Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Using Music to Understand Emotions With Nadine Levitt
[00:00:04] PF: Thank you for joining us for On a Positive Note. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and each month I’m sitting down with a songwriter, recording artist, or music insider to learn how music can lift our spirits and heal our hearts.
Music education programs are usually designed to teach students who want to be musicians or music teachers. But today’s guest sees music education as a way to teach many other valuable life skills.
Nadine Levitt is a mother, former opera singer, and the founder of WURRLYedu, which uses music to teach social-emotional learning skills to children. She sees music as a vehicle for teaching empathy, collaboration, impulse control, and so much more. Today, she’s going to tell us how music can help change the way young learners look at the world.
[00:00:54] PF: Nadine, welcome to On a Positive Note.
[00:00:57] NL: Thank you so much. Thanks so much for having me.
[00:01:00] PF: Oh, this is so exciting to have you on the show because you’re a perfect fit for everything that we’re talking about and everything that On a Positive Note represents. So before we dig into that, let’s tell the people a little bit about you. I really am interested in knowing how your background as a music artist has led you into the path of music education.
[00:01:21] NL: Yeah. It really is the example that your career these days doesn’t have to be a straight line, right? I’ve been a meandering journey. I’ve been on –
[00:01:29] PF: Those are the best, aren’t they?
[00:01:32] NL: Absolutely. So I started actually as an international trade lawyer, but I was an opera singer by night. So I always – I love to sing and a lawyer by day. One day, I just realized that arguing about cheese for the last six years was not making me feel fulfilled or connected, but the singing really was. So I kind of went further.
It was actually my now husband, but at the time boyfriend, who really encouraged me to pursue the singing again like full time because he’d come home every day, and I’d be singing for two and a half hours, at least. He said, “If you’re serious about it, you should really go back to doing it. You’re not getting any younger,” which I didn’t really love that comment. But it was true, and so I went and pursued the singing again full time and quit my job and absolutely loved it and actually started of all things in the professional bull riding.
I know that sounds a little random. But I had the opportunity to meet Randy Bernard and a few other people at like a dinner, and they asked me to sing, and I’d had a few wine, so I said absolutely. I got up and I sang. They both asked – Well, the people at the table both asked me if I would sing the national anthem, and one of them for Randy Bernard was at the professional bull riding. I jumped at the chance, and I said, “Absolutely. This will be fantastic.” Being in New Zealand, I didn’t know the national anthem for America yet, and I had to figure it out. But my –
[00:02:56] PF: It’s a tricky one.
[00:02:57] NL: I know. The first entree back was actually at Madison Square Garden.
[00:03:01] PF: Oh, my gosh. No pressure whatsoever.
[00:03:03] NL: No pressure, exactly. So right before it went on, somebody said to me, “Don’t forget the words. Everyone forgets the words.” So that was kind of a cruel thing to do. I started really my career, and I ended up touring with a professional ball riding a little bit, and I got to sing Nessun Dorma. Then when Randy went to Indi 500, he had me sing on the main stage of the Indi 500. So it was like really amazing, and I got more and more sports sort of opportunities and then started doing my own shows of the wine tasting shows, and finally got the opportunity to sing with – To meet with, I should say, David Foster. I’ve been wanting –
[00:03:36] PF: Oh, my gosh.
[00:03:37] NL: I’ve been wanting to meet him forever because I thought he would absolutely understand what I’m about. I really wanted to democratize and sort of make it less exclusive, make opera less exclusive and more inclusive and fun and a little bit different. He absolutely I thought we would understand that, and he did. Finally, I got to meet him through a friend of mine. Honestly, I didn’t believe that they could give me this intro, but they did. They really came through, and they said, “You have 20 minutes with him.” I was with him for I think three hours, and he asked me what I was doing that night. Of course, I said nothing, even though I was supposed to be going to a friend’s wedding rehearsal dinner.
[00:04:17] PF: You could have missed the wedding for that.
[00:04:19] NL: I know. I know. I was like, “Nothing, nothing.”
[00:04:20] PF: I’ll catch the next one.
[00:04:22] NL: Exactly. He asked me if I’d sing that night at a show, so that was amazing. Then I got to do more and more with him and his whole crew and got to sing in Canada, all over the show. It was really fantastic. Then, of course, I had kids, and the last thing I wanted to do was be on the road anymore. But that ultimately led me to – I still saying. But I think when you’re not recording, I remember talking to me sort of manager at the time, and he said, “Look, if you’re not going to be touring, you don’t really get to have a career, and that’s because it doesn’t work that way.”
