Whether you are a musician or have never played a note in your life, music can contribute to your successful transition in retirement. I sing and play a number of instruments in my professional life but decided in retirement to learn a new instrument in a new style — Irish fiddling. It’s been great, opening up a whole new world for me, and a whole new set of friends. Music can stimulate our cognitive and physical processes. It can also allow us to connect deeply with our emotions and with others in our lives.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandi Curtis.
Dr. Sandi Curtis is a licensed music therapist with over 30 years of experience working with women, specializing in survivors of domestic violence, emotional, verbal, physical, psychological and sexual abuse. While teaching at universities full-time, Dr. Curtis worked in part-time private practice in music therapy with women, teens and children at shelters, rape crisis centers and victims’ services centers across Canada and the U.S., receiving the 2006 Social Justice Person Award in recognition of her tireless efforts to end violence against women. She is the author of Music for Women (Survivors of Violence): A Feminist Music Therapy Interactive eBook.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Iwas studying classical music at McGill University and realized that I was longing for a career that would allow me to make music and have a greater impact in people’s lives than was possible from onstage. I had not heard of music therapy back then but as soon as I learned about it, I knew that it was exactly what I had been longing for. I never looked back. Since then, I have had a career spanning more than 35 years working with people from all walks of life, in all sorts of settings, always making music. It has been my great privilege to accompany them on their journey towards a better life through music.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have seen so many women in music therapy and am always amazed by their grace, strength, and resilience in the face of such incredible challenges. One woman who stands out in particular was an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Once she spoke out about the abuse, it fractured the family with some believing her and others believing her abuser — her uncle. Many years later when I saw her in music therapy, she was still struggling immensely. She joined me with a small music therapy group for women survivors and she initially held back. As she listened to the music and to the other women, she began to join in. It wasn’t long before she had written her own original song, one that told her story of abuse and her ultimate story of reclaiming her life. At the end of our time together, she shared that she had given a copy of her recorded song to her abuser, telling him that others might deny the abuse, but he and she knew the truth, and the world would too. She had freed herself and was taking back her life. This was a moving moment for me. I felt so honored to be able to support her in tapping into the power of music and to see this incredible personal transformation.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mother was probably one of the biggest influences for me, making it possible for me to be where I am now. She was actually the first to introduce me to music therapy. Of course, she was also a great cheerleader in all my endeavors. Perhaps most importantly, it was the example she provided in the way she led her life. As a nurse and a mother, she showed the importance of kindness and caring for the human spirit. As an activist, she showed the importance of social change and justice. These are reflected in my work as a music therapist. It is my responsibility to support people in healing and transforming their lives through music therapy. But alone that is insufficient. It is also my responsibility to take a stand for social change and transformation. In the case of women survivors of violence, I support them in their recovery, and I work to end the violence that is embedded in our sociopolitical landscape.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
For music therapy colleagues, I would simply say, remember to take the time to nurture yourself while you are nurturing others in therapy. Music therapy practice can be very rewarding; it can also be very challenging. Make time for yourself, make music for yourself.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Break free from the stigma about mental health. Know that it is just as important as physical health and just as deserving of attention and, where needed, support. To say nothing of regular check ups!
- Take time for yourself each day. Set up a routine with at least some time in the morning dedicated to self-reflection and motivation, and some time at night to decompress. Music (music listening or music making) can make this time a creative ritual.
- Understand that self-care and self-compassion should be an important part of your daily life just as adequate food and sleep are.
- Take advantage of the powers of music to improve your life. Use music intentionally for relaxation, motivation, and personal exploration.
- Consult with a music therapist to explore how you can use music more fully, dealing with deeper issues, and immersing yourself in rich music making experiences.
- Each of these may seem fundamental — and perhaps they are — but they can be critical for optimizing mental wellness. And of course, we do not need to go through life alone; on this path, reach out to friends, family, and professionals for support.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
While retirement planning is not part of my work, I have recently retired myself in the past year. So, I will speak to my own experience. Whether you are a musician or have never played a note in your life, music can contribute to your successful transition in retirement. I sing and play a number of instruments in my professional life but decided in retirement to learn a new instrument in a new style — Irish fiddling. It’s been great, opening up a whole new world for me, and a whole new set of friends. Music can stimulate our cognitive and physical processes. It can also allow us to connect deeply with our emotions and with others in our lives.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
I have worked with teenage girl survivors of sexual abuse and found music therapy to be particularly effective. The same is true of teens who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced violence. Music is an important part of their subculture. It can represent an incredible resource for building strength and resilience. There’s so much music out there reflecting the experiences both good and bad of growing up in our culture. Listening to the experiences of others in music can break isolation and provide a sense of understanding and belonging. Sharing that music with others (in person or online) can provide support in dealing with challenges — and our times are certainly challenging now. Writing your own music — even if just lyrics — permits deep personal expression. Sharing your original music with others (again in person or online) can be very empowering — putting your voice out there to the world.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
That’s a challenging question. I’ve read so many great books. At the moment, I would say “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger” by Soraya Chemaly. She writes eloquently about women’s experiences in patriarchy and about how women’s rage — historically suppressed — can be released and used to bring about revolutionary change. I’ve seen this reflected recently in the music of strong singer/songwriters using their anger and voices to demand change as well. You can hear this in the Dixie Chicks’ Not Ready to Make Nice; you can hear this in You Are the Problem by First Aid Kit. Each channels women’s anger through music to demand change. And we certainly need change now.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement to end violence against women and girls. Of course, this is a movement that has already started, one in which I have been active in, and one I would love to see achieve its goal. It has been a long time coming. Of course, no one is free until all are free so this movement must encompass focus on ending violence and discrimination as it intersects with gender, race, Indigeneity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and more. I would love to see this as protests continue for racial equality (a movement, not a moment). As Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and founder of the #MeToo movement, commented about broadening the Black Lives Matter movement: You can do two things at once; you can walk and chew gum.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I actually have two, both related:
“I am no longer working to accept what I cannot change. I am now working to change what I cannot accept.”
“They thought they could bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Both of these I saw on protestors’ signs at recent Women’s Marches which were part of the #MeToo movement. They speak to me as powerful recognition that each of us has an important role to play in making change. They also speak to the power we hold — even when at times we may feel overwhelmed. We are seeds.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
On my website (www.sandicurtis.com), on Twitter (@CurtisSandi), or on Instagram (sandicurtismusicheals).
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!