20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“Music has the capacity to help you with whatever you are going through. It can truly be your sure friend. Every playlist you develop will bring you into a deep-seated creative process that will ease your mind and guide you to see your world through a different lens.” Jennifer Buchanan is the Founder and Visionary Architect of JB Music Therapy (JBMT), a music therapy company that has been instrumental in the implementation of hundreds of music therapy programs throughout Canada for 30 years and that has been thrice nominated for the Community Impact Award by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
As the author of two award-winning books, Tune In and Wellness Incorporated, she has become a trusted source for media outlets across North America and has been featured in publications such as The Guardian and the Huffington Post. Her latest book, Wellness, Wellplayed: The Power of a Playlist, was written for all of us who love to make the biggest impact possible while getting the most out of life — it equips busy, mindful people with tools and supports to engage with music in a deeper way.
I got to know Jennifer for this week’s edition of 20 Questions, where she told me about Wellness, Wellplayed, the ultimate power of music for our physical and mental health, what she’s been reading lately, and more.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a music therapist?
It was the encouragement of Granny. After Grandad’s stroke he lived in long-term care at the age of 63. No longer able to walk or talk, Granny was having a hard time figuring out meaningful activities for him. One week she asked me to learn his favorite song. When I sang, not only did he cry, but the screaming lady down the hall started singing instead of screaming and the wandering guy came into the room and sat next to me. Seeing how music changed the space into something familiar and comforting. I would visit Grandad every week with my guitar. Years later, when Granny heard about a profession called music therapy, we both knew it was the one for me.
If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?
I would say John Irving. I deeply value the art of storytelling and hope that the stories I share as an author and speaker impact others as his stories have impacted me.
What time of day are you most inspired?
Between 5:45 and noon. I am absolutely a morning person.
Favorite book of all-time?
Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany for sure. The novel deals with many of the issues I have wrestled with myself — the importance of faith, matters of social justice, and the concept of fate.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
Not making it too personal — and something that can truly make a difference in the world. Music is such a big part of my life and it was difficult not to make everything in the book personal. What helped is highlighting the many people I have had the privilege to work with over the last 30 years — drawing on their stories of resilience into the narrative. Adding in the research and the reason music does what it does also helped me add in a more global perspective.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
My husband James. He is the best writer I know, and he knows me the best.
Your book Wellness, Wellplayed: The Power of a Playlist deconstructs the ways in which music is powerful and how listening to the right playlist at the right time has genuinely positive effects on our wellbeing. When was the first time you found yourself experiencing this phenomenon in your own life?
The music of my childhood made a significant impact on the tone of my home growing up. The music, mostly from the television shows at the time, created an uplifting and educational environment for me. (Who said all TV is bad?) I am thinking particularly about the soothing flute from The Friendly Giant, the groove of The Electric Company, the messages from Sesame Street, and the wonderful compassion that Mister Rogers exuded in every tune. I hear any of those theme songs today and it takes me right back to feeling safe and loved.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
Sadly, I have not read a book I have really liked this year, but I have read several articles that have inspired me greatly. I have subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine and The Economist and have enjoyed staying informed from a variety of perspectives.
Favorite song to get your blood moving?
I’ve put together a “Drive the Dream” playlist just for this purpose. Every song on there has the groove that gets me to move so I can keep on moving and drive my company well-fueled.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
Nature is my go-to: those forest walks or being close to water, the rivers, lakes, oceans, and a regular bubble bath. Just letting my mind drift, for even a few minutes, can help to refuel me.
What’s one piece of advice you give to someone looking to seek out the mental health benefits of music for the first time?
The most valuable suggestion is to use music with the intention of wellbeing and although that sounds simple, it is not always easy. That is why I wrote Wellness, Wellplayed: as a resource and guide through scenarios and activities that will help, regardless of your age.
Favorite social media app?
Since promoting my book I have been enjoying Twitter more and more. I find it has been a great place to add a sentence of positivity amongst a lot of noise.
What’s your current read?
I am just starting Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I am so excited to finally dig into this bestseller that has been waiting for me on my bedside table for many months.
Favorite movie of all-time?
I have seen many movies but the ones that replay in my mind over and over tend to be music documentaries or those with a great soundtrack. I find I often forget the title of the move but the music truly lingers on. Watching movies through an auditory lens! When watching TV I tend to lean to crime and detective dramas.
As you write, “Remember, a song is never just a song and a playlist is never just a playlist—a song is someone’s moment and a playlist is someone’s story.” What do you make of the ways that music comes to dominate and control our lives, for better and for worse? (e.g. how certain painful memories can become forever attached to a happy song, no matter how hard we try to overcome it.)
Yes, music does have the capacity to trigger a memory and keep it anchored. Fortunately, evidence supports that more good memories are remembered than those we would like to forget. It is one of the reasons I suggest to keep exploring new music, creating new memories with music. Music has the capacity to help you with whatever you are going through. It can truly be your sure friend. Every playlist you develop will bring you into a deep-seated creative process that will ease your mind and guide you to see your world through a different lens. If you reflect on the past, stay open in the moment, and are willing to embrace the new, your memories, moods, and motivations will continue to grow and change — bringing you a life that is fuller, and more fulfilling, than the life you otherwise would have had.
The most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
Learning to swim at the age of 36. This took every ounce of bravery I possessed.
Hardcover or paperback?
I can go either way, but I am finding the hardcovers have bigger print which helps my dimming eyes.
The most expensive thing you’ve ever shamelessly splurged on?
Fluevogs — shoes that bring a little rock, roll and art to my feet.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
This book has absolutely given me a new focus — not just the writing and promoting it with my good friend Eric Alper, and meeting so many great people along the way, but with the actual content, too. This book has reignited my own music and I couldn’t be more grateful.
What can we expect to see next from you?
I am SO looking forward to taking the Wellness, Wellplayed message on the road (virtually and hopefully soon in-person). Sharing the information with teams and audiences large and small — corporate, healthcare, and education — music can help us all.