Judy Collins


The Power of Music

For more than fifty years, Judy Collins has wooed the world with hits such as “Both Sides Now” and “Send in the Clowns.” Now age 74, the Grammy award-winning singer shows no signs of slowing down. She is the author of several books, founder and CEO of a record label, Wildflower Records, and she’s an activist, speaking around the country about mental health and suicide prevention. Collins also still tours heavily. Recently, she was the featured performer at the 13th Annual Music Has Power Awards by the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Preserving Your Memory talked with Collins about the performance, her long career, and why she believes music can soothe the body and soul.

Preserving Your Memory: How was the performance at the Music Has Power Awards?

Judy Collins: Oh my goodness, it was just wonderful. It was so interesting because just as I was leaving to go [to the event], I received a letter from my neighbor’s daughter. I’d given him a copy of Over the Rainbow, my book and audio CD, for his grandchildren. His daughter was writing to say they had played the songs for his wife, who is suffering from dementia. His daughter said when they played the songs her mother became very animated and danced around, and for the length of the song, regained herself. I read the letter to the audience during my concert. I thought it was such a very interesting and synchronistic thing that went along with the power of music to be healing.

PYM: Has music helped you through the struggles [alcoholism, depression, panic attacks, grief, and bulimia] you’ve had throughout your life?

JC: Absolutely. For me, art and music—the practice of music, the listening to music, the attention to art in general—are all things that help our mental health. They encourage us to be mentally healthy and to be involved with our lives in a very direct and active way. I have always been involved with the verbal and the visual arts. These are the things I’ve depended on for my mental and physical health, my enjoyment, and my education.

PYM: One tragic situation you faced was your son’s suicide. [Her only child, Clark, battled addiction and depression for many years. He committed suicide in 1992.] Do you have advice for people struggling with grief, loss of a loved one, or mental illness in the family?

JC: The things I suggest to survivors and people who are witnesses to dementia and the loss of presence in their loved one is to get your life in order. Put the oxygen mask on yourself and make sure you get the help you need. Get therapy if you need it. Look for groups of people that can help you. You have to take care of yourself. Go to concerts or other places for entertainment, get a massage or facial, and take care of your feet. All of these things are important for laughter, therapy, and staying on top of your own mental health.

PYM: In your book Sanity and Grace (Tarcher, 2003), you mention some of the people who helped you cope after Clark’s death. When dealing with mental health issues of a family member, how important is it for people, especially caregivers, to have a support system?

Judy Collins has captivated many listeners with the power of her voice.
Judy Collins has captivated many listeners with the power of her voice.

JC: It’s essential. You cannot have a healthy life without a support system. Reach out to people you can talk to spouses, friends, therapists, people in your spiritual group, anyone who can be on the same wavelength and listen to you. One of the most important things we can find in life is somebody to listen to us. My old friend Ed Schneidman wrote books about suicide and was considered to be the father of the suicide prevention movement. He felt talk therapy was instrumental in healing and that people could get through anything and live past midnight if they were in talk therapy. It’s an extreme point of view, but having done this and been in talk therapy for most of my adult life, I totally agree with him. I very much believe in human contact as a healing force.

PYM: Some reports say your mother had Alzheimer’s. Is that true?

JC: No, she didn’t have Alzheimer’s. She died of a stroke. She had a number of mini-strokes, which obviously is different from dementia, but the result is similar because the brain shuts down in certain areas, and the person disappears on you and doesn’t remember names and other things. So it’s the same kind of result, and of course it’s very upsetting.

PYM: What about your own health? You still do a lot of performing. How do you keep yourself physically and mentally healthy?

JC: I do a number of things in my regular daily life to ensure my health. For me, exercise is the most dramatic mood-altering activity I can do, so I exercise on a regular basis and I’ve been doing a form of meditation for about 35 years. I also watch what I eat and stay away from junk foods. I try to do activities like crossword puzzles, practicing piano, and making music to increase my brain health. I take vitamins, and I don’t take any mind-altering drugs or drink. I also laugh a lot. I think laughter is something that is very healing and important in terms of mental health.

