Thursday, 23 April 2020

The need to be heard

Some of the most ‘therapeutic’ musical interactions I’ve witnessed during lockdown are between musicians themselves online. For example, I joined a Facebook group called ‘Tune of the week’ (TOTW). This is about (jazz) musicians showing their working to other musicians. It’s about preserving people’s musical identity at a time when it is facing the challenge of invisibility. Musicians need to be heard, and valued. People need to be heard. There has been a parallel tendency for music therapists to demonstrate their value at this time, to show that music therapy still has something to offer. This is perhaps similarly about preserving identity, but in this case the identity is that of the expert, the person who ‘knows how to use music therapeutically’. I’ve been part of this, interviewing two music therapists from Chiltern Music Therapy who gave expert advice on online interactions. There are also, for example, GIM resources for people with COVID-19, singalong packs produced by Nordoff Robbins music therapists, and online services for health professionals provided by NLMT. Chiltern runs an online group for parents and children. In my face to face work, back in the old world, I felt my work was closer to the ‘Tune of the week’ interactions than to these MT online resources. It was about relationship, and the way music can provide a bridge between people. My therapeutic expertise is partly about being a person with another person, through music (alongside the talking that’s necessary to facilitate it, and the thinking that supports both).

I might be in danger now of being unfair to music therapists promoting the profession, and trying to provide something helpful in a time of crisis. I might be creating a straw man based on an assumption that framing music therapy as a profession of experts who are ‘best placed to use music’ might be about identity but not about relationship, when it can be both. The interventions listed above are all valuable. As music therapists, we should be helping, and reminding people that musical connection is more important now than ever. So this isn’t an attempt to put those things down, more a note-to-self about how music works on a personal level, a reminder not to forget that my therapist-self relies on my musician-self. Inspired by TOTW, I’ve started up a Facebook group for music therapists called ‘Music Therapists’ Music’, for music therapists to share their own music with the group. Let’s see how that goes. I sense some shyness, which is fair enough. Music might be about showing off sometimes. It certainly can be in jazz. But only sometimes. In TOTW musicians are encouraging one another. It includes input from really expert players like Gareth Lockrane, but it’s inclusive. Anyone can put up a video, and talk about their musical challenges. It’s being done in a collegiate spirit. So perhaps one question I have is, as music therapists, can we look after one other? Can we share our musical identities, as a way of shoring up our therapeutic identities? ‘But aren’t they the same thing?’ Perhaps no more than my 'talking identity' would be the same as my therapeutic identity if I were a talking therapist. But, of course, it’s complicated...

As music therapists, we make use of, adapt, and edit our musical identity for each client or group. We use those bits of our musical identity that are useful at the time. But TOTW is a reminder to me of my own need to be heard, which is part of the reason I’m a musician, and so underlies my reasons for being a music therapist. Being a music therapist (in my experience) involves a tension between musician and therapist, but a useful tension, where my awareness of my own musical needs helps me understand what’s happening for the client. If I adopt a stance of ‘expert music therapist’, I might be giving up one kind of performance for another. The interactions on TOTW show musicians exposing their working, their musical struggles, and they show musicians being supportive, encouraging one another, reassuring each other that they are being listened to, and heard. Of course, there's also some showing off, but that's part of the process.

And another thing: RIP the great Lee Konitz, for whom improvising was a way of life, and who was always uncompromising in preserving what he felt was most important about music.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Playing and Reality

Something has been stopping me from adding to this blog recently. I think I was getting in the habit of trying to say something ‘important’ every time. Meanwhile, I add ideas to an online notebook. There are pages and pages of them, or there would be if it was printed out on A4. So instead, I’m going to put down some thoughts, and see where they lead. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about music and culture. Actually I’m not sure what this means, but I did find that talking to Natasha Thomas on Music Therapy Conversations set me thinking about a lot of stuff. Here’s one question that came to my mind: could a Gnawa musician be a music therapist?

If you aren’t aware of Gnawa music already, maybe you’ve now googled it and found some YouTube clips. There are plenty. I did an ethnomusicology Master’s project on Gnawa music back in the early 90s. I looked at the role of the m’allem in the tradition. In a Lila, which is a night-long ceremony in which ancestral spirits called mluk are evoked and sung to/about, along with dance, the m’allem leads the musicians from the ginbri, a three-stringed bass instrument. He (usually he) also leads call-and-response singing, with the rest of the group singing the responses. It’s a complex and rich tradition which mixes Islam with West African influences.
The ginbri, to my ears, seems to have six notes encompassing one octave. Usually D-E-G-A-C-D. There is some flexibility around the C, I think, which can be more like a B sometimes. The vocal melodies also seem to stay within these pentatonic parameters, for the most part. There are two fundamental rhythms, one using a two-against-three pattern and the other like a lilting 12/8, which can’t be accurately notated because the ‘quavers’ aren’t straight, and seem to flatten out at faster tempos, rather as swing feel in jazz tends to. There’s my etic perception of the music.

