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Music & Creative Arts for Self-Care

Accessible Exercises to Facilitate Your Personal Self-Care Practice.

By Tia Mae Frostrom, MusicWorx Intern

As a current music therapy intern, I love being able to support others through music every day. Music has the power to connect with each person as needed. Developing and refining my music therapy skills through internship has not only affected my professional practice but has positively impacted my personal self-care and wellness. 

Engaging in self-care can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; increase happiness; improve energy and concentration; minimize frustration and anger; and more. 

I am aware that music therapy may not be an option for everyone, so I’ve gathered some simple creative expression exercises that can support your self-care practice. For MTs, may this guide be a reminder that our own therapeutic and artistic skills are just as valuable in our personal self-care practice. 

[Disclaimer: Engaging in these activities and exercises is not practicing music therapy. Do not try practicing these techniques on others without music therapy education and qualifications.]

Breathing Exercises

Recently both in and out of work, I have increased my own practice of intentional space and breathing. I have already noticed a positive shift in my wellbeing; in staying calm, feeling less burnt out, refocusing more easily, etc. 

According to Insider, “ Mindful breathing has been shown to reduces anxiety, help with burnout, provide certain types of pain relief, and decrease negative thinking. ”

Here are a few breathing exercises for your personal use; you can adjust the counting and pacing to suit you. As you continue practicing, you may increase counting to support deeper breathing.

Box (or square) Breathing

Box breathing is a technique of breathing in for a four beat count, holding your breath at that peak for four counts, pacing your exhale for four counts, and holding your exhaled breath for four counts.

This technique connects our breathing with a rhythmic pattern, which supports breathing regulation and helps us return to a steady breathing pattern. If you identify needing an exercise to support regulation, whether in day-to-day or in stressful situations, this is an effective practice.

Elongated Exhale

An elongated exhalation while breathing signals to our brains and bodies to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which supports relaxation. Here’s a guide of how to practice: 

  • Use the 4 count beat as a starting point. Inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts. 
  • Lengthen your exhale. Inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts. Repeat as comfortable.
  • As you continue practicing, you can continue extending your exhale to 8 or more counts. Adjust the counting as needed to what is comfortable for you. 

This Healthline site provides additional effective breathing exercises with detailed descriptions and uses.

Artistic Activities

I love expressing myself through creating art with musical support. Mandalas, blackout poetry, and painting are just a few ways to connect with your artistic self.

Mandalas

In art therapy, the mandala is a tool which provides both structure and freedom in creative exploration. I’ve attached an example mandala below. For more information and direction, refer to this former blog post by Sarah Murrin: Beginner’s Mandala Manual

Blackout Poetry

Blackout Poetry is when you take a piece of text and pick specific words or phrases to keep as your poem and ‘black out’ everything else. Other adaptations include creatively drawing over the sections of unused words. Overall, there is no wrong way to do blackout poetry. You don’t need prompts, but can create your own prompts or choose a theme in your choice words and art. If you’d like to further analyze your creation, you may adapt some of the prompts under the lyric analysis section of this blog in reflection of your blackout poetry.

Mandala Example
Blackout Poetry Example

Musical Activities

There are a variety of musical activities you can self-facilitate. Here are a couple ideas. 

Lyric Analysis

Lyric analysis of an existing song is used to facilitate thought and discussion exploring meaning, emotions, thematic content, life experiences, personal issues, coping mechanisms, life applications, and more. Use a song that holds meaning to you. Lyric analysis may bring a deeper understanding of the song and may provide meaning and reflection to your personal life.

