Q&A: 111 Canadians Contribute to Awesome Music Project, Creator Hopes Doctors Will Prescribe Music

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A new project is using the joy people feel experiencing their most favourite and moving songs and weaponizing those feelings to fund science that will fight anxiety and depression.

The Awesome Music Project Canada: Songs Of Hope And Happiness is a book featuring the feel-good stories of 111 Canadians from all walks of life explaining how music affects them. Featuring submissions from the likes of musician Sarah McLachlan, astronaut Chris Hadfield and athlete Theo Fleury, proceeds from sales of the book will go towards funding groundbreaking research by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on the impact of music on those with depression and anxiety.

The book was shepherded by Terry Stuart, Deloitte Canada's chief innovation officer; Robert Carli, a film and television composer; along with editing and design assistance from Scott Steedman and Peter Cocking, respectively.

The Awesome Music Project, however, is fast becoming more than just a book-based fundraiser. The project is developing a live event arm under the banner Stories, Songs And Science and podcasts, playlists, international expansion and further books are all in the works.

Samaritanmag spoke to Stuart about the project and his global plans.

What kind of research are you supporting?

The beginning is to raise money for fundamental music research with CAMH, which is a world-leading mental health, anxiety and depression institute. We're giving 100 percent of the proceeds from the book, after publishing costs. The money is going towards the first piece of research we're going to do at CAMH. We're going to take a cohort of people with depression, have them ingest a neurotracer that CAMH has developed, then we put them in a P.E.T. (Positron-emission tomography) imaging machine, and then you can do clinical music-based therapy, so no drugs, no other activities, you can take them through a month, two months, three months, clinical music therapy, then rinse repeat. Did it get worse? Did it get better? Did it stay the same? So we're starting to prove out the science of it. And I hope, obviously, that scientific research has a fundamental positive effect on the anxiety and depression and brain chemistry. Then the next step is to lobby the government and insurance companies to enable music therapy to be paid for.

Let's say the research goes well and shows music therapy has value. Leaping into the future, what is the music therapy going to look like?

It'll have a variety of indicators and it will show up in different ways. We're already seeing things like mindfulness apps like Headspace. So you could have an app and go, "I'm at the office, I'm kind of stressed, I'm going to listen to my app for 10 minutes to calm me down." Some of that is starting to be available today, but it's not science yet.

On the medical side, I think we're going to see things like, someone may go, "You have anxiety and depression. You need to go see a psychotherapist and it'll get paid for by OHIP." We're going to start to see them saying, "You need to see a music therapist." This is not just them prescribing you to go and play music, but rather interact with a trained music therapist who understands psychology because they're going to interact with you to understand how stressed you are, what's going to work with you, what's going to not work with you. Is it getting you to play music? Is it getting you to sing music? It's going through the various protocols. I'm not a specialist in music therapy, but there are full-on doctors of music and music therapy that blend music and psychology. My hope is one year, two years, three years, not 10 years, we would see doctors prescribing, "OK does it make sense to give you antidepressants? Does it make sense to prescribe music therapy? Does it make sense to prescribe something else?"

How did you end up selecting CAMH to work with?

My friend who had their son Jack die of suicide 10 years ago, they were very senior execs, one was a senior vice-president at Bank of Montreal, the other ran an investment fund, they'd just been skiing with their son, his girlfriend, their friends. Everything seemed hunky dory amazing [until Jack's suicide], so they both quit their jobs and they created something called Jack.

Jack builds up high school and university students as mental health advocates and suicide prevention advocates, so they're training kids to help kids, high school and university kids, to be much more aware of mental health, much more aware of suicide. They did an amazing thing starting that and they've trained somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 kids across the country in mental health and suicide prevention.

So when I started to look into my own personal situation and some of my family members we said, "Okay, what are we gonna do?" And when I looked at the journey where people were getting prescribed things, music was absent from the formal protocol. So you start to look at that and go, "If we fundamentally know music has a strong healing power, why don't we prescribe it? Why isn't the government paying for it?"

Everyone said CAMH is an amazing institution; they're a world leader in mental health research and in particular in anxiety and depression, and so I went to them and said if I could raise some money, a half million dollars plus, is there some fundamental research that you guys could do that could be a potential breakthrough on music and mental health? They said, oh my god, we've got three doctors here and another doctor at U of T (University of Toronto)... they said they've been cooking up this idea where they'd put people with depression through this protocol with neurotracers but it hadn't hit the funding level yet. So I said, "I'll go figure out how to get the funding."

The book has an astounding number of contributors. What was your pitch to them?

The ask was pretty light really. We weren't asking them for money. We weren't asking them to do a movie about it. We just wanted stories because we think there's magic in the stories. There's clearly magic in the songs, but there's also magic in the stories. So for example Theo Fleury, a hockey player, I'm on the phone with going, "We're going to raise money for music and mental health, and we think that people should have options in terms of their mental health support options are provided for and financed..." And he goes, "Dude, you had me at 'music'."

