D helped me to clarify a part of my understanding about music therapy today. During our session I found myself reflecting his music and his general way of being, noticing that I had to keep starting and stopping. When I played quietly he seemed impatient with it (even though he was barely moving and there was very little to even reflect). When I put more energy into the music, he had a brief burst of energy in response, smiling, playing the tubular shaker, and then setting it down again. Just as suddenly, his facial affect changed again, and we were back to the quiet, almost non-existent music again.
I invited D to listen to the sounds he was making and tell me more about his music. Then I revised the question and I wondered (out loud), “what do you think your music is telling me about you? If you were listening to someone playing the sounds you just used, what kind of information do you think you’d have about the person playing it?”
I liked the idea of D learning to listen to himself via his music. It occurred to me to use this as another way to explain what I do when people ask me (the ever present question): "what is music therapy?"
I started to think about this, and I found myself focused on the fact that we don’t always tend to listen to ourselves. When we do listen, we get anxious, and what we have to say about ourselves is usually not all that kind. Or enthusiastic. Or loving. I think we call that: resistance.
I think this is an integral part of improvisational, dynamic music therapy in the sense that we, as music therapists use the music to teach our clients to listen to themselves. “What do you hear yourself saying in the music?” is what we ask. “Tell me more about how you’re saying it," and "what's it like for you to say this?"
Of course, as I already said a couple of paragraphs ago, being human and all, we have a tendency to resist listening to ourselves. This takes a lot of forms where I work. Beside plain old not paying attention, I also hear it as “oh, I can’t play music; I have no talent” and “no, you’re the therapist, you're the musician- you should play.” (Cue the "working with resistance" music here.)
Once people are actually willing to use the music, there are a lot of directions to take. A music therapist could invite a client to consider things such as: What’s it like to listen to yourself? Do other people listen to you? Do you notice that there are times when it’s easier and times when it is more difficult to listen to yourself? At what times is it easier, and at what times is it more difficult? Describe your sounds at those times. Do you think other people hear that in you as well?
But let me go back to this idea of music therapy giving us the space to externalize our internal dialogue (so to “speak”- tee hee). When we are able to do that, when we pay attention to and are present to ourselves (in terms of listening to what and how we talk about or perceive ourselves) isn’t that, in itself, a sign of growing emotional/mental health?
I mean, to be able to listen to our self (as in, to get beyond some of our resistance and concerns about being judged) is an act of courage by itself. To take it a step further and to act on what we hear (either by changing what we’re doing or thinking or changing how we see and experience our self, etc.) is, ultimately, what we’re going for in any kind of therapy (at least that's my understanding).
When we become aware of our characteristic ways of being and interacting, then we’re in a position to change it (when change is warranted). We also have the opportunity to come to a level of self-acceptance- even self-love- as we gradually become familiar with our own sounds, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, timbres.
So, how did D respond when I asked him what his music was telling me and showing him in his session? I’m not sure yet. He paused a few times and seemed thoughtful. When we ended the session though, I felt as if bringing up the idea of listening to himself seemed like a wise (and long overdue) suggestion.