The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Periodically I use this blog to champion the pursuit of hobbies and avocations as ways of enriching our lives, and I’m happy to do so again. For a lot of folks right now, the experience of work and the state of the world generally are brimming with stressors. And while I don’t advocate ignoring those situations, I do think we need healthy diversions that offer positive engagement.

On this topic, I try to practice what I preach. I’ve written before (here and on my personal blog here) about a weekly singing class that I take at the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE). Every Tuesday, our class meets for a 90-minute session, led by Jane (a Juilliard-trained vocalist and instructor) and Maria (a classically trained piano accompanist). The format is simple. After group warm-ups, each student performs a song of their choosing and is coached before the group. Yup, each of us does a solo number every week!

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

Recently I was reminded of the meaning of this class by Peter, a fellow student, who dutifully jots down coaching tips and reflections into a notebook during class. He often performs with his guitar, and he’s good enough to do coffee house gigs if he ever wants to go that route. For now, at least, we are his primary audience. It’s very cool to me that he cares so much about the class that he chronicles his experience on a weekly basis.

Everyone is here because they want to be, which can’t be said for many other life situations! The students find the class via the BCAE catalog (print and online) or through word of mouth. Jane and Maria teach this class in addition to holding down “day jobs,” so this is a labor of love for them, a true avocation. 

After one of our term-ending recitals, clockwise fr L: Maria (accompanist), Kerry, Adeline, Lorin, Xiomara, DY, Brian, and Jane (course instructor).

The singing class generally runs in six to eight week terms, depending on the BCAE’s calendar. We typically use the last session of a term as a little recital, during which each of us sings two songs of our choice, without the coaching. Students may invite guests, and some do. It’s a neat way of wrapping up each term. As you can see from the photo above, we sometimes go out for a bite to eat afterward.

Opened in 1933, BCAE is one of the city’s non-profit fixtures, offering a wide array of adult education classes. Earlier this year, a few of us attended a BCAE fundraiser, featuring morsels and drinks provided by area restaurants and food producers. It was a lot of fun and a nice opportunity to support an organization whose space and staff help to make these classes a reality.

Supporting a BCAE fundraiser, L to R: Bonita, Adeline, Jane, and Maria.

This is one of my primary sources of work-life balance, to the extent that I can claim to have any! I select mostly numbers from the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, etc. — but others perform contemporary pop, classic rock, folk, country, religious…you name it.

The class attracts a friendly, supportive, and smart group of people who, individually and collectively, comprise a sort of natural diversity across many categories. Among current students, I’ve been there the longest — over 20 years! — but we’ve also got a steady cohort of repeat takers. Some come into the class with remarkable voices. Many others, like me when I started, are neophytes. Novice singers, however, need not be afraid. Jane has this way of helping just about anyone become a proficient singer, even people who might be classified as tone deaf.

Sinatra’s legacy faces no threat when I’m singing.

On occasion we take our voices outside of the class to perform. Our group has gone to several local open mic cabaret nights, and we’ve done karaoke a few times as well. Some time ago, I was part of a small group of voice class singers that did free gigs at local senior facilities. One of our fellow students does the busker thing in nearby Harvard Square!

I am fortunate to have a career that engages my attention, but this class offers activity and community that provide needed contrasts from the world of work. I often remark that the class and the people in it have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs. For me singing class is a form of mindfulness, an opportunity to be in the moment with music I enjoy, buoyed by terrific people who make it a supportive and fun experience. I count many of these folks as good friends. All things considered, it’s about as ideal a hobby as one could expect, and for that I am very grateful. 

Related posts

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.

 

Working Notes: On music as a feel-good pill, advice for wellness programs, and a dignity studies learning collaboration

Dear readers, I thought I’d lead us into the weekend with three items of possible interest:

The wonder of music

Have you ever wondered why music often provides an emotional pick-me-up? Well, it can trigger the release of dopamine, an organic chemical that helps to control our brain’s pleasure centers. For more, here’s a neat little YouTube find from 2012, written and produced by Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, perfect for a Friday afternoon posting:

Is music humanity’s drug of choice? What is the mysterious power behind it’s ability to captivate, stimulate and keep us coming back for more? Find out the scientific explanation of how a simple mixture of sound frequencies can affect your brain and body, and why it’s not all that different than a drug like cocaine.

You may click and watch above! And if you’ve had one of these weeks at work, then maybe the right kind of music will give you a lift!

Cautionary advice on implementing workplace wellness programs

Kathryn R. Klement and Larissa K. Barber, writing for the American Psychological Association’s Good Company newsletter, acknowledge that “employee wellness programming can be effective for increasing job satisfaction and reducing absenteeism,” as well potentially reduce health care costs. However, they aptly warn against the possible downsides of wellness programs, especially the mandatory variety:

  • “First, some forms of wellness programming can increase perceptions of injustice, which can also increase workplace stress.”
  • “Second, wellness programs can unintentionally marginalize certain groups of employees, such as those with chronic health conditions, employees with a lower socioeconomic status and employees with disabilities.”
  • “Third, these programs can provide inaccurate information about health to employees, relying on incorrect measures of health and wellness.”

