Have you ever brought your handpan to work? That's what Mary Mosley does on a routine basis. As an educator, she uses the handpan in the classroom as a learning tool for her students. Speaking from her childhood, Mary talks about the unmatched power of creativity to help process difficulties.
Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast! The benefits of creativity are undeniable. Using our imagination to create something reduces stress, teaches us problem-solving, fosters community, and on and on. Yet, it often takes people to meet us where we're at and to empower us to pursue the creative inkling inside each of us. Today, we're gonna hear from one of these people. I met Mary Mosley at a recent handpan gathering and I immediately knew I wanted to share her story on the podcast. Mary talks about the freedom found in the handpan, after going through painful experiences which made it difficult to create years. And she reveals what she's learned from routinely bringing the handpan to the most unusual setting... the classroom. Here's my conversation with Mary Mosley. Mm.
Sylvain: Hey Mary, it's good to have you on the podcast. How are you?
Mary: Hello, I am fantastic. Thank you so much for having me. This is exciting.
Sylvain: Yeah, it's really exciting. Um, for me too because it's an aspect of the instrument that I don't have much experience in so I expect to learn a lot from you today. So we'll get to your occupation in just a moment because it's going to be a central focus in today's conversation. But first I wanted to ask you about your background specifically. I don't know, growing up, did you have experiences around creativity and art and community that set you on the path towards pursuing an instrument like the handpan?
Mary: Absolutely. Um, I was very lucky to grow up in a home with a lot of music. My father was a guitarist and a beautiful singer and my mother is a classically trained pianist and so they both played instruments and play with them often. And we're also just lovers of music. And so I remember as a child, you know, these parties that my parents would throw and they loved rock music and my dad had an amazing record collection and they would let me pick records. So, you know, I was like four or five and you know, dancing to the rolling stones on top of the coffee table and things like that. So it was, it was very much a childhood that was musical. Um, I also sang as a child, um, I sang a lot from a church and in choirs at school and things like that. And that part of me, the creative part of me was something that was very encouraged by my parents especially. Um, I sang, I didn't pick up an instrument. Um, I sang a lot and I drew, um, I liked to draw and to paint and when I was in kindergarten, they had us dress up as what we wanted to be when we were older and I dressed up as an artist and I had an artist Palette and all of that sort of thing. Um, and then my dad died when I was 10 and it, it made music really difficult for me for a bout 15 years. I quit singing and I kind of distanced myself from that kind of creativity. And, um, it was only in the past couple of years that I discovered handpan and found myself drawn to that creative part of myself that I had neglected for so long.
Sylvain: I had no idea. Thanks for sharing that.
Sylvain: So you went through a rough patch there in your relationship to music and art.
Mary: Yeah, it was interesting to have some thing that had brought me so much joy as a child, to be something that it was 10 tinged with sadness and you know, for me that, that happened when I was a kid. And so often children don't know how to process trauma and process things that hurt. And you know, I did what I think a lot of children do, which is I just pushed it away.
Sylvain: Yeah. Did you maintain some other artistic outlets like drawing in the meantime?
Mary: I didn't. I did find theater and the theater community in high school and in college and you know, those communities tend to be full of, of creative, Quirky, fun people. And, um, I never was someone who wanted to be on stage, but I was a stage manager and I helped with the lighting and things like that. And that was, that was good.
Sylvain: Yeah. And it sounds like theater brings in a whole new aspect of the art being community too, right. And performance. And so what drew you to the handpan? How did you discover the handpan? What attracted you to it when you did?
