By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
Music’s beneficial physiological effects have always been evident to Doreen harpist Michael Johnson.
The accomplished musician is about to embark on a series which will bring harp music and meditation together, with a free introductory lesson on Friday.
The session will be at Brookwood Community Centre in Doreen, open to anyone.
“Music stops us focusing on things that happened in the past and the possible things that could happen in the future and really puts us in the present moment in a very peaceful way,” Mr Johnson said.
“I’m aware as a musician of the effects it has on me, and I’m also aware of the effect music has on the audience just by watching the audience with their eyes closed and all breathing in time to each other.”
As an established concert performer and the resident composer and musician at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne for more than 20 years, Mr Johnson has played many instruments, but is best known for his work on the harp, with which he fell in love for its unique reverberating and resonating qualities.
“The harp really literally sang to me,” he said.
“It does what no other Western instrument does. When you pluck, for example, middle C, and you dampen it – in other words stop it from ringing – all of the other Cs on the harp ring out [and] it’s the most beautiful sound.”
Alongside his performances at the Botanic Gardens, Mr Johnson began to play at yoga classes and meditation events, and was asked to work for the Gawler Foundation, a not-for-profit cancer support organisation and meditation retreat in the Yarra Valley, piquing his interest in the many ways that music can help people.
His career has taken him across Australia and beyond through documentary music he’s composed for the ABC and SBS.
But more recently Mr Johnson has put music under the microscope, undertaking study in music and neuroscience at Swinburne University.
“I’m actually able to carry out [research] at places like Delmont Psychiatric Hospital, where I’ve worked for the last 10 years practising mindfulness and music with the dementia patients and also people with schizophrenia, bipolar and chronic depression, because in each of those cases, even though mindfulness is part of the non-drug intervention, it’s very difficult to get into meditation in silence for people with those illness because silence is deafening for them,” he said.
“If you have a whole lot of voices in your head arguing with your own thoughts, it’s very hard and very distracting, and music, because it releases that lovely cocktail of serotonin [nicknamed the brain’s calming chemical], melatonin [the sleep-regulating hormone], oxytocin [ the ‘love hormone’] and dopamine [the ‘happiness hormone’] in the brain, what ends up happening is it almost anesthetises the fear of ruminating thoughts.”
Ruminating thoughts are excessive, intrusive thoughts about negative experiences or feelings, which are particularly persistent in people who have experienced trauma. But these thoughts can also be triggered by stress in mentally-well people.
“You don’t have to have a mental illness to have ruminating thoughts and particularly so with times of stress like during the bushfires and during the lockdowns during COVID,” he said.
Since 2019 Mr Johnson has been running a meditative music program at the Botanic Gardens, but this will be the first time he has brought his two passions to Doreen, and he encourages everyone to give it a try.
In the first half of the session, he will guide the group through meditation while playing hypnotic, slow-heartbeat music on his harp.
He will help participants enter a state of observation, rather than past or forward thinking, noticing and focusing on breathing and temperature.
The second half will be a simple performance, where Mr Johnson will play music he has composed in nature and in the Botanic Gardens, telling the stories behind each piece.
This first session will start at 7pm on Friday in the Brookwood Community Centre’s Hazel Glen Room at Doreen. Tickets are free but bookings are essential and can be made at www.michaeljohnson.com.au/concerts.htm.