Music, drugs, and rock n’ roll

c70f72d2f5ec952d0cc995fce1d4536cYou know that feeling when you hear a song and it instantly becomes your new favorite? When you can’t get enough, you put it on repeat, and you find yourself hearing it everywhere? I searched for a long time for a word or phrase that encompassed that feeling. Or more specifically, the feeling when the song finally loses its emotional spark and becomes ordinary again, subtly whisked away into the endless sea of playlists. Well, I found that phrase several years ago, in a play that I wrote some music for. The play was a series of poems, and in one poem, the speaker “wore out the magic” of a Spanish dance. I was struck.

A few years later, I was listening to a very complicated and interesting lecture in one of my music therapy graduate courses. Basically, my professor was discussing how music motivates parts of the brain at the cellular level. He said, “Dopamine gives cells their seeking behavior,” which makes sense. We all know music causes our bodies to release dopamine and endorphins through the chemical reactions that occur in the brain.

I thought back to my idea – wearing out the magic. I asked my professor about this idea and how it related to the discussion – the release of dopamine. What happens when you no longer feel that rush? And also, what is happening when you introduce novelty (like a new song)? He responded with a fascinating answer. He said the only thing he could compare it to was drugs. The more you indulge in a song, the more of a “fix” you need to feel that renewed high. Novelty can bring that. And time. Have you ever noticed how excited you get when you hear a song you used to love (see top) but haven’t heard it in a long time. There’s your fix.

After processing all of this information, it seemed pretty clear to me why so many famous musicians turn to drugs. They write (or are the voice of) a hit song, perform to thousands of fans – they must being riding quite a high. And then it all comes down. Night after night. That’s a lot of up and down, which can create a very unstable feeling, especially if the person is still maturing or insecure. So what else can give them that high? What’s a quick….fix?

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but perhaps a rather unique insight because of my work as a music therapist, and it’s this: Musicians might use drugs to provide that high – to match the benefits they get from their music. I use music to provide the benefits of drugs without using drugs.

Troubled musicians use drugs in place of music. I help the troubled by using music in place of drugs.

My patients are in hospice. They take a lot of medications, mostly for pain and anxiety. Personally, I don’t believe music therapy can completely take the place of drugs, but I believe music therapy can allow for a smaller dosage and lessened frequency of drugs.

Music is supposed to make you feel better, it was designed that way. So are drugs. But the difference between music and drugs is that music has (very little to) no harmful side effects. And that’s what I love about music therapy. It is a positive, enriching way to lift someone from a dark place without any* threat of harm. As a music therapist, it’s my job to pick the right drug (song) in the right dosage (volume, tempo, complexity) to reach the proper outcome (smile, memory, relaxation). I trust the music. I just hope the magic never wears out.

*It doesn’t escape me that some music can bring back painful memories and events, but for the most part, I think people would agree that music is painless.


The biggest thing I learned last year

Last year was a whopper. I get tired thinking about it.

Last year’s winter was so awful it was laughable. The company I work for went through what I now call “the dark days.” I officially began what is going to be the most important relationship of my life. My family went through a period of medical scares. I learned how to run. My community in Iowa began to grow, slowly but surely. I crocheted a lot. I got engaged. Lots of babies were born (not mine). And I spent my first holiday season with two different families – my own, and the one I will be married into.

The biggest thing I learned last year was the meaning of the word hard. Or to be more exact, I learned that hard doesn’t always mean “complicated” or “technically difficult.” It just means hard.

Here are some things that are complicated or technically difficult: learning a new crochet stitch; playing Bb major on guitar; trying a new hairstyle you found on Pinterest; singing a song to a patient that you’re unfamiliar with while observing their reaction along with those of other people in the room, while simultaneously coming up with what you’re going to say next and what direction you’re going to take the session.

Here are some things that are just hard. Getting off your butt to go run. Motivating yourself to make dinner when you live alone. Leaving your lovable, engaging family 2 hours away to return to an empty apartment. People not giving you a chance because of their misconceptions about music therapy. EVERYTHING about being in a long distance relationship (or more specifically: having only talking, and having to talk at the end of the day when we’re both tired, not being able to hug each other, missing out on shared experiences, saying goodbye at the end of a trip together.)

I learned this truth one day when I was thinking about how everyone says marriage is hard. After talking to a lot of people about marriage and listening to all they had to say, I realized this: marriage isn’t complicated or technically difficult. Well, it can be complicated, and I suppose things like coordinating schedules would make it technically difficult. But “marriage is hard” refers to the day-in and day-out. The mindless tasks, monotonous decisions of everyday life. I’ve read about decision fatigue – about how each little daily thing all of a sudden becomes a decision because you’re trying to figure out how to live with another person.

Simple things can be hard. That’s what I learned. So the question is, am I willing to do the hard work? What does that lead to? Easier? No.


Max: A Tribute

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 3.45.55 PMMax is my car. A 2005 Mazda 6, to be exact. Dark gray, although I swear it looks green. This week I will make my last car payment and Maxie will be mine!! This post is dedicated to him.

