Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Music and countertransference

If you're a person who has been reading this blog, then you know I make liberal use of songs that emerge as a part of music therapy sessions (a couple of other examples can be found here and here). The way I think of these countertransference songs is as a form of unconscious communication that's going on between therapist and client- the stuff that's not being said.

Obviously, since the vast majority of my clients don't use speech, it would stand to reason that these songs are a particularly helpful (and necessary) aspect of the work. 

So, I've been thinking a lot about one of my clients who has been falling asleep in his sessions lately. He gets tired from his medications, I think, but he also doesn't tend to sleep particularly well (a lot of my clients don't). 

At any rate, it seemed to me as if there was more to it than just being tired (I'll explain in a second). I mean, sometimes he'd look fairly wakeful, want to come for his session, get to the room, go lie on the couch (I know, I know, how Freudian can you get?) and suddenly he was exhausted. 

Hey, man. I know how it goes. I've been there before when there's stuff I'm having a hard time looking at- I start journaling about some difficult issue, and suddenly...I need a nap. I get it.

Anyway, here's something that completely fascinated me about our sessions: for the longest time, whenever I played an improvisation in his sessions, I'd think, "Wow! That was gorgeous! I must write down some of those chords, because they'd be great to play around with when I'm writing a song!" And I'd quickly write down the chords, and then, after the session, I'd play them, and what the hey? They never sounded quite the same after my client left. They were nice, but there was something...missing, and it just...didn't sound right. 

After a while of this unusual musical situation happening over and over and over (hey- these things take time!) I started to wonder, "What is this about? Why the heck is this happening?" And I realized this was some kind of countertransference, so I started to talk about it with my client, trying to enlist his assistance in figuring out what he might be needing me to hear (through the music that was only beautiful during our sessions but never afterward). 

I've spent the last couple of months with the following working hypotheses: 
1) Maybe he feels like he has to put on a nice, happy face because somehow he's gotten the idea that this is what people in his life want from him (can't imagine where he could possibly have gotten that message).

2) Maybe he only feels as if he's "beautiful" when he's in music therapy.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of it, but these are what I started working with and bringing up in sessions. So, I started talking about this with him. And the more I talked about this, the more he'd get to snoozing! 

Think I hit a nerve? I think so.

As you can imagine, he and I have been stumbling along now, and somewhere back in May, we were in a session together, and I suddenly heard the lyrics of this song (Joni Mitchell's "Trouble Child") enter my mind. And, as always, as I mentally sang through the song, I thought, "Hunh! This is worth giving a joint listen." 

Interestingly, it's taken a while for us to actually get through the whole song in a session (did I mention he keeps falling asleep?). And as soon as I share the lyrics with you, you'll see why. 

[I debated whether to use my version of the song or the original, and I opted for mine- but linked Joni's version- because it's about the therapy and the use of songs to have a deeper understanding of our clients. I'd add a lot of disclaimers, but they're not going to be of much  use to any of us, so here it is. I had to cut out all of my blabbering because I talked for too long, so that's why it sounds as if I started in mid-sentence.]

Trouble Child
(Words and Music by Joni Mitchell, Copyright 1973 and 1974 Crazy Crow Music)

Up in the sterilized room where they let you be lazy,
Knowin' your attitude's all wrong, and you gotta change and it's not easy.
Dragon's shinin' with all values known,
Dazzlin' you, keepin' you from your own,
Where is the lion in you to defy him when you're this weak and this spacey?

So what are you gonna do about it, you can't live life, and you can't leave it.
Advice and religion you can't take it, you can't seem to believe it.
The peacock is afraid to parade, you're under the thumb of a maid.
And you really can't give love in this condition, still you know how you need it.

They open and close you, then they talk like they know you, they don't know you.
They're friends and they're foes too, 
Trouble child, breakin' like the waves at Malibu.

So why does it come as such a shock to know you really have no one,
Only a river of changin' faces lookin' for an ocean.
They trickle through your leaky plans, 
Another dream over the dam,
And you're lyin' in some room feelin' like your right to be human is goin' over too.

But some are gonna knock you and some'll try and clock you,
You know, it's really hard to talk sense to you,
Trouble child, breakin' like the waves at Malibu.

Okay. First of all, Joni Mitchell is...brilliant! (By the way, go and listen to her singing this song. I seriously don't do it justice.) Second, oh my God! Look. At. These. Lyrics! The experience of a man living in an institution? With a serious reputation for having been a major bad-ass in his younger days? 

I can't say it enough times- I marvel, again and again, at the amazing ways we human beings find to communicate with each other!


CJ Diachenko said...

Wow Roia I love this post! I love Joni Mitchell too, but I'd actually prefer to listen to your rendition equally as much as I love the original.

Great topic. As a performing artist and a fledgling music therapist, I am continually astounded at the concept of countertransference and how it plays its part in everything I do, for better or worse! :)

much love,

CJ Diachenko

Laura Cousins said...

Thank you for posting this, Roia .. I have been thinking all afternoon about what you said regarding the chords just not sounding quite right when you played them back to yourself after the session had finished.

It made me think: Music is said to be the language of emotion, and perhaps you were just expressing some element of the emotional connection that you have with your client.

When your client is absent, the music lacks that crucial emotional connection - call it "context"? - which is hard to re-create. Is that plausible?

Once again - thank you. I greatly enjoy your blog posts as they always provide such good food for thought.

Roia said...

@CJ You are simply too kind! But thank you, and, yup. Countertransference: it's what's for therapy. :- )

@Laura I'm glad to have offered you something to ponder, and quite thrilled you decided to offer your thoughts, because, by doing so, you've now got me thinking...

I wonder if, to toss out yet another hypothesis about this unusual phenomenon, it's possible that what my client may be (unconsciously) saying is, "I miss you when you're not here. It's harder to make sense of things." Furthermore, might he be saying, in his tendency to fall asleep a lot of late, "do you miss *me* when I'm absent, Roia?"

Don't you think it's enormously fascinating that no two music therapy pairings/groups are ever exactly alike? If some other music therapist were to work with this person it would be a completely different process, because they would have a completely different context! I truly mean to write a post about that sometime (if I haven't already) (can't recall much of anything any more) (sigh).

groovygarfoose said...

Wow. There is so much depth to this post Roia....I could write a hundred sentence reply, but I want to comment on what grabbed me the most and that is your transparency and honesty throughout. None of us have things figured out as therapist's but you allow yourself to find true meaning, emotion and depth both for your client and for yourself and THAT is a beautiful trait! Kudos, and thank you for sharing.

Roia said...

@groovygarfoose Gosh, thank you for your lovely thoughts. The work we do is challenging and amazing, and it teaches us quite a lot about ourselves and about people in general. How lucky we are!