COVID CONVERSATIONS #9: Esperanza Spalding


Esperanza Spalding wished to be shown without a mask, as photographed here by LaMont Hamiton.

The last time I spoke with Esperanza Spalding, in 2019, seems a world away, when live music could happen regularly and none of us uttered the word “pandemic.”

Yet even then Spalding was focused on healing. She’d been thinking about how trauma and healing are transmitted from body to mind and back, and how music figures into that process. The album she’d released, 12 Little Spellswas inspired by an urge, she’d said, to create a series of incantations—each one meant “to activate a spell for each body part.” The accompanying booklet reads less like liner notes than an alternative-medicine guide.

Early in her career, she had shared with me the roots of her introduction to music’s transformative power. “As a child, I learned that music could be a nurturing, healing thing,” she told me. “I’ve never forgotten that.” Now Spalding, who is on Harvard University’s faculty, seemed intent studying music therapy and its specific potential. She wanted to prove her point with hard science, and to become a different kind of practitioner. “My hypothesis is grand,” she said.

This summer, from Oregon, where she has been since early in the Covid-19 period, we talked again—about how she was weathering our shared trauma, and what she has learned through the practical application of her ideas about music and healing.

Where are you now?

I’m in a relatively rural town in Oregon. I came back to Oregon on April 1, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m out here in this beautiful space, far from most of the people that I know well. I’m with a few people I know well. I’ve been taking a time out.

How has it been going?

Well, I’m so grateful for Terri Lyne Carrington. Every time I speak with Terri Lyne, it helps ground me in the reality of what people are facing, what we’re all facing. I’ve been a little detached. I’ve been in somewhat of a bubble. I just got off the phone with her about 20 minutes ago, and I felt reactivated. Every time I speak with her, I think—right! That’s how you do it. That’s what it means to be musician and scholar and teacher and leader. I remember more clearly that I have a responsibility to my community. Even though I am sort of a peripheral agent, this is a music that has liberated me. I’m thinking right now about how to step up.

Did you first connect with Terri Lyne through Geri Allen, or other way around?

The other way around. I met Terri in passing a few times. Then she came to perform at Berklee when I was teaching there, around 2007. We played together with Adam Rogers. And we just kept going. I remember when she first talked about the inspiration to start a Jazz and Gender Studies at Berklee. We were driving somewhere, and she started talking about the mentorship dynamic, and how it’s always going to be an unequal experience unless we find a way to expose more young men and women to the mentorship of women. And then, two years later, she was doing that. I was so fortunate to witness that.

When last time you sang or played in public?

It was probably at Harvard. Claire Chase has these throwdowns. They’re invitations for both musicians who are being by Harvard and musicians who are paying Harvard to get together and share sounds. And to not feel so tied to the academic context. The last throwdown was probably March 7 or 8. I played with Vijay Iyer. I played saxophone and he played violin. It’s a sort of like free-form dance when I play saxophone.

You played alto, or tenor?

Alto, of course. I wouldn’t dare… Anyway, that was the last time. We both decided we would offer something that had no spitshine, no polish. Part of the motive for doing it in that space is to be like, Fuck it, let’s play!There’s so much of this, I must be correct and do the thing that I am supposed to do. The reason I do things like that is so I can look like a fool, and it’s okay. It’s okay to just play for each other.

And then, in March, everything started getting canceled in March. I was supposed to do Vijay’s Black Speculative Musicalities event at Harvard.

The last time we spoke, you and I talked in depth about the science and the practice of healing through music. Have you been able to apply any of that to our current situation?

Yeah, that is a very vibrant conversation. In the last two months I’ve been in a learning experience around that. Before Covid landed, before we really knew what it was, I had decided that it was time for me to make music healing front-and-center. I assembled a council.

