Category Archives: Music Therapy

Flow

This quote reminded of the term “flow”, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (How do we even pronounce that) as:

“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

And these are the 8 characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

Source

 

This prompted me to reflect and examine the frequency with which I currently experience this state of flow in my job (because that’s important to me!).

Yes, when I conduct sessions, I can see how being “in the zone”, having my skills and the challenge at hand being equally matched, seeing the natural and connected engagement with the children, creates the circumstances for flow to take place, which contributes to my perception of meaning and joy.

I suppose it is when we are unable to experience this state of flow in what we do, that the tasks and job may become more tedious and arduous. How do you feel flow in a session with the little boy who is screaming his head off, or with the one who is scratching his peers and everyone is just trying to stop him but making things worse, or with the little girl who is crying because she wants her favourite snack and the teacher is refusing to give in to her?

I think that’s when being able to be in the moment and taking the stance of an observer can really help a lot. Thinking “Wow, this is a difficult situation” instead of “I AM in a difficult situation” can really make a lot of difference in how we react and/or respond to the challenges. It certainly takes practice, and I’m still working on it 🙂

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A Little Thing

It’s a usual music therapy practice to greet each person in the group individually at the start of the session, and to say goodbye to each individual. It is a way to invite each individual into the group setting, and at the end, to thank them for their contribution to the group.

Well yesterday, I forgot to say bye to each individual kid after a session.

After the group goodbye song, the boys were transited to go toileting, then to go for their outdoor activity.

But one of the little boys decided otherwise – he apparently pulled his teacher back to the classroom, where I was still packing and clearing the area after their session.

I had turned around and there he stood, looking at me, somewhat bashfully.

Unaware of his agenda, I asked “A, what is it?” Not that he could verbalise a reply, but I knew he was capable of communicating through gestures and vocalisations.

When a few more moments had passed without him initiating anything, I looked at the teacher standing at the entrance of the classroom.

“Do you know what he wants?” I asked.

“He wants to say bye.”

BOOM.

It hit me then. Of course. I had forgotten to give each kid their individual goodbye after the session, perhaps unconsciously assuming that the goodbye song was good enough and that it wouldn’t make a difference to them anyway… Apparently it does!

Squatting to his eye level, I said “Bye bye A!” and held out my palm for a high-5. He returned the high-5 immediately, smiled and turned to walk back to his teacher.

Heart melts.

The little things do matter. A lot.

July 2018

So. It has been an eventful month, to say the least.

When I applied for this Friday off from work (about a week ago), I was feeling emotionally drained, fatigued and slightly jaded (even if I did not always show it). It made sense to take some time off, to regather my thoughts and feelings, and to perhaps reconfigure the WHY of what I’m doing.

It all started from 3 Sundays ago, when I received a call from a colleague tearfully telling me that one of our kids was in intensive care and not expected to make it through the next day. The social worker had asked if I would be able to have one more music therapy session with him?

Yes, I said. Of course. We made plans to go down first thing next morning.

I don’t think I had much time to prepare myself for it. I texted a trusted peer and shared my worries about doing the session. My worries about not being able to separate my personal emotions from my role as the therapist in the room. She reassured me that it was ok to show our emotions and that I could try taking deep breadths if it got too much to handle. I wrote about my emotions in my journal. Had some alone time in the morning before work, to ground and steady myself. That was about all the preparation I could do, I think.

The session itself started on an emotional high. Little D, not even 3 years of age, was in a comatose state, kidneys failed, his face swollen and puffed up, with machines and tubes all around him (But then this wasn’t something new, even when he was coming to school he was already surrounded by tubes and machines). It became quite apparent that the music was more for mum than for D. She started crying the moment the strings of the guitar filled the room.

Same chords. Just repeat. Hold the space, I told myself. C – G – F – G – C. Repeat. Mum took a call. Came back. Continued crying.

“We are here… Here with D…” A song to establish our being there. Our presence. Our being together. Humming. A space for comfort. And also because I didn’t trust myself to sing words continuously without breaking down or cracking with emotion.

“Is there anything you’d like to say to him?” I chocked out to mum, after some time of just playing instrumentally. A floodgate of emotions opened as mum verbalised what she seemed to have been keeping in. “You can go and do all the things you couldn’t do here…”, “Mummy has already tried her best, sorry…”, “If you want to go you can go, it’s really ok”… It felt like she needed that space, and perhaps even the presence of people who allowed her to say those things.

Keep playing, keep playing. Don’t stop the music. Hold the space. She needs to let this out. Even though my tears were salty, my nose was dripping grossly, even though my shoulders and fingers were tensed and tired from the continuous plucking.

When she seemed to have finished all she wanted to say… or at least reached a suitable pause… I let the song take over again. To gather. To validate. To comfort.

“Mummy loves you… Loves D…”. “Thank you mummy… for taking care