Here's a little bit of the other magic of the book. We were very concerned about in today's day and age of diversity and inclusion, how do we have a book that represents the mosaic of Canada? My goal was to have 90 percent of Canadians look at the book and go, "You know what, there's somebody here that looks and smells and feels like me that I can resonate with." So we have every province and territory represented; we have the LGBTQ+ community represented; we have the Indigenous community represented; we have an eight-year-old and we have a 100-year-old; we have the top 10 jobs by population — truck driver, farmer, etc — in the book. We have famous people like Sarah McLachlan, Rick Mercer and Chris Hadfield, about 31 of the people are people you'd recognize, but that means 80 are just amazing Canadians who have stories about songs that make them happy.

You mentioned Chris and Theo and Sarah. These people shared really deep, personal, moving stories. Did you have to coax those out of them or were they freely given?

Well, we told some pretty personal stories about myself and my daughter as part of our pitch so that may have laid the groundwork, but it kinda felt like these were stories inside them that were begging to be told, like they wanted to have a vehicle to tell them, but they wanted it to be the right kind of vehicle and they didn't want it to be self-serving. So they were pretty forthcoming.

Do you have any personal favourite stories from the book?

You can't really have a favourite child. I got two kids and you can't really have a favourite child. But what I will tell you is we've got some super-interesting ones that have come out. For example, the event we did at the Gladstone (Hotel, in Toronto) we had Lieutenant Commander Shekhar Gothi. He's in the Canadian Special Forces. He was working doing relief work down in Haiti because his wife didn't want him to go to Afghanistan. So he's down in Haiti doing relief work and they had a massive earthquake and he's buried alive, bones are broken, bleeding, the whole nine yards, can't see anything, buried under rubble, and he was like, "This is it. I'm not going to see my wife and kids." And he said, "Maybe if I can stay awake and conscious long enough, when they start taking the rubble off maybe they'll find me and I can be alive." And for whatever reason he kept hearing the old Bruce Cockburn song "Lovers In A Dangerous Time." But he wasn't hearing Bruce, he's hearing Ed Robertson doing it because the Barenaked Ladies covered it, and there's a line specifically in the song that goes, "You've got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight." So he was feeling that lyric literally and figuratively — he's underneath rubble, he can see no light, it's totally dark, he's like, "I've got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight and maybe I can stay alive." And that's what he did.

We did the book launch and Shekhar came in full dress military uniform and told the story with his family present and it was gut-wrenching and everything and a wonderful story. Also, knowing our armed forces are doing philanthropic work on top of that, and then Ed Robertson and Jim Creeggan from the Barenaked Ladies performed the song.

Why do all of this?

I don't want anybody to die by suicide who doesn't need to, or to be alone and anxious and depressed that doesn't need to when there are natural solutions out there that they need to be aware of, that need to be funded, and nobody should go through what my friends Eric and Sandra (from Jack.org) went through, what I personally went through, as an individual or as a father, so I'm trying to solve that with a lot of help, not a little help, a lot of help from my friends. But I believe it deeply in my soul that this is something that we just need to put more science behind. If we lean in on the science and we put enough science in there the optimist in me believes a society like ours in Canada and elsewhere will act on this.

What does the future of the Awesome Music Project look like?

We started with the book and we're now doing a concert series across the country — Stories, Songs and Science — and we have somebody telling a story from the book or beyond the book that makes them happy. We have an artist performing the song, and then have a neuroscientist or a music therapist or a mental health professional talking about the science behind music's effect on your brain. We did one on World Mental Health Day (October 10). It had the Barenaked Ladies, Dave Bidini from the Rheostatics and the Good Lovelies as well as Ken McLeod, so we started with the book and then we're doing concerts and we created a not-for-profit that's going to raise money for all the research that we want to do.

So we want to go across Canada and create a playbook to maybe go global. We've already got the basic structure of that. We've already got people starting to inquire from places as far afield as Australia and as close as the U.S., so we could do an Awesome Music Project U.S., or U.K., or Israel, or Netherlands or Australia. We've got two books that are getting conceptualized as we speak, the Awesome Music Project Sports Edition. When you go through the book we don't have CEOs and chairs of boards and that kind of stuff because we didn't want it to become a corporate marketing exercise or a political exercise, but we had many who went, "I've got a story. I've written it up over the weekend, put it in..." There's clearly a desire there, so we're just trying to figure out how to do that in the right way to maximize the value, the funding for the research, but if the CEO for Rogers or RBC or Loblaws were in a book, odds are they'd buy a few thousand copies and we'd have more money for the research we want to do.

The first piece of research is a cohort of people with anxiety and depression, that starts it, but we know that music therapy helps with Alzheimers and dementia. We're looking at hopefully funding some more research they're going to do on the social impact of music because there've been a few studies done in the U.K. and Australia and they've said if you go to two concerts a month you live between five and 10 years longer than the average cohort that does not. How great is that?

We're gonna launch podcasts, playlists and all that stuff and we're going to have the events and access to the research and the tools and all that stuff will be available to to put the message out. But tell all your friends that this is the best Christmas or holiday book they could give anybody because for $35 cost, $22 goes to an actual charity. It's a pretty good value for money.

Watch a video about the Awesome Music Project

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