A mindful approach to sound

Dr. Irene Feher offers a sound bath for students to practice mindfulness by listening to instruments and humming.

“Let yourself relax and receive,” said Dr. Irene Feher, a singing teacher in Concordia’s music department during the sound bath she hosted on Feb. 22. Attendees closed their eyes to become witnesses of their inner worlds as they immersed themselves in gentle sounds from singing bowls, hand pans, ocean drums, flutes and humming.

After a half-hour of mindful listening, the group took part in an active humming practice. Vocal toning is a means of self-administering sound healing practice and allows individuals to use their natural voice to create a healing frequency through their vocal cords’ vibration. 

This technique was brought to Feher’s attention by friend and teacher Dr. Shelley Snow, a psychotherapist and music therapist. It can be used to center the mind and find clarity by setting an intention beforehand—it is different for every person. After the session, people felt relaxed and sleepy. 

“It’s odd but delightful to take a short, mindful break,” an attendee shared during the event, which was made possible by CU Wellness.  

Feher explained that mindful practices like these allow a person to connect to their vital energy, a spiritual force that can be used to heal, develop spiritually, and gain inner peace, clarity, and a more positive perception of the world. This way, a person can achieve a healthier sense of self, reducing stress levels and lowering cortisol. She added that mindful practices helped her when she had difficulty sleeping during the pandemic or when she was stressed the day before a music performance. 

“Silence is your friend,” Feher said.

The practice of vocal toning reminds her of babies humming in the maternal womb and it attests to the power of sound to heal, as described by Snow. “We were comforted as babies by the voice of our mothers,” Feher said.

During the pandemic, she developed her own daily mindful routine based on Snow’s teachings. Feher saw that both faculty members and students enjoyed these practices as she began offering mindfulness sessions.

Feher’s instruments include hand pans, sound bowls, drums and more. Photo by Félix Laliberté / The Concordian.

Mindful Campus Initiatives encourage everybody to participate. They are made possible by the university to help students tackle mental health. The initiative aims to create a healthy sense of community and shared experiences to the students. 

Beyond the confines of the university setting, Feher said these practices have a greater potential. According to her, there is a possibility of creating a large vibration in the room, which is as powerful as touch. Feher said it could also create a field of healing vibration directed toward the whole world or wherever it is needed, for example in Gaza or Ukraine. 

Snow believes this force is like water flowing through the earth and keeping the plants alive, or the life that lets a soul speak. The transfer that can happen is like inhaling and exhaling.    

The focus of this area of study is the impact of consciousness on the world we live in, along with the links between our thoughts and the visible world. As discussed by Snow, the book The Healing Power of Sound explains that music and sound are linked to every level of human existence, be it emotional, physical, spiritual or mental. It is like several branches from a tree as many different approaches coexist in this field of mindfulness, spirituality and alternative medicine. 

Feher will be giving another sound bath open to all at 5:30 p.m. on March 28 in EV 2.776. Sign up on the event page.


The power of music therapy

Music as an avenue for recovery, a tool for personal betterment

Music is much more than just the content of a song or album; it has the potential to empower people and help improve their lives.

Music therapy is different from traditional therapy, where people talk to a therapist about their problems. “Music, because it affects you in a complicated fashion physically, emotionally, psychologically and cognitively all at the same time, sometimes helps break through these barriers of getting past that [problem],” said Sandi Curtis, a long-time music therapist and a professor at Concordia.

Sometimes people are not ready to talk about their traumatic experiences, so music can help them express themselves. When Curtis works with women who have survived psychological, physical or sexual abuse, music is an important tool that fosters the conversation. “It’s not me talking to them or them even talking to me,” Curtis explained. “Music makes that opening where, they might not be prepared yet to talk […], but they can put it into music.”

Curtis recounted the case of a woman who had been sexually abused by her uncle as a child. “The family was fractured. Half the family believed her, and the other half didn’t.”

Some music therapy programs encourage participants to write songs as a cathartic release. “When she finished writing and recording the song, she took the recording and gave it to her abuser, and she said: ‘You know the truth, and I know the truth,’” Curtis said. “That was a powerful moment for her, to get over the fact that half of her family was never going to believe her.”

Music is an outlet for deeply personal feelings and thoughts. Yet, before I spoke with Curtis, I didn’t know the impact music therapy could have. It was extraordinary to hear about the power of music in traumatic situations.

Although Curtis studied music at McGill, she knew performing and, at the time, teaching were not for her. “Back in the day, there wasn’t that much understanding or awareness of music therapy, but I did some exploration,” she said. “There were no programs in Canada at all.” Instead, she decided to study music therapy in the United States.