I ended up doing one more show where I was doing. It was for a vocal health benefit, and I was opening for Steven Tyler. He had said to me if I can – He asked me to sing one of his songs but in my own opera way. It was that moment, actually, and he won’t even probably remember this, but it was a huge moment in my life because that was when I realized I’d been asked to sing these songs quite a lot, and I couldn’t just take an karaoke backing track and sort of make it my own. Because every time I tried to do that, all I could hear was this sort of very iconic version.
[00:05:27] PF: Sure, yeah.
[00:05:28] NL: Anything that I tried to do with that sounded really cheesy, just really terrible, the epitome of sort of Popper, if you please. It just wasn’t sounding authentic to me, and so I thought about it, and I said, “Well, really, music is about self-expression.” So it’s interesting that there’s nothing out there that’s kind of, I guess, an Instagram but for music that allows you to take a song, break it down into what I call campfire mode, which is a guitar or a piano, and choose your own instrumentation. Choose your own key or your own speed. If you’re a girl singing a guy song, generally speaking, it’s always in the wrong key. Or if you want to make it mean something different, it’s amazing how just changing the tempo can really influence the song and the delivery.
I basically made this. Let’s call it a karaoke on steroids product that allowed us to do all of those things. It was that product, WURRLY, which ended up getting into schools for some reason because as people were learning songs, they wanted to slow it down. As I said, if they were singing a guy song, they just wanted to be a little bit more creative with it.
[00:06:36] PF: Okay. I’m going to interrupt because I want to come back to WURRLY. But I have to know, first of all, what Steven Tyler song did you sing?
[00:06:44] NL: Oh, Crazy.
[00:06:46] PF: Really? Really?
[00:06:48] NL: Yeah.
[00:06:48] PF: That had to be just an incredible experience. What was the audience doing when they heard your rendition of it?
[00:06:57] NL: I could see him watching, which was kind of crazy, right? He was – I could see him grinning from ear to ear, so that was pretty amazing. The audience, they were super supportive. I don’t know. I always feel like that’s where you get your energy from in live shows. I just love watching their faces.
[00:07:13] PF: I think what really strikes me about your whole story is what a beautiful example of when you are supposed to be doing something, the path will appear. You take the steps, and it just unfolds in front of you. It doesn’t mean you didn’t put in a whole lot of work. But the way that it happened, it’s not supposed to happen that way. If someone had written a book, and this is the path, they would have said, “Okay, that’s fiction there.” There’s no way it ever happens like that.
[00:07:41] NL: It’s so true, and it felt like that. Actually, that awareness came through while these sort of random events kept happening. I still feel like that because I think other people might not see it all connected. I see everything that I’ve done has been incredibly connected because every single part of my career from law, to the singing, and all the relationships that I’ve made, have really now influenced the way that I problem-solve in education. It’s also what allows me to bring all these different people in to, for example, help teachers with PD Reimagined. With all the things that we’re doing with WURRLYedu, it’s all working in a really beautiful way together.
[00:08:25] PF: Yeah, yeah. I can see how it’s just so interwoven. When you step back and look at it, it’s like, “Oh, yeah. That’s a beautiful tapestry, and everything fits together as it should.” So I think that is absolutely amazing. So you started WURRLY. As you said, you were a lawyer, so you’re like, “This could have some challenges.”
[00:08:45] NL: I was already sitting on a couple of different education boards, so I would go to classrooms, actually, because of those boards and trying to see what worked, what programs worked, what didn’t work. I noticed people using WURRLY in the classrooms, and that’s kind of what got me excited and also a little worried. I do remember saying to a couple people. I said, “I’m going to build something specific to education, and it’ll just be a little side thing, and it’ll just be something that’s just a safer version of WURRLY.” But I fell way down that rabbit hole, way down that rabbit hole. I got really excited by it because I started to really be driven by the impact we could have.
I noticed very early that there was this sort of conflict in the sense that we don’t teach English to be a writer or math to be a mathematician or science to be a scientist. Yet in schools, for some reason, at the very, very outset, we only teach music to be a musician.
[00:09:46] PF: Oh, interesting.
