Tag Archives: music therapy

Almost Heaven: Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015

When the Sydney Writers’ Festival comes round each year, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m like a starving dog salivating through a butcher shop window, yearning for that door to open.

Not only am I desperately hanging out to get into my booked sessions but I also want to soak up the incredible ambiance. The weather has been miserabnle before but today the surprisingly warm Autumn sunlight twinkles across the waters of Sydney Harbour as the Bridge seemingly peers over your shoulder. Yet, the view isn’t just about the landscape. It’s also about watching the crowds mill past and watching people deep in thought or discussion and wondering why each and every one of them are there. Are they all like me desperately hoping to hit the big time? Anyway, I soon spy Gleebooks and the four letter word I can never resist: SALE and my Santa’s sack fill to the brim is left behind the desk for later. It’s better than the Royal Easter Show.

Out on the town.

Out on the town.

Yes, indeed, like a scruffy little rabbit-chasing black dog rolling in a fresh cowpat until the stench has well and truly infiltrated the fur follicles (nameless, of course!!), I could roll in the Sydney Writers’ Festival until it was well and truly absorbed by each and every cell. I was definitely in my element.

It is easy to go a bit crazy at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the same way people literally go mad at the Boxing Day sales. You’ve been waiting so long to get back especially if you, like me, have been counting down the days ever since the last one. Yes, indeed. I live from festival to festival. It is Mummy’s “Great Hurrah” every year when I run away from home and responsibility, flaunting my writer’s cap. Most other years, I’ve stayed in Sydney overnight although this year, I’m here for the day.

This year my programme looked like this:

1.30 Roger Woodward Concert Pianist with his autobiography: Beyond Black & White

3.00 Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable

6.30 Norman Doidge: The Brain’s Way of Healing

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Talking with Dr Noman Doidge who has put neuroplasticity on the map.

Although I was looking forward to each of the three sessions for different reasons, my focus was on the session with Norman Doidge. Actually, focus is quite the understatement. I was like a crazed fan trying to invade the Beatles’ hotel during their 1964 Australian Tour. I not only wanted to thank him for how much his books have changed my life but I also wanted to tell him how learning the violin had accidentally rewired my brain and that much of the process of learning the violin mimicked the ideas of Feldenkreis (These are ideas presented in his second book along with case studies)…..as did learning to ski. Indeed, learning the violin has rewired my “noisy brain” and enabled me to enjoy listening to music and even listen to the others in my vilin ensemble to pick my cue. This is a huge improvement.

Although playing the violin and learning to ski might appear very different on the surface, both involved that slow, conscious movement and intense repetition to improve. That is, at least the way I was learning them with my swag of physical disabilities or “issues”. This is what’s required to maximise rewiring the brain.

I managed to listen to Norman Doidge again today on Radio 702 with Richard Fidler and this really helped to cement in the concepts as Filder really probed the depths of his responses.

You see, while it’s all very well to have nitty gritty scientific discussions, what people really want to hear is: “What can this do for me or my loved one who is “blocked” in some way or another? How can you make it better? What can I do?

Meatloaf

 

After all, rewinding back to my darkest hours, I was moping round the house singing Meatloaf’s epic song: Anything For Love http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X_ViIPA-Gc. I meant it too. I was prepared to do anything at that point to snatch back any time with my kids that I could. I even went off chocolate and cut back sugar for a few months, which was a huge achievement for me!!

However, how does an unknown contact a guru, even when they have a riveting story which shouts their findings from the mountain top?

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Autumn Leaves at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Winter is almost upon us.

Sadly, it just doesn’t happen. Tried reaching him via the festival beforehand and no success. Stood up in the queue with my walking stick and foot in boot to ask a question and I could barely stand up and they ran out of time. I guess I’ll have to get cracking with my own story.

By the way, I didn’t think about this at the time but just think of the neuroplastic implications of perpetual whinging?!! Yikes! It makes me shudder!!

