By Shelby Smoak
Music is everywhere and has always been everywhere. Archeologists claim music exists in all cultures and is found in every historical period. That’s a lot of music!
One of the oldest artifacts is a primitive bone flute dating from over 42,000 years ago, somewhere between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. These same researchers even claim that music developed before speech, perhaps in the coos or pre-historic warbles of mother to infant. So then, maybe in the beginning there was—music? More interesting than any of this, however, is that music—while ubiquitous to all cultures, all persons, in all times—is not essential to survival. It is not the sustenance our bodies need, nor the shelter we require to live. But don’t tell that to someone like me who cannot imagine a day without music.
Music has always been there for me. The first time it came to mean something more than just background noise was the winter I was 11 and in the hospital for my second knee synovectomy. To keep me company at my bedside for what would be an 8-week hospital recovery, my father bought a tiny cassette player/radio. Each time he visited at the end of his workweek and relieved Mom, he’d have a new cassette in hand. There was Kenny Rogers—okay. Eddie Rabbitt—a miss. Duran Duran—getting hot.
But then came Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man.” How ironic that title seems now as I think about it echoing against the sterile walls of that tiny hospital room, my surgery leg hooking in the newly-invented constant motion machine. This was 1983, before hepatitis C, before HIV. An innocent man. Even today, it always comes back to “An Innocent Man” and that feeling: at once happy, then melancholy, sad, then break-neck joy.
That spring, still in a brace and on crutches, I started piano lessons. In high school, the guitar found me. In college and after, I joined bands (too many to name), started projects, toured, recorded albums, and played stages up and down the East Coast. At this point, I probably have performed on over 20 albums and 500+ stages, from coffeeshop spreads to college town clubs to New York dives to outdoor festivals. Music has always been there. It is a rich orchestra of emotion that plucks pain from my hemophilia-worn body.
Unlike other art forms—writing and painting—music differentiates itself by actualizing more parts of the brain.
That is, music is not a Left Brain/Right Brain artform. It is All Brain. It involves sound in the auditory cortex; language (lyrics) in the frontal lobe, rhythm and movement in the motor cortex, memory (who doesn’t flashback when hearing an old favorite?) in the temporal lobe, sight (don’t you see pictures when you hear songs or closely listen to the lyrics?) in the occipital lobe, and, lastly, emotion (oh those feelings!) in the sensory cortex.
The health benefits of music are endless. Journals like The Lancet, Music & Medicine, Journal of Music Therapy and more report on the benefits music provides: improves sleep, improves cognitive function, reduces pain, reduces stress and anxiety, affects heart rate, and improves quality of life. It even improves venous access! (See JAMA Pediatrics and their infusion study for that one!).
In any regard, my passion for music has always guided me. I now lead Bleeder, a project of original music, and am a guitarist/singer in The Bleeders, a cover group who has more or less become the house band at The Coalition for Hemophilia B symposiums. I also present our BioMatrix sponsored program “Singing to Heal,” which is a part-research, part-open mic, part lyric writing workshop. These things brought me into contact with other community member musicians who channel music’s therapeutic value in various ways. I was honored and humbled to meet so many talented individuals, and to immediately bond over not just our communal enthusiasm for music, but our struggles with a bleeding disorder. There was something to this, I said. There was something here worth sharing.
You can stream my music at shelbysmoak.com. And if you are a person with a bleeding disorder who is actively performing and/or recording music, please let me know for a future article: firstname.lastname@example.org.
With that, I am more than pleased to introduce these athletes of music, those who have the dedication, sweat and tears equal to any NBA All-Star or fledgling soccer goalie.