Here is a general guide to engaging in a self-guided lyric analysis:

  • Print or use an online document with the lyrics to your song of choice. Make sure you are able to take notes with whichever medium you choose. 
  • Listen to the song of choice while you follow along reading the lyrics. Mark (highlight, underline) any lyrics that stand out to you in this first listen and read. 
  • Reflection question prompt ideas:
  • What lyrics stood out to you? 
  • What is the artist expressing through those lyrics? 
  • How do different sections of the song lyrically connect with or oppose one another? 
  • What themes do you notice within the lyrics? 
  • How do these lyrics reflect in your experience? 
  • What can you take away from the song or lyrics? 
  • Can you identify ways to apply your insight from this song into your own life?
  • Feel free to take more listens and read throughs of your song choice as much as you need. You can continue reflecting on those prompting questions until you are ready to close the analysis. 
  • Here’s another resource from AMTA, with more prompts: Lyric Analysis Reference Guide

Drumming / Body Percussion

Drumming supports wellness, reduces stress, increases relaxation, boosts the immune system, releases or transforms negative emotions, promotes awareness, and in a group setting also supports communication, sense of belonging, and more. Group drumming circles are great for self-care, but if you don’t have access to them (time, money, etc.) there are still options to practice drumming on your own! If you have a drum, that’s great, if not, body percussion is a great alternative. Play on a drum, on your lap, on your chest, stomp or tap your feet, wherever is comfortable for you. Some rhythmic options are a basic 4/4 pattern beat, playing a rhythm that sounds like a heartbeat, or playing along to a track or meditation you enjoy. As you continue in any drumming experience, you can feel free to add more complex rhythms, vocalizations, movement, and more. 

Here are a couple YouTube videos to play along with if you would like a starting point:

Movement Exercises

Before studying music therapy in college, I had never intentionally paired music and movement for self-care. One of the best parts – you don’t need any music or dance experience to practice. 

“Several studies suggest that dance[/movement] therapy helps people do the following:

  • Develop positive body image
  • Improve self-concept and self-esteem
  • Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Decrease isolation, chronic pain, and body tension
  • Increase communication skills
  • Encourage a sense of well-being ” – University of Rochester Medical Center

Though we aren’t dance/movement therapists, incorporating basic movement practices into our lives can improve our wellbeing. Here are a few movement ideas to consider:

Proprioceptive Squeezes / Massage

The proprioceptive system is similar to kinesthesia, residing in our joints/muscles and providing body awareness and perceiving location, pressure, movement, and force of our body. It’s also connected with our sensory processing in our body. 

Proprioceptive input can be very calming for those who are easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation. Proprioceptive input can be alerting for those who need increased sensory stimulation to facilitate attention and learning.” – Middletown Centre for Autism

Everyone has a proprioceptive system and receives proprioceptive input. Engaging your proprioceptive system can provide a nice break in your day. Here’s a simple exercise to use:

  • Choose a track with rhythmic structure as background music, for example, J Dilla tracks
  • Squeeze or massage different sections of your body, using the beat to support you. For example:
    • Squeeze down and up your legs.
    • Massaging down each arm from shoulder to each fingertip, then massage up the underside of each arm from fingertip to shoulder. 
    • Shoulders and back of neck area as needed. 
    • Massage the face, noticing and releasing any tension in your jaw, cheeks, or eyebrows, or under your chin. 

This website provides more detail about the proprioceptive system and great activity ideas.

Stretching also pairs well with proprioceptive exercises. Here is a comprehensive pdf resource with a variety of stretches. 

Dance / Movement

I am not a dancer by any means, but if you have your own room/space to explore and express yourself through movement and dance, you may be surprised how freeing it is. 

Some movements may feel uncomfortable at first, and that’s okay! Having your own private space, playing music with positive associations, or starting your exploration by laying on the floor may allow for this exploration to feel more comfortable at the start to explore may be more comfortable.

Put on music you enjoy grooving to and let yourself move with the music; we often forget the obvious step of starting at a basic level of enjoyment. Notice how the music sounds and feels and how you can reflect the music in your movement. 

If you’re interested in learning more about movement, you can look into Laban’s Movement Analysis to identify and connect your movements with musical elements you notice. For example, I may analyze that I engaged in a ‘Dab’ type of effort action when I heard the bells portion of the music. How do those connect and do they hold meaning to you when analyzing? 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, take time to reflect on your self-care needs and identify which exercises may support you in the moment.

You can add background music to most of these exercises. Here’s a playlist I found on YouTube with background music for your use: Lofi House & Deep Grooves Playlist by Majestic Casual

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