Self-Care Strategies

Whether we're taking care of kids, aging parents, demanding partners, friends in crisis or taxing bosses, self-care is often tossed out the window. But many experts say that making room for our own needs is critical to enable us to care for others and keep going with calm and inner strength.

Music, Wellness, and You: A Q&A with Kat Fulton

How you can use music to live a better life

I am excited to introduce you to Kat Fulton, a board-certified music therapist based in San Diego who is the brains behind the blog Rhythm for Good. She writes regularly about music therapy, drumming, and wellness and believes that everyone with a heartbeat is born with rhythm. I invited Kat to join me on "Your Musical Self" to talk about all things music and wellness--including how you can get started today!

Question: What do you feel is the connection between music and wellness?

Kat Fulton: If wellness is the state of optimal health in all aspects of life, then music can be used as a tool to maintain or return to that state. That is one connection. The other connection is making music with no end result in mind. In other words, making music as a form of active meditation, which supports wellness and good health.

My focus is making music actively, regardless of experience in playing. If you have a heartbeat, then you already have natural rhythm - That includes every living being on the planet... Musician or not!

With my clients, I have found that negative associations with making music stem from childhood music lessons when hands were slapped at the keyboard. Perhaps a choir student was told to lip-sync, or childhood peers laughed and scoffed at someone's musicianship.

According to the Gallup Poll of 2009, 85% of adults in the US who do not play a musical instrument wish they did.* Compare that today with indigenous tribes and our ancestors who involved every community member in the act of making music. In today's society, we are missing the communal aspect of making music where everyone plays together. Music has become an elitist activity. My colleagues and I are part of a new movement however: a movement that empowers everyone to make music, regardless of age, gender, race, ability, and even political affiliation.

Q: You seem to have a strong interest in rhythm. Your blog is called "Rhythm for Good!" How can rhythm contribute to a higher quality of living?

KF: Most people want to be happier, feel good, enjoy good health, and of course have more time and money.

Here's what rhythm does for the body: Rhythm makes us dance, move, and play. We know from the research that group drumming in a particular protocol significantly increases immunoglobulin A and significantly decreases cortisol levels.*

The higher quality of life comes from the experience before the pedagogy. Experience playing music, and have fun. Then develop skills if you are so inclined.

Here's what rhythm does for the mind: Playing rhythm clears the mind and opens the mind to new perspective. Improvisation enhances creative potential. Rhythm allows for connections in the brain otherwise left dormant. Playing in a group enables the mind to practice synchronicity, anticipation, listening, and social exchange. All the while rhythm is the glue that sticks a group together in music.

It is my humble opinion that exercising the mind and body with active rhythmic engagement opens potential to achieve your desired quality of life.

Q: You recently started an "Intro to Toning" course. What is toning and what is it's relationship to wellness?

KF: Toning is the act of sounding the voice. To begin, you can start on a simple "ah" vowel. When breathing deeply and releasing an elongated vowel, most people can feel the vibrations of the voice within the body. For many, this realization is very relaxing because of the vibro-acoustic nature of the practice. Toning is most effective when practiced a minimum of several minutes at a time. Usually with my clients, that is the time when meditation and mind-clearing really kick in.

When you think of it as an inner massage, the relaxing aspect is logical. Consider the voice a healing mechanism, just like a massage treatment. For me personally, the potential of the body to heal itself is most fascinating and powerful.

Q: You are a music therapist. How do you use music for your own personal well-being?

KF: I practice toning regularly. I play weekly in a group jazz piano lesson with 3 other classical pianists. Occasionally I attend sound baths at yoga centers. We have a sound healer in the community who brings gongs, chimes, bells, and drums while participants lie down on yoga mats, soaking in the sound. And I respond to birdcalls in the canyon where I live.

Q: What is your #1 suggestion for getting people to use music for wellness?

KF: The best way to get started using music for wellness is to just play and sing! Active participation is more effective than passive listening.

If you catch yourself saying "Oh no no no, I can't play music, I don't have rhythm, my voice is no good" or if you have apprehension and negative associations, then challenge yourself in overcoming the "I can't do it" attitude. I find that non-musicians with few or no expectations are in an ideal position to get started. Here's how to do it: Put yourself in a toddler mindset with wide eyes, seeing the world for the first time. Drop your inhibitions; drop any preconceived ideas of whether or not you have rhythm. Forget any self-criticism or judgment, and just play. Allow yourself to be a witness to YOU, the musician.

Then find groups to join that are stimulating for you. Here are some examples:

  • Take a class on drumming.
  • Take a class on toning.
  • Play the black keys on the piano, and experiment with the pedals.
  • Find a drum circle and play a hand drum.
  • Pick up a pentatonic set of Boomwhackers® to play with your kids.
  • Purposefully hum while feeling the vibrations in your jaw.
  • Respond to bird calls. Find rhythm in nature.

Kat's Resources

Bittman, B., Berk, L., Felten, D., Westengard, J., Simonton, O., Pappas, J., & Ninehousder, M. (2001). Composite effects of group drumming music therapy on modulation of neuroendocrine-immune parameters in normal subjects. Journal of Alternative Therapy, 38-47.

  • Reduces stress and enhances immune system.

Bittman, B., Berk, L., Shannon, M., Sharaf, M., Westengard, J., Guegler, K.J., & Ruff, D.W. (2005). Recreational music-making modulates the human stress response. Medical Science Monitor.

  • Reduces stress.


Bittman, B., Bruhn, K., Stevens, C., Westengard, J., & Umbach, P. (2003). Recreational music-making: A cost-effective group interdisciplinary strategy for reducing burnout and improving mood states in long-term care workers. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 4-15.

  • Decreases burnout and enhances mood.

Bittman, B., Snyder, C., Bruhn, K.T., Liebfreid, F., Stevens, C.K., Westengard, J., & Umbach, P.O. (2004). Recreational music-making: An integrative group intervention for reducing burnout and improving mood states in first year associate degree nursing students: Insights and economic impact. International Journal of Nursing Education and Scholarhip, 1(12).

  • Reduces burnout, enhances mood, and is cost-effective.


Koyama, M., Wachi, M., Utsuyama, M., Bittman, B., Hirokawa, K., & Kitagawa, M. (2009). Recreational music-making modulates immunological responses and mood states in older adults. Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences, 56(2), 57-70.

  • Finding: Fortifies the immune system

Wachi, M., Koyama, M., Utsuyama, M., Bittman, B., Kitagawa, M., & Hirokawa, K. (2007). Recreational music-making modulates natural killer cell activity, cytokines, and mood states in corporate employees. Medical Science Monitor, 13(2), 57-70.

  • Finding: Enhances mood, increases cancer-killing white blood cell activity, and reduces stress

"In Recognition of National Wanna Make Music Week: A Look at Music in the Midst of America"

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

Self-Care Strategies