I bought Max from Carmax in Springfield, VA, and while you may guess I named him after where I bought him, Max is actually named after a person – my piano teacher in college, Maxim Mogilevsky. That’s really his name. I named my car after my piano teacher Max because “he gets me where I need to go.” Max was an awesome piano teacher and was great in leading my piano performance life during undergrad.

In 5 years, I’ve lived under 4 roofs in 3 states. When I bought Max, I was working full-time in an office and teaching piano lessons part-time. In fact, the reason I bought Max was because it was getting more expensive to rent Zipcars for my lessons than make a car payment. In the time I’ve had Max, I quit those two jobs, moved out of DC to Winchester for grad school, spent 2 1/2 years there, moved to Ohio for my internship, and then moved to Iowa for my job.

When I bought Max, he had 29,000 miles on him. Now he has 117,000. That is mainly due to my job (and internship) that has me driving 300-500 miles a week. Also, Max drove me over the mountains several times from Virginia to Ohio and back – 500 miles one way. And then of course the 12 hour trek to Iowa.

Max (and I) lived without air conditioning for the first 3 1/2 years I had him. Not because it was actually broken, but because the electrical in the console was loose and the button to turn on the A/C was broken. No joke. I lost count of how many know-it-all wannabe mechanics told me it was the air conditioning itself, but I knew it was the button.

The air conditioning-less years included 3 summers of driving in DC rush hour traffic to my piano lessons, many times in 90+ degrees with who knows how much humidity. I finally broke down and paid for a new console two summers ago and ohmygoodnesshowdidIlastsolongwithoutit??? 

Max also got me through the most ridiculously awful winter of my life last year right when I first moved to Iowa. Lots of white knuckling it and prayers of thanks when I finally got home.

Max has seen lots of DC traffic, lots of farm vehicles, one ditch, and only a couple cops 🙂 This may sound corny, but my real connection happened with Max the summer before I started grad school. I had just quit my jobs and was preparing for school. I had zero money and I ran away to Ohio to live off my family for a couple months, financially and emotionally. It was a really hard transition, but I had one constant – my car. Everything was changing but I still had Maxie. Familiar, reliable, unchanging.

Now? Max is my office, my lunch room, my haven. I spend more waking hours in my car than anywhere else at this moment. So, thanks Max! You mean more to me than you know! Here’s to another 5-10-15 years!?

Your (almost!) owner, Sarah

Finding Faith in the Seasons of Mundanity


I’m reading in Genesis right now, smack dab in the middle of the story of Joseph. What a crazy life. Born a favorite, naively arrogant to his brothers, betrayed and sold, escalated to the highest serving position in every single circumstance he found himself in, ran Egypt, and eventually forgave his brothers and reunited with his father.

Pretty exciting events in there. But what struck me was the amount of time Joseph spent in each season. It’s not absolutely clear in the Bible, but let’s assume Joseph was 17 when his brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites. He was 30 years old when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. 13 years in between. Think about 13 years ago for you. I was a freshman in college. 9/11 happened. Think of all that’s happened to you since then.

We know Joseph was in prison for 2 years, so we can assume he served Potiphar for 11 years. How in the world did Joseph get through those long stretches of time?

Everyone has a plan for their life. What was Joseph’s? Did he try to figure out a way to escape Potiphar and get back to Canaan in the early years and then finally succumb to his lot and accept being a servant? Did he try to find the positive aspects of the situation and serve joyfully? Did he ever get to the point of despair while in prison? How did he keep his faith in God through those times?

It’s easy to praise God in the really exciting happy moments – the birth of a child, the marriage of two people, the achievement of a degree or passing a test, reaching a long, sought after goal. And it’s easy to cling to God in the dark moments – the death of a loved one, loss of a relationship, job, or identity. But what about the other 99% of life? The day after day after day after day after day? Sometimes I feel like I’m trudging.

My answer is I don’t know. Or maybe it’s one of those things that is simple and hard at the same time. The truth is, it’s not glamorous. It’s getting up 15 minutes early to read a passage of scripture you don’t understand half the time. It’s trying to keep your thoughts from distraction during silent prayer. It’s saying, “Oh Lord” every morning when you get in your car to go to work. It’s extending grace and forgiveness time and time again to those around you – and yourself. It’s serving at your church every other week, making dessert for this or that event, tucking in your kids every night with “Jesus Loves Me.”

Strong faith comes from incremental decisions. Disciplined effort. Non Instagram-worthy moments. Obviously, there are amazing times of clarity or insight, and of course it’s all worth it. There is an end goal. Reading scripture in the morning will set your priorities for the day and detox your soul. Prayer will keep the world in perspective and God in control. You just may not see it everyday.

Whether you are exactly where you want to be in life, or feel like you’ll never get there, continue to seek God in the mundanity, wherever you are. After all, loving you is never mundane to God.

Grace and Forgiveness

When the person behind you is riding your tail.
Grace and forgiveness.

When someone dismisses your heartfelt compliment.
Grace and forgiveness.

When you find yourself being hypocritical.
Grace and forgiveness.

When someone cuts you off when you’re talking.
Grace and forgiveness.