Mary: So I found handpan by watching someone play and it was actually a, someone who is now a good friend of mine, Lawson Yeager. And he was playing, he was busking at this little community in San Antonio called the Pearl. And I, I walked by and I, I heard this magical sound and was fully distracted by it because I believe I was walking on my way to somewhere or to do something. And I don't even remember what now because I sat down and, um, I had, uh, I make Malas, which are meditation beads. And so I had one with me and I, he was playing on the end of the bench and I sat at the other end of the bench and worked on nodding my Mala and just listen to him play for about 45 minutes. And I found the sound to just be enchanting and calming and grounding and exhilarating all at the same time. And I remember feeling really bad because I didn't have any cash. And so I went up to him and I was like, Hey, you know, can I, can I get you a coffee? Cause he was playing right outside of a coffee shop and he was like, yeah, that would be great. So I got him a coffee and you know, went on, went on my way and it stuck with me. And a couple of months later I made a new friend who busks often in, he plays Didgeridoo and djembe and a few other instruments and he had a hand pan and he let me play. And the first time I sat down with it, I think I sat there playing for two hours. And, you know, I've, I'd never played or percussion instrument before it. It wasn't a thing that I had any training with. And I remember so much joy. I just felt joy when I was playing. And it was funny because we were outside, like we were busking, he was busking when I did this. And so, you know, there are people walking by and I thought about it afterwards and there wasn't a moment where I was self conscious or felt odd about people watching me play despite the fact that, you know, I didn't really have any idea when I was doing. Um, and I remembered telling him, you know, when I first started playing, I looked up at him and I said, it sounds like fairies singing.
Mary: And I still, you know, still with, with hand pans, I like to find a description of their tone or something about them that is a little more whimsical and more fairy tale. Like, cause I think I'm drawn to that quality in them.
Sylvain: Yeah. And you're not the only one. I think a lot of us are drawn to the magic of this sound. And I love that you used the word joy because kind of the tagline for this podcast is the simple joy of creating and joy is this powerful thing because it implies the absence of fear. And you just described it, right. Busking being out in public and playing and not being fearful of doing it wrong or not being fearful of what others are going to think. And this kind of freedom from fear produces so much joy. Um, but it's, it's so cool that you had this experience and I had no idea that it was Lawson who introduced you to the handpan. That's awesome.
Mary: Yeah, it will. And it's great because now he and I played together, you know, at least once a week, often more.
Sylvain: Yeah. I've seen a number of recent videos of the two of you playing duets and uh, it's really neat that you seem to have a, a great chemistry and that you can make music together.
Mary: It's been a really beautiful thing to, to create with him and to, to grow in that together.
Sylvain: Yeah, he's a great guy. And he's going to be on the podcast at some point in the near future.
Mary: Yes, I hope so.
Sylvain: All right. So I missed it, but yesterday was national teacher appreciation day, so I'm sorry I'm one day late, but cheers to you and to all the teachers who have impacted us. Um, this is partly why we're chatting today about the topic of hand pans and education. You're an educator, you're a teacher. How, how did you celebrate yesterday?
Mary: Well, so it, the whole week is teacher appreciation week and um, I've, I've Kinda just been celebrating by, by doing what I usually do with, with the kids. Um, this week is always a really interesting one because often times other teachers in the building will prompt kids to like write little notes to their teachers for why they appreciate them and things like that. And so every year I always get like one or two cards or little letters that really stick with me. And I got a really sweet one today actually from a student that I taught two years ago and she wrote this beautiful letter about how she appreciated so much that I helped open her eyes to the world around her is I think how she phrased it. Um, and actually she mentioned a musical instrument in the letter because she plays Ukulele and I invite my kids to bring their instruments to class and they can play basically any time they want. Um, and as you know, if they get their work done or if it's something that they could do while while they're still working, they're more than welcome to you. And so this particular student, there were two of, um, two kids in her class that also played Ukulele and so they would bring them and they would work on things together. And, um, she mentioned in her letter that she appreciated, you know, being to able to do that in my class, which was really nice.
Sylvain: Yeah, that's really cute. Um, and so what ages are your students? What grade?
Mary: Yeah, I teach sixth graders, so they are 11 and 12 years old for the most part.
Sylvain: And so that's kind of a crazy age, right?
Mary: Yeah. There are a little up and down.
