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.


Meghan Hinman said...

I particularly liked the quote about being uncomfortable... I don't think that's just the realm of science, I think it's very much the realm of the psyche. The only way we can change is if we feel bad enough to want to reconfigure. Sometimes we need to completely fall apart in order to put ourselves back together. I like your points about the importance of not knowing in session, and learning to be comfortable with that (it is certainly a developmental stage, isn't it?). I actually think that, as music therapists, we have a bit of an anchor in that we DO know music. It's not as scary as when you have to just sit and talk with a patient, when you only have your psyches to work with. If you can go to the music, that's something that you (as a MT) know. I think sometimes the music comforts us as much as it helps our clients.

Roia said...

I have often felt grateful for the fact that I have music to offer when I'm not sure what words to use (usually because I'm not sure what's going on). And, yes, I realize part of this whole obsession I have with knowing and not knowing is related to the fact that I work with people who don't use speech as their primary communication modality. That said, in spite of having music at my disposal, I've certainly had many sessions where the "right" music didn't come either. I think our own willingness to be with the uncomfortableness helps our clients sit with it and allows the space to explore what is (if I may) not known yet (or what is being avoided actively because the experience of awareness- or knowing- feels too threatening). Thanks, Meghan!

JoAnn Jordan said...

It can be difficult and uncomfortable to not walk in with a set plan of action. There is a time and place for a set plan. Yet even then, being open to where a client is in a particular moment of a particular day is better.

Roia said...

Definitely, JoAnn! I vividly remember how awkward I felt until I got the hang of improvising and reflecting and interpreting. But if we're not willing to be courageous in our work, then how can we ask our clients to take on the monumental and scary (and courageous) task of change.

One of the reasons we all fear change is that we don't know what it will look/feel/sound/be like if we do. And that is definitely anxiety-provoking! :- ) Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts!

Cheilita said...

This post really grasps how I am pretty sure most of us feel at one point or another and I'm so glad to see this stated so honestly. Being a music therapist is incredibly humbling to our egos which creates such self doubt and questioning... but on the other side of the coin, it's that questioning and constant experimenting that heightens our practice if we tap into it. So it IS indeed exciting to change the perspective where we can see the exploration of our time with our clients as not a fuzzy doubt-cloud but a seeking and learning time full of strength... even if it's hidden.

Tamara G. Suttle said...

Hi, Roia! What a great "ah-ha!" I love this! I remember as new Licensed Professional Counselor being so apprehensive about not knowing . . . about many things and feeling like I was supposed to know about everything! Those fears resulted, I'm sure, in some very stilted dialogue and less than authentic engagements with my clients. If only I had had your wisdom presented to me way back then . . . I know my sessions would have looked very different!

Like you . . . I have grown to realize the healing is in the adventure . . . . And, the "knowing" often just gets in the way!

On a different note, have your ears been burning? I've been teaching a 4-week webinar on blogging for therapists who are just getting started. Your blog and you have been one of the recurring examples of great blogging for therapists. Hope it's sending you lots of traffic. And, thank you for putting yourself out here so visibly as a model for the rest of us!

Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC said...

Roia - your blog consistently eats my comments! Drives me bonkers. Trying again . . . .

I love this topic! When I was a new Licensed Professional Counselor, I always felt like I was supposed to know everything. I'm sure my sessions were more stilted and less authentic than they would have been had I understood that it was OK and even beneficial to not always "know."

In fact, what I know now is that it is the "knowing" that typically gets in the way! Thank you for modeling not knowing and the adventure that leads to the healing!

On a different note, have your ears been burning? I have been teaching a webinar (4 weeks) for therapists who are just beginning to blog. I've been using you and your blog as examples of the right way for therapists to blog. My students are thrilled to find your transparency and boundaries to model their own blogs after. And, I, of course, am thrilled to introduce them to you, too!

Roia said...

@Cheilita Thanks for your thoughts- I had to laugh at the image of a "fuzzy doubt cloud". :- ) Honestly, some days it certainly does feel that way! Indeed, our willingness to sit with the questions and look at our reactions is, as you say, humbling and simultaneously enriching.

@Tamara My apologies, again, for my badly behaving Blogger comments section. As you can see, I did get both comments, so I'm not sure what's going on. Hm. Perhaps when school's over I should consider blog migration. :- (

First of all, congratulations to YOU on your webinar! What a great idea, and I hope it's going wonderfully! I remember you blogging about how, especially in private practice, it's so helpful (and important!) to have various ways of providing services, and you demonstrate that so beautifully in your many nifty endeavors!

And thank you so much for your always supportive comments about my blogging style. I have actually been reading a lot of interesting blogs of late that are of this general ilk, and it has been validating.

Meanwhile, yes! Would that we all knew then what we know now. I don't know about you, my friend, but even if I'd heard it back then I'm not sure I could have gotten out of my own way enough to realize it was the truth. It's all process, isn't it? :- )

Going to go see about eaten blog comments now...

Phoene said...

All I can do s repeat your final word yes! Find me at - good to find your blog - look forward to reading more with interest

Roia said...

Thanks, Phoene! I'll check out your blog also. Be well.

carrenella said...

Hi Roia,

I'm so happy that I came across your blog today! I'm an undergrad student double majoring in Psychology and Music who is thinking of applying to a Master Program in music therapy and feel so inspired by your posts.

Particularly, I realized that since my teenage years, I became a late bloomer who stopped learning quickly, laughing whole-heartedly and making more progress in life because I feared 'uncertainty' and 'not-knowing'. As a result, I stayed in my comfort zone and avoided doing many jobs, taking certain courses and participating in new activities which required improvisation.

Now after reading your post, I wish that someone had told us earlier in school or at home that life is about process and discovering new things (not just holding on to what we know or staying in our comfort zone.)

The author of 'Finding Your Element' once said, "Life is organic! It is a constant process of improvisation between one's interests and personalities and circumstances and opportunities on the BE OPEN TO NEW EXPERIENCES AND TO EXPLORE NEW PATHWAYS AND POSSIBILITIES IN YOURSELF AND IN THE WORLD AROUND YOU." (Ken Robinson)

So now, that is my goal and I feel that your blog has helped me realize what I want to do and who I want to be in the future. That is..Music Therapy! :)

Roia said...

Hey there, Caranella- thanks tremendously for sharing your story! I'm totally with you on the wishing someone had clued us in earlier thing. But, you know we *totally* wouldn't have listened or gotten it anyway- at least not until we were darn good and ready. I'm thrilled to hear you'll be taking up music therapy. I think the fact that you seem to be self-aware and conscious of some of the ways your thoughts and ideas aren't serving you is a terrific starting point for anyone wanting to enter the therapy field! Good luck in your undergrad studies and as you continue your music therapy quest! We look forward to hearing how it's all going for you!

Roia said...

Argh! Sorry for the misspell! That would be Carranella. Lots of happy 'r's and 'l's! Hopefully this time I got it right!