Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

January 28, 2017

They Just Play The Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — karaswanson @ 9:48 am

My friend Linda has been teaching piano for over forty years now.  Over all those decades, with literally hundreds of students, she has developed many tools to reach and teach people of every age and learning ability.  To give them the robust gift of music.

I had always wanted to play but, even before my brain injury, I had never learned to read music.  To me it was like Statistics in college….like some foreign, frustrating language that everyone seemed to be able to speak except me.

I had taught myself to play some over the years.  With a handful of guitar chords that I practiced over and over and with some easy chord books and song selections that included just the few chords I knew, I was able to strum a little guitar here and there.  Never anything great but enough to enjoy it and actually recognize the few songs I was trying to play.

Linda knew I had always wanted to play piano and the idea kept returning to me when I was recovering.  I kept coming across evidence and testimony of music as a useful tool to help unlock cognitive potential in recovery.

I think she, too, was curious about the challenges a TBI survivor might face when trying to encourage the brain to execute the many simultaneous demands in order to play.  You have to be able to read the notes, process them and apply them to fingers which are attempting to find corresponding keys.  You have to read two sets of notes in order to play the right hand and the left hand and have all of those things happen together, over and over, throughout a song and within the confines of time measurements.

For someone like me who cannot, some days, manage to pair two simple things together and execute them at the same time for even a moment, the idea of stringing those skills together over the course of an entire song felt almost impossible, really.  I didn’t imagine it would be much fun if I couldn’t keep up with the processing speeds and one simple song would take ten minutes to play.

Didn’t sound like too much fun.

Linda knew, too, that, when I used to play guitar, I would come across a tough chord that I hadn’t mastered and just play a G.  I told her, “Yep, just play a G anytime you don’t know a chord….”  For an award-winning, classically-trained professional, I’m sure she was aghast.  Laughing here.

We decided to give it a try and just see.

Linda searched the myriad strategies that had served her so well in helping the countless students she had taught.  She realized that, when we hit roadblocks that TBI had made so frustratingly distinct to my potential, she threw out the playbook and literally rewrote the language of music in a way that my brain could actually recognize, organize and process quickly enough to stay in a song.  We stuck to songs I knew so that the familiarity might add to the processing speeds.  We drew pictures in the margins of the sheet music and found ways around the demands that I simply could not execute.

And I played the piano.

The other day Linda was telling me about her new piano students.  Two of them are just six and seven and she reported how well they are doing and how quickly they are picking it up.  I told her I was a little embarrassed by how hard it was for me, even before my brain injury, and she said something interesting that made a light go on for me.

She said, “Kids just play the music.  Adults have a lot going on in their heads.  They bring a lot of baggage.  Kids don’t ask why.  They don’t second-guess the music.  They trust the music and they just play.”

As soon as I heard that, I thanked her for my new blog subject.

In any life I think we all get caught up tripping over the baggage.  In our own heads, we complicate the simplest of notions, of gestures, of evidence.  We deplete ample.  We muddy. We can take a beautiful ice sculpture of an eagle and keep chipping at it and finding flaws and seeking perfection until all we’re left with is one big honkin’ ice cube.

Admittedly, with a brain injury, we may have to rewrite the music a little.  There might be drawings in the margins and notes and skips and end-arounds in order to allow ourselves the gift.  But the gift is the music.

We gotta just play it.  We just gotta hold tight to the simple truth that it is a good thing to play it.

Giving ourselves the most extraordinary gifts of life:  love, music, compassion, forgiveness, wellness, inclusion, support, peace….is worth every note in the margin.   For those of us with TBI in our lives, those gifts are worth every strategy, counsel, learning, medication, and compensatory tool to get us there.

I cried that first time I played Silent Night with two hands, chords and all.  I cried.  It was a little slow and admittedly a simple version, but it was Silent Night, nonetheless.

Thank you, Linda.  Thank you to all of you out there willing to help us enjoy life’s most beautiful gifts.

I played Silent Night.  And into that Silent Night, I poured music.  Into the dark still where sometimes hope flickers and falters, I poured hope.   And flames of tomorrow’s possibilities sparked tall and bright, crazy into the night.

Just play the music.



  1. Hi Kara,

    This is such a beautiful blog! Thank you.

    I am an occupational therapist and I work in TBI rehabilitation specifically with children. U recently worked with a young girl who sustained a terrible TBI. She is recovering but is living and facing the challenges of her injury. Before her injury she was incredibly musical, played by ear and danced through life to music. She has found it incredibly difficult and has almost left all music behind- bust behind closed doors will sit at a piano and try.

