“Listen To The Bell”

“Mr B” is one of the clients who attends the community music group for adults with intellectual disabilities once a week. He is in a wheelchair and is accompanied by his carer, “Van” – a lovely lady with the sweetest personality.

Mr B usually sits and stares into the space in front of him. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, and his lips seem to always be in an inverted U shape. His eyebrows are also always knitted together, giving the impression that he is constantly unhappy about something. He doesn’t speak, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be to take care of someone who does not want to or know how to articulate their needs and/or emotions.

In recent weeks, Mr B. started making little breakthroughs. Slowly but surely, he started showing awareness of the activities we were doing in the sessions, making little gestures and movements to indicate his willingness to participate. Gestures like reaching for the guitar and making strumming motions instead of simply sitting still, making a choice regarding which bell he wants to play instead of letting Van choose for him, making brief but solid eye contact with people instead of staring at nothing in particular – small gestures and actions which are huge milestones in Mr B’s journey to communication.

In the recent week, we witnessed something so beautiful, I still get goosebumps when I think about it and watch the video recording.

After a session of upbeat music making, R wanted to end the session on a calmer energy level, and chose to do “Listen To The Bell” – a wonderful piece of work by Julie Sutton. The song invokes a sense of contemplation and calmness simply by use of open intervals and timbre of the hand chimes/bells.  R was playing the piano, and I was asked to “facilitate” each client’s interaction through the bell in their hand.

“Facilitate” – anyone who has taught anyone else before would know what a huge word that can be. I knew I did not want to simply stand in front of them and tell/prompt/encourage them to ring their bell – though that was what I did at first. Then, on a whim, I started to use the other readily available instrument I had with me – the voice. Improvising along to R’s playing, I used the voice to create melodic lines (though when I watch the video I realize I tend to stick to “safe” intervals – something I should work on) to form a musical relationship with the individual playing the bell – it certainly sounds texturally more interesting than simply telling/prompting/encouraging the person to play their bell. And since R didn’t stop me when I started doing that (as I know he would when he thinks things are not working out), I assumed it was ok to continue.

We moved from individual to individual in the circle in this manner, making music with voice, piano, and bell. Finally, I knelt in front of Mr B’s wheelchair. “It’s your turn,” Van prompted, using her hand to guide his hand in a rocking motion so that his bell made a soft ringing sound. As she continued doing that, and I continued singing, and R continued playing, it happened.

Mr B. SMILED.

He tilted his head back, turned sideways a little, and SMILED. His inverted U lips simply inverted back. The sides of his lips turned upwards. His eyes became smaller. The creases in his forehead looked a little less deep. He was SMILING.

It took us all about a second to realize what he was doing. Maybe we just couldn’t imagine that face of his ever looking like anything else!

“B’s smiling!” Van exclaimed softly, when she saw.

“Wow, that’s a beautiful smile, B.” R responded ever so calmly as he continued playing.

I was trying to keep the singing going and making sure that the intervals were in tune with R’s playing, so I think my reaction was the least reactionary at that moment, but wow, I was really blown away too. Who would have thought that Mr B was capable of demonstrating such a solid facial expression?

“He’s never done that before”, Van continued, awed.

Mr B. kept that smile for about 3 seconds, then it gradually faded, but somehow the inverted U lips and knitted eye brows didn’t make him look as unhappy anymore. It could have been my positive imagination, but I thought he looked a little more… at peace.

Someone once wrote (need to search for the source again) that the role of the music therapist is to create the musical experience which the client is unable to create for themselves, and then use that experience to bring them to their goals, be it in communication, emotional balance, or physical improvements, etc. I suppose, because of the role we play, it’s easy to get all self-important and think that we’re indispensable in our client’s lives, and I admit that for a moment or two after I saw Mr B’s smile, I was really pleased with myself. But then I also realise that it could have easily been anyone else doing what we were doing, and it could have easily been someone else standing in front of his wheelchair and seeing Mr B smile that day. His smile was not a miracle we pulled out of a bag through OUR efforts – it was the result of the music which was already in him, the musical experience being felt within him, and the fact that we happened to be there when he made the connection between the music and the people around him. And we were fortunate enough to have witnessed it.

Still many thoughts and feelings about this, but that’s the gist of what I think so far. And the journey continues.

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