The music of Andrea Cortez goes far beyond sound. As a board-certified Music Therapist, Cortez has extensively studied the effects of music on the brain and body. She founded Mind Body Music as an extension of her practice to help people rehabilitate from brain injury and neurological disorders. Further, as a multi-instrumentalist, she composes works that integrate these ideas and practices into her music. She is influenced by her experience in yoga, meditation, and martial arts and those practices inspire and permeate her work.
This year she self-released the wonderful The World is Sound, following up Secret Song of Plants on Aural Canyon. Most recently she offered two side-long meditations in the form of Music Of The Spheres on Distant Bloom, a mesmerizing album that further expands her palette.
What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound?
When I was 7 years old I remember being fascinated with the piano. Although I started lessons at that age, I wasn’t drawn to music by learning written notation. Instead, I was absorbed by music’s ability to bring about imagery. At that age, I would make up my own melodies and put stories with the music. For me playing the piano brought vivid imagery and I could easily create my own little worlds. Being a highly introverted kid, this was the perfect creative play.
At what point did you begin to understand the healing powers that music can have? Was there a specific experience or anything like that?
I am not sure that I was consciously aware of it, that I was using music therapeutically, but it definitely was a medicine for me as a kid and especially around 17 years old. At that age, I continuously took refuge in playing my guitar, singing, and writing songs. Especially using my voice, this was like a natural anti-anxiety drug. I had always been a highly anxious child. Singing immediately calmed me. Not only was it physically impacting me, but it also was an emotional release. I consider this healing because healing is about transformation. Music transformed how I felt and how I experienced the world.
Did you always have a desire or interest in creating music of your own? I’m also curious about what it is about the harp that drew you to it?
Yes, from when I began learning music I was more interested in creating my own sounds rather than learning songs. I eventually began learning to play several instruments. I had a 4-track recorder in high school and began layering instrumental parts, my clarinet, piano, and guitar. I have always loved learning to play new instruments so when someone suggested that I learn the harp I had no hesitation. I began playing harp in 2012 and that is also the time that I began to expand my music therapy work. I became interested in working with people to reduce stress and anxiety. The harp seemed like a perfect instrument to learn especially with its history of being used for emotional and mental healing. I was also drawn to the resonance of the harp. The way it is built with the strings exposed on both sides away from the soundbox gives it a unique resonance.
I think a lot of us have experienced the healing aspects of music on some level, but you have extensive training and education, and experience with these concepts and practices. How did you develop this deep connection to this kind of work?
My deep connection with healing through music comes first from my personal experiences growing up playing music. I believe that many of those who go into professions as therapists or fields of healing are looking for the medicine that heals themselves. I know that I was searching for ways to heal my cycles of anxiety and depression. By the time I was 19 years old, I knew for certain that music was a powerful tool for me. It had become inseparable from me. At that time I did not consider it a hobby. It was my life, as important as eating and sleeping. I had to make music. I was enrolled in a community college unsure of what I wanted to study. Then I met someone who knew a music therapist. She told me that I could do an observation of a music therapy session. I had not heard of music therapy as a field to study, but immediately I knew that it fit me perfectly. The session I observed blew me away. I was allowed to sit in on a music therapy session with a patient who had a stroke. This had caused damage to his speech area of the brain so he was unable to speak. Even though he could not utter a word he was still able to sing. And so the music therapist was rehabilitating his speech through singing phrases. After this session, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to understand how this was possible and I became extremely interested in the science of music in the brain and music’s effect on the nervous system. Then I found the perfect program focused on neurologic music therapy at Colorado State University.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Mind Body Music Center and how it came to be?
I have been working as a music therapist for 16 years and I have had my own therapy practice for this entire time. My practice has evolved in many ways across the years. I have contracted services in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. For the first half of my practice, I worked mainly with people with brain injuries and developmental disabilities. But then I became interested in focusing my practice in wellness with adults. For certain my own journey with music and emotional wellness inspired me to want to help others experiencing mental stress, anxiety, trauma, and depression. Since my training was rooted in rehabilitating the brain and such behaviors as movement and speech, it was easy for me to see the connection of music’s healing ability with emotional and mental health. When it comes to trauma, anxiety, and stress, a sort of rehabilitation is needed. The nervous system, the body, and mind need to learn a new way of living. And so it is possible for music to have a training effect on a person and to be used as a tool for healing in this way. Now I have been growing a client base that can come to receive sessions in person at my studio.
