Ep. 146 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is Dr. Gene Beresin, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and senior educator in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. In his 40 years working with youth, Dr. Beresin has focused on prevention, early intervention and treatment of teens and young adults, and is often called upon by media to weigh in the impact of societal issues relevant to this vulnerable population. He is executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is an author and conference speaker and has consulted on a variety of TV shows, including E.R. and Law and Order SVU. And he’s a fellow podcaster. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music, Dr. Beresin.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:00:56] Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:57] Well, I was really intrigued to see your combined backgrounds in music, medicine and psychiatry. You have a B.A. in music from Princeton University, M.A. and Philosophy and MD from the University of Pennsylvania. And in addition to your clinical work, you’re a musician and member of the band. I love this Pink Freud and the transitional objects. Tell us tell us about your background and how your musical and medical paths converged.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:01:27] Well, I guess it began with my mom. My mom was a concert pianist when she was younger. She grew up during the Depression, and I guess she inspired my interest and love of music. So I began as a classical. Taking classical lessons at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. But I could never I could never match her. And I had a Godfather figure who was a stage manager at Broadway musicals. And Davy used to take me backstage, and I would see these great shows, you know, Oklahoma and and because in Philadelphia back in those days, they would take the shows to Philly first, and then they would if they if they passed muster, they’d go to New York. And I learned to play standards by ear. And my mom always would say, oh, man, how do you do that? So, you know, it was great. So so it began with that. And then I picked up guitar at age 13 and studied with John Pilla, who was just a wonderful guitarist, and played backup with Doc Watson, Eric Anderson, Arlo Guthrie. And he was just he was just phenomenal and worked at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where I got to meet all kinds of cool people, you know, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and icons of of Piedmont and Delta Blues. And continued playing the guitar. And and then when I went to medical school and graduate school, I went back to the piano and learned a little bit of ragtime country pop music. And continued. And even now, I’m you know, I always study, but I study. I’m studying with Ben Cook, who plays with the Boston Pops and and with a Berkeley guitar graduate, Earl Pugh, who teaches me guitar each week. So I keep up the practicing. It keeps my chops up. And and I’ve learned that the coolest thing is with the Clay Center. We make videos and I’ve written and performed the soundtracks to the videos and to the podcast music. So I’ve been able to kind of like be a doctor. And also now learn, you know, to integrate music with my medical career.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:50] Yeah, you still get that music fix in there. Now you tell a little bit of your story in your book, your new book, which hopefully we’ll have time to talk about that. But you tell a little bit about how you dropped out of medical school to be a musician, but someone at the school kind of intervened. Tell us just real quick. Well, what happened? What happened there?

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:04:12] Yeah, I mean, you know, I went to college 67 to 71, and I was very active politically. And because it was the war in Vietnam and civil rights movement and women’s liberation movement. And when I got to medical school, it just wasn’t that wasn’t a good fit at that point in time. And I was playing with this guitarist and this coffeehouse, and he said, Hey, how’d you like to come in the philosophy department? And I said, Geez, I’ve only taken two philosophy courses in college. He said, Don’t worry about it. You can get in. We have a teaching assistantship open. And I went in and I took called the dean up and I said, I’m going to just do philosophy in music. And he said, Wait, we’ll put you in an MD, PhD program and give you six years of free tuition. Just do. Anything relevant to to medicine. And and, you know, it turns out that, you know, it took me a couple of years to figure out that pure academics was not right. And I just needed to help people. And and then I went back to medical school and. And it was much better.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:19] Uh huh. So fun to hear people’s paths. And sometimes they’re very straight and linear, and sometimes they have lots of twists and turns and curves in them. Yeah. Well, tell us about how music can be utilized for improved health and well being for adolescents. We’re hearing so much about mental health now. Was that the surgeon general who came out with sort of a warning really about the state of mental health in our young people in our country, and there’s now been a recommendation that young people over a certain age is at eight be screened for mental health. Is that right?

