Do you exercise with music? Most people do. Music blares at the gym. Just about every runner or cyclist has earbuds in.
Music can be a great motivator. It can keep us going, or going faster, long beyond the point when we lost interest in our workout. A British study from a couple of years ago found that when music was sped up, people exercising on a stationary bike pedaled faster and enjoyed the music and workout more. Conversely, they pedaled slower when the music was slowed (Scand Journal Med & Sci in Sports. 2010 Aug;20(4):662-9. Epub 2009 Sep 28.).
But I don't. I came to serious exercise from outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, and skiing. One of the points of being outdoors in nature is enjoying the surroundings - it just seemed wrong to bring external music into the scene. I got used to paying attention to my body while I exercised instead of being distracted by music. When I started running, not listening to music was a safety choice as well. I have only narrow, windy roads with no shoulders or sidewalks near me, and people make TERRIBLE drivers.
It's not that I don't have music while I exercise, it's just that my music is internal rather than external. I have a constant soundtrack running in my head. The only problem is that I don't have much control over the play list. Tunes arise unbidden, sometimes to rather humorous effect. And once implanted, I'm stuck with them; there's no skipping to the next tune in the cue.
It's not surprising that I have a lot of music in my head. I am a professional musician, after all. But my brain does make some curious choices sometimes.
Yesterday, I got up early to run a half marathon trail race. Around mile 8, my energy began to fade. The Ramones came to my rescue. My brain played "I Wanna Be Sedated" over and over. Good tune. Good energy. Maybe not the right lyrics for a race, but, whatever. The Ramones were briefly interrupted several times by Smetana's Moldau, usually when I ran past a stream. At least the Ramones had a good tempo for a race. At one previous race, my brain played Barber's Adagio. It's really hard to run fast to Barber Adagio.
There definitely is an ironic streak to my brain. When I ran the Potawatomi 100-Mile race back in April, my soundtrack was Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 - Death and the Maiden(??!!!). Really brain, Death and the Maiden? That's what you think is appropriate for my first attempt to run 100 miles?
It's not just while exercising that my brain asserts it's rather odd-ball musical humor. In times of stress, my musical brain kicks out the hits.
In 2001, when I was starting my first round of chemotherapy, my brain produced a soundtrack that I kept a secret for many years, too embarrassed to tell anyone. Just remember, I am a classically trained musician; I went to Juilliard. I have played with excellent orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music groups. I have spent my life playing some of the greatest music ever created.
But apparently disco had an oversized impact on my developing child brain.
I had been in the infusion suite for a few hours already, Ron had gone to put money in the parking meter again, the nurses were in the next room. One of them came in to give me the Adriamycin push. This was it - the heavy drug. And then it was done and she was gone. I was alone again. It was time for me to get to work - everyone said how important positive visualization was - this was the time.
I closed my eyes to concentrate. I did some deep breathing exercises. I visualized cancer cells being destroyed. And then I heard "ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive...." It was so loud that I thought the nurses had changed the station from the crappy light jazz-ish stuff they usually played. I opened my eyes - no, no one was there and some Kenny G rip-off was still playing. Annoyed, I closed my eyes and quietly scolded myself. "This is serious, Julie. Concentrate!" Back to killing cancer cells. But there they were again, the Bee-Gees. Nothing would make them go away. I started to giggle, overwhelmed by the absurdity. Of all the great music in my head, in a crisis, this is what my brain comes up with? I opened my eyes to see Ron and the nurses standing in the doorway, staring at me as I sat in a room by myself, laughing out loud. I started laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath. I could hardly gasp out the words to tell Ron about the Bee-Gees in my head. He wondered about the drugs they had given me.
Each week, there was another tune - tunes I hadn't thought of in years. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive". Thinking that the problem was the image I was using, I'd try a different visual image, but my brain just changed the tune. While busy imagining blowing up cancer cells, there was Queen with "Another One Bites the Dust." The next treatment, I switched to a martial arts theme - yup... Carl Douglas, "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting."
Well, if my brain couldn't produce anything profound in a crisis, at least it kept me amused.
And a little embarrassed. Except for Ron, I wouldn't tell anyone about my chemo songbook. Would you be broadcasting to your friends that these songs had become very special to you, that disco might be saving your life? It wasn't until several years later that I started to come out of the closet about it. I was on tour with my quintet. We had been on the road all day, driving across Wyoming and South Dakota. Marc and I were in one car. It was late; I was driving; the radio was loud. "Stayin' Alive" came on. Marc wanted to switch stations, but I wouldn't let him. I laughed as I listened and sang. Sensing there was a story involved, Marc prodded me. I told him all about my chemo songbook. We laughed until we cried.
Now, 11 years later, I think it's time to come out about what's in my head.