In music therapy training in the UK, we tend to encourage musical flexibility, the ability to adapt to different styles, according to the needs of each individual client. What would we do if an experienced Gnawa m’allem enrolled on a training course? Talk about ‘coals to Newcastle’! Gnawa music is a healing tradition. Musicians are tasked with evoking ancestral spirits so that the dancers can reconnect, address problems of health and well-being with the mluk. If a m’allem enrolled on a training, surely they would be doing the tuition?

Or we would be comparing notes, so to speak? In fact, perhaps ironically in the context of this line of thinking, Gnawa musicians are very flexible, open to fusing their music with jazz and other traditions. More prosaically what I wonder about is: can six notes be enough? Clearly they can. Maybe, to make music work with only six notes is the sign of mastery. The fact that I feel like I need all that harmonic colour, the complexities of the well-tempered chromatic system of twelve notes equally spaced in an octave and the capacity to modulate, to play ‘atonally’, to create consonance or dissonance, that’s my stuff. You don’t really need it, not if you’re a true m’allem, which translates roughly as ‘master musician’. Six notes, or five, if you don’t count the octave, with flexibility of intonation, but no modulation. The same as the blues, and no doubt related in its origins.

I imagine a positivist perspective on Gnawa music would posit that the mluk are not ‘real’ and that any healing resulting from a Lila would be a sort of ‘placebo’. But if we adopt a culturally open and curious stance, reality shifts. We might realise that it’s not about that, that we’re looking at it the wrong way to understand it meaningfully. Have a listen to the Paul Nordoff lectures if you can get hold of them. This is a master preaching to his disciples. It’s every bit as culturally specific as the Gnawa tradition. Notes and rhythms are presented as pure communication, capable of reaching all human beings if the timing is right, but it’s all firmly within the classical tradition of major and minor scales, equal temperament, etc. etc. Are we more like the Gnawa, developing our own rituals and beliefs in musical relationship as a route to healing (for example) attachment difficulties, than we are like ‘clinicians’, using music to achieve therapeutic goals in a health context? And if we are, is this a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing?

Friday, 15 November 2019

What I am

Me and my guitar. always in the same mood.
I am mostly flesh and bones and he is mostly wood.
Never does grow impatient for the changes I don't know, no.
If he can't go to heaven, maybe, I don't want to go, Lord.

James Taylor - Me and My Guitar

I remember an inspirational music teacher saying to the youth orchestra that "You always need to remember 'I am a viola player' all the time, even when you aren't playing. When you're on the tube, or hanging out with our friends, or at school, you should still think to yourself, 'I'm a violinist' or 'I'm a trombonist', or 'I'm a saxophone player'. Your instrument is part of who you are". It's certainly true for me even now, many years later. And it's strongly instrument-specific as well. I play the piano, but I would never say 'I am a piano player'. Why not? Because I am a saxophone player. It's become part of me. I even play other instruments professionally as a doubler, but I'm no longer a 'clarinettist' (I used to be, years ago).

What does 'I am a saxophone player' mean? It means, for me, that without this knowledge, I would lose some essential part of myself. I need it to maintain some aspect of my identity. I'm also a 'music therapist', but this doesn't have the same resonance. I work as a music therapist, but I'm not 'a music therapist' in the way that I'm 'a saxophone player'. Maybe some people feel like this about their job, but I'm not sure. I think it might be something about the physical object itself.

Could this be related to transitional phenomena? Is my instrument a kind of transitional object? Does it keep me in touch with some essential internalisation which I need to maintain my sense of self over time, to keep my sense of continuity as a person? This seems plausible. Think about having to give up your instrument. There are people for whom this happens, through circumstances beyond their control. We might acknowledge this as a deep tragedy in many such circumstances, perhaps beyond the misfortune of, say, losing a job, or breaking a leg, and more akin to losing a person, an important attachment figure. I once had to stop playing for a few weeks when I injured a finger, which was a sobering experience. Reconnecting with my instrument after this was a big relief. I'd lost someone I loved and now they were back.