Sylvain: A lot is going on. They're being introduced to a world of options and subject matters and they're being introduced to the handpan through you. Um, so I understand that you've brought your handpans to class to introduce it to your students, um, to have them try it, share some observations that you've had of their experience.
Mary: Yeah, so it's, it's interesting when I'm playing for them, which I'll bring my pan and I'll play if they're taking a test or quizzes or, you know, if it's a quiet work day, there aren't very many of those days in my class. I'm the teacher that likes things to be a little bit rowdy, but they're still, it's quiet. I'll, I'll bring the handpan and play for them and they immediately fall, completely silent. If someone starts to talk or, um, you know, do something that's kind of disruptive that other kids will shush them. Um, it's cute when I'll, I'll have it with me. When the kids walk in, they recognize the case and they recognize the pan and they knew what it is and they'll get excited. And I have kids who have said that it's really calming. Usually that's the word that they use when I'm playing is that it's really calming and it helps them breeze. I had a student say that it helped remind him to breathe, which I thought was really special. Um, and so just kind of as as background sound for them. Um, the kids really like it. I've also used it with kids who were having a tough day, who were angry about something or sad about something or anxious about something. And those circumstances I have found to be really powerful. So I have had some kids where, you know, I'll, I'll have them sit on the ground and I'll bring the pan to them and I'll put it in their lap. And if I haven't already shown them how, play that, how to play it all, you know, kind of explain how, how to play and then I'll just leave it with them. And I'll tell them like, just take five minutes, make some music, do you, and leave them to it. And that has been a really powerful tool for some of my kids. I had a student last year, her name is Izzy and you know, she had some, some tough things going on at home and I knew a lot about that context and you know, she trusted me enough to confide in me, which I, you know, was, was very appreciative of. And she had a couple of days where she just couldn't concentrate in class and that happens sometimes because you know, kids have lives outside of school and sometimes those lives make doing school impossible. And so she was one kid that I actually, I let her sit in the hallway and I brought her the pan and I just left her out there with it for five or 10 minutes and I popped back out in the hallway and she looked up at me. I didn't even have to say anything. She looked at me and she said, Ms. Mosley, I feel so calm. And it was an immediate, you know, like a straight shot to the heart. It's like, oh good, okay. It worked. I'm happy.
Sylvain: Good on you for trusting her and for being so generous and for empowering her to experience the instrument. I'm really impressed by that. But I think what you did there and what you do on a routine basis is really powerful because you, you trust them and you empower them
Mary: And it's, you know, I do have a lot of trust with my kids. Um, and I think that part of that is, you know, it's with hand pan, especially I, I always introduce the instrument to them and I'll, I, I tell them a little bit about the history of it and I show them how to play it and I tell them how expensive they are and I'm like, you know, this is a $2,400 instrument. It's very expensive and it's very special to me and you know, I, I also am upfront with them. That is something that for me has helped me deal with my emotions and that it's something that helps me find joy and that it's something that if they would like to try, um, you know, like I'm, I'm happy for them to, but you know, they need to be careful. And you know, by and large when, when kids have all of the information and they understand what something is and why it's important and how to handle it, they're very careful and they're very respectful and honestly, if they're like to, to be trusted in that way, like they, they take it seriously that an adult and someone that they have a relationship with has something that's special that they want to share.
Sylvain: Hmm. Which makes it in all the more meaningful connection for you, but also for their own development and for them to perhaps develop a passion and come to own, um, an interest for themselves. Right. There's always this point in, in this transition from childhood to becoming adults where we no longer just do things that were passed on to us, but we start owning them for ourselves and, and I, I wouldn't be surprised if this sense of ownership happens through meaningful connections and trust. Do you feel like some of the students that you've introduced to the handpan have taken it to heart or I wanting to go farther than other kids?