Curtis’s experience ranges from working in palliative care and the deaf community to working with people with disabilities, survivors of violence and domestic abuse, and even prison inmates in the United States. “I got an opportunity to work at a maximum security correctional facility for women in Georgia. That was quite interesting—I thought, at the time, that I was too much of a Canadian to handle it,” Curtis said with a laugh.

At the correctional facility, Curtis met women who had survived domestic abuse, women who used had violence to escape their abuser. “I began to see how much of an impact that male violence against women has in their lives,” Curtis said. “And that was way back in the day, before the #MeToo movement where we are beginning to understand that it’s in almost every woman’s life.”

During that time, she began to realize the power of music as therapy. “It’s a wonderful creative tool, but it also gives a voice,” Curtis said. “Survivors are so often silenced by their abuser. Music gives them a voice, a physical voice expressing how they’re feeling and a very powerful way of recovering from incredible trauma.”

Therapy sessions typically begin with listening to artists who sing about violence, which helps enforce the idea that survivors are not to blame for the violence enacted on them. “So often,” Curtis said, “survivors of violence think it’s their problem. They’re isolated purposely by the abuser; they are told it’s their fault.”

Curtis aims to integrate music that will resonate with the person when they listen to it. She noted that hearing artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga sing about how they don’t deserve abuse can empower the patient to feel the same. “They could begin to think: ‘Oh, maybe I don’t deserve it too.’”

Next comes music creation, working together to make music and discussing the experience. People who attend music therapy sessions do not need any experience or background to participate in the music process. “In music therapy, all of you can be singing the same thing [in group sessions], and maybe sharing a common experience or maybe having completely different meaning of the experience,” Curtis said.

For her, the most important part of being a music therapist is using her musical talents to help people. “So, rather than being the audience far-removed and just applauding, you are working very intimately with somebody,” she said. “You’re helping them improve their quality of life.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


engAGE-ing in research to reasses aging

Concordia research centre explores music therapy, community programs, technology

As Concordia’s newest research unit, the engAGE centre has one very specific focus: interdisciplinary, innovative research that aims to improve the lives of elderly people.

Funded by the office of the vice-president of research and graduate studies, the engAGE centre features research from all four of Concordia’s faculties.

According to Shannon Hebblethwaite, the director of the engAGE centre and an associate professor in the department of applied human sciences, the centre specializes in diverse and community-focused research that “aspires to change how we think about aging.”

“EngAGE researchers partner with older people and their communities to address challenges and facilitate opportunities in all realms of life—social, physical, cognitive, emotional and political,” Hebblethwaite said.

She also explained that the research conducted at the centre is separated into four groups: culture, creativity and aging; community, care and connectivity; health, well-being and the lifecourse; and politics, policy and the economics of aging.

Culture, creativity and aging is focused on fine arts approaches to elderly care, including art and music therapies in long-term care facilities and research about how cultural factors influence obituaries and the remembrance of the elderly.

The Concordia engAGE research centre is focused on interdisciplinary research to improve the lives of elderly people. Photo courtesy of Shannon Hebblethwaite

Community, care and connectivity focuses on community programs and improving elder care, while the remaining two groups focus on medicine and policy.

Specific research projects include a study on how technology influences the relationship between older people and their family members, coordinating “Art Hives” (free, public art sessions open to all community members), and research on how music therapy can impact elderly people living with dementia.

Despite the centre only receiving Senate approval in June, engAGE researchers have already developed connections with local, national and international partners.

EngAGE is working with community non-profit organizations, including the advocacy group RECAA (Respecting Elders Communities Against Abuse) and Group Harmonie, a Quebec organization focused on assisting elderly people struggling with addiction and substance abuse.

Additionally, Eric Craven, the project coordinator for the Atwater Library’s Digital Literacy Program, serves as the centre’s community representative on the engAGE governing board.

EngAGE has also conducted research in partnership with a number of hospitals, including Sacré-Cœur Hospital and the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital, and has worked with residents in long-term retirement homes, including Chartwell Retirement Residences, a company with nearly 180 residences across Canada.

According to Hebblethwaite, the centre’s researchers will be focused on a number of events over the next few months. Several engAGE researchers are preparing to present some of their findings next weekend at the annual Canadian Association of Gerontology conference in Winnipeg.

Additionally, the centre will be co-sponsoring Age 3.0: Aging in the City, a public educational event on Nov. 1 that will feature panels and workshops given by the centre’s researchers. EngAGE’s governing board is also planning a symposium during the winter 2018 semester, although a topic and date have yet to be chosen.

Ultimately, Hebblethwaite’s primary focus is the research the engAGE centre facilitates. She said the centre’s main goal for November is to “explore opportunities for new and innovative collaborations among Concordia researchers and community partners.

Photos courtesy of Shannon Hebblethwaite

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