PYM: You recently taped a special in Ireland for PBS?

JC: Oh, yes. We did a wonderful show at the Dromoland Castle in County Clare, Ireland. I had three guests. Ellen Ellis, a wonderful six-year-old step dancer, danced to one of my songs. Mary Black, a wonderful Irish singer, did a duet with me, and I did another duet with Ari Hest, a very fine up-and-coming American singer-songwriter. Then I sang a lot of the old wonderful Irish songs like “Danny Boy,” plus some new songs of mine like “New Moon Over the Hudson,” which is about Ireland. We had a wonderful band with pipers, guitarists, and drummers, and it was just a magical night. The special will air on WGBH (in Boston) and around the country on PBS in March.

PYM: Anything else in the works?

JC: I do 120 shows a year around the world. We usually list all the concerts on my website, judycollins.com.

PYM: Wow! How do you do it? To what do you attribute your success and longevity?

JC: Many things have contributed to my being able to sustain a career in music for 54 years and be working more and better, I think, than I’ve ever worked in my life. First, I’ve always had a positive attitude about life. I’ve had a lot of illnesses. I’ve had polio, tuberculosis, alcoholism, hepatitis, eating disorders—you name it. I’m always hopeful. I always know I’m going to live through whatever it is, somehow. I’ve also always reached out for the help I needed. I’ve gotten therapy since I was around age 23; I went to treatment and stopped drinking 35 years ago; I’ve read books on mental health; and I’ve read and listened to nutritionists and healers. I believe the discipline of my life, having a positive attitude, being willing to seek help, and having music in my life are all things have contributed to my being able to have a full and healthy lifestyle.

PYM: Any final words for the readers?

JC: Just stay in touch with the arts and music, and keep your brain and heart happy!

Music as Medicine
A number of studies show music therapy can be beneficial to people with dementia. The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF), in Bronx, N.Y., strives to expand the growing pool of knowledge. Its staff studies the link between neuroscience and music therapy, educates and trains future music therapists, and provides music therapy services to a broad range of people, says Concetta Tomaino, DA, MT-BC LCAT, the co-founder and executive director at the IMNF.

Music Has Power Awards
Started in 2000, the Music Has Power Awards recognizes people who have contributed to advancing knowledge about music and the brain or have otherwise helped advance the IMNF’s mission. Selecting Judy Collins as the featured performer for this year’s ceremony was an easy choice. “We like to have an artist that resonates with our mission,” Dr. Tomaino says. “Judy’s music has deep meanings for many of the people we knew would be in attendance, and Judy herself speaks about the transformative power of music and how important it has been in her and her family’s lives.”

Music and Alzheimer’s
Research and clinical practice show people with dementia still recognize music that was personally important to them, says Dr. Tomaino. “The music tends to have historical connections that are emotionally charged and representative of a certain time, person or place,” she explains. With music therapy, those particular songs can act as a gateway to seemingly lost memories.

In addition, during early dementia, use of melodies may help patients recall names of people, addresses, phone numbers, and things they need to do. Music may also influence mood, reduce agitation, decrease wandering, and help manage other behavioral issues.

Although music therapy won’t cure Alzheimer’s, it goes a long way in helping to improve the lives of dementia patients, caregivers, and their families.

Music at Home
Use these tips to incorporate music into your loved one’s daily life.

  • Start with songs from his youth or songs you know he once enjoyed. However, don’t be afraid to try different things. Coming up with a good playlist may take some trial and error.
  • Watch the response. If your loved one seems upset or otherwise negatively affected by a particular song or type of music, remove it from the playlist. On the other hand, if she seems to enjoy a song, play it more often and try out similar music.
  • Don’t overstimulate. Refrain from playing music too loudly and avoid programs or stations with commercial interruptions. Also, eliminate other distractions like the television and background conversations, noises, and movements.
  • Use faster-paced music to boost mood. To induce relaxation, say, during mealtime or before bed, play or sing slower-paced, soothing songs.
  • Encourage toe tapping, hand clapping, or even dancing. Music provides a good opportunity to get in some physical activity.

By Tamekia Reece