Maybe this connection is something to hold onto as a music therapist. Maybe it's important that the work doesn't take this away. Winnicott talks about decathexis in relation to transitional phenomena, about how they are 'spread out' over 'the whole cultural field' (1971 Playing and Reality page something-or-other). But when you are connected to an instrument perhaps you are able to re-focus, to concentrate your creativity once more, in a similar (but different) way you did with your teddy bear when you were three years old. Keep on cathecting, as the song might go (if you can find a rhyme)...

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

It's not about you

How many singers are really worth listening to? I haven't watched talent shows much in recent years, but to me they're of a piece, whether it's Britain's Got Talent or The Young Musician of the Year, they're all barking up the wrong tree. Artistic expression shouldnt be about competition. The problem is not that the X factor and other talent shows are promoting distorted values. Of course they are. The problem is that they are partly right. I dont want to listen to most people sing, given a choice between that and, say, watching Fargo. This isn't to disparage or discourage, its just my own selfish perspective. Engaging random strangers with your music, building a following, developing as a public artist, these are hard things to do, and most people can't do it. There are a limited number of people who I'll go out of my way to listen to.

The X factor is right. There are only a few singers I really want to listen to. This is ok. They're promoting the concept of 'stardom', which is elitist by definition. An irony of the show is that they're not actually trying to find singers with the 'X factor', which to me, might be those people with marked individuality (Bob Dylan, Billy Holiday, Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder, Bowie), people who don't sound like anyone else, who are idiosyncratic. Maybe a show which really looked for this quality would be more interesting, but this would have to ignore the real aim, which is to make a fast buck out of the winner while their notoriety lasts. Really interesting singers need time to develop their voice and persona.

Where does this leave me as a music therapist? Do I sit there feeling angry with clients because they aren't geniuses? Of course not. The transaction is hopefully more honest. A performer is selling you something, an idea that they might be special, that of all the people in this big room full of people, they might be the one most worth listening to. The exasperation comes from the wrongness of this presumption. A music therapy session begins from a different place. I'm making a commitment to be interested in the client's music, no matter what it might be. Often, it comes from the client's place of self deprecation or doubt. I'm trying to encourage them to explore what they might be able to express if they give it a try, with no expectation. Maybe they will find themselves worth listening to. Maybe I can show them that I find them worth listening to.

Some of my favourite performers are able to retain this feeling of vulnerability even in front of an audience, as if they are playing or singing to themselves, not assuming their own greatness, but finding the greatness in the music itself - Miles, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Andras Schiff, Abbey Lincoln, Martha Arberich, Laura Veirs. 'It's not about you' might be something they understood on a deeper level some time ago.

The honesty of the musical transactions that can happen in music therapy can result in more satisfying musical experiences than in many performer/audience relationships. In music therapy, it is 'about you', the client, and it's about you and me. As Andy Lale said in his 'Music Therapy Conversations' interview, the fantasies of stardom might be a good starting point, but only as a stepping stone towards something more real and honest. Neither of us is 'gonna be a star', but who cares? We might get to be something more interesting: a person.


Monday, 12 November 2018

Curiouser and curiouser

"she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English" (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

In one of Gareth Malone’s programmes where he encourages people to sing who normally wouldn’t, there was a bit where he criticised someone for singing in an American accent. He was working with a talented young man in a school, who he was preparing for a ‘big solo’ in the choir. Gareth was being nice about it, but he took the mickey out of him a bit, impersonating him. Then he showed him how to sing properly, with a ‘normal’ voice, using his own accent. A similar thing happened to my daughter, who is a singer songwriter and was writing songs and singing jazz standards when she was at school. The head of music used to similarly berate her for singing American. I was never quite clear why, but it seemed to be an accepted narrative that this was just not the way to do things properly. It was also clear that the students he most admired were the ones taking classical singing lessons and singing with a ‘trained’ voice. Perhaps it was just musical snobbery, but it wasn’t presented as such. Neither Gareth Malone nor the school teacher had any problem with popular or jazz styles per se, they just seemed to have a problem with the accent.

First of all, I would argue the case for singing songs with an American accent on purely stylistic grounds. If you’re singing songs from the Great American Songbook, or songs in a soul style, if you’ve been listening to a lot of Billy Holiday or Stevie Wonder, then it would be natural to sing in an accent appropriate to the style. I presume neither Gareth Malone nor the music teacher would have had any problem, for example, with singing Puccini in an Italian accent. This also plays, perhaps, into my own chip on the shoulder about being a jazz musician and experiencing snobbery towards this during my own musical education, particularly when studying music at university. I’ll bracket that however, because, well, who cares…

Maybe the problem is with singing in a bad American accent, so that it sounds inauthentic, and that singing with one’s natural accent would be preferable to this. I feel this when I hear Robbie Williams, for example (but I might be alone in this), or even Elton John. I don’t feel it when I hear Laura Marling, who is definitely English, definitely sings with an American accent, and has been embraced as a performer in the US. She even talks with an American accent in at least one song, which is sort of comic, but also makes sense. An English voice would just sound wrong, so it probably felt like the only option. So perhaps if you get the accent right, Gareth would be happy. I don’t think so, but I’d be really interested to know how singing teachers perceive this. I should have asked Joanna Eden.