Mary: It's kind of hard to say the case for, for middle schoolers so often their interests are, are still in so many directions that, you know, what they're going to hone in on is, is still a little uncertain. But I do have some kids that every time I bring my pan with me, they always want to play. I've had a few kids ask like where they can get one. And so I, you know, we'll give them information about the things that they can look at in different makers and um, you know, tell them the names that they can search for. And, you know, I have a few kids who have come to me and said, oh, you know, Miss Mosley, I, I've looked at some hand pan videos that are night. I watched them for a few hours. And so for those kids, the ones that ask questions and then they go home and do something with it, I think that those kids might, you know, pick it up later on. But I, I am, I have been surprised and impressed by the number of students who have said to me like, I'm not good at things like this or I'm not creative or I'm not talented or I'm not musical. And then I'll sit with my hand pan and like diligently play and work at it for half an hour. And for those kids, I hope that even if it's not hand pan that they under or begin to understand themselves as creative, um, and you know, even if it's not an instrument, even if it's not music that they see that, you know, they, they are, that they, they can create and that, that is a powerful thing. This year it's, it's been fun. I have an advisory class. So normally I teach world culture and geography. That's, that's my content. Um, and so I teach five sections of that. And then I have one advisory class and my advisory class, we've spoken a lot about creativity and I've done lessons on creativity and how that can be a lot of different things. And we've talked about how, um, young kids will embrace the idea of themselves as creative. And then by the time we get to adults, we have somehow started to, to think that we're not, uh, and so I have a day every week that is just creativity day and it's, they can do whatever it is that they are drawn to as far as, you know, a creator. And, um, I'll bring the hand pans sometimes on, on those days for, for kids to play. And there was one day that sticks out where when my kids, Hannah, she said, Oh, you know, I'm not good at this sort of thing. And I sat her down with, uh, two other kids, Noah one Mustafa and the three of them sat there and they legit composed a song over the course of half an hour. I mean, there are 11. And they sat there and they all had different parts and they had, uh, you know, for, for rhythm that they had figured out. And it was so cool to watch Hannah though because she told me at the beginning like, I'm not good at this. And I showed her how to play it. And over the course of that half hour, her touch got so much better and the sounds that she was getting from the pan where like beautiful and resonant and like, so she was so particular. And the other two guys, they were, you know, they weren't banging on the hand pan because none of the kids ever do because they know not to. But they were definitely not as, um, perhaps elegant or methodical about their approach as she was. And it was, and it was so cool. Like, it's cool to watch kids get better at something that they didn't think that they could do.
Sylvain: That's such a great story. I think it, it makes us all think about our childhood and maybe moments where the light bulb went on. Um, it's cool that the handpan can play a role in providing an alternative, a different outlet for kids to express themselves and perhaps find confidence or just interest. Um, cause that's a big part of, of um, personal development, right? Like I think when we look back in our, in our own lives, there are these pivotal moments that helped us to come out of our shell. And it sounds like the hand pan would be very well suited for this school setting.
