Sunday, December 1, 2013

"I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"

It started some months ago when I, quite by accident, discovered that one of the men I work with (he's autistic, he doesn't use speech to communicate) can indicate "yes" or "no" by pointing to (well, usually by grasping and releasing) one of two index cards. He doesn't need my help (other than to hold the cards in front of him). 

He doesn't always do it. In fact, sometimes he very pointedly chooses not to do it. Sometimes he crumples up the cards and tosses them aside. Which is why they're laminated.

I think, understandably, his feelings about communicating and being heard are deeply conflicted. Even if he were to begin pointing at more words and letters to communicate, the likelihood he'd be listened to is...well...slim. The people in his life are largely committed to seeing him as severely disabled. Period.  

We've been sitting in that unsettled, anxious, frustrated, what-the-hell-do-we-do-now state for a while. I can see he wants to say more. He picks up the letter boards I keep nearby, but he gets upset and then tosses them on the ground.

Aside from trying to come to terms with the whole idea of actually communicating with me and having me understand him- overwhelming in and of itself for him, I think- there's the fact that it probably won't change his life in any appreciable way. 

When it was time to stop we walked back to the unit and I dropped him off in his group (letting him know when I planned to return for his next session). I went into the office and signed him back in, and then I walked around so I wouldn't upset him by walking back through his group. He doesn't tend to like when we have to end.

But he knew I was there. So he left his group (much to the dismay of his staff) and wanted to follow me. He doesn't usually do this, so I sat with him for a little while in the back hallway. 

I wasn't sure what to say, but the words that ran through my mind were the title of a Billy Taylor song, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

I didn't remember much of the song, and I wasn't sure it was something I could conjure up sitting there in the hallway. All I could think to offer him was the reminder that "nobody can take away who we are inside." 

We sat quietly as the shift changed and after a few minutes he got up and headed back in to his day area. 

Sometimes this work is really hard. Really, really hard. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Well, what do you know?

I was minding my own business, journaling away last Sunday morning, listening to (yet another excellent episode of) On Being, where Krista Tippett was interviewing Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist. The aspect of their conversation that caught my attention was this comment: 
Mysteries are what it's all about. In fact, not knowing is much more exciting than knowing, right? Because it means there's much more to learn. The search is often much more exciting than the finding. Mysteries are what drive us as human beings. 
He extended the idea by noting:
One of the values of science is to make us uncomfortable. Somehow that's supposed to be a bad thing for many people, being uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is a good thing because it forces you to reassess your place in the cosmos. And being too comfortable means you've become complacent and you stop thinking. 
As I listened to him I realized something kind of interesting: I think not knowing is what has kept me passionately in this field for so long. 

Think about it a second. 

When we think we know (the answer, what's going on, what someone's problem is, how things should look, who someone should be, and so on and so forth) we are no longer learning, no longer curious. We stop at the surface, and, because we know then we presume there's nothing else to think about or to find out.

When we're new professionals we either think we know or we think we're expected to know most of what there is to know about music therapy. What we often don't realize is that all we know are the very basics- that there's a whole world of knowing we haven't even begun to come in contact with yet!

It took me a lot of years (and a lot of clinical supervision) to finally understand that my real job as a music therapist is to go out there and ask my clients what they need me to know and learn in order to better support them. 

So many times in my younger (pre-clinical supervision) music therapy days I went into sessions knowing what needed to be done to "help" my clients. I didn't ask, I wasn't curious about what was going on or why my clients might need to be or do things the way they were being or doing things. They were disabled. There was a list of things I knew about disabled people. There was a list of ways music was supposed to "help" disabled people. 

So I went in with my music therapy interventions, applied them, and waited for the activities to work. This is what I was taught (or at least this is what I understood of what I was taught). And when my interventions didn't work I was frustrated with my clients and wondered, "what the hell? Why isn't this working? This is what I was told to do!"

Somehow I had inadvertently stepped into the medical model of music therapy: "Here are the symptoms associated with a particular population of people. Liberally apply music therapy activities to alleviate said symptoms and to increase skills. Music is, after all, intrinsically reinforcing. Success." 