[00:09:48] NL: I just thought, “Wow, that seems to set you up for failure because not every person is going to have the interest or drive to be a musician.” I really dislike it when people start to say, “I’m not musical,” because anyone that actually listens to music and has an opinion about music and enjoys music and can talk about it is innately musical. I also noticed that music is one of these fundamentally sort of human – It has these reactions to it, in the sense that music makes us feel things, right?
The reason it does that often is when you think about the physicality of it and what’s happening to your body, these sound waves are going into our ears. They sort of fiddle around with our eardrums, and our eardrums actually move. It’s the only time that that happens without our brains really having instructed something to move. So our brains are trying to play catch up and make sense of this. That’s why it starts to sort of recall other memories and so on and so forth. But it’s like a very interesting physiological experience, and it makes us feel things. Because of that, it’s a really great place to teach social and emotional skills.
[00:10:59] PF: So let’s talk about that because I love the fact that you look at music as a way of teaching impulse control, critical thinking, collaboration, all these things that I have not seen that addressed elsewhere. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. I’m just saying I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen anyone approach it like this. So can you talk about some of those skills that music teaches our children?
[00:11:23] NL: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people think that because it’s inherently collaborative, and there’s definitely a lot of sort of social-emotional learning happening, my opinion on all this is unless you’re purposeful about it, unless you’re actually pointing it out and signposting it for kids, it’s not going to come across as social and emotional learning. So we just wanted to maximize the learning and think about like how in every situation. What’s the most we can teach you, and what are all the things that we can signpost for you?
An example would be if I said, “Hey, Paula. We’re going to learn a song.” But if you’re not really thinking that you’re going to be a musician or you’re not interested in that, then subconsciously, all the information that goes in after those words actually goes in the not important right now pile, and it’s really, really hard to retain. Whereas if I say, “Hey, Paula. We’re going to learn the song,” but this is just problem solving one on one, right? What do we do when we problem solve? Well, we break it down into bite-sized chunks. We recognize patterns. We create a schedule for ourselves as to when we want to complete something by knowing that we’re going to have to adjust accordingly. So we do check in with ourselves and adjust our schedule accordingly, and we celebrate our wins along the way.
That is problem solving across the board, not just in music. It’s in other areas of your life, right? So it’s a transferable skill. All of our lessons, every single thing that we do from youngest elementary, so on and so forth, where we have kids, not just learn an instrument, but instead just say, “What music do you already like,” and take something that they are already familiar with and enjoy, and let them dig a little deeper through musical concepts to understand why they connect with it.
We still teach about rhythm and tempo and dynamics and all these sort of musical concepts, harmony, melody. We teach them about those concepts but in relation to what they already know and love, if that makes sense.
[00:13:25] PF: Yeah. It is so interesting. What have you seen in children when they start using this program?
[00:13:32] NL: Well, it becomes fun, right? I think it engages their authentic curiosity because I think we’ve been really conscious of the fact that we don’t want it to be in a silo of like, “Here’s your one hour for social and emotional learning.” No, right? No, it’s integrated and woven into our lives. So simply asking questions like, “What emotions do you think are being reflected in the song,” and letting kids take ownership in that and start talking about what they hear and why, there’s not a huge gap then between what they already know and what they’ve been taught.
I think curiosity requires a couple of things. One, it has to have some kind of prior knowledge. You can’t have curiosity for something that is so far away from anything that you know. You kind of just – It’s too hard. Whereas if you have some kind of prior knowledge in the gap between what you already know and what you are learning, it’s not that significant that it’s scary, right? But it is challenging. It’s the right balance between support and challenge, so to speak. That becomes something that then builds your curiosity, and it becomes a cycle with its own life force. When you go down a rabbit hole, that’s basically what’s happening.
[00:14:49] PF: So when someone’s using WURRLY, are they teaching music or are they teaching life skills?
[00:14:55] NL: Well, it’s both, right? So we have general educators, and then a lot of elementary teachers are general educators. It is pretty turnkey so that teachers don’t need to necessarily be music teachers. Some modules require a little bit more of that skill. We have, for example, ukulele lessons. We have an amazing partnership all the way through middle school and high school with 1500 Sound Academy, which is all recording and engineering. We have music business, artist branding. So it’s career technical sort of education at that higher level.
