Adriana Barton’s non-fiction debut documents her musical odyssey

Two years ago, Adriana Barton found an old box in her garage that contained forgotten ephemera from her childhood. Inside were A-level report cards from the gifted program Barton had attended. There were photos showing a dark-haired elven girl holding cello trophies. And there were journals filled with Barton’s anxious scribbles that she might fall short of the wonderkid image she projected to the world. Together, the content “showed me the extreme cost of perfectionism,” Barton says from her home in Vancouver, where she wrote Wired for Music: A search for health and joy through the science of sound (published this month by Greystone Books), a non-fiction work that she describes as a hybrid of “science and history, head and heart”.

Barton’s perfectionism was born at the age of five when she began studying classical cello at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec in Hull under André Mignault, who demanded impeccable playing. Eventually, Barton grew to hate his grueling tormentor. Technical perfection might have been achievable, but where was the joy? A diary entry written when she was 12 reads “I want to be good, but most of all I want to have fun playing the cello.”

Adriana Barton practicing in front of one of her mother’s paintings, months after she began her cello studies at the age of five. (photo courtesy of Adriana Barton)

Barton has become exemplary. “I wanted to be known for my talent as a musician.” Pleasure has become tangential. At 16, she was accepted into the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, a place that attracted Juilliard School graduates. Eventually, Barton would play at Carnegie Hall. But the hours of training took their toll and she developed performance injuries, including swollen forearms from tendonitis and ganglion cysts in each wrist, preventing her from performing. Music has become as much physical as mental anguish. It felt like a failure.

At 22, Barton quit the cello. It was, she wrote, like burying her twin. “Without the cello, who was I?” But leaving the instrument behind allowed Barton to embark on a musical odyssey. Along the way, she found joy, exploring the rhythms and melodies of diverse cultures and peoples for whom music is a spontaneous part of everyday life and imperfection is something to embrace. This also led to Wired for Music – a project that, according to Barton, “chose me”.

Barton had no intention of writing a book. She worked as a health journalist and wrote on aging, cancer care, mental health and emerging therapies for the Globe and Mail. In 2016, after years at World and ready for a new challenge, she was accepted into the PhD program in ethnomusicology at the University of British Columbia. But a doctorate can be cloistered and, as a journalist, Barton was “used to my ideas spreading around the world”. She chose not to pursue graduate school, attended a Brazilian music camp, and upon her return was approached by Greystone Books to write a non-fiction work. The final shrewd mix of science and memoir was a struggle, Barton admits, and the book went through several permutations before publication.

Wired for Music showcases his journalistic skills, presenting an exhaustive exploration of the latest scientific findings on the role music plays in thought, trauma healing, motor control, language, high performance athletics, social connections and Politics. This scholarly study is intertwined with Barton’s painfully honest and inspiring quest to determine how music could enrich his life, mind and soul. Her journey is meant to encourage those of us who don’t feel safe singing, dancing or playing an instrument because we’re not Beyoncé, Baryshnikov or Yo-Yo Ma. “I want people to feel that music is in them, that it’s part of their humanity and part of their physiology in a way that they may not fully understand,” Barton says. The faux chirping, as most of us do, just adds to the “musical texture”.

Barton explored world music, particularly the beats, beats and melodies of South America and Africa. In 2019, her wanderings took her to places such as Ubuntu Village in Zimbabwe, where she explored how music can be at the heart of a community’s culture and spiritual beliefs – a thread connecting the past and the present. For these villagers, the Shona, music was “a force of nature, essential to life”. The musical instrument that made Barton realize just how integral music is to who we are as humans was the mbira, a sacred percussion instrument made up of staggered metal tines attached to a board of wood believed to connect ancestral spirits to the living. The mbira is played by plucking the metal keys to create a wide range of melodic notes, including bass and bell sounds. The instrument may growl, bellow, cry or tinkle like rain. Barton was invited to communicate with an ancestor in a possession ceremony. Initially mute by the thought of communing with spirits, Barton soon found herself speaking her words: “My body is tense, my mind is tense. Constriction. I don’t know what to do about it. I tried so many things. The pain she felt, the medium communicated to her, was the pain and grief inherited from her own ancestors. “It was heartwarming to be in a culture that viewed the individual as part of a long line of prior experiences,” Barton said. “[It doesn’t matter] whether you consider it a metaphor or a real phenomenon in the way they experience it.

What matters, says Barton, is that we recognize the key role music plays in our lives while embracing and valuing the panoply of musical traditions – ancient or modern – as much as we revere the Goldberg Variations. “I want people to feel like they can participate in music at any level and on their own terms.”

Adriana BartonDina Goldstein