    I was wondering if you could share some of your strategies, simple songs and things you have done which has enabled you to play the Piano. I would love to see if they could work for her too?

    Thank you again for a wonderful blog post!

    I too am inspired and challenged to keep playing the music!


    Sent from my iPhone


    Comment by Tam — January 28, 2017 @ 10:21 am | Reply

    • Hey, Tamsin! Great name and thank you for all the work you do as an OT on behalf of all of us. You rock!!! I think the biggest part of successful music therapy would be for your client to experience some success in order to give herself some hope that there’s some good music left inside her. We used Christmas songs because I was so familiar with them. We used easy-read books which eliminate most of the more challenging notes.Perhaps you can convince her that she is re-teaching her brain. It’s not that she’s slow or dumb or whatever she’s telling herself. She is giving her brain ways to succeed by doing things differently. I focused on one line at a time. I didn’t try to force my brain to follow and keep up thru a whole song for a long time. I just wanted to hear a line I could recognize and that gave me a small chunk to actually learn which increased, then, my processing speed. I used note stickers at the beginning in order to reduce the time between reading the note and finding the corresponding key. I didn’t worry about the left hand until way later and then just played the chords I could manage. It’s hard for us because, often, we cannot bring our progress along to the next lesson. It is lost or forgotten. So the information has to be actually learned instead of remembered. Taking one small line until it bypasses all of the TBI potholes and gets to our long-term memory will take some time. Hopefully you can describe it in a way that allows your client to imagine how she is helping to unlock closed doors in her brain with these efforts. Nobody starts off running a marathon. They walk a few blocks, even, before they start running again. Ask her to be patient with her brain and to give it just small chunks to learn for a while so it can succeed. In that way, she’s not failing to play music. She’s actually working to fix her brain and there’s no failure in that effort. Good luck and thanks again for all you do. :))) Kara

      Comment by karaswanson — January 29, 2017 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  2. Oh geez! This is awesome! Love that you found a teacher who put her thought and heart into YOUR need! If only…

    On a side note (LOL) I found this with my daughter when she was 8. We discovered she had dyslexia, and low and behold, was a non-reading third grader (epic fail moment for mom who has been reading since age 3-yup… really reading books). What she had was a marvelous MEMORY. She could figure stuff out to fake it, but no, she was unable to read. MUSIC was a HUGE part in her ability to put the bits together to read. 🙂 And now, with her own daughter with the same issues (looks like her and also has her reading issues) but at age 6 AND with both a parent AND a teacher with dyslexia (!) we are running a great race!

    Hugs from me to you my friend! Rock On! 🙂

    Comment by Barb George — January 28, 2017 @ 11:21 am | Reply

    • Barb, thanks for posting! That’s soooo cool that you were able to find a way to help your daughter and now you have ammunition to help your grand. 🙂 Music is such a medicine!!!! You always make me smile, Barb George. Thank you for a thousand of them. xo Kara

      Comment by karaswanson — January 29, 2017 @ 9:26 am | Reply

      • Hi Kara! Of course I posted this on our support group page (which is private so people feel confident to share… ). One of our members JUST had his 20th anniversary of his injury, and did a short concert for us… at one time he had a record deal (which celebrating basically caused his accident). I do have permission to share this remark with you… He lost most of his abilities after the accident but has been working hard the last 4 yrs to ‘get it’ again.

        From Everr Itt: That is a well written piece. She really touches the heart by reminding us what a gift. especially to those of us that have been blessed to have had the opportunity, when we were just children l, to learn an instrument or vocals, what a gift it truly is! It amazes me also how perfect the balance of performer, the creator / listener, the appreciator, is… For it’s not nearly as fun, when I play to myself, as it is to for other people who really appreciate it! 🙂

        Comment by Barb George — January 29, 2017 @ 4:09 pm

  3. This struck a chord with me, yes, pun intended. I took guitar lessons at age ten, my sister took piano lessons and became quite good. We both lost interest and neither of us plays any instrument and neither of us can read music. But, we both still would like to play something, anything and learn how to read music.

    This post reminds me that it is never too late and there are never too many challenges to try something new.

    Thanks for reminding me to dream, hope and just do.

    Comment by Lynn McIntyre — January 28, 2017 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

    • That’s awesome, Lynn. Good for you. Can’t think of anything better to do on these cold, grey weekends than to write, to paint, to play music….I hope you will. Maybe you will, one day, send me a video or post one on FB of you plunking out something fun. :)))) Wouldn’t that be awesome. Big smiles here. xo

      Comment by karaswanson — January 28, 2017 @ 5:58 pm | Reply

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