But, again, in every single lesson, we provide the opportunity for teachers to point out, these are the social and emotional skills that you’re learning, blogging, and podcasting. Here are the social and emotional skills that you’re learning, and we signpost it in the moment. It’s more really so that we maximize the learning. It can also be a general educator who’s using music. I should say the arts and video in an integrated way. So I feel very strongly that experiential learning is very successful, and it’s really deep learning.
But experiential learning requires us to also reflect on something. In most settings, how can you truly, truly reflect on something accurately without having recorded it?
[00:16:12] PF: Oh, interesting.
[00:16:14] NL: We have a full step learning process of inspire, practice, record, reflect. So the kids, they really see this as a really fun experience where they get to learn something, but it’s always something inspiring, something that is relevant to them. Then from there, they get to make it their own. Practice whatever the skill is that they’re learning or new information, right? It might be a science thing. It might be the difference between living and nonliving things.
But then we’ll give you – Instead of just having the definition, we’ll give you a rap song where you can rote learn the definition for what is a living and a nonliving thing, but then also give you the space to make a music video where there’s gaps where you get to test yourself and really apply your own knowledge. Then, of course, when you watch that back, you’re learning it not just while you’re doing it, but you’re learning it again when you watch yourself because it’s so shocking to see yourself. It’s much deeper learning. I think the retention is much longer.
[00:17:13] PF: How do parents respond to this? Because this is so revolutionary, and I can see that it would have such a profound impact on the students. So what are the parents saying when they see their children learning these other subjects unrelated to music, seemingly, and really thriving and growing?
[00:17:31] NL: Well, so far, we’ve had only positive feedback, only positive feedback. So interestingly, right before the pandemic, I think we were a little ahead of our time, in the sense that we require Internet, number one. A lot of schools didn’t have Internet in the classrooms. They might have had it in the staff rooms or in certain rooms, but they didn’t have Internet in the classrooms. A lot of that has changed. Staff, also, I think teachers these days are much more adept at technology.
But one of the things that we noticed during the pandemic, and we’ve had a mental health crisis looming, even pre-pandemic. It was just exacerbated by the pandemic, I think. What’s been interesting is this concept of self-expression. So, yes, we have all the lesson plans that are teacher-led. In every aspect, we never want to replace the teacher. We just want to enhance the teacher’s experience and make it easier for the teacher in the classroom.
But we also do through the recording, and we have the largest popular music catalog in K-12 education or fully licensed. So these kids can go and create their own things, either with a blank track or with one of our tracks or with any of these license songs. We have videos there that teachers can share with artists teaching kids how to do a certain skill, whether it’s an instrumental or otherwise. So I think it is something that parents see as being something that brings joy and energy. To me, that should be the goal of all education. We should be fostering this sort of concept of a lifelong learner in celebrating curiosity.
[00:19:06] PF: I 100% agree with that. Another thing that struck me as you’re talking, anxiety has been so high. Like you said, mental health was not good before the pandemic, and anxiety and depression just skyrocketed during the pandemic. So how can music help in terms of that? How can it help children become more at ease in the world around them because things are still in upheaval? There’s still so much turmoil and anxiety going on. So how can that music help them?
[00:19:37] NL: Well, it’s interesting. Let me just back up a little bit. So I think one of the things that can happen with emotions, and I do a lot of work with emotions very specifically, is that challenging emotions like anxiety and so forth and the groups that come with anxiety, there’s lots of emotions there, can absolutely hijack our brains. So the hippocampus of our brain, the part that basically controls the going in and out of information, the retention and recall of information can only ever inhabit one task at a time.
You can think of it as having a waiting room, so there’s different tasks that can be in the waiting room and dip in and out and dip in and out. But it’s not at any one time there’s only one thing, one task for that hippocampus. So when you have these really challenging emotions like anxiety that’s taking over like all these big emotions that are taking over your brain, your hippocampus, there is no way that you can actually intake any other information or recall any other information.
A good example of that is, for example, grief. So when you’re feeling grief, you might read the same paragraph 30 times and still not retain a single thing. So the biggest thing is you have to – A, there’s a cycle to these. That whatever is driving those really big emotions, you have to interrupt that cycle, right? Whatever is causing you to feel overwhelmed, overwhelmed is just a drowning out of our nervous system because all those really big challenging emotions are vying for attention. So you have to break the cycle somehow.
Music is an amazing way to break that cycle. So to interrupt the cycle, I should say, and stop the drive of these super challenging emotions. The reason it does that is because it makes us feel things. So even if we’re feeling a certain emotion, if we listen to certain songs, it will get our attention and interrupt whatever we’re feeling with something different.
