I realize this is going to sound like I'm ranting. And not only that, I'm fairly certain I'm going to sound judgmental. And you know what? Maybe I am. This issue is so profoundly important that I think it deserves a bit of a rant, so I'm going to ask you to bear with me today, because this is serious.
It's not exactly news to anyone that I work with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (many of whom also happen to have autism and many of whom do not use speech). When I'm talking about clients (below), I mean it to apply not only to doing music therapy with folks who have a whole bunch of labels, but I'm talking about working as a music therapist in general.
So, why am I carrying on? Let us commence with the rant now, shall we?
I have an important question I want us to consider: Is it our clients' jobs to listen to us? Or is it our job to listen to our clients?
I ask this, because I've been noticing what seems to be a tendency in music therapists to go in to a new session and expect their clients who have severe disabilities to just do what they ask them to do. As in, "here are the planned activities/events, and here's what I think you ought to do. Your job, client of mine, is to perform these tasks/activities. And my job is to get you to do that. Period."
Let's pause a second and think: whose need are we here to meet?
If we want to teach our clients to be better listeners, are we modeling that by listening to them? If we want to help our clients to be be better at paying attention, how willing are we to pay attention to them? If we want people with significant disabilities to engage with us, what steps are we going to take in order to engage on their terms?
If we can't understand the language someone is speaking (particularly if their language does not contain words), are we truly serving that person when we expect him/her to do what we ask before we even make the effort to try to learn about who they are?
Again I ask the question that my college music therapy professor asked us all the time: whose need are we here to meet? And is that need best met by our coming to our clients in a music therapy session and expecting that they will do what we'd like them to do?
Or is that need best met by asking that person to help us learn about who they are (even if they don't use speech to say it) and then creating the musical space within which our client can find a way to communicate and then making a point of hearing it?
We are music therapists. Let us honor that fact and work hard to develop skill in the art of listening.
Let me end by saying this: when we work with folks who confuse us (and even if we think we know what's going on), the first place to start- always, always, always!- is by paying close attention and listening as hard as we can!