Donatella Moltisanti, a trained opera singer, uses music to encourage emotional healing in clients and listeners. Courtesy of Donatella Moltisanti
Donatella Moltisanti, a trained opera singer, uses music to encourage emotional healing in clients and listeners. (Courtesy of Donatella Moltisanti)

How an Opera Singer and a Psychology Professor Use Music to Heal

How an Opera Singer and a Psychology Professor Use Music to Heal

Donatella Moltisanti first discovered the therapeutic benefits of music three decades ago while studying opera at a music conservatory in Italy.

“As a teenager, I suffered from debilitating menstrual cramps that left me bedridden for several days each month,” says Moltisanti, a New York-based alternative wellness practitioner who calls herself a “soul healer.” “Medication provided no relief, but once I began singing opera, the pain dissipated.”

Whether it’s a lullaby that coaxes a crying baby to sleep or the sound of a harmonic harp to settle one’s anxiety, music has the power to soothe and heal us, and science agrees. Now, Moltisanti is using singing and sound healing as a form of medicine to encourage others to forgive.

On Apr. 24, Moltisanti and her colleague Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good, will give a joint program at Unity Church in Palo Alto. Luskin, who has worked with victims of violence in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, and the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, will present his forgiveness research, followed by a sound healing program by Moltisanti. The event also celebrates the release of Moltisanti’s debut album, Moltisanti Soul Singing.

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Several studies show that singing, chanting, and humming can increase the output of oxytocin, the “love hormone” responsible for boosting one’s mood and fostering human bonding. Research has also found that listening to pleasurable music triggers the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to happiness and other positive emotions. Similar to other somatic exercises, like meditation and yoga, music and singing can help soothe the body’s parasympathetic nervous system by calming down the amygdala, the part of the brain where fear resides.

In a phone interview, Luskin explains that music has the profound ability to relax the mind and the body and help people shed anger and resentment, emotions that can be toxic to one's psychological and physical health.

“Holding onto grudges can cause our bodies to remain in a state of threat,” says Luskin. He says this state can trigger the body to release stress hormones, like cortisol, which can make one more prone to insomnia, heart disease, and depression.

In contrast to the popular notion that to forgive is to forget, Luskin says forgiveness does not require us to erase painful memories. "We never forget the worst parts of our lives,” he says. “But forgiveness can help us to remember upsetting situations differently by transitioning our hostile feelings to a more peaceful place.”

During his talk on Tuesday, Luskin will teach participants the "Nine Steps to Forgiveness," a roadmap based on his research that encourages audiences to let go of grievances. “Grievances are often a result of taking things too personally,” Luskin explains. “When we see someone, such as a friend, family member, or politician as the offender, we blame them for our suffering. Then, we weave a grievance story around that particular narrative.”

He goes on to add that even if we’re upset about ongoing social problems, like homelessness, politics, or racism, we can transform our anger into something constructive, like advocacy. “Instead of causing us to feel helpless, constructive anger can inspire us to do something positive, like take action,” he says.

Still, intellectually understanding how anger can impact the mind and the body is only one part of the forgiveness equation. Luskin points out that in order to truly grasp the healing powers of forgiveness, one must experience it for oneself on an emotional level.

In the second half of the program, Moltisanti will facilitate a sound healing concert, allowing participants to experience how music, singing, and sound healing can help them let go of anger, sadness, and hurt. "The idea is to not only bring knowledge and awareness to forgiveness, but to help people feel it," she says.

Moltisanti will guide participants into a relaxing state through meditation. Then, using the soothing sounds of operatic vocalization and crystal singing bowls, she’ll help individuals locate the rage and pain within, encouraging them to sing and make sounds themselves in order to let go.

“When we can allow the breath and voice to flow, the body aligns with the vibration,” says Moltisanti, “and we can begin to let go of suffering.”

Fred Luskin and Donatella Moltisanti will give a lecture and concert at the Unity Church in Palo Alto. More information here.

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