Now, one of the exercises that we do with WURRLYedu is we have kids think about all the different emotions that they’re feeling regularly in a given, I don’t know, week, month. We try to have sort of at least 15 emotions that they’re exploring, which is, by the way, a really high number, considering a lot of people think of four or five.
[00:21:57] PF: Yeah. We have the basic five. That’s like the food groups or something.
[00:22:00] NL: Exactly. So it’s already stretching it there. But then what we do is we have kids pair each emotion with a song. Now, they have what we call an emotional playlist.
[00:22:12] PF: Oh, I love this.
[00:22:12] NL: They can explore like what does it feel like to go from one to another to another because sometimes, like if you’re really frustrated and angry and feeling misunderstood, or there’s so many different emotions that might go with that, and then you listen to a super happy, confident song, you’re going to be irritated by it. But if you start to nudge, like you can create a spectrum of things that you’d love to feel it and see what goes kind of together, and you can create yourself a little landscape for your playlist, and you can start exploring what it feels like to move between these different songs.
It’s a bit like a remote control, where you start to be able to say, “Okay, if I’m really sad, it’s important for me to identify and acknowledge my feelings right now or anxiety. I’m feeling really anxious. It’s important for me to acknowledge it and think about what it might be signposting for me. But at the same time, I can move out of it.” There are ways to interrupt those cycles, and create space around it. So imagine how great it would be to put on music and just dance, right? Or put on music and just sing and just let yourself really feel certain emotions because you do, I think, healthy processing of emotions. You have to allow yourself to feel things and let them be there, and that’s okay, right?
The more that we tend to repress emotions, the more that we try to ignore our emotions, the harder it is, I think. The longer they’ll be there. That’s a whole another subject. But I think music is a wonderful way to interrupt the cycles of emotions. Remember, emotions come in waves, so anxiety and stress. I think there are definitely ways to use music to put us in certain moods.
[00:24:05] PF: I love what you’re doing. This is just absolutely fascinating and so well needed. The skills that you are teaching our children and young people, this is just amazing, and I wish it had been around. I wish you had done this 40 years ago.
[00:24:21] NL: Thank you.
[00:24:22] PF: But we talked about it in schools. What about parents that are listening and maybe their schools don’t offer this? Is there a way that they can utilize some of these tools?
[00:24:31] NL: Absolutely. Any parent can actually log on and be a teacher. So it’s free to anyone to use, until you want the recording functionality because the recording is only through the student portal. But if you just have the teacher portal, it’s actually free to use. So any parents, any teacher can go to WURRLYedu. So they can go and explore. Again, it’s a great way, even just for the lessons. We have the practice video in there, so you still get to see all the cool filters and stickers and stuff that you can put in that studio. We try to make it feel very much like a recording studio.
[00:25:06] PF: I think if people use this as a family, I think this could be so changing because, like I said, right now, there’s a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of things going on with people and because of everything going on in the world. What a great tool for families to move through these emotions together.
[00:25:25] NL: Absolutely, absolutely.
[00:25:27] PF: Wow. Nadine, what you’ve done is absolutely incredible. I’m so glad that you came on and talked about this. I’m excited to share the links and more information on our landing page and let people know about you. What is the main thing that you really hope people take away from this conversation and from using WURRLYedu?
[00:25:46] NL: I think it’s that awareness, right? Mindfulness is just an awareness and I think encouraging people to be mindful when they’re listening to music or playing music. Like really trying to be aware of how it makes you feel, what, and why, I think those are the big things. How does it make you feel and why? How can you use it for all those different – Like what are all the skills that you could be developing and trying to be really purposeful about signposting it for yourself or for your kids?
All those skills like collaboration, problem solving, self-management, planning, self-awareness, emotional regulation, things like that. There are so many pieces to this that unless they’re signposted, kind of get wasted. So I just want to encourage people to try and optimize it a little bit in a fun way.
[00:26:36] PF: That’s terrific. Nadine, again, thank you for being on the show and for all the fantastic work that you’re doing and really changing the world with music.
[00:26:45] NL: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:26:49] PF: That was Nadine Levitt, talking about how music education can teach critical life skills to young learners. If you’d like to learn more about Nadine and WURRLY edu or any of her other programs, just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast link. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note and look forward to joining you again next month. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.