In Creative Music Therapy, the act of the therapist and client initially getting to know each other is known as a Meeting. This Meeting is not about physically saying Hello or HowDoYouDo – more often than not it may not even be verbal – it’s more about coming to a mutual understanding, acceptance and acknowledgment of each other’s presence and abilities. For the therapist, this means getting a sense of the client’s ability to communicate and their dominant emotions. For the client, it may mean feeling validated by how the therapist responds to them, getting used to the setting, feeling safe enough to express freely.
After weeks of observation, our supervisor (henceforth known as R) dropped a fine bomb on us on the recent Thursday, suggesting that we physically step into the session with M, a sweet 16-year old boy with autism. He doesn’t speak, with the exception of single words, usually popping up at the end of song phrases and sentences. He loves songs that have actions to go along with them, and recently started saying words AND doing the actions at the same time. He is also very routinized, and we were initially worried that the presence of strangers in the room might throw him off. Fortunately, M seemed relatively comfortable, and even shook our hands when told to. Five minutes into the session, R suggests that I start by Meeting M at the piano.
So I sit on the piano bench, hesitant but excited, and wait for M to make the first move. “Just use what he offers you musically and try to respond accordingly”, R tells me. In other words, clinical improvisation. Improvising, but in a clinical context, to Meet M and show him that his sounds are being validated and that he is being accepted as a person. From the observation room, watching R do it, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Just respond to what the client offers you. Take what he plays and return it. Call and respond. Basic musical concepts. Right? Except that from the moment my fingers hit the keys, my brain started screaming: “This doesn’t sound right! How do you know if you’re playing correctly?! What’s the correct way to do this?!” The extreme need to know whether I was right or wrong meant that my intellectual brain was working in overdrive, and that, was certainly no way for spontaneous improvisation to take place.
There is a phrase: “Creative Moments” – used to describe that moment when a true and pure connection has been made . When it happens, the therapist knows it, the client knows it (presumably). I felt such a moment for about 3 seconds, when I chose to play sustained, open chords in the base, to support M creating a rhythmically denser melody on the higher register. The intervals of 4th and 5th suggest openness and provides room for expression, inviting the music the develop and grow. We worked this way for the duration of about 5-6 chords, before my intellect kicked in and I thought: “Hey, this may be getting boring for him. What if I try to spice things up by adding some accidentals?” The moment my fingers hit those black keys, I cringed inwardly, for it was then I realised that M was only playing with the white keys, and there had been no need to add any accidentals at all! By trying to “spice things up”, instead of continuing to trust my feelings and obvious observation, I had ruined the Creative Moment for us. I tried to go back to whole-tone chords, but the moment felt lost, and M had proceeded to another mode/musical motive which I then had to catch up with.
That was just one example out of numerous in the session in which my intellect came in and got in the way. R was very encouraging after the session, saying that we did not too badly for the first time, pointing out the fact that clinical improvisation is something that can be learnt, and he would be more than happy to share some tips with us for the future. He just needed to throw us into the deep end for awhile to see how much we could do. And while I’m no olympic swimmer, I’m also happy I didn’t drown, and somehow managed to stay afloat long enough to experience the beauty of the ocean.
As one of our lecturers told us recently, it is possible to have a Meeting extend over a few sessions – she shared how she was still Meeting a client even after 3-4 sessions, and only felt that she had finally Met him in the 4th session, after which more focus could be given to the planned clinical goals. She added that we should not constrict our relationship with clients within sessions (not unlike how a teacher may think of a child’s development in terms of school terms and semesters), something bureaucracy tends to do to us. After all, a person’s development is never compartmentalized.
I’ve been thinking about M and this experience with him over the past few days. I don’t think I’ve ever reflected this deeply as a teacher.
I really want to do this.