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:05:57] Yeah, This was beginning pre-COVID. I mean, you know, for the last, oh, 10 to 15 years, depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness and suicidal thinking and behavior has been escalating and escalating in in adolescents and young adults. And the surgeon general did come out with a warning that we were in a youth mental health crisis, as did the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations. And it’s a huge problem. Now, what’s what’s amazing about it is that among the recommendations that that he that he made, they made were for just basically helping these kids get seen. One of the things that’s also important is prevention and also promoting well-being. And that’s where music is one of many elements that come in. So well-being we think of positive and this is Seligman’s work, positive emotion. So what is music? Does that engagement with others? You know, teenagers love sharing playlists, you know, listening to music together, going to concerts. Now, during COVID, they couldn’t go to concerts, so they would share playlists and do things digitally. Meaning So the meaning of music, I mean, it’s a huge it’s a huge what? What do you listen to how you interpret your music, how it identifies who you are and what kind of group you’re going to be in, how how it differentiates you from other people.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:07:30] It’s very meaningful and accomplishments. I mean, many adolescents will be playing music, so it decreases stress, it decreases loneliness, it increases one sense of identity, even negative identity. I mean, you know, heavy metal with its morbid themes and decapitation and bloody, bloody existential, you know, horrifying things for certain kids. That was very important. And the same thing is true for for rap, which wasn’t so much focused on the morbid themes. It was focused on oppression. Well, it is morbid, but oppression, racism and kind of more social bonding than other stuff. But but, but music is very important in social bonding and in teens finding out who they are and what they’re all about. And of course, you know, we all remember our first romantic relationship, our song I still Remember Mine with my girlfriend when I was driving around in high school. So it connects people together.

Mindy Peterson: [00:08:38] It’s kind of like social glue.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:08:40] It is social glue. Dick Clark said. Music is the soundtrack of our life. Dick Clark of American Bandstand from I’m from Philly. So I mean, that’s where it came from. But but it is it is a social glue and it’s universal, but especially for young people, I think it’s really super important.

Mindy Peterson: [00:08:56] Well, I have two kids who are both swimmers. And we’re going to talk a little bit about an adolescent subset, youth athletes who we’ve also been hearing lots about mental and emotional health with this group of young people. One of my kids swam Division one on an athletic scholarship and the other is in high school. So I have a special place in my heart for youth athletes. And when we had the most recent Olympics and Simone Biles withdrew for mental and emotional health reasons, I mean, as a parent, when you see more and more of those situations happening, it really gets your attention. Tell us some ways that music can be applied specifically with youth athletes and the pressures that they face.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:09:42] Yeah, my daughter in high school was on the state champion field hockey team and played Division one field hockey at you at UMass. And I know what those pressures are. They’re huge, particularly when you’re dealing at a high level, but even at lower levels. I mean, you know, tryouts are. Very stressful making. You’re not making the team injuries. So where does music come in? Well, first of all, a lot of young people and professional athletes will listen to music as a way of diminishing stress, of preparing themselves mentally. And they’ll use it often in combination with meditation, which is extraordinarily helpful for keeping you kind of focused and relaxed. But at the same time geared up. And, you know, I mean, the other another aspect of music is most schools have bands and the bands have their fight songs and they pump the kids up. But also music is very helpful in decreasing anxiety and in decreasing pain. So, you know, there’s a lot of there’s been a lot of research on the use of music for various medical conditions and. Two conditions that have been really shown in numerous studies are its use in decreasing anxiety, increasing focus and in decreasing pain. So it’s very helpful for young people if they’re injured, to use music to help diminish the pain.

Mindy Peterson: [00:11:13] One thing I was just thinking about as you were talking is depending on the the child or the young person. Some young people seem to have a real intuitive ability to identify what they’re feeling and inability to express it and articulate it. And then some don’t, which is probably more normal. That age should not be able to identify and articulate what you’re feeling and experiencing. But I’m thinking that some of these young people, these young athletes who are experiencing the pressure that goes along with their sport, they may have feelings that they’re not able to really identify and express. And I can imagine music being hugely helpful for them, in particular when they find a song that either has a melody, that has lyrics that they can really identify with and resonate with them, and that can be their way of expressing how they’re feeling at that moment without really needing the skills to verbalize it and articulate it themselves. And my thoughts on that.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:12:23] Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. Music is a wonderful way of expressing what you’re feeling, how you’re feeling, and and when it’s shared among teammates, certain teammates who are under a lot of pressure or stress can share songs and share the same feelings and share the same direction and bond with each other. So it can be it can be not just an expression of feelings, but it can also be kind of a social glue. I mean, many teammates have songs that they identify with and that they play, you know, before before games and after games. So it’s extremely helpful for the group process and it’s extremely helpful for identifying the feelings. And I think you’re absolutely right, too, about the lyrics. I mean, lyrics are extremely important. I had a hard time myself remembering lyrics during college. I was a kind of a singer songwriter and back then I did remember the lyrics. But, you know, for me it’s hard to kind of stick to the lyrics because I get so immersed in the music. Everybody, everybody uses it differently.