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Portrait of Roger Woodward by portrait by Boris Eldagsen http://www.rogerwoodward.com

 

Anyway, rewinding to my session with Roger Woodward, concert pianist http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Woodward

You might recall that my grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, was an accomplished International concert pianist who’d not only attended the Royal Academy of Music in London but was appointed one of a handful of Fellows. Eunice taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when Roger Woodward was a student and although I’d never met Roger Woodward, it seemed like he was something like a long lost member of the family. Not our family but my grandmother’s family of pianists. I met quite a few of her protege’s over the years and she had an affinity with them I could never even try to grasp. They were birds of a very exceptional feather and by nature, an exclusive club. The rest of us mere mortals simply didn’t get it. My mother had originally been in that family and had met my father at a soiree at my grandparents Lindfield home featuring pianist Gerard Willems and also attended by Australian authors Ruth Park and husband D’Arcy Niland. I’m not sure if Roger Woodward was there that night but until recently I’d thought he’d played that night and so he was very much enmeshed in my personal history.

While Woodward spoke about his time at the Sydney Conservatorium and took me into my grandmother’s world, what really gripped me from his talk was his belief in social justice and the need to take a stand. That as creatives we can stick our head in the sand and ignore it or stand up and fight. In 1965, he moved to Poland where he became strongly associated with the Solidarność movement. He remarked that while a lot of artists stood on the fence, in Australia, you stood up for your mates. He said: “I don’t feel comfortable sitting back as a human being and saying: “That’s not my business. Stand up for human rights. Australianness is standing up against a bully.”

On a lighter note, I must say that Woodward is the consumate performer. Not just at the piano but also in the way he delivered story after story and you were transported back in time into his shoes. You could sense each and every emotion as you sat riveted on the edge of your seat  I hadn’t expected that. Although I grew up with the classical music scene all around me, I was very much a foreigner….an alien so I was really pleasantly surprised to enjoy his session so much.

By the way, I just have to mention that he was waering these striking maroon and navy striped socks.To be they displayed a character, personality. Not quite sure what else socks say about a person but I was wearing a pair of navy “Happy Socks” with different coloured circles all over them. Yes, they were colourful and quirky, reflecting just a little of who I am too.

Charles Dickens

Next, I was off to Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable. At this point, I was joined by my friend Clare, who was my appendage for the afternoon (I have a companion card). Although I’m somewhat interested in Dickins, I must confess that I’ve filed him under “should read” rather than “must read”. While I love performances of his works, I don’t read a lot of novels and prefer shorter and more contemporary works. That said, I have been researching our family history and Dickens writes about that period of history and he does it exceptionally well. This was the carrot enticing me to explore Dickens further.

If you have attended writers’ festivals yourself, you, like me try and organise your sessions around a can’t miss and then sandwich something else in to fill the gaps in between. This was how I ended up at this session exploring Dickens. After booking the tickets, however, a friend had heard Claire Tomalin interviewed about the book on radio and then I was sold. I even bought the book beforehand. Suddenly, crusty old Dickens which I’d struggled through at school, had been metamorphosed into a character himself. A character I was intrigued to explore not just as a writer but as a student of people.

Tomalin, who has written many biographies in her time, said: “the best way to get to know a writer, is to hear their own voice” and she read out a letter Dickens had written to his sister. However, there were two anecdotes which truly appealed to me. Firstly, she mentioned that Dickens wrote with a quill. That somebody could write so prolically with such awkward equipment, is beyond me. Just think was his output would have been if he’d had a computer! He’d have filled a library all by himself!! Secondly, she talked about how Dickens loved walking and by walking we’re not just talking about a stroll to the local shops. Indeed, he walked 20 miles a day. This struck me as a kind of therapy.

However, the Sydney Writers’ Festival isn’t complete with a bit of indulgence. Clare and I ended up dining out at a fabulous restaurant the Ash Street Cellar. It was a thorough great meal and such a thrill to be back  in the city. I felt like a real person again…myself. I used to work and live in the city many lifetimes ago and it’s still in my veins. That said, I do prefer the more relaxed beachside, family lifestyle these days. I prefer to just visit the smog these days.

The Sydney Writers’ festival continues and the Vivid light festival starts tonight , I believe. We saw a few glimpses of it last night but I’ve seemn it in previous years and it is spectacular.

Are you a writers’ festival junkie? Do tell!

xx Rowena

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A Cappucino and chocolate Mouse at the Ash St Cellar after gnocchi for dinner.

 

 

N is for Neuroplasticity: Changing Your Life.

Welcome to N for neuroplasticity on the Blogging A-Z April Challenge. My theme for the challenge is: A Few of My Favourite Things and while neuroplasticity might seem left-field, I really want you to follow me on this journey because the power of neuroplasticity has radically changed my life and understanding how it works, can help you as well. You can read an overview of my journey in my About page here: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/about/.

