Full text of contemporary pianist Robin Spielberg’s talk: “The Healing Power of Music” at TEDxLancaster conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The healing power of music by Robin Spielberg
Robin Spielberg – Contemporary pianist and composer
I’d like to talk to you about the transformative power of music. And I’d like you all to ponder this: Can music save a life?
I am a pianist, composer and recording artist. I’ve been playing the piano for a very long time. One of the most common questions I get asked is how… when did you start playing the piano?
And in truth, I really don’t have a memory of not playing the piano. If you were to ask my mother, she probably would joke that I began playing the piano sometime in the womb.
But really, this is what I do remember. I remember being this kid about seven years old and taking piano lessons and I was very lucky.
I consider myself lucky because I discovered early on that playing the piano simply made me feel better. Whatever was going on with me, hard day at school, tough family day, sitting down and disappearing into the pianos made all my troubles just melt away. So I continued playing.
And here I am just about hitting adolescence. Things getting kind of crazy. And in searching for the ever elusive soundtrack to my life sometimes I came up short. And so I started composing my own.
I continued taking piano lessons, but I started getting the acting bug in high school. And in college, New York University, I majored in undergraduate drama.
After graduating NYU, I co-founded the Atlantic Theater Company with several of my classmates, and I spent the next 10 years as a struggling actress in New York City.
Because I had the skill set of playing the piano, I was able to stay centered and focused and employed and pay my bills. Because I was able to work in piano rooms, in hotel lobbies, all throughout New York City.
Eventually, I recorded an album of my original piano solos and that really took off. And that launched my career as a recording artist and a touring artist. And here I am performing at my Carnegie Hall debut in 1997.
I love writing the soundtrack to my life. And while I’ve never become a household name or wildly famous, it does give me a certain amount of satisfaction to know that my music has provided the soundtrack to so many other people’s life cycle events.
My music has accompanied couples down the aisle, has lulled babies to sleep, and has helped families in mourning. And I’ve heard from a number of graduate students studying for the bar exam that my music has kept them company, late into the night.
It wasn’t until September of 1998, in a life changing, very scary and tragic incident that I realized that music had even more power than I had ever realized.
I was pregnant with twin girls. Everything was going very well; the pregnancy. The only thing that went wrong was that the pregnancy was too short. I experienced preterm labor in my 22nd week and I was in the hospital on bed rest for 11 days.
There was an infection in one of the placentas, and so the doctors had to perform an emergency C-section. This infection was threatening everyone’s life. And the doctors did not expect the babies to live. One did not survive, but the other one did. And we named her Valérie from the Latin Valour to be strong.
Before you start feeling too bad for me, Valerie’s here in the audience today. She’s a happy and healthy teenage girl.
Here she is about the size of a Beanie Baby. She was born weighing twelve ounces. And the protocol in the hospital at the time was to only perform lifesaving heroic measures on babies of a certain weight. And she didn’t meet that criteria.
We had a very, very kind nurse in the O.R. She put her thumb on the scale for us. So our daughter could tip that scale at one pound, one ounce. So on her birth certificate, it says 11 inches, 17 ounces, Valérie Spielberg Cosson.
Here’s a little another photograph of her close up. She was too small to be put into an incubator, so she had this station. And here’s my wedding ring that she’s wearing is her bracelet. Valérie was the size of a can of Coca-Cola.
Now, the NICU 15 years ago was not anything I expected it to be. It was filled with wonderful doctors and wonderful staff, but it was also a very loud place. It was hustling and bustling. It had the energy of an emergency room. As I mentioned, it was loud.
It was not the kind of environment that you think of when you think of babies that need to heal; that need to recover. I wanted so badly to give Valérie the gift of music. I wanted to play piano for her the way I did when she was in utero. That’s what calmed and centered and focused me. I knew it would do the same for her.
So I did the next best thing. I asked for permission to bring my C.Ds to Valerie’s station so that we could drown out some of these other ambient noise that were so displeasing. And the nursing staff said, sure, OK,
Well, they noticed something very interesting. When my music was playing by Valérie’s Station, her vital signs improved. In other words, her saturation, her oxygen saturation levels increased, her blood pressure stabilized, and her heart, while still needing lifesaving surgery, was getting a little bit of a better rhythm.
And this was not just a fluke. This didn’t happen over a 24 hour period or a couple of weeks. We were in the NICU for a long four months, and time after time this is what we noticed. And we could see the evidence on the monitors. And it was not just Valerie who was affected. It was all of the babies who were within earshot of the music.
Well, I was perplexed. I understand music preference. I understand that. What I couldn’t understand were how this infant… actually that I really couldn’t call Valerie an infant. Valerie was a fetus growing outside the womb.
How could music have such a positive medical, real physical effect on this fetus?
So I did some research and I went online and I discovered the research of Dr. Jane Stanley. I located her research through the American Music Therapy Association’s Website: musictherapy.org.
Dr. Stanley worked at the University of Tallahassee in Florida, and she has spent decades of her career studying this: the effects of music on the premature infant. Her studies basically concurred with everything that we had been witnessing in the hospital.
Studies came out years after we left the hospital showing that singing or playing womb like sounds to infants help soothe and calm them. And two hundred and seventy two preemies were studied and it was noted that neurological changes took place after music therapy was employed.
Valérie came home, years went by, and we continued to play music, sing music and incorporate music in her daily life, because micro preemies like Valérie are subject to a myriad of learning disabilities, delays and medical conditions.
We thought it was important to continue whatever we were doing with music, as other conditions presented themselves. One thing that presented itself rather early in elementary school was a condition that showed us that Valérie had difficulty with her short term memory.
This became a problem in the second and third grade when teachers started sending home worksheets and asked students to memorize facts. I remember one of her first tests was on the definitions of some very simple health terms. Vaccine, thermometer, germ. She was to define all of these terms and be able to answer them on a test.
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