.

It isn’t about children becoming virtuosos, it’s about giving them the chance to have a really positive experience. It’s about taking them away from their electronics for just a little while and doing something that they may very well remember for the rest of their lives. If music is not for them, that’s okay. At least they had the chance to try.

I’m hanging onto that clarinet and waiting for the day when I can pass it on to my grandkids. Let them play on!

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Has It Been A Year Already?

Well, happy anniversary everyone! We are now officially past the year mark since the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. And it’s been a year like no other.

Back on March 11, 2020, we couldn’t have imagined what we were in for. COVID-19 was a mystery, and we had no idea what to expect. The phrase “new normal” suddenly became popular.

Our initial reaction to the big shut down was positive, sometimes comical. We can DO this! We hoarded toilet paper. We baked bread, made Quarantinis, and we stood outside every evening at 6pm and banged our pots and pans to honour our health care workers. We laughingly wore pajama pants during video calls. We put hearts and signs of support in our windows for our front line workers, and donated money to local charities like Rapid Relief.

Businesses that sold them, ran out of hot tubs. Gardens flourished, home renovations abounded. We found heroes in people like Dr. Bonnie Henry, whose calm and compassion gave us much comfort. A global pandemic wasn’t going to keep US down!

Then reality kicked at us a little harder. The novelty began to wear off. Day after day we somberly donned our masks, washed our hands, and kept our distance from each other. Well some of us did. Others screamed in protest. Tempers flared. And all the while, more and more people were getting sick or dying.

Our hair grew long, beards became unruly. Zoom calls that started out as great fun, began to wear on us. Living and working and learning at home got more and more boring and intolerable for many. Not being able to see or hug our family and friends was depressing us. In fact, anxiety and depression was on the rise in all age groups, but especially in young people. We were exhausted. And all of this happened before winter had even hit.

As we said goodbye with great relief to 2020, COVID continued its ominous advance. New cases and new variants sprang up everywhere when a second wave hit. Long, dark days with no end to this pandemic in sight, left us mourning and miserable.

But there were some small hints of hope. Pharmaceutical companies around the world who had been working around the clock to come up with a vaccine, started to have some success. A few countries that were initially hit hard by the pandemic, were beginning to see their COVID numbers level off, or even come down as a result of shut downs. There was just a little bit of light appearing at the end of that very long tunnel.

And now spring is almost here. As of March 12th, almost 3 million vaccines have been administered in Canada. We have, most of us, adapted to this new reality, to the shut downs, the social distancing, and the masks. Handwashing and sanitizing is more habitual. But we are so looking forward to the day when we can actually spend time together in person again, and that day comes ever closer. Still, as the expression goes, the last few miles of a marathon are the hardest.

I know, I know. Kilometers.

So what have we learned from this past year so far? I would venture to guess it will take a long time to completely assess that. Businesses, governments and communities will gather their list of lessons learned. As individuals, we will each write our own epilogues. Ultimately, you might say that we are forever changed.

But in spite of it all, babies were still being born and people were still marking milestones. All this time, life was forging ahead and hopeful. And now, here on the west coast, the trees are starting to burst new buds, robins are laying their eggs, and cherry blossoms are blooming.

And vaccines are here. At long last. Ah, spring.

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We All Need A Little Hygge

My parents were both Danish, so I grew up hearing that language all around me. My first words were in both Danish and English, likely in that order, and it wasn’t until I started school that I realized they were actually different languages.

There are words that seem to be unique to a language, and hard to translate exactly into another. For instance, one of my favourite Danish words has always been “pyt”. It is said in response to something that is stressful or frustrating. And when you say it, pyt is almost like spitting. So it works really well when you’re fed up. “PYT! Let it go…”

You may have come across the word “hygge” in the last few years, and perhaps you even know what it is. But for those of you who haven’t heard of it before, I will explain.

Hygge actually originated in Norway, but first appeared in Danish writing around the 18th century. It is an old, but still very relevant and common practice that has become more popular all over the globe lately. Pronouncing it is your only challenge: the “hy” part sounds sort of like you’re hacking up something that is stuck in your throat. And then add a “ga”. Saying HOO-ga comes close.

The Scandinavian languages are all rather guttural, and Danish is no exception. There are certain letters and pronunciations that are difficult to demonstrate. Danish has often been described as sounding like German, but with a hot potato in your mouth.

But what exactly is hygge? It’s coziness and comfort. A long hot bath. Reading a good book by a crackling fire. Lots of lighted candles. Warmth, soft music, good food and friends, all of those cozy things. Being out in nature is hygge, as is a feeling of gratitude.

In Danish, there is the word “hyggebukser”, or hygge pants. Those are the pants you love to wear, but rarely in front of anyone else. Maybe your pajama bottoms or sweats. In fact, if you’ve been working at home for the last few months, you’re probably wearing them a lot anyway. I mean, if no one can see, who cares? That is hygge.