While I can appreciate that neurplasticity might sound intimidating and be a trigger to flick to another blog, it is not as complex or mentally challenging as you might think. Nor is it some wafty, unproven fad. It’s a proven, scientific process, which has been championed by Canadian psychiatrist, Dr Norman Doidge through his two books: The Brain which Changes Itself and The Brain’s way of Healing.

In other words, it’s not a fairy story.

Neuroplasticity is really quite a simple concept when you explain it properly and when you harness its strength, you like me, will experience absolutely miraculous change. Unfortunately, you will still experience those “stubborn mules” which prove stubbornly resistant. However, at least, you know you’ve done your best to try and move them!

From what I’ve learned about neuroplasticity, we shouldn’t just be teaching kids the 3Rs but also how we learn. Some basics on how the brain works such as “use it or lose it” and how “practice perfects”. That our success or failure is based less on innate talent than hard work and that it takes a lot of hours…at least 10,000 to be precise, to even have a chance of making it to the top of our field. That success just doesn’t arrive on a silver platter.

Of course, some people have been blessed with bigger, faster engines but if they leave them in the shed, they’ll soon be overtaken by apparent snail power and left behind.

If you and your kids can get a grasp on how this works, you’ll never look back. You’ll still have ups and downs but you will be more empowered and skilled-up to tackle them more effectively. There’s little doubt you’ll be working harder but I guarantee you that whatever you apply yourself to, will see results. It’s as simple as:

1+1 = 2

It’s not rocket science.

Perhaps, the simplicity of it all is what stops people from having a go. We’d much rather put our faith in a much more complicated, mystical route than sticking to potentially tedious, repetitious practice and hard work…going over and over and over our mistakes until we have overcome them and “got it”.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

As a musician, I’ve experienced this first hand. Instead of playing my favourite sections of a piece over and over again, my teacher gets me reworking the rough bits and playing them over and over again. She doesn’t say: “Play it again, Sam”. Being somewhat of a slavedriver, albeit a very nice one, she says: “I want you to play that section 10-20 times a day to get it right”. This sort of detailed practice is quite foreign to me as I just want to get up there and play, especially to an audience but you can’t do that straight away. It might be a year’s worth of practice on that one piece of music to bring it to the level of perfection where it can be performed. That’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes. However, once I have reached that long-awaited moment of victory, it’s like nothing else. A real eureka moment and I’m running down the street naked like Archemedes carrying my violin. Well, not quite but you get my drift!

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity “refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[1]

In The Brain Which Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. a psychiatrist and researcher set out to investigate neuroplasticity. He writes “that the brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”. http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1259

This brain plasticity isn’t just something for the laboratory or people experiencing chronic medical conditions or disability. It affects us all and is a more “scientific” explanation for what we have always known: “Use it or lose it!!” Indeed, our brain is constantly remoulding and fine-tuning itself.

To get an idea of how brain plasticity works, picture an old fashioned telephone exchange with all those cables plugged in. Our brain is built of these cables. So for example if we keep getting angry, those anger pathways will keep getting bigger and bigger just like exercising a muscle. Moreover, the bigger these pathways become, the angrier we will become unless we take action.

Conversely, each and every time we appease our anger and breathe deep, count to three whatever it takes, those neuropathways shrink and actually disappear. These are actual, physical changes in the structure of our brains. The brain map is different.

I have experienced these changes myself after undergoing brain surgery to treat hydrocephalus. I have experienced many changes but probably the most surprising is that I can actually play the violin and I now play in an ensemble. That takes some pretty complex brain and physical developments, which I never thought possible. I only took the violin up to help my daughter.

Neuroplasticity and Acceptance.

At the start of 2012 after a serious health scare, I set a personal challenge. I applied neuroplasticity to the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr

You see, since forever, people have been telling me to accept things and quoted that prayer. Yet,  the trouble was that I simply didn’t know what I could change and what I had to accept and that’s what I decided to put to the test. I didn’t really set out with any clear cut goals but I was needing to lose some weight, which is a tough call when you’re taking prednisone AKA the “fat drug”.

It was during this time that I heard about brain plasticity and also the 10,000 hour rule and so what I was starting to appreciate was that I wasn’t set in stone. That all these words I used to describe myself, both the good and the bad, weren’t indeed words tattoed on my forehead which couldn’t be changed. They were more like stepping stones or train stops on a journey. I didn’t have to stay there. I could apply a bit of elbow grease and I could move on. Indeed, I was now in the driver’s seat and with the accelerator pushed to the floor, I was flying.