Mindy Peterson: [00:13:39] You’re totally right. Do you have any resources or recommendations for young people, for their teachers, their parents in general? And then I’ll ask you the same question related to youth athletes. But first, young people, adolescents, teens in general and their teachers and their parents who may want to be a little more intentional about utilizing music to enhance their teen’s mental and emotional health. Do you have any resources that you can recommend for them if they want to dig into this a little bit more?

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:14:12] Well, there are a lot of books on music. My book is a great resource which we can talk about music, mental health and wellbeing that’s edited by McDonald is a wonderful resource. Dan Levitin wrote a couple of books This is Your Brain on Music and and the World where music in six songs, I believe that’s the title. There are a number of those books that can be resources. They’re not as practical as a resource. They’re, I think, better for understanding the value of music. My feeling is, is that the best resource is going to YouTube, going to Spotify, asking people to share music. I mean, the members of my band, for example, will send around, you got to hear this, and they’ll say, We have we have a we have a group list on our on our phones. And at least once a week somebody will say, Hey, dig this, you know, and, and and I think going to YouTube, which is a wonderful resource for music, exploring, sharing it with others, discovering it yourself, finding out new things is probably the best resource. Now, if you wanted to get more into the theory of how music works, that’s where you can get into music, mental health and wellbeing and some of the more academic books. The book that I wrote was much more kind of down to earth pragmatic because.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:15:54] One of the things that I wanted to include in it was a whole section on how stories, narratives that about maybe 40 people, doctors, music therapists, everyday people, people that have lost loved ones to illness, to suicide, people who had cancer, how they used music to promote their own well-being as opposed to health, even though it’s it’s a part of the series Arts for Health. I was focusing more on wellbeing because you can be you could have a terminal illness and and be in a positive state of well-being with the help of certain things like music, creative arts and engagement with others. Awareness if you wrote emotions meditation. So there’s a lot of ways of promoting wellbeing and music is, I think, one of the most direct ones. You know, it kind of number one, it’s it’s amazing. It utilizes so many parts of the brain. It’s not as though it’s localized to one region. It brings together your identity, your history, your emotions, your thoughts, your intentions, your motivations, the direction you’re going. It grabs you and it and it’s captivating. So there’s something about music that hits the spot. And so I would say the best resource is exploring with others different kinds of music and trying new music out. Don’t just stick with what you know, which but but explore.

Mindy Peterson: [00:17:44] And I’m just going to quick interject for listeners that your book is called Music Arts for Health. It was just released late October of this year, and I do love how you talk in the book about, well, being and kind of explaining and defining what well being really is. What does that mean and how it doesn’t preclude illness. Like you, as you mentioned, you could be in hospice dying of an illness and still experience while being. So I love how you describe that in the book. And you also mentioned the kind of the heart of the book being these stories of people, of people’s experience with music and what it meant to them, how it changed their life or impacted their life. And as we’re talking about resources for people and how music is not a one size fits all, but it can be so different depending on the individual. I think just reading through those stories in your book can be really inspiring for people and cause them to think, Oh yeah, this would be a great way. Like this really resonates with me. This would be a great way for me to utilize music and my own state of wellbeing, or they hear somebody’s story that is different than theirs and it just gets those creative wheels turning where they come up with their own idea of how music could be useful in their life for their for their wellbeing and health.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:19:13] Yes, I totally agree. I mean, I think I think that I intentionally wanted the book to convey how a wide range of people use music to promote their own wellbeing and tell a story of how it helped, why it helped and inspire others to kind of learn from that. And music, you know, it’s kind of like a story. It has a beginning, it goes some place and it ends, you know. So yeah, so the narrative part of that book was and still is my favorite.

Mindy Peterson: [00:19:53] Yeah, Well, and you include your story in there too, which I enjoyed. And one, one thing I like to that you point out, I’m just going to read this quote from your book. It’s part of a series of books that link health and social care disciplines with the arts and humanities. So there’s there’s a whole series. Other titles include film and theater, singing, reading and so forth. And yours, of course, is music. But the quote that I wanted to read is the books demonstrate the ways in which the arts offer people worldwide a kind of shadow health service, a non clinical way to maintain or improve our health and wellbeing. And later on in that introduction, it talks about how there’s guidelines, case studies and resources to make use of these non clinical routes to a better life. And I loved that description of it. Anything else that you want to say? About the book. Before we I do want to sort of go back to that resource question and ask about some resources specific to youth athletes, but anything else first that you want to say about the book?