When you’re accidentally left out.
Grace and forgiveness.

When you’re intentionally left out.
Grace and forgiveness.

When someone spoils a movie you haven’t seen.
Grace and forgiveness.

When someone ate the last cookie and you didn’t get one.

Grace and forgiveness.


When you smile but don’t get one back.
Grace and forgiveness.

When you work hard and someone else gets the credit.
Grace and forgiveness.

As you start your day.

As your live your day.

As you end your day.


And forgiveness.

Colossians 3:13 – Bear with each other {grace} and and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Freedom Run

I know I’ve plastered stuff all over social media about finishing my Couch to 5K program, but I’m not ashamed to write a post about it! It was SO HARD and I am proud of myself for completing it. I kept myself accountable by choosing to link the app to my Twitter account. I tried to have fun with those tweets… (keep reading after the pics)

Picture 1Picture 2Picture 3Picture 4It did not escape me that I finished the workout plan on the 4th of July. I was thinking about how lucky I am to have this freedom. Meaning – I acknowledge the fact that I:

  1. Have a good paying 40 hour a week job, backed by labor laws, in which I can have a day off
  2. Can run outside alone on safe, well-paved road without the fear of being kidnapped, killed, or harassed (except for a few harmless catcalls)
  3. Have the independence of a single woman to do as I please and not have to live under governmental or cultural male dominance
  4. Can afford really nice workout clothes, socks, and shoes and ways to pull back my hair
  5. Can afford sunglasses, nice headphones, an iPhone with ways to charge it and plenty of music to download to accompany my run
  6. Have unlimited access to CLEAN WATER
  7. Have unlimited access to hospitals, doctors, therapists, trainers, medicine, and medical supplies, if needed
  8. Can afford food to replenish my calories

That’s a lot to be thankful for. While I was struggling to run for 30 minutes straight, other women my age are working in hard labor, or are being trafficked for sex, or are living in poverty with children to feed.

It’s convicting. I need to do more to help those who are less fortunate. That is Jesus’ whole ministry. Let’s come together and do great things for God’s kingdom. It’s okay to focus on doing good things for yourself, like running to stay in shape. But if that’s all we focus on, then we’re keeping ourselves from doing greater things for the Kingdom.

Let’s go.

Songs for the End of Life

Most of my patients like hymns, and I often play what I call the Big 3:  “The Old Rugged Cross,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art”. “Amazing Grace” isn’t part of the Big 3 because it’s in a class entirely by itself. It is by far my most requested song. “Jesus Loves Me” gets an honorable mention. There are other hymns I like to incorporate, lesser known than the Big 3, but still familiar: “Softly and Tenderly,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” among many others.

When the patient has reached the very end of life, with literally hours or minutes left, and every breath calculated and delicate, these songs take on an almost unfathomable new meaning. Songs that might have been sung hundreds of times in church or at camp or revivals are now so potent when being sung to a loved one taking his or her last breaths. Consider these lyrics:

from The Old Rugged Cross:

To the Old Rugged Cross, I will ever be true
It’s shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away
Where His glory forever I’ll share

from Softly and Tenderly:

Come home, come home
Ye who are weary come home
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, oh sinner, come home

from How Great Thou Art:

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I will bow with humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art.”

Anytime there are lyrics that talk about home it really hits you how relevant the song is. It’s a powerful message, so powerful that I have to be careful with these words. If the family or the patient isn’t ready or hasn’t accepted that death is coming, I could do real damage. I’ve been in situations where I held back from singing songs with these lyrics because I didn’t know what the reaction would be. It’s at times like those I have to rely on my intuition and empathy to make the right choices.

When I can sense that the patient is ready and the family has accepted the circumstances, I feel comfortable and led to sing these songs. I also like to sing a song called “Going Home.” The lyrics are simple, poetic, and usually comforting for the family.

Going Home

Going home, going home
I’m jus’ going home
Quiet like, some still day
I’m jus’ going home

It’s not far, just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, cares laid by
Going to fear no more

Mama’s there ‘specting me
Papa’s waiting, too
Lots of folk gathered there
All the friends I knew

Nothing lost, all’s gain
No more fret nor pain
No more stumbling on the way
No more longing for the day
Going to roam no more

Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life yes begun

There’s no break, aint no end
Jus’ a livin’ on
Wide awake with a smile
Going on and on
I’m a’goin home.

The other night my boyfriend and I were talking about heaven and all the descriptions it’s been given. I mentioned how I feel heaven is too glorious, too substantial to be up in the clouds like it’s always imagined. He said he likes to think of it how Tolkien described “the West” at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy:

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

I’ve occasionally used the song “Into the West,” from the LOTR movies, in my sessions, when I’ve felt it’s been appropriate. The imagery paints a beautiful picture and can be comforting for the patients.

Into the West

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You’ve come to journey’s end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You’re only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
Don’t say: We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again

And you’ll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West

Finally, not a song (yet), but I came across a poem that is often used in hospice care and at funerals. I was probably drawn to it because it reminded me of the Tolkien words. The poem is called “Gone From My Sight” by Henry Van Dyke.

Gone From My Sight

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…