“The urge to communicate is crucial; it’s where those creative juices stem from,” says Erin Cooper Gay, a Toronto-based musician who has created the music outreach organization, Health and Unity Through Music (HUM), amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the most inspiring phenomena we have seen in social isolation stem from the innovative ways we are connecting through music. It started with viral videos from Italy showcasing neighbours singing to one another from their balconies, and has developed into the thousands of online collaborations and concerts that flood the internet. On April 26, concert special Stronger Together united Canadian icons from the worlds of music, sports, and T.V. in support of Food Banks Canada’s $150 million campaign. During the broadcast, Canadian hockey hall of famer and current medical student Hayley Wickenheiser partnered with Ryan Reynolds to introduce Conquer COVID-19, a grassroots, volunteer-driven organization that is facilitating access to priority products for the healthcare community. Many other celebrities involved in the special sported the signature Conquer COVID-19 black T-Shirt with bold white lettering. It is an organization that has continued to grow over the last month through numerous drives to collect personal protective equipment across the country.
Cooper Gay recently connected with Suleeman Ahmed, co-founder of Conquer COVID-19, to discuss the possibility of partnering with HUM to create a music initiative involving online concerts for long-term care homes. “I started a Facebook group as a way to galvanize musicians. My idea was to pay tribute to the residents and workers of the long-term care homes by compiling songs and performing concerts. It’s about focusing [on] the art we share online” she says. The idea started at the onset of physical distancing when Cooper Gay was featured leading her neighbourhood in a musical tribute to front-line workers each week on the City News Friday evening segment. “Knowing many great musicians putting content online, I thought maybe there is a way we could harness this to create something more tangible for the people who need it most right now.” Cooper Gay is currently collaborating on a pilot trailer to pay tribute to the 29 Pinecrest residents who have passed away since an outbreak was declared on March 20. She hopes that by taking action, she can inspire others to find ways of helping those who are vulnerable.
As innately social beings, we feel the need during this time to connect not only through screens or phone calls, but through emotional mediums like music. Research has shown that when we sing together, our brains produce the hormone oxytocin, which is closely linked to human socializing and is released when we form social or intimate bonds with others. Oxytocin not only increases after making music together, but after even just listening to music. It’s why group singing sessions have sprouted up across the internet and the world’s greatest musicians are partaking. As Cooper Gay says, “it’s visceral for us all as musical creatures to find a balance between moods and music by using music as a therapeutic tool to get a response from our bodies, our minds, and our souls. To connect with that while isolated makes all the sense in the world.”
A series of studies conducted by researchers Chris Loerch and Nathan Arbuckle analyzed the connection between music relativity (how much one is affected by listening to music) and group processes such as feeling a sense of belonging. It was found that music reactivity is causally related to basic social motivations and that music in essence is how we affiliate ourselves to groups. When we move, vocalize or match one another through musical interaction, our sense of community and positive behaviour increases. This tendency to synchronize becomes even more fundamental as we are isolated from one another. Today, digital interfaces are introducing us to a world full of live streams where live concerts once lived. We are finding ways to navigate social distancing by connecting virtually, and sharing what we create to maintain our hope and perseverance. “It gives me structure and keeps me sane,” Cooper Gay says of putting music content online and organizing HUM. She hopes that music therapy will become more widely recognized as we come out of social isolation.
A recent CBC article asked music therapist Dany Bouchard of Montreal General Hospital “How can you relieve anxiety caused by social distancing?” His answer was simply put: By listening to music, you are centreing yourself in the moment. Whether you are receptive to music or actively making it, your mind is temporarily occupied, therefore relieving anxious thoughts, rumination, or speculation. In all forms, it is a mindfulness tool. The practice of music therapy is to use music as medicine in a physical sense, like through drum circles as Bouchard mentions or through personalized audio montages to fit various moods and liberate emotions.
During an unprecedented time, it’s necessary to be cathartic; to listen to a song until its resonance forms tears; to join an online concert of your favourite band; to use music as a psychological outlet and a mindset.