In their excellent article, they “discuss each of these potential pitfalls” in greater depth and offer “five recommendations for effective wellness programming.” HR offices, unions, and other employee relations stakeholders will find this useful.

An exciting dignity studies degree program collaboration

Two entities for which I have great affection and regard, the World Dignity University (WDU) initiative of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network, and the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), are entering into a collaboration that will allow students to pursue a multidisciplinary, flexible learning WISR graduate degree with a Dignity Studies specialization.

The World Dignity University is an evolving project of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, which I have discussed on many occasions here, including my last post. The Western Institute for Social Research is a small, independent university located in Berkeley, California, that offers degree programs for individuals interested in community service and social change. I serve on the boards of both organizations, and I have been delighted to help facilitate this collaboration.

A WISR degree is based largely on multidisciplinary readings, learning projects, and a thesis or dissertation. For the Dignity Studies specialization, students will be working with faculty drawn from WISR’s core faculty and from the WDU and HumanDHS communities to serve as adjunct WISR faculty for this purpose. Three current WISR graduate degree programs are eligible for this “Dignity Studies” specialization:

  • M.S. in Community Leadership and Justice
  • M.S. in Education
  • Ed.D. in Higher Education and Social Change

All three programs have a small number of required courses, each of which has some required readings, but primarily involves learner-defined action and/or research projects culminating in papers related to the student’s purposes and interests. Students pursuing a Dignity Studies specialization would take a 5-credit course, “Dignity Studies,” as part of their required courses.

Founded in 1975, WISR operates under full California state approval. Historically it has been too small (with enrollment typically averaging in the low to mid dozens of students) to be considered for traditional accreditation, though efforts are underway to seek accreditation with a national agency. Thus, WISR degrees are most useful and valuable for those who want to do intensive, independent work on areas of interest with a social change theme that will complement their current professional position and/or involve community and adult learning.

For more information, please contact WISR President, Dr. John Bilorusky, directly at: johnb@wisr.edu.

Music as a work tonic

Last Friday afternoon, I could barely keep my eyes open as I tried to get some work done on my computer. I was still feeling the heavy drag of a bad cold that has been doing a number on me. A short walk around the office didn’t help much. Even two cups of black coffee weren’t delivering the desired pep in my step.

With very little gas left in my tank, I clicked to my iTunes songs and opted for a play list of favorite 80s tunes. Almost immediately, I felt a surge of energy coming back.

Nothing like a few numbers by Duran Duran and The Clash to recharge the batteries!

While it won’t rank as one of my more productive Friday afternoons, I got much more done than I thought possible when I could hardly control my drooping eyelids.

I probably could chase down some studies showing how music has this effect on people. But I don’t need the peer-reviewed articles to tell me what I’ve experienced over and again: Music can be a great tonic. It can be the pick-me-up that allows one to salvage some productivity from an otherwise low-energy day.

How a Cole Porter musical embodies Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences

In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, psychologist Howard Gardner challenged the concept of a single, all encompassing form of human intelligence. Instead, he posited that intelligence comes in at least eight different varieties:

  • Bodily-kinesthetic (physical and athletic)
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal (introspection and self-reflection)
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Musical
  • Naturalistic (relating to natural surroundings)
  • Spatial (relating to objects and space)

He would later add “existential” intelligence, which relates to philosophy, meaning, and spirituality.

Gardner’s theory makes a lot of sense, yes? Consider the world of work. People bring different skill sets to different jobs. Some people seem to have a knack for everything. Most of us are stronger in some aspects than in others.

Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”

If you’d like to see a wonderful example of multiple intelligences at work, then take a look at these YouTube videos from the recent Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s 1934 classic musical, “Anything Goes,” directed by Kathleen Marshall and starring the extraordinary Sutton Foster in the lead role of Reno Sweeney.

The video above is a truncated version of the title number, performed at the 2011 Tony Awards. I see at least the following intelligences in play: Musical, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, and interpersonal. (Do you see more?)

And here’s Foster and co-star Colin Donnell performing another classic from the show, “You’re The Top”:

This number plays on the interpersonal intelligence of the two performers. Look at how they relate and interact, picking up on each other’s cues. And if you’re wondering about logical-mathematical intelligence, think about how Cole Porter incorporated all of the cultural and historical references into a snappy and memorable song.

Putting it all together is the job of director Kathleen Marshall. How many forms of intelligence go into her work?!

“Don’t be a jerk”

Finally, if you want a nice mix of the interpersonal and intrapersonal, watch Sutton Foster’s 2012 Commencement address at Ball State University. Talking plainly, unadorned by stage makeup, she presents a thoughtful, reflective, and warmhearted speech:

She closes with some advice, and she repeats it several times: “Don’t be a jerk.” Intelligent words, to be sure.

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PBS page on Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory

Wikipedia article on multiple intelligences

Wikipedia article detailing people and items referenced in “You’re The Top”

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I so regret that I never got to see this revival of “Anything Goes” on Broadway. However, I recently saw the national touring production, starring the superb Rachel York in the lead role. It was first rate, and it reinforced the timeless quality of Cole Porter’s work.

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