You also incorporate things such as yoga and meditation into your practice with Mind Body Music. I’ve long been interested in the connections between this kind of music and these types of practices and philosophies, but wonder what connections you see and feel between them and how each can strengthen the transformative power of each?
Meditation and practices like tai chi and qi gong have been an important part of my own personal wellness since I was nineteen. I feel like it was inevitable that I would integrate these into my music therapy practice. I have used sitting and movement meditation to help calm my thoughts and relieve anxiety. My main curiosity with this has been mastery of mind and emotions. In these ancient practices, it is taught that the key is about the movement and focus of energy. This type of energy, qi, or prana is obviously mostly foreign to western models of medicine. But I began to realize that sound, itself being a physical form of energy, could amplify the experience of meditation. The actual vibrational sound waves have an impact on qi and other forms of energy in the human body like electromagnetic fields, brain activity, and awareness. Sound gives a way to move and focus these varied levels of energy in the body. And I have found this to be a medicinal practice.
Additionally, the technique of meditation empowers the use of sound by the practice of mindful listening. The experience of sound opens up by learning to listen more deeply. Being present as sound unfolds is implementing attention and awareness. The way of meditation informs us how to listen. This kind of careful, devout listening in sound meditation is a door for inner transformation that does not open when music is merely a background soundtrack.
I also wanted to ask specifically about Plants in Harmony, which has been your album I find myself revisiting the most. Plants and gardening have become an important piece of my own self-care practices and I am always drawn to music that is inspired by or works with flora. Plants in Harmony and IMKA’s Manyara are two I keep returning to. I was hoping you could talk a little about what inspired this album/recording session and how plants and different natural elements and organisms play a role in your practice?
The album Plants in Harmony was inspired by a classical music performance that happened in Barcelona in 2020. Due to the pandemic, they weren’t able to have an in-person audience so they filled the concert hall with over 2,000 plants, each in their own seat. A lot of my friends sent me this post knowing my love for plant music. I immediately wanted to do something like this, to have an audience of plants. I contacted a local plant shop and asked if they would like to do a collaboration. So we decided the best place to hold a performance would be in their greenhouse with all the plants ready to listen. We made a community event focused around the need to listen to soothing music during a very stressful time of the pandemic. We filmed and recorded my harp surrounded by all the plants. Then we live streamed the video as part of the event. This recording became the album ‘Plants in Harmony’. For the performance, I hooked up my midi device to a monstera plant, and that is why one of the songs on the album is titled Monstera Speaks. There was also another inspiration for that album. At that time someone had sent me a New York Times article called ‘Do Plants Have Something to Say.’ The article featured a biologist and researcher Monica Gagliano. Her work fascinated me because she was publishing peer-reviewed articles while at the same time talking about things like plant consciousness and the importance of listening to plants. Her ability to talk about her spiritual experience with plants while at the same time being scientifically knowledgeable about plant biology was inspiring for me. Reading her article inspired my playing and continues to do so. When I play, I connect to a spiritual experience whether I am playing with plant-generated sounds or outdoors in nature. I listen. I listen to the sounds of the birds, the wind, the trees, the insects because they are responding to sound and I respond to them.
What are you most hopeful for and looking forward to in 2022?
This past year has been full of new connections. Not just with people but also with ideas. I look forward to these types of synchronistic happenings next year because I know there will be more. I am at a point where I can flow more easily, so I am welcoming in some new unexpected, and exciting events.
What new music projects do you have in the works?
Now that I can begin to facilitate in-person group sound meditations at my studio, I will be developing interactive sound experiences. These will be focused on listening, connecting to self, connecting to space, and to each other. I want to create experiences where people realize something about themselves that they hadn’t before. The thing I enjoy about working with small groups in the community is that we can connect and share more easily than in a large performance. Then I hope to use these ideas with small group work and extend them to larger interactive performance sound meditations.