Mary: Absolutely. Absolutely. Um, it's an instrument that has a very low entry barrier since it's tuned to a scale and it's really quite difficult to make sounds with it. That don't sound beautiful. It's much less intimidating I think. Then an instrument like a guitar or piano even. Um, and a lot of the instruments that that kids encounter in band or orchestra classes, um, it's, you know, you can hand a kid, a hand pan and within 10 minutes they can be creating something that isn't theirs is completely their own. That sounds beautiful. And I think that it, one is great for kids for that reason, but then I think it's good for schools because of the reason mentioned earlier about giving kids a tool to help manage their emotions and giving kids like even just background noise that is calming. One of the things that I see a lot in my middle schoolers is they get angry and they don't know how to communicate that that is what's happening to them. They don't know how to feel emotions that don't feel good. And the way that they respond is to try to get away from that emotion. And you know, that's either by closing off or by getting violent. Um, and I think hand pan is a great tool to get kids to like sit and focus and just be for a minute. Um, and then, then they're able to have conversations about what's happening with their emotions. A lot of times, you know, the adult has to be the one to stay calm when children are not. And you know, sometimes that's difficult for adults and kids too. It's like every, you know, when you get anger or frustration or any of the emotions that like don't feel good involves, um, it makes it difficult to teach. It makes it difficult to learn. And so hand pan I think has been a tool for just in like remembering, it teaches me focus, it teaches me how to be calm. And then with my kids it teaches them how to focus and teaches them how to be calm. And you know, schools need more tools that can facilitate that process. And it's actually something, when I first started bringing my hand hand to work and my principal, he is an amazing administrator and he just, he calls it the turtle. And um, I remember one day I was, I was teaching and I had a student teacher at the time and my, she was leading the class that day. My principal, you know, pops in my room and he opens the door and he goes, Mosley, he got the turtle today. Yes sir, I do. He was like, cool, grab it. Come with me. Oh, okay. So it be my student teacher with my classroom and you know, have the hand pan go with principal. And he takes me to the BMC room, which is the classroom for students to have, um, emotional and behavioral disorders. And some students are in there the whole day. Some just go there like when they need support. And my principal wanted me to play for the kids. Like it was a kind of stressful day. They were gonna have a having a tough day. And he saw that as a tool to like help the kids decompress a little bit. Um, so I sat there and played my hand pan for some kids for a little while. Um, and you know, it's, it was nice for me to see the instrument valued for all the different things that it can do. You know, I can see a world where a school administrator would not be okay with a teacher bringing their instrument to work and playing it for kids. And that has never been my experience and I'm grateful for that.
Sylvain: I really like what you shared about the instrument being an outlet for kids to express their emotions. Because you know, sometimes we, I think from an outside perspective, we tend to see kids issues as not adult problems. But when you think about it, I think a lot of children go through a lot more emotional stress and anxiety than adults do it, partly because they don't have the tools to process their emotions. Uh Huh. But I think, um, it's counterintuitive, but they might be the population that needs a tool like that the most to process. Just the, the, the rejection and the bullies and all the trauma they can surface during childhood.
Mary: Absolutely. Even if it's not hand pan, even if it's not an instrument, um, the power of creativity to help people process things that are difficult is unmatched, I think by most. Anything else, um, you know, to, to really process and deal with something. You have to look at it, you know, you'd have to see it. You have to feel it. And doing so without like a mediator is, is hard. Um, and I think creativity and can be a really beautiful mediator. And you know, I have a lot of kids who will journal or they'll draw or they'll make music or they'll do something that is creative in nature that makes something new, um, to help them deal with things that are hard. And I, I totally agree with you that children deal with so much emotional stress in a way that adults don't. Um, because kids don't have the tools yet. And so often children are treated like their concerns aren't important or are there concerns aren't valid because they are kids. But I think back to my experiences as a child and you know, there was a lot that was overwhelming and I didn't know how to deal with it and no one taught me how to deal with it. Um, and you know, now as an adult, I, I finally figured out how to deal with the things that I didn't know how to deal with this when I was 10 or 11.
Sylvain: As adults. Maybe it's cultural, but these days it seems like the culture is trained to retrieve that childlike innocence, reintroducing playtime, simplifying our, our lives. Um, so we have a lot to learn from, from children in their approach to the world, including something like the hand pan.
Mary: Oh, absolutely.
Sylvain: Wait, the curiosity, sort of bypassing fear and status. These are all things that we can learn from.
Mary: Okay. Oh, and they definitely bypass fear. Like I love watching the kids with hand pan because now it's funny because somewhere along the way I, I became more fearful about playing publicly with my hand pan. It's like, I think I, you know, started to learn more and then I was like, oh, well I'm not that good. You know, play less in public. I don't know. Um, but my kids, it's like they're, they're not concerned about that at all. They, every time I watched them play, it's like, oh, I remember that. Like I remember just the joy from playing and I always try to stay cognizant of that, of like a, how much joy I get from playing my instrument. And you know when when fear starts to creep in and it's like shoot it off.