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:21:06] Well, I think, you know, the book also talks about how music helps various medical conditions such as Parkinson’s, other movement disorders, pain management. You know, it’s not a surprise that that the dental offices are. You have background music, dance, rhythm. You know, it combats loneliness. It also is very useful in mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders. So I really appreciate that. And then the other part of the book is, is that at the end I wanted to kind of give some guidelines about how we can engage in music. Anybody can. Everybody can. And what the challenges are, whether you’re going to be playing a music or whether you’re going to be listening to music or singing. It’s not a surprise that the people, you know, sing in the shower, for example. Number one, it sounds great in the bathroom. The bathrooms, acoustics are wonderful. But but, you know, when you’re singing, you’re not alone because it’s like a performance. It is a performance. And even if you are alone, singing kind of helps you feel connected. We humans are pack animals, you know, where we need each other. And music has always been a connection. Whether it was Leadbelly writing about chain gangs, line and track, or whether it was a connection of other kinds of workers, or whether or whether they’re songs of protest or songs that would bind people together. National anthems. I mean, why do people tear up when they hear America the Beautiful or the national anthem is because it has a special meaning.

Mindy Peterson: [00:22:58] And it goes back to that identity that you mentioned.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:23:01] Right. Right. And and you know what I love about the ball game besides Doctor John’s version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame that he played at Wrigley Field, which is a great a great experience. The way the national anthem is sung these days. When I grew up, it was always kind of like a band playing it. But but now we’ve got rock and pop and all kinds of singers doing their own versions of the national anthem a cappella. And it’s great.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:35] Well, we’ll definitely include links in the show notes where people can get their hands on your book so that they can read about all of the many ways that music impacts our physical health, our our mental health, emotional health. Also, that part of the book that includes those powerful stories from real people about how music impacts their life. And then you also include practical ideas for integrating musical practices into a lot of different settings. So we’ll have a link in the show notes where people can get their hands on that. Going back to that resource question. What resources do you recommend to youth? And I would say youth athletes and their parents and coaches who want to be a little more intentional about implementing music into their routines, their ways of improving their well being.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:24:30] Well, I don’t know of any that are specifically related to sports.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:37] Do you know of many? Do you think there are many sports psychologists who utilize music in their practice?

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:24:44] Yes, there are. There are. And and they use it largely for diminishing anxiety, for focus, as I said before, as almost part of a meditative experience, because meditation is a combination of body relaxation and focus concentration. So when you put those two together, music can really be an incredible adjunct to to meditation. The use of drumming, the use of percussion instruments can really be helpful. And the sports psychologists, you know, if a player is anxious and they want to increase their focus, they will often recommend making a playlist and listening to that playlist before they play.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:39] Well, music is one of those interesting things that can calm and soothe, but it can also arouse and get us pumped up and excited and motivated.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:25:49] Exactly.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:50] And and you mentioned dental offices using soothing music. And one of my guests, I’ll always remember her coda for her coda. At the end of our conversation, she talked about how she has a real dental phobia, and she knew she had these dental surgeries that she needed to have done, and she had put them off and put them off and put them off. And she finally just made it happen. And she said the thing that got me through it was this song, and I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s been proven by studies to be the most calming, soothing song that exists, and it’s available on YouTube in its full form, which is some incredibly long, I want to say it’s like 2 hours or something like that. If you listen to the full thing, it’s really long. I’ll include a link in the show notes to that episode. But I mean, she used it to get her through this dental procedure. But I imagine sports like youth athletes could also use it when they need something to call them and sue them. You know, it it’s like those adaptogenic herbs that you can use for a variety of situations and settings, and they’ll work in whatever way they need to be utilized in that situation.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:27:08] And it’s performance enhancing. So, you know, a lot of surgeons have music playing in the OR and and and they use it because it helps them maintain their focus, keep their anxiety at a lower level, and the combination enhances their performance. You know, I had a couple of knee replacements and both of the times I was conscious because I had to I had spinal anesthesia and I was chatting with my surgeon as he was operating on me. And and it was a great a great scene. This was a seminal moment of music. And then he said at the end, as he was as he was closing up, he said, So Gene, you want to know my favorite song and it’s pertinent for you. And then he put he put on Fred Astaire singing, No, no, they can’t take that away from me. And and literally, this is not I was not delirious. And the nurses and residents started literally dancing around the operating table. It was like a scene out of E.R. And and but but but, you know, it was just it was just the perfect way to end the surgery. And as a matter of fact, I gave him as a present, Fred Astaire as a remake of that tune and a bunch of others with Oscar Peterson playing the piano. So it’s useful. It’s it’s it enhances performance.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:41] Yeah, I like that. Well, before I let you go, tell us about your podcast, because I think that could be a great resource for a lot of people, too. Your co hosts of the podcast Shrinking It Down Mental Health Needs simple. Tell us about it.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:28:55] Well, this is a podcast from the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and it’s largely geared towards parents and to teenagers and young adults. We have it once a month. We usually bring in a guest expert and on topics that are of of interest, you know, that it’s related. It’s all related to mental health. We begin and end the podcast with with a tune that I wrote. And in fact, the coda is the outro. I wanted the podcast to be kind of like, you know, when you listen to when you watch Stephen Colbert or you watch the Saturday Night Live or Back way back in the old days with Johnny Carson, you would always know that it was coming on because there’s the intro and then the outro and like bookends. So I wrote this tune and got my son in law’s band called Chocolate and Some Friends, and we recorded and I played the piano and we recorded the intro and the outro. I think my code is going to be the the yeah, I’ll.