That was until I drove straight into pneumonia followed by a flare up of my auto-immune disease, which really was attacking my lungs this time and threatening my very existence.

Yes, neuroplasticity couldn’t fix everything.

However, my lungs have also responded to the same kind of repetitive practice and hard work which I’d applied to practicing my violin, except in this case I focused on building up my healthy lung cells instead of focusing on the damage and limitations. My lung volumes have since increased from a recorded low of 43% to 62% and are currently stable. In a sense it was a miracle and also the result of medical intervention but it also takes ongoing hard work.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to start walking before that all important tide comes in and puts me out of business.

Living in a tidal zone really reinforces the need to carpe diem seize the day because “the tide waits for no (hu)man.”

Xx Rowena

PS When school goes back next week, I’ll be having to reacquaint myself with my violin. It has been rather neglected of late and I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve made!!

Sources

http://www.normandoidge.com/

[1] · Pascual-Leone A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

Sydney Town Hall…Family Concerts to Remember

Sunday night before last, our 8 year old daughter “Miss” sang in a multi-school choir at the Sydney Town Hall. Celebration Sing Out was a concert supporting the Music Therapy Unit at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney.

Celebration Sing Out, Sydney Town Hall.

Celebration Sing Out, Sydney Town Hall.

As much as we might have believed in the cause, let’s be honest. All the parents, grandparents and the rest of the royal entourage were there with only one thing in mind…to see their little darling up on stage at the Sydney Town Hall. Our brilliant, shining little stars had us all transfixed in their orbit. It might not have been the Opera House but singing at the Sydney Town Hall is still a big deal and a very imposing, impressive venue with the huge pipe organ towering overhead. When the organ was completed in 1890, it was the biggest pipe organ in the world. That’s not bad for a former convict town.

How have to admit this gig was pretty impressive and the children sang like angels as well!

How have to admit this gig was pretty impressive and the children sang like angels as well!

While our little darlings might have been just one of hundreds all not-quite perfectly cloned in plain white shirts and black pants, we didn’t care. We zoomed in and picked out little star out of the multitude and stared at them transfixed with love and pride.

Christmas came early...the kids checking out the Christmas lights in Sydney's Queen Victoria Building on the way to dinner.

Christmas came early…the kids checking out the Christmas lights in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building on the way to dinner.

A key component of this parental pride was getting a good seat so we could not only spot our darling among the multitude but also to get a good vantage point to take photos. Unlike many public events where you are not allowed to use cameras let alone photograph or film children, this event was a paparazzi free-for-all.

While the kids and I went to check out the David Jones Christmas Windows and have dinner in Hyde Park, Geoff sat in the queue to get our seats. He had left for work at 4.30am and was happy to mind the seats. You get my drift.

Before the concert began, I was down the front and after scanning the crowd several times, eventually I spotted Miss in the jungle. Many of the kids were waving out to the crowd and getting rather excited. However, Miss didn’t respond to me at all. I was pretty hard to miss. What started out as something like a dignified, royal wave became more frenetic as she absolutely failed to respond. She didn’t smile or even blink in my direction. Not one to be ignored, I’m waving both arms by now and doing everything but screaming “cooee” above the hubbub. I decided I wasn’t going anywhere until she responded. She might have been up towards the back but I was standing right in front of her waving my arms, taking photos with the standout Nikon SLR camera (something with a real lens not one of these Mickey Mouse phone cameras). I mean… I really stood out. It was almost like I was standing there with two heads and still she refused to acknowledge my existence. Eventually, finally, at a point no doubt verging on terminal embarrassment, she waved back. Relief! She later told me that she’s not supposed to wave. You see, at 8 years of age, she’s already the consummate stage professional!

Naturally, I wasn’t the only paparazzi in sight. As I scanned around the audience, there was an array of camera phones sticking up above the audience like the sort of TV antennas you see in regional towns desperately trying to pick up the city stations.

The singing was absolutely beautiful and a real tribute to everyone involved. The children sang beautifully in unison and sat still for considerable periods on stage during other performances. The concert began at 7.00PM concluding at 9.30 which is well past many of their bedtimes and yet they were the consummate performers…real little professionals.