Doesn’t matter, because none of this is the important bit. Now we come to music therapy. The difference between a music therapist and Gareth Malone, or my daughter’s music teacher, is that a music therapist would first of all accept the song as it came out. They wouldn’t try to correct the accent. Perhaps even more importantly, they would also be curious about it. Why sing the song in this way? What has the client/participant/singer been listening to? What is their musical and personal history? Does the song have a personal significance for them? If they have written the song, what, or who was their inspiration? When they sing in a certain accent, are they thinking of a particular person, a particular recording, do they have a musical hero? Is there someone they want to be like, and does singing make them feel a bit more like this person? When you think about it like this, from, if you like, a ‘clinical’ perspective, then criticising someone’s choice of accent could feel damaging, belittling. It could feel like you’re not really paying attention, but instead seeking your own musical agenda, to get things ‘right’, the way you, and the ‘musical establishment’, want things to be.

In other words, not exploring where the music comes from, what it’s expressing about the person, could be a failure of curiosity. I like the word ‘curious’. It leaves things open. If we were to stop being curious about the client in therapy, we’d have lost our way. This is why the music in music therapy might not always sound how you want it to sound, because the therapist isn’t making any corrections. Instead, they are discovering where the client, and the music, leads us next. This is likely to be somewhere interesting, as long as no-one is adjusting their vowels.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Vitamin C

I’ve written before about whether ‘music makes you feel better’. There might, in particular, be something therapeutic about shared music. This might happen in lots of different contexts: community settings, acute wards, closed groups, individual therapy, and so on. While music therapists might argue about how to frame the work, about whether it’s the music itself, or the relationship with the therapist, or unconscious processes being expressed through music, there seems to be some general agreement that music is an important part of the therapeutic process in music therapy, whatever it might be.

I went to a good gig last night. I try to do this as often as possible, but it never feels often enough. Anyway, I really enjoyed it, hearing Simon Purcell with the great alto player Mike Williams at Oliver’s in Greenwich. I’m missing music at the moment, not getting enough time to practice and not doing that many gigs, absorbed in my current research studies, which I’m enjoying in a different way. Research is creative, but in a more cerebral way than making music. One of the questions arising out of the research is about the perceived effects of music therapy sessions. What do parents observe about their children’s response to music therapy? I hope to tell you more about this soon! One idea that has come up in discussions I’ve had with parents in other contexts, which won't be news to music therapists, is that children are often calmer, less anxious, after their music therapy session. This can last a while, sometimes as long as a day or two. This chimes with my own experience of music. I feel better after playing, or after hearing a live performance. This usually lasts for a little while, but never more than a day or two. The experience fades. If I haven’t been to any live music for a while, I begin to lose interest in listening to recorded music, as if the real experience has to be recent enough to bolster the simulation.

So perhaps music is like vitamin C. We need it, but we need it regularly. Our bodies, or our psyches, don’t absorb and retain it, but it’s essential for our well-being that it’s passing through us. This raises some big questions about music therapy, particularly if we are looking for ‘effects’. If the effects of music itself don’t last, but need to be maintained, then what should music therapy look like? Is it more like asthma medication than antibiotics? Is music an essential balm for the chronic aspects of the human condition? If so, we could never expect music therapy to have good results at, say, six-month follow-up, because it would always have worn off by then. It might instead be about clients learning to use music for themselves, to understand their own relationship to music, so that they can return to it and use it in beneficial ways.

There might be another possibility, that it’s not about the music itself, but about music as a facilitator of relationship. Music simulates pre-verbal communication and thus allows human beings to connect with one another at a deeper level than language. This might help to repair attachments, perhaps. The problem with this is that there are lots of ways to form attachments. Music might assist attachment, but it’s definitely not essential to it. And in any case, as Claire Flower pointed out in her podcast interview, what can we achieve in half an hour a week? Children form positive attachments with other people whom they spend a lot of regular time with, over a long time span; parents, siblings, teachers, teaching assistants, friends, maybe therapists (if they see them for long enough). We might have a real dilemma here. Is it about the music? Is it about relationships? Is it about the interaction between the two? Do we have to choose one of these? You might think I’m being too reductive. Perhaps it’s all just ‘a lot more complicated than that’, or it’s about being holistic, rather than fragmenting these aspects of life into different categories. People, music, relationships; these aren’t things that can be separated out and examined independently. Ok. So why is it called ‘music therapy’ then?

