Thoughts about music therapy and other connected things
Tuesday, 10 January 2023
Bad jazz and good music
And I don’t think they were saying that playing pop music is easier, or that the music is less important. This wasn’t musical snobbery. I think this was about their experiences of particular musicians making a better job of pop covers, and being less at home playing jazz, and that this feels bad if you’re a jazz musician. Why might this be? For my friend I think that playing a well known cover in a function band might be a clear task. It’s about matching the original, doing a good pastiche, so that the punters at the wedding (or whatever) recognise it and respond. It’s like telling a joke. If it lands it lands. You need to be a skilled musician to make it work, but the task is clear. I heard a fantastic covers band at a wedding just a few weeks ago, who were able to do all of the above and then take it to another level, brilliant musicians bringing the songs to life. I loved it. I think it would have mostly sounded the same on the next gig. Improvisation is part of the issue. And playing jazz for a function gig involves improvising in a style and is not usually rehearsed in advance. It’s a sort of pastiche, but you might not be thinking of one particular source performance when you're playing, say, ‘Night and Day’. It can be done really well, if you put the right band together, but if you’re playing with people who aren’t playing the music with love, it can be a turgid affair, with people ploughing through a tune they don’t really know well enough, eyes glued to the chord chart, not much groove happening, no one listening. Jazz depends on musical connection and subtle communication between the players. Even if you’re playing very ‘inside’, say emulating a mainstream 50s sound, Getz or early Coltrane, all of the players are improvising all of the time, keeping the groove, making the phrasing, balancing the dynamics. There’s a lot to take care of. With the right players, I love doing a jazz function gig, but with the wrong ones it can ‘break your heart’.
There is plenty of scope for playing jazz badly, but for it still to sound sort of like jazz, perhaps to the punter who isn’t all that well versed. The drums go ting-ta-ting, the bass plays four crotchets in a bar, the piano comps a bit randomly and the horn player widdles around over the top. “I like some jazz, but I don’t like the widdling”, another friend once said to me, right before my gig. “It sounds like ‘widdling’ because you’re not listening properly”, I could have objected. But sometimes it IS widdling, by which I guess they meant aimless playing with no clear shape to the phrasing or melodic direction. There’s good music and bad music, as Duke said, and that includes jazz. In fact, maybe there’s more bad jazz, partly because playing it well is difficult, but also because playing it badly is easy. I tried not to ‘widdle’.
In music therapy improvisation (MTI) it would be unusual to play bad jazz. My experience of MTI is that the music is usually much more interesting than this. There’s no formula. As a therapist you wait to hear what comes out and then respond to it. There’s no requirement for a client in a session to be musically proficient. But as it happens, the music is often very engaging. Here’s a theory: it’s always engaging, as long as the intention is playful. A client can have zero experience playing instruments, but if they’re in a creative mood, and the therapist is hooked into this, it will sound good. Freedom is infectious. I would MUCH rather listen to the music in a music therapy session than to, say, jazz played formulaically, where playfulness is absent.
Priestley talked about the phenomenon of ‘anti-music’. Perhaps we need to think about this more than we do in music therapy. Musicians can inspire one another, but they can also break hearts, sap the life out of it. When someone is in their own world, imagining the music but not hearing it in the room, not paying attention to the other sounds around them, this can be a depressing, energy sapping experience. Bad music is a thing. As music therapists we can accept painful and challenging sounds into the room, but bad music is something else . It breaks your heart. Bad jazz has some special shortcuts to this, which might be about overcomplicating, not listening properly, having no love of the important details of a style, but really it all comes down to intention. Are the musicians caring about each other? This can be done with no technique at all. One person bashes a cluster of notes on a piano. There’s a pause. The next person hits a drum, matching the intensity and intention of the first - hey presto, good music!
Tuesday, 3 January 2023
Just in time
In her Netflix special Joke Show, the comedian Michelle Wolf describes a blog as ‘a conversation no one wanted to have with you’. This sounds about right. So, liberated by this awareness, I’m pressing on, along with all the other bloggers…
A nagging question for me, in the field of music therapy, is one of musicianship. Actually it’s not only in music therapy, it’s music making more generally (btw I’m not a fan of the word ‘musicking’ despite attempts to get used to it - I prefer music as a mysterious noun). When making music with another person, and especially since becoming a music therapist, I am so often struck by how much the experience affects how I feel about them. If the music clicks, I usually click with the person too. Why is this? Perhaps what I need is to feel reciprocal listening, to feel that what I’m doing is being heard and responded to, and that my responses to them are important to them and have meaning for them.
But I’m more picky than that as well. I did a duo gig once with someone who (my experience) didn’t have a good time feel. Every time we began a tune at a medium or fastish tempo, I could feel it beginning to slow down to their comfort zone. I tried pushing, but this had limited effect. I felt frustrated, blocked, even offended. It was our first meeting, and so our first time playing together, so was I being impatient, not allowing the relationship to emerge? Maybe, but I had another experience recently with a new musician to me, where everything instantly clicked. We also got on. Generally I feel I’ve been lucky, experiencing the latter more frequently, and often surprised by musical frustrations when they come up.
A very experienced jazz musician once said to me that playing with good time is about memory. If you can remember the tempo then there’s no need to slow down. Losing time is about losing memory, or perhaps not bothering to remember, or not listening and paying attention properly. One of the benefits of being a music therapist might be that when this happens in a session, with a client, it could be understood as communication. As the therapist, I might notice the time dragging (assuming we’re playing in a recognisable pulse in the first place) and I could reflect on it. What does it tell me about the client? Are they dragging because they are feeling slow, depressed, heavy? Is there a physiological reason - slow processing time, motor difficulties, some other physical impairment or illness? Is there an unconscious meaning behind the slowness - are they holding me back so that I can feel what it’s like to be held back, for example?
All of this assumes that my time is ‘right’ and theirs is ‘wrong’, that I’m ‘in time’ and they’re falling behind, perhaps. This might be rather subjective, but it might also be empirically correct - one of us might be a better metronome (which one?). This would suggest that having good time awareness is a very important prerequisite for becoming a music therapist. It might even be extended to the idea that having a good ‘feel’ is important too, since feeling a groove and playing in time are so closely related. Is this the case? If so, what else might be important? Intonation? Sound quality? Control of dynamics? My intuitive response would be, yes, all of those. In other words, to be a good music therapist, you need to be a good musician. What a surprise! You get all the big insights here - stick with me.
There’s another nagging problem, voice in my head, whatever. How do I know the difference? How do I avoid projecting my own musical inadequacies onto another musician, who might be a music therapy client? The subtleties of groove, for example, can be experienced as ambiguous - who is dragging and who is rushing? Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, from the classic Headhunters album, speeds up substantially throughout the track. It’s not about playing with strictly metronomic time, because we know who does this best of all, and it’s definitely not humans. Groove is mutually felt, negotiated, settled into. Sound quality is subjective. Musical personality is a matter of taste. Musicality is culturally determined as well, so a musical difference might be a cultural difference, rather than a difference in competence or sensitivity.
Where does this leave me? With a feeling that I have to trust my own musical judgement, while understanding that it’s fallible. But also with an awareness that musical differences can be felt as personal differences, that how someone is with me as a musician can have a profound effect on how I feel about them as a person. I also notice that the musicians with whom I have developed the best musical relationships are those with whom I feel a shared understanding and have developed trust. I feel intuitively that a person can tell me a lot about themselves through their music, which can include whether they trust me, and whether they want me to trust them. Another friendship with a musician comes to mind, one in which trust has eroded a little over the years, and where this loss is also (by me at least) felt musically whenever we find ourselves playing together. Interestingly, although this isn’t ideal, it is survivable, and maybe even transformable, who knows…
So musicians are people, and people are musicians. I think this idea is a big part of what brought me to music therapy in the first place, and what keeps me fascinated with this peculiar discipline. Why does this musician make me feel good, while this other one can make me feel bad? And why is music such an effective medium for transmitting these feelings? I will continue to try to understand this, which must include a developing awareness of whatever my part is in the shared process, just like, you know, in life.
Thursday, 10 March 2022
It's not about me
When I interviewed Gary Ansdell we talked about the question of psychodynamic and music-centred approaches to music therapy, and the problematisation of this within the UK profession. I’ve written about my perspectives on this elsewhere, and maybe there’s no need to keep going on about it. Gary himself said that this had been framed as a binary, and that ‘binaries are boring’. The idea being that if we stopped talking about it for a while, maybe we could just get on with the job of ‘doing music therapy’, rather than solipsistically examining our theoretical stances as if the answers to how to do the actual work with actual people in real life lay somewhere buried in the ‘theory’, whatever that might be.
‘Binaries are boring’. My response was scepticism. Maybe binaries are also interesting. Maybe there’s something about the framing of this problem that gets to the heart of what it means to be a music therapist, as opposed to a musician. David John spoke intriguingly about the need for music therapists to develop their therapist identity, because when they come on the training they often already have a well-developed musician-identity, which they put to good use in their therapeutic practice. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that trainees often have anxiety about their musical capabilities. They’ll say, ‘I don’t know what to play’, or ‘I don’t know how to improvise’, sometimes. Training can involve trainees confronting their own musicianship and subjecting it to challenging questions. What can they do already? But also, what do they need to be able to do in therapy which they can’t yet do? This is a different experience for each individual.
Another idea which Katrina McFerran put forward is that, ‘if the music is working, then the therapy is working’. I like the simplicity of this, and it has a ring of truth. The difficulty for me is that it’s easily refuted with the response, ‘except when it’s not’. Because I’ve definitely had experiences in music therapy where the interactions were lively and expressive and communicative, and all that we might hope to expect when the music in a session is ‘going well’, and the nub of the problem, the ‘reason for referral’, was not being addressed - yet. I’ve also worked with people where the music never got going, but where the assertion of this by the client was crucial to the progress of some important work. I think Katrina was right, for most of the time, but it's a rule of thumb which doesn’t always apply (in my experience).
So far this has all been old ground. Gary, if he’s reading this, will have skipped through these paragraphs, I suspect. (Hi Gary, if you’re reading this!) Onto my next point - binaries may be boring, but paradoxes are interesting. There is a paradox at the heart of music therapy, which is that music(ing) is both a way of making connection and a way of avoiding it. And it’s possible to do both at the same time. People are multi-faceted (stop the press), and so it’s possible for the music to be working, and relationships to be formed, while important stuff is being avoided. A therapeutic relationship isn’t one thing. Anyone who has done work with groups in which conflict gets played out knows this. We can have intentions as therapists which are not realised, but it’s in the failure to realise them that the development takes place. For example, I have found that my intention to facilitate musical cohesiveness through improvised interaction comes crashing to a halt, leading to important conversations about what went wrong.
Here’s another paradox: it’s possible to feel bad while doing good work, and vice versa. The Nordoff and Robbins (2007) concept of the ‘music child’ suggests a simple idea, that underneath all the difficulty and pain and suffering is a musical being that can transcend all that and connect with another on a deep level, which feels meaningful and, perhaps, ‘whole’. This is an alluring idea, because it feels true, and is often borne out by experience. It’s also (arguably) ableist. It potentially denies the disability or illness in search of the ‘true’ person ‘underneath’. A romantic idea about music therapy is that transcendent experiences can emerge, that client/participant and therapist can find themselves together ‘in flow’ and that they can come to life in the music. But this would be an unhelpful ‘aim’ in therapy, because it would mean that the client who is stuck or in pain, or monotonous in their expression is ‘wrong’, and that it is our job to change them into, or 'uncover', someone else, rather than to be with them where they are.
Whenever we are presented with ‘wonderful’ musical interactions in therapy, or ‘amazing’ songs composed by a client, we can of course celebrate these, but we can also remember that it’s not these moments that encapsulate what therapy is about. The therapy was happening all the way along, and we’re seeing an edited highlight, a punter-friendly moment suitable for public consumption (assuming permissions are in place etc. etc.). We could also ask, what happened next? When the music stopped, where did this leave the client and therapist? Did the therapist feel good? The client? If we are looking for a pivotal moment, was it in the music, or was it in the inflection of the client’s voice when they said something after the music stopped?
Another paradox - it’s when you stop wanting to help that you start helping. So much of our egos can get tangled up in fantasies about that ‘therapist identity’ that David John was talking about. If we want to ‘be a good therapist’ or to ‘achieve therapeutic aims’, we are less likely to do so, because our desires get in the way. Achievements become all about us, not about the people we are working with. If we want the music to sound good, then it might, but for the wrong reasons. If we want the client to respond, then they might, but they might be responding because we want them to, which would only be useful if we then figured out how to set them free. We would have to untangle this web of therapist and client need and just be together wherever we found ourselves. (It might have been more efficient to do this a bit earlier, before we started searching for the ‘music child’, or reaching for a peak experience.) So the final paradox is that music is play, but that music and music therapy are also work*. When I feel stuck or depressed or trapped in the session, I may be doing my job. When I feel elated or free or expressive, I may be running away from it. How do I tell the difference? Stop trying and start noticing. And realise that it's not about me.
*This might also boil down to 'play is work'.
(All references to interviews are from Music Therapy Conversations)
Thursday, 1 July 2021
Therapy as music
Thursday, 23 April 2020
The need to be heard
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
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
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)...