If music be the food of love, play on.
Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”
The 2021 baseball season is upon us, and to my surprise I have gone back to the sports pages to check on the Red Sox who, after a halting start, went on a nine-game winning streak. I still haven’t recovered from the Mookie Betts trade (he’s hitting .323 for the Dodgers), but the Red Sox players look like a scrappy bunch, and post-game comments from team manager Alex Cora, back from a year in exile, are music to my ears.
Even so, I still keep track of the front page coronavirus statistics. Over 90,000 New Hampshire residents have become infected, and more than a thousand of our fellow Granite Staters have perished. The Covid-19 survivors can attest to the truth of what my father used to say, “It’s no fun to be sick.”
New Hampshire leads the country in distributing its allotted vaccine doses, but even so, we are not yet up to 25% fully vaccinated, and new cases are going up, not down. To quote Governor Sununu, “We are still in the thick of it.”
I suppose the best way to avoid getting infected would be to live alone on a desert island or move into a leftover 1950s bomb shelter. Short of those extremes, we can follow such commonsense practices as voluntary mask wearing and social distancing. We can also think harder about how to stay healthy in a broader sense—don’t smoke, avoid fatty foods, get some exercise, watch your weight. Will power comes easier for some than it does for others, and no matter how careful we are, luck has a lot to do with it.
I have had the good fortune to avoid serious illness so far, but I know better than to take much credit. Recent experience reminds us that even the most careful person can get sick. If that happens, we may have no choice but to see the doctor, who will likely make a diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment. Whether it’s “it will go away on its own,” medication, or the hospital, modern science is finding that music and poetry can help us prepare for treatment and get over our symptoms.
On April 13, 2021, the New York Times featured two health-related columns, one captioned “Read the Doctor’s Advice, Chapter and Verse,” the other “Music Shows Its Power to Soothe and Heal.” Both articles resonated with me.
The Pianist has been telling me for decades that music is good for the body, not just the soul. She is a fan of the neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks, whose book “Musicophilia” promotes the idea that for patients with illnesses ranging from migraines to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, music can “speak” in a way that words cannot. He cites case histories that prove the healing power of music.
The Times article about “music therapy” cites medical benefits at all stages of life, from neonatal intensive care units to oncology waiting rooms to surgery recovery rooms to hospice care. Unlike medications, music has no worrisome side-effects, and listening to it requires no will power.
A psychiatry professor quoted in the poetry article says that “Poetry can serve as a vaccine for the soul.” His point is that all of us go through difficult times, and often poetry can provide a lift that pills cannot. When I read those words, I immediately thought of Robert Frost, who wrote “Whose woods these are I think I know, His house is in the village though.” No matter how many times you read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” or practically anything else he wrote, you discover something new and uplifting.
The poetry article cites Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem as an example of the emotional and social power of poetry. “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true; that even as we grieved, we grew.” And “Being American is more than a pride we inherit, It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” Like the poetry of Frost and many other poets, these powerful words do more than rhyme and inspire. They can encourage us to feel better about ourselves and about the future.
You don’t have to be sick to listen to music or read a poem. You can do it just for fun. I recommend Chopin, George Gershwin, and Dave Brubeck, along with Frost, Amy Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. But if you prefer, you can start with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and then turn to “Casey at the Bat.”