In other words, I'd go into sessions with the attitude of "I know what the problem is, and I know the solution." Except that I wasn't having a lot of success.

Finally I got myself some clinical supervision, and I learned about process-oriented, relationally-based music therapy. But when I stopped doing activities and began to use an improvisational approach, I was terrified! I had no idea what to do- ever. I was convinced I'd failed as a music therapist, because I didn't know anything any more! 

Add to that fact that I work in an institution, and institutions are notoriously entrenched in the all-knowing medical and behavioral model of understanding people. Sitting there quietly with someone (because I didn't always know what to do) and singing about what that person was doing or what I thought it might be about (as opposed to gathering everyone in a circle- or trying to- and forcing them to play instruments with hand-over-hand assistance) was an open invitation to criticism and "why are you just sitting there doing nothing, Roia?" 

But I trusted my clinical supervisor who told me "trust the process". 

As time went on, I discovered the joy in finding out who my clients actually were and began to appreciate the opportunity to get to know them in a more authentic and human way. I got more comfortable with the idea of going into a session and not knowing - not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing (yet) the person in front of me, not knowing exactly what music would be needed that day, not knowing if I was hearing my client properly, not knowing if what I offered was going to be accepted or even make sense. 

And that engaged me in the work of becoming and being a music therapist like nothing ever had! I began to understand music therapy from a whole new perspective: 

We are artists, and we are scientists, and art and science are not about knowing. They're about trying something out (an idea, a hypothesis, some direction) and discovering, or messing up, making mistakes, and figuring out better questions to ask. They're about not knowing, about wondering and curiosity, and finding out what we don't realize we don't know

That's amazing to me! And waking up every morning with the thought, "I wonder what will happen today with my clients," and being completely curious excited about that, is what drives my passion for music therapy. Even after doing this for 26 years!

To borrow from Lawrence Krauss again:
In fact, what's really beautiful is every time we make a discovery in science, we end up having more questions than answers.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A book chapter, a presentation, and an interview

Whew! What a fascinating and busy few months it's been! 

Aside from my usual and intense immersion in work, there have been some nifty things happening. Here's what's been up:

First, I am extremely honored to be a part of a new book, edited by Sue Hadley, who is one of the people I greatly appreciate and admire, because she's willing to talk about the stuff nobody else talks about. This time she's talking about race and culture in terms of how it's experienced by music therapists. Here's the description of the book from Barcelona Publishers:
Experiencing Race as a Music Therapist: Personal Narratives is a compilation of critically engaging narratives that grew out of conversations with 17 music therapists living in different parts of the world, from various “racial” groups, about their experiences of their racialized identities in the therapy setting. The music therapists describe the raced and cultural contexts in which they were born and describe the racial demographics of the places they have lived at various times in their lives. The countries in which the individual music therapists spent their formative years include Australia, Canada, Iran, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, with many of them also having traveled to other countries. The music therapists discussed their specific experiences of their racialized identities when they were studying music therapy and how they experienced their racialized identities in their professional lives. Many of them also described the differences they were aware of in terms of how they experienced themselves as raced or how they experienced the therapeutic relationship when they were working with people of their own “race” compared with working with people who were from a different “race.” From these narratives, we can see that our life experiences shape how we understand ourselves and others, our assumptions and biases, and the effort with which we form relationships with different groups of people. The music therapists in this book have shared their experiences in the hope that we can learn how to sit in our discomfort, without judgment, lowering our defenses, in order to learn more about ourselves and others, so that we can deepen our understandings and our relationships across racialized lines.

I've been slowly reading through the narratives, and they are engaging and thought-provoking. I encourage you to check out this book. It is a wonderful invitation to deeper reflection and conversation about a topic that does not generally come up in our field.

Second, I spent a lot of time trying to organize a presentation I did for the most recent Mid-Atlantic Regional music therapy conference, "Countertransference Songs: Another Way to Listen" (you know- countertransference- one of my favorite topics!). Here is how I described the session:

Far from simply being a means by which to convey skills and the general expression of feelings, music can be used on another level to better understand our clients- especially those who don’t use speech as their main communication modality. Paying attention to the music that emerges in sessions- for example, the sounds we typically use in response to particular clients, or songs that suddenly pop into our minds as we work intensely with someone - can offer us another avenue by which to understand what is going on within the therapy relationship.

Starting from the premise that the therapy relationship is the healing element, the focus and, more significantly, the work of dynamically oriented music therapy is to look at and explore the relationships that develop between the therapist, client and music.

As active participants in the therapeutic relationship, music therapists experience a range of countertransference responses when working with clients, some of which are explored in supervision and some in personal therapy. In this presentation we will start  from the assumption that countertransference includes all of the feelings, reactions, fantasies, thoughts and ideas the therapist experiences in relation to clients, either in response to how a client/group is perceiving him/her, or based on the therapist’s own personal history. Of course, one of the ways countertransference may be expressed within a music therapy relationship is through the music.

Two case studies will be presented, the first of which will describe how musical countertransference became apparent within the context of the type of music improvised in a client’s sessions. The second will follow a lengthy series of countertransference-generated songs that emerged as a part of the therapy relationship. In both cases, exploring the therapist’s musical responses moved the therapeutic process toward deeper understanding of the clients’ internal worlds.

I actually only ended up presenting one case study (since it had all the elements I described). The biggest challenge was trying distill many years worth of therapy (and tons and tons of examples) into 90 minutes! 

As often happens, in the process of reviewing the (volumes of) notes and the songs and the music that came out of this man's sessions, I gained a lot of insight into some of the ways my countertransference reactions caused me to miss some aspects of what may have been going on with him at various points in the therapy. 

Honestly, there was just so much, and it's such a complex topic, I'm wanting to present this material again within a longer context (meaning, maybe a CMTE proposal is in order). 

Meanwhile, the third exciting thing was being a guest on the music therapy world's answer to The View- yes, I got to chat with the lovely ladies of The Music Therapy Roundtable! I mean, look! They even have their very own mug (and, see, they sent me one too). How cool! Heck, how organized! 

I got to blather on and on with Rachel Rambach (of Listen & Learn Music fame) and Michelle Erfurt (the original Boom Tote designer herself!) - their third partner, Kimberly Sena Moore was in transit so she couldn't join us - about one of my other favorite topics: professional clinical supervision! And you'll be thrilled (I'm sure) to know that I discovered I have a shocking tendency to rely on the word "um" while being interviewed. Oy.

And, if you've taken it to the next level and you're a Music Therapy Pro subscriber, you can listen to yet more of my incessant chatter on their Pro podcast. 

So that's what's been happening in my land. I'd love to hear what's going on in yours! 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Fifty shades of "no"

I've been sitting and stewing over the fact that one of my clients decided not to come to his session yesterday. Obviously, it's not the end of the world, and it's mostly likely he'll be back. But I know he's upset with me and he's struggling with a lot of feelings because of the difficult work we're doing right now.

Occasionally, clients with whom I've developed a fairly stable relationship (and I can tell you, that has usually come after quite a long time of working together- usually years), who I can almost always count on to be there for their sessions, refuse to come to music therapy. 

And  when I say "refuse to come to music therapy" I mean I've walked over to their building, signed them out, collected their outer gear, walked in to the group where they spend their days (along with the rest of the people who live with them and along with their staff people), and asked, "would you like to come to music therapy today?" 


I'd like to pause here to say what a vulnerable moment this is- for me anyway- as a music therapist. I mean, I'm standing there, exposed, and, honestly, it's like inviting someone out on a date in front of their entire family. Only it's therapy (which is just as intimate as a date, if not more so at times) and the other people in their group may have feelings about this particular person being invited to go to music therapy (when they themselves are not being invited) and their support staff who usually have their own feelings about the person who's scheduled for music therapy as well as a series of opinions about me and what I represent (sometimes good and sometimes not so much). Additionally, support staff have a series of beliefs and understandings (usually passed down from their supervisors) about their role in clients heading out to programs (such as music therapy). Commonly, those beliefs and understandings involve making sure the person is clean and tidy and goes and does what s/he is supposed to be doing. 


Now, most of the time, the folks I've worked with for a long time jump up and come over on their own and then pull me to the door. Others go and sit in their wheelchairs, waiting for me to take them out. Some people who have a harder time initiating actions or simply have a lot of physical involvement making it more difficult for them to stand and greet me, wait for me to approach them and let me know they want music therapy that day by making an effort to get up and go with me.

Over the years I've discovered a large (and important) part of my work is figuring out how my clients (most of whom don't use speech) communicate "no".  Some people (the ones who usually hop up to meet me) simply don't get up when I appear and remain seated. Some (who need more physical assistance) let me know by not allowing me- or just not helping me- to put on their coats. Others avoid going toward the door, and I've had a couple folks  pretend (vigorously) to be asleep. A few of my clients will come part of the way with me and then stop repeatedly or keep going in the "wrong" direction, and still others come to the session, wet themselves and have to return to their buildings to get their clothing changed. 

The gentleman I went to pick up yesterday is someone who usually gets up the minute he sees me and comes quickly over to take me by the wrist and pulls me toward the door. His "no" came after a particularly hard series of sessions in which I've been challenging his way of thinking about me and about the role of music therapy. 

His "no" started when he stayed seated, looking at me with a rather unhappy face, leaning his head on his hand. I wondered (out loud to him) if he had a headache (it was pretty loud) or if he was tired (sometimes he doesn't sleep too well). I waited a short time and then I told him I'd go out for a few minutes, come back and check again with him. "If you still don't want to come, that's fine, and I'll check in with you again next week."

So I went and stood in the hallway for three or four minutes and then tromped back in with my armload of sweatshirt, coat, gloves and a hat for him. He still didn't move. 

Mercifully, his support staff didn't tell him to "get up" (which is what usually happens, and, when they do that, he usually stands up and comes with me, but I'm well aware the entire time that he would not have been there had they not told him to be, which, I think we'd agree, is an awful feeling- for both of us). 

I offered to sit with him for a bit, because sometimes he actually needs some more transition time (or to just think about whether he really wants to skip music therapy that day- and it's very rare that he does), but he still didn't get up. 

Just as I was about to turn and leave, he got up and walked past me to the table (where there was more space for me to sit with him and also plastic blocks he likes to hold). He couldn't find any blocks (they were all zipped into a bag, and I guess he didn't want to mess with it just then), and he went to sit down in another chair. This time there was space next to him, so I sat down and pulled off my hat. 

I invited him to let me know if he wanted me to leave by looking toward me and if he wanted me to sit with him to indicate this by tapping my arm. He glanced my way, fleetingly, twice and made no move to grab my hand (which is what he generally does). 

"Okay then. I'll check in with you next week. I'm glad you let me know you didn't want to come today, and I'm glad you let me know you'd rather I don't sit with you right now."  

I wished the guys a decent weekend and headed out into the hall, kind of hoping he'd change his mind and come after me. He did not. 

I headed back to the Music Room, pondering the whole thing, reminding myself that he was likely wanting me to feel as rejected as he'd probably felt in our session. 

But then the inevitable worry began: Did I say something in the wrong way in his last session? Did I accidentally offend him? Did I hurt him by saying something he wasn't ready to hear yet? Is it irreparable? Will he give up and stop coming to music therapy? 

As I was pondering these questions, yet again, this morning, I realized, not only is this the usual litany I go through when a client chooses to not come to music therapy on a given day, but my confusion- my wondering what happened, did I do something wrong, will this person leave- probably very much mirrors the feelings my clients have had with regard to their families placing them in an institution.

Perhaps (along with "no") I was "hearing" his (and many of my clients') experience of ambiguous loss,  which is a loss that doesn't have clear closure and around which there are questions and a great deal of uncertainty. It's often thought of in terms of families' feelings regarding a child who is disabled or mentally ill or a parent or spouse who has Alzheimer's (for example), but there is little, if anything, written about the experience of the person whose family sees them as "gone" or "lost" to them because of their disability. 

When I arrived back in the Music Room, I found myself singing the following song, and once again, I felt amazed at the way our minds speak to each other through music.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

"What's your story?" 2013 Social Media Advocacy Month

It's Social Media Advocacy Month again, and this year we're talking about connections and the stories we share about music therapy. Or, put another way, we might say we're looking at how our stories define us and then help us to connect with each other. 

Whether or not we're aware of it, we're always telling stories. Stories help us describe (among other things) what we do, who we are, what we believe, how we've come to be, who we've come to be. And stories connect (and sometimes disconnect) us to/from ourselves, to/from our history, our families, our friends, our clients, our communities, our cultures. 

For this moment, let's focus on the stories we tell ourselves. Let's consider the stories we choose and use to help us form a professional identity.

The way I understand it, our identity as music therapists is a compilation of the many stories we have about ourselves: as musicians, as people, as therapists, as family members, as community members, as service users, as learners.

In the process we consider our beliefs about music, about therapy, how we define music therapy, what we understand about health/illness, how music fits into health/illness, about our clients, our biases, what it means to help someone else, what is/isn't helpful, what is meaningful, what we embrace, what we avoid. 

And our stories evolve even further as we give thought to how we choose to present our professional selves/stories to our clients, to our places of employment, to supervisors, to potential users of our services, to curious people, to lawmakers, to our larger communities. 

All of these elements start with the stories we tell ourselves. 

To that end, I'd like to share a list of questions I put together a few years ago for a presentation I did for a self-care series at the Kardon Institute for the Arts.  My hope is the questions will help you become more aware of your own stories, how you decide which stories you'd like to share, how you choose to share them, and with whom. 

What does it mean to be a music therapist? 
  • Who am I, or who do I think I need to be as a music therapist? How have I constructed my music therapy identity?
  • Do I think there's a "right" way or a "wrong" way to tell my stories as a music therapist?
  • What does it mean about me if I present myself in the "wrong" way?
  • How much does my history/personality/temperament influence who I am as a music therapist?
  • How comfortable am I when I feel I have to defend my role as a music therapist? In sessions? At work? In team meetings? What if someone doesn't like my story?
  • How comfortable am I with regard to my skills as a musician, my skills as a therapist? And does that level of comfort (of lack thereof) have an impact on my identity as a music therapist? In what way(s), if at all, does this change my story?
  • In what ways do my clients’ needs and expectations of me shape who I am as a music therapist? How do we weave our stories together?
  • What do I believe makes someone a “good” music therapist? 
  • How do my race, culture, gender, sexuality, abilities/disabilities inform who I am as a music therapist?
  • How do my beliefs and/or prejudices with regard to race, culture, gender, sexuality, abilities/disabilities impact my work?
  • How do I feel/respond when someone outside of my field defines my profession or makes assumptions about music therapy? What happens when someone else tells my story? What if our stories conflict?
  • How has my identity as a music therapist changed and evolved as I’ve moved through my 20, 30s, 40s, 50s, etc.? What are the ways in which my story has changed as I've grown through significant life changes (marriage, birth, loss, death, serious illness, natural/human made disasters, etc.)? 
  • If I am a music therapist practicing in a culture that is not my culture of origin, how has this affected my identity as a professional?
  • How committed am I to a specific identity or role (or story) I play as a music therapist? Am I comfortable expanding my identity/role? Is it okay to change the story? Under what circumstances? 
  • How much of and which aspects of our clients' stories are okay for me to hear? And which aspects frighten me or make me uncomfortable? 
  • What roles do I unconsciously assign to my clients?
  • How do my beliefs about what constitutes music therapy affect the stories I tell about being a music therapist?

 (Copyright 2010 Roia Rafieyan)


Introduction: Advocacy --> Recognition --> Access
Since 2005, the American Music Therapy Association and the Certification Board for Music Therapists have collaborated on a State Recognition Operational Plan. The primary purpose of this plan is to get music therapy and our MT-BC credential recognized by individual states so that citizens can more easily access our services. The AMTA Government Relations staff and CBMT Regulatory Affairs staff provide guidance and technical support to state task forces throughout the country as they work towards state recognition. To date, their work has resulted in over 35 active state task forces, 2 licensure bills passed in 2011, 1 licensure bill passed in 2012, and an estimated 7 bills being filed in 2013 that seek to create either title protection or a licensure for music therapy. This month, our focus is on YOU and on getting you excited about advocacy.