I started reaching out to people who could be my allies and guides for this journey. What does it mean to collaborate with clinicians in the medical field? One of the council members became chief medical officer at this field hospital during the crisis. So we said: Oh, what we’re going to do is implement this—take the best of this research, weave it into new compositions that are built to affect these specific aspects of the body—breath, stress reduction, connectivity. We’re going to offer it to patients, and to start contributing this new design.

To Covid patients?

Yes. Because this member of the council was a neuroscientist whose focus is rehabilitation. He works with wounded veterans. He works at intersection of music and healing. We designed this healing regimen, with music therapy sessions five days a week. We looked at it as a perfect opportunity. I invited people in my songwriting course. I said, We’re gonna do this.


Yes, it sounds so wow. But what I learned was these are really sacred tools, ancient tools, and you can’t just come out winging it, saying here’s some stuff I concocted to help your body heal. In the excitement of wanting to create these medical interventions with music we were moving too fast to take into account the implications of affecting another person’s body, of penetrating their body with sound. It’s like giving them medicine, and they don’t know what it does. Because we were moving so fast, the patients didn’t really have a say in the process, which isn’t okay. I ended up dissolving the council. I said, I need to step back and make sure this work is being done from a community-based level in conversation with the people who this music is intended for. And it needed to be grounded in my relationship to liberation music, my relationship with the power that is healing music, and to make sure there are people around me who can keep me accountable. I’m not a doctor; I’m not supposed to be. But there are things to be aware of if I’m stepping in and saying that I’m offering some form of medicine, I’m offering something that we are sure will affect your body.

12 Little Spells was a. But now that we’re in the realm of elements that have been shown to have increase the rate that you expel carbon dioxide, that’s some serious shit. It has to be done with guidance and with the safety of people who have been in the lineage of this practice of— was going to say implementing, but that sounds too aggressive—of employing music as medicine. The path hasn’t changed, but the way I’m approaching it has been adjusted because of this experience. That practice—and I’m calling it a practice—reaches into various lineages, whether in medical field or certain cultural and community-based and ceremonial practices. Musicians we know and love are doing this, whether they call it healing technologies or not.

So, I’m still pursuing this goal. And I’ve been humbled. I have a lot of edifying work to do around my own intentions and my position in relation to this practice.

Were you taking data and information and specific musical techniques to work on specific symptoms? Was it that precise?

Yes. The first round. That needed to dissolve. It wasn’t ethical. There was a lack of oversight. In this context, it’s not right. It’s cool to offer music, and to say that we know that music has a calming effect. For instance, it’s proven that there is a dramatically increased sense of ease when listeners hear a song they know was written for them. That comes from data, research. We worked with that. We worked with patient narratives. We incorporated elements of their history in a song written for them. Patients would know that this song was written for me. Thanks to study, we know that has a positive effect a sense of well-being.

Starting with something that basic, that you and I would think is obvious but that the study grounds in science, we also worked with more specific factors. There are a few studies show that switching from 4/4 time to 3/4 within a certain bpm range increases the volume of air that the lungs are taking in when inhaling. And researchers are culling through the studies seeking information about specific aspects—breathing, lung capacity, stress reduction, connectivity. The challenge for Covid patients, for all of us right now, is not being able to reach out and touch people, not being connecting.

There are very specific elements that can be woven into compositions, intentionally. But this time, we’re not offering this to people in vulnerable situation in a hospital. This is just the beginning of something. We’re learning what this method is, how it works. Thank god I am working with some people who are excellent clinicians and are deeply familiar with ethics of working in a music therapy context. So much of medical interventions take the approach of assessing what’s wrong and administering—you take it because I said you need it. But this is music. It is an intimate relationship between the listener and the musician. What I feel was missing was that dialogue, the idea that we’re in this thing together, we’re coming to a realization. I’m not administering something. I’m not dishing it out to you because you’re in a distressed state or because you need something and here it is. This is not new stuff, and it’s not just scientists who have been doing research for generations on how we heal each other with music.

It’s entire cultures, right?

Especially this one, the one that you and I feel so connected to.

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