January 2010 Reflection

The most difficult thing about music therapy is to know when to be silent. It seems paradoxical, but this therapy built around sound sometimes has its moments of greatest effect in its absence. Because being able to actively listen to a client is more important than playing for them. You must tune to the smallest movements and vocalizations that would otherwise be overlooked in general care, identifying ways to create complementary rhythms and melodic contours. The flexion of a single finger or the pace of a client’s breathing might be all you have to work with.

I had my first encounter with music therapy clients during a placement the last three weeks of the fall term, split between a special education school and an adult care facility. Let’s just say the experience has caused me to redefine what I had formally considered music. Coming from a “classical” instruction, music was carefully organized sound, ridden with motifs, forms, and structure. Music therapy is messy, unpredictable, and depending on the mood can take nearly any direction. It is almost as if each client has their own internal musical system, which you must reflect and develop. Sessions are full of surprises, both negative and positive, and you must be extremely flexible and adaptive. As someone who tends to over-plan, this has been the most liberating and simultaneously frustrating part of my experience. I have had to be reminded that some of the most memorable events will happen unpredictably and unexpectedly.

There are three happenstance meetings that have made a particular impression on me the last few months. The first was on a bus trip to Galway for a Chess Club tournament. I had been reading a book by Thomas Cahill titled “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” which told the story of Irish monks who furiously copied books while the rest of Europe was reeling in the throes of the Dark Ages. An elderly Irish woman noticed the cover and struck up a fascinating conversation with me about ancient Celtic culture to modern Gregorian chant in Limerick. Not long after, I was coming back from Dublin and met an organic vegetable farmer on the train. He gave me a ride back to the university from the station, recommending the best fish & chips outlets on the way (which cook with lard and not vegetable oil) and showed me the extent of the recent flooding. He has lived around Limerick his entire life and was passing on the farm to his son. Last week I was taking pictures of an impressive frost that had coated everything like powered sugar. A couple stopped to inquire why I was taking pictures of the grass, and we spent about twenty minutes discussing pictures of the beauty everyone else was passing by and discarding as bad weather. In each case, I was impressed by the ability of the Irish to just pause and enjoy life with a complete stranger, having deep meaningful conversations I won’t easily forget.

Why is it the most memorable experiences often consist of the simplest events or gestures? I recently read a poem from Seamus Heaney that I thought expressed this concept in my favorite terms—musical.

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next

Is a music you never would have known

To listen for…

Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

Alright, stop! Pause. Read the poem again, slowly. At this point I could break down “The Rain Stick” in terms of its meter, syntax, metaphor, and other poetical characteristics. But in doing so am I missing the enjoyment of just reading it and reflecting on what it is trying to say? This is an interesting conundrum also presented in music therapy. In an attempt to legitimize the profession within the broader medical community there is a focus on dissecting musical components, and micro-analyzing narrative case studies in order to pinpoint why music works the way it does. We can attempt to explain the neurological, emotional, and physiological effects, but at a certain point do we kill the music from such intense anatomizing? Is it less beautiful if the mystery is stripped away?

Soon I will conduct my own research in this field, but for now I am enjoying spending time with the Mitchells. My first Christmas away from home was spent in Galway with Michael, Lauren and her husband Jon. Although it rained on Christmas Day (typical), we had beautiful frost on Christmas Eve. We managed an excellent Christmas feast considering the kitchen size, and made sugar cookies with crushed candy canes from the States. Either Ireland doesn’t sell candy canes or they were completely sold out! It’s a mystery. Though a little homesick, the Christmas break was extremely refreshing and I’m anxious to start a new semester with new adventures. I wonder what opportunities will be presented, provided I pause to hear them.

“The music is all around us, all you have to do is listen.” — August Rush

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