Mindy Peterson: [00:29:57] Just go right into that and we’ll include a link to in the show notes to your podcasts. Anything else that you want to say about the podcast before you go right into our coda, which if a listener is new to the podcast, I’ll just explain. The coda is how I asked my guests to close out our conversation. A coda is a musical ending, and our coda in the podcast is the guest sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. So tell us anything else you want to tell us about your podcast and then just go into the coda.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:30:31] So but let me let me tell you about how music, the seminal moment that music enhanced my life. It wasn’t the podcast, but I was thinking about that question and the one moment that music really was special for me. I was a junior in college and an April 30th, 1970, we invaded Cambodia. And at Princeton, there was a midnight vigil where we turned in our draft cards to the dean of the chapel. That was the beginning of the student strike that began May 1st. And I sang The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. That was a song written by our former poet laureate, Bob Dylan. It really was a protest song written in 1963 about an African American barmaid who was killed by the cane of this guy in Baltimore. It was one of the first songs that was really kind of a song about racism that struck me. And I sang it in the chapel as my fellow students were marching to deliver their draft cards. And I’m not the best singer in the world, but that probably was one of the most special moments in terms of my relationship with music, because it was at an incredibly important time and in a beautifully written song, a very tragic situation, but incredibly meaningful, especially at that at that time in my life. So, yeah, so.

Mindy Peterson: [00:32:07] It’s cool just to hear how how impactful that that song and that moment were for you some 50 years later.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:32:15] And, you know, I would I imagine many of the listeners have not heard that song, but go look at the lyrics. Dylan was not just a great songwriter, but a wonderful poet. And it’s it’s a powerful piece of art. So I would highly recommend getting it on YouTube and or looking and reading the lyrics.

Mindy Peterson: [00:32:38] I can probably include a link to the show notes to that as well. Well, should that be your code or.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:32:46] No, no, no, no, no. I think. I think I think the coda should be something that I wrote which and played so. So I think that the coda should be the podcast coda because it’s more relevant to kind of what I’m doing now.

Mindy Peterson: [00:32:58] Well, and when I see a band with a name called Chocolate in Friends, I’m all in. So tell us some more about this song and Cold chocolate.

Dr. Gene Beresin: [00:33:08] Well, well, the song is called Shrinking It Down, and it’s it’s it’s kind of a swing tune that I thought would be kind of upbeat and would be really great for the beginning and the end of the podcast. My son in law, Ethan, has a band called Chocolate and his drummer and bass player were there. And then I had friends, guitarist Milt Reeder and his sax player, and I played the piano and we just we went into his recording studio for that. And normally I don’t go into recording studio as I do it here at home. But that was that was so much fun to do.

Mindy Peterson: [00:33:45] So this is shrinking it down the outro for your podcast. Yes. All right, here it is.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai