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)

Nordoff, P., Robbins, C., & Marcus, D. (2007). Creative music therapy: A guide to fostering clinical musicianship. Barcelona Pub.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Therapy as music

There is a dichotomy sometimes presented about stances towards music therapy. I have seen it in various guises. I came across it recently in an excellent article I was looking at from 2010 by Wheeler and Baker, a qualitative study exploring the ‘worldviews’ of music therapists, and the influence of personal and wider culture on practice. But I’ve also encountered it on Twitter, since everything is on Twitter, so why not this… On Twitter it was proposed as a question: ‘Are you a therapist doing music, or a musician doing therapy?’ (or the caveat - ‘It depends’). This, I think, connects with Bruscia’s distinction between ‘music as therapy’ and ‘music in therapy’, which appears in Improvisational Models and in Defining Music Therapy. It seems a useful distinction to make. I couldn't resist the bait, and responded with “It's a false dichotomy and in practice it's both, or something more complex - a music therapist 'doing music therapy'.” I probably felt quite pleased with myself at the time. 

It stays with me, this question, rather like the ‘music-centred vs. psychodynamic’ polarisation, I find it strangely alluring. And looking back at that Twitter exchange, I’m unsatisfied with the question, but equally unsatisfied with my ‘smart’ answer. It sort of sounded good to me, but it doesn’t really help, because really I’m copping out, not explaining what I mean by ‘a music therapist’. Can it be both? Is it useful to decide? 

For me it actually makes more sense to decide that it’s neither, on reflection. Because the problem is in the separation of these two ideas. This is what leads to music therapists worrying about talking in therapy, or imaginative play, because ‘we’re not trained for it’. We don’t know what to say, because nobody’s told us. This suggests that we do know what to play, whereas the state of not knowing is actually the key to an improvisational stance. I always come back to improvisation. Deciding whether we are ‘musicians doing therapy’ or ‘therapists using music’ implies a predetermined position, whereas I would never go into a session with an idea that I’m doing one of these two things. 

Another thing, which might be important, or might be a by-the-way. The Twitter question sidesteps this, but Bruscia’s constructions present something interesting. If we might have to choose between ‘music as therapy’, or ‘music in therapy’, could it also be meaningful the other way around? What about ‘therapy as music’ or ‘therapy in music’. I find both of these concepts appealing, and a little mysterious. Now we have four ideas, instead of two. 

We might look at this simply and consider that ‘therapy as music’ is what some psychoanalysts might do, who think about verbal exchanges from a musical perspective. That in itself could be worthwhile. Conversely, ‘therapy in music’ might be an aspect of ‘music as therapy’, the musical details which act as the mechanism for change. However, both structures seem capable of conveying more. They seem to suggest that therapy can be revealed by and contained by music, that a musical process and a therapeutic process might be part of the same experience, that there needn’t be a distinction between the two. Talking, movement, breathing, phrase, rhythm, touch, facial expression, and the intricate harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structures to which we sometimes attach the label ‘music’ might all be part of the same fundamental process, where people meet each other in moment-to-moment expression and interaction. 

This also gets us away from that other misleading idea, that there might be something inherently 'therapeutic' about music, and points towards something else, that there might be something musical about therapy, especially (but not exclusively) music therapy.

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.