There’s also the word “hyggesnak” which is what you might think of as cozy conversation. You know, a nice chat with an old friend about comfortable topics. No politics or anything that could be controversial. Politics is definitely NOT hygge.

For me, hygge is sitting out on the back deck on a summer morning with my thermos of coffee and my cat on my lap. I have been known to stay there until noon. As long as my husband doesn’t turn on the radio to blast the news, that is. The news these days can ruin everything, can’t it? All I want to hear is the birds.

Many times over the years I’ve had my friends over for smørrebrød, which is a Danish meal that literally translates as “butter bread”. These are open-faced sandwiches made with dark rye bread topped with all kinds of delicious treats. You might use different cold cuts, shrimp or other fish with fancy garnishes. And lots of butter. I usually make Danish red cabbage along with the sandwiches, and serve up some pickled herring too. We drink Aquavit and Danish beer or “øl” and feel the hygge. (You probably noticed that letter ø. That’s an extra letter in the Danish alphabet, which also sounds somewhat like you’re gagging.)

These days, of course, having friends over is not possible in the same way. So instead, we spend time every week on a Zoom chat with a glass of wine.

Your idea of hygge might be different from mine, and that’s okay. The point is that however you do it, it has to be something that makes you cozy and content. Happy, even. And with fall and winter looming, we’re going to need lots of hygge to get us through.

And we’ll hope for a better 2021. Because, you know, PYT to 2020!

Happiness Is Over-rated

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.Image via Wikipedia

A good friend of mine writes a weekly column in our local newspaper and over the last couple of weeks he has been focusing on the topic of happiness. We are, many of us, often consumed with the desire to be happy, and look for it in the wrong places (or in the wrong things, whichever the case may be). He includes a number of lists written by others, including psychologists, of things you can do to improve your happiness quotient.

While I agree with most of the points in those lists, like fostering a positive attitude and stopping to smell the roses, so to speak, I think there’s another underlying factor at work. 

Sometimes we try to pop a “happiness pill” when we are clearly not. And when we try to sweep our misery under the carpet instead of addressing it and then letting it go…all of the happy pills we take won’t work.

In other words, trying to be happy can sometimes be more about going into denial and can only make things worse. I’m not saying that we should wear our misery on our sleeve and making everyone else around us miserable too. But when there are underlying problems, pushing them aside won’t help.

I say this because I have dealt with depression myself and have family members who have experienced clinical depression and even worse, bi-polar disorder. In the latter case, it can only be treated with medication, which truly is like popping a “happiness pill”. But depression can’t be overcome simply by happy thoughts alone.

Outside of a serious or clinical case of depression, I think people are often contributing to their own unhappiness because of their expectations and the feelings of entitlement. Happy is what we “should” be and when we aren’t, then something is terribly wrong.

The fact is that even in the course of a day, you can easily bound from sadness to happiness and back again…and this is completely natural. If you expect to be deliriously happy all of the time, you are truly kidding yourself, and you will ultimately be disappointed. Buddhists say that the real problem is not the state of happiness or unhappiness, but clinging to one or the other.

Trying to cling to a happy state seems obvious, but why would we want to be miserable?

Actually, we often LOVE being miserable even though that seems an oxymoron. We love going over and over unhappy events in our minds, perhaps mentally punishing someone for some past hurt. Self-pity can itself be rather addictive.

I think the word “happiness” itself has probably been used to death and sort of comes with its own baggage now; perhaps “contented” or “at ease” are closer to what we can achieve.

Have you ever felt contentment about something? It is not a “high”, but rather a quietening of the mind and completely relaxing. If the whole world could simultaneously experience even five minutes of contentment in the true sense of the word, I’d bet you that after the five minutes was up, much of the hate, anger, violence, desire and greed would be alleviated for the following five hours. Can you imagine? Just five hours of world peace.

So here is my list for ways to achieve contentment:

  1. Feel and experience an emotion completely, then let it go. If you pay attention to the natural process of any type of emotion, it ebbs and flows. So let it.
  2. Just sit and breathe, and think of nothing but breathing
  3. Be in the moment, and if you’re having trouble doing that where you are, go for a walk and pay rapt attention to every thing you see, hear and physically feel. Do everything with rapt attention.
  4. Take a nap…naps are very refreshing
  5. Follow the serenity prayer; change the things you can, don’t try to change something you cannot, and learn the difference

These are just five points, I’m sure I could think of more over time. Each of them has given me a sense of peace and contentment in past, but it does take effort to remember and apply them. Even if only one of them stands out or works for you, keep using it and I know it’ll help you to relieve some of the misery and stress of your daily life.

Most of all, stop expecting to be happy, and ironically, you’ll probably start to!


IJ

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