Friday, 15 June 2018

Thinking about thinking

The great drummer Jon Hiseman has just died. This post isn’t a tribute to him, but I was very sorry to hear of his passing. (Here’s an example of his playing, which is brilliant.) I did meet him once, doing a recording for someone in his studio. I forget the details around this as it was a long time ago, maybe early nineties. What really stayed with me is something that he said during a conversation in the studio. He remarked that the best music is played by people who are thinking about something else entirely, or words to that effect. What I believe he meant was that, when you are doing a gig, if you are having to think about the music in order to get it right, then there might be mistakes, or a feeling of uptightness about it perhaps. It’s when you know the music so well that you can play it while thinking about doing the laundry, or taking the car in for a service, or doing your accounts, that the music really sounds good, really flows. It was a remark that has stayed with me ever since. I actually think about it a lot. I think it disturbed me at the time as it seemed to imply some kind of disconnection, maybe something inauthentic about the performance. I feel differently about it now.

Seeing the news was a moment of synchronicity for me, because I’d just been thinking about this idea in relation to some clinical work. I found myself, in a session, thinking about something else, unrelated to the client or the music. This can feel transgressive. We’re supposed to be paying attention to the client, and to the music, to the ‘shared-musical space’, perhaps. I even wrote about Jon Hiseman in my process notes. Later, after writing this, I saw the news of his death.

This isn’t a post about synchronicity however, although you can have that one too if you like it. What it really got me thinking about was what I think about when I’m playing. I’ve have so many discussions with other musicians and music therapists about this. Some people have said that, when improvising, thought gets in the way. You need to be ‘in the zone’, where you’re not tripping yourself up with concerns about what ‘should’ be happening, where you can be ‘in flow’. The music flows along, and we stay with it, riding it like a wave, trusting the process. As soon as we think, ‘is this right?’ or ‘is this good?’ or ‘what shall we do next?’, we are getting in our own way. Mercédès Pavlicevic talked about the problem of thought in clinical improvisation in her podcast interview, expressing a similar idea. She said it might go something like, ‘Why am I in F sharp?’, and then the moment’s lost. She’ll be missed too, very much.

There may be a difference, of course, between the role of thinking in improvised or in tightly rehearsed music. Jon Hiseman may have been talking about the phenomenon of playing music that’s been well played-in, perhaps where a band is really gelling, some way into a tour. I’ve certainly experienced this. It doesn’t necessarily feel good to the performer. It can feel routine. But for the audience it might be a thrilling experience hearing a band playing really tightly together, giving the impression of total unity, where the individual musicians are just firing neurons within a complex whole that’s not perceived by any one of them as an entity, but by the listeners. You can listen to a recording of a gig you were on and feel like it was someone else playing, because the experience is so different to being part of the process of producing the sound.

While going through the motions might produce a tight performance, could the same be said for improvisation? Well, yes, I think it could. Kenny Werner talks a lot about this a lot in Effortless Mastery. When you let go and just let yourself play without trying to critique or edit, that’s when the best stuff happens. Thought gets in the way. Maybe there are differences between these two phenomena, maybe they are the same, maybe there are overlaps, but it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what concerned me when thinking about what happened in the session.

The question that came to my mind when thinking about my moment of drifting off, of thinking about something else, was, if I’m not thinking about the music, then what am I thinking about? I’m usually thinking about something. I’m not a yogi. This might be worth exploring. It may be that I need to work on my capacity to be in the here-and-now. Perhaps all music therapists should practise meditation in order to work on this, to enter a more thoughtless, mindful state. Probably not a bad idea. I don’t think it’s the answer though. I think the process of thinking, getting in the way of the music, being with the client some of the time, attuning, failing to attune, drifting off, playing good music or bad music, I think it’s all the process. The idea that we are attentive to the client, and that we are sharing in the musical process together, connecting in the music, is nonsense, or, at least, it’s not realistic. We are in some kind of music-making process with the client, and the two of us are failing to connect with each other in one way or another. We might be trying to connect, but we’re never going to make it, because our experiences will always be different. Even when the music comes together, it’s coming together in at least two different ways (I’m not going to even try to talk about group work). But this, I hope, is ok. I hope it is, because I’m never going to pay total attention to the client, not for a whole session. I’ll keep trying, but occasionally I’m going to drift off. I wish I hadn’t mentioned ‘doing your accounts’. What was I saying?