While this performance was mostly about our daughter, there was also a ghost in the room…my grandmother.

Hard to believe my grandmother was ever a 15 year old schoolgirl. She, on the other hand, didn't recognise the old lady staring back at her in the mirror. I now understand what she meant!

Hard to believe my grandmother was ever a 15 year old schoolgirl. She, on the other hand, didn’t recognise the old lady staring back at her in the mirror. I now understand what she meant!

A review of my grandmother's Concert at the Sydney Town Hall SMH April 10 1935

My grandmother’s Performance at the Sydney Town Hall 6th April, 1935 SMH April 10 1935

My grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, was an internationally successful concert pianist, music critic and piano teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium. Eunice was taking up a 2 year scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A fundraising committee had been formed to raise funds towards her living expenses in London. As part of these fundraising efforts, Eunice gave a concert at the Sydney Town Hall on the 6th June, 1935.

This is a story I grew up with and I remember my grandmother showing me her precious newspaper clippings in her seemingly ancient scrapbook. This wasn’t something we looked at often…only once or twice in my life time and indeed while working on her memoirs, she even let me take it home for awhile to scan. Talk about precious cargo. This was back in the days before the old newspapers had been uploaded onto the Internet and you couldn’t just summon up someone’s entire life history with an instant and exceptionally gratifying Google search. Of course, you could look at the old newspapers on reels at the State Library but you needed to do your research first. It was a tedious, laborious process. So these press clippings and particularly her scrap book, were incredibly precious!!

Anyway, as we arrived at Town Hall, I was no longer viewing my grandmother’s concert as an ancient black & white newspaper clipping but as a living, breathing experience. I was walking up Town Hall Steps with her parents and brother, Les. I could feel their pride bursting through my heart and saw it reflected back to me as our daughter sang up on stage, enjoying the whole experience. This was not necessarily going to be a given. Singing in front of 1000 can be daunting if not terrifying but it seems that being part of a crowd can be a good thing.

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I’d had my own piano performance. However, it was hardly at the Sydney Town Hall but in a hall hired by my piano teacher in Wahroonga, a Sydney suburb quite a long way from the Sydney Town Hall both in terms of kilometres and kudos. While it was a big thing for me to be performing at the concert and I had practiced pretty hard and knew my piece from memory, the fact that my grandmother was attending the concert was a big deal. I distinctly remember getting in the car and Mum asking me if I had my music. I told her that I didn’t need it…that I knew my piece from memory. I was a confident little kid and not easily intimidated. I didn’t need my music and I was going to do it my way despite my mother’s concerns.

Well, of course, I got up on stage my legs dangling from the piano seat and of course I lost my place. I remember this terrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Mum had seen it coming and I’d botched it. Plus, my grandmother was watching. I’d been to see her perform at the Sydney Opera House wearing my very best dress which she’d brought back from me from Norfolk Island and where I couldn’t cough, sneeze, go to the toilet and if you sat very, very still, you were actually permitted to breathe. My grandmother wasn’t one of those grannies who give you Freddo Frogs (https://www.cadbury.com.au/Products/Pre-teens-Confectionery/Freddo.aspx) either . She was in some sort of inter-stellar zone us mortals could only watch from the outside. I can almost feel myself stop breathing yet I persevere and tinkered with the keys until I found my place and kept going…my pride wounded but undefeated. I am so proud of that little girl who didn’t just burst into tears and exit stage left..It might not have been a perfect performance but I persevered and I conquered.

You can read my grandmother’s obituary here: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/obituaries/a-musical-career-honed-in-the-laundry-20090823-ev2w.html

Actually, perhaps the last word on that concert should go to my grandmother. When she reflected on this concert in later life, she mentioned nothing about the epic stumble during my performance. Rather, she tell me that she’d got in trouble with my Dad for disciplining my brother during the concert. That’s right. She’d got in trouble. You know I’m smiling!

Meanwhile, as the end of the year approaches, our daughter’s ballet and jazz concerts lie ahead and I’m practicing for my violin concert. Well, like our daughter I’m part of a group and there will be no solo performance. This is certainly one time I don’t want to stand out and for once in my life, just be one of the crowd.

And I’ll be taking my music!

xx Rowena

PS This is a Freddo Frog:

Introducing Australia's very own Freddo Frog.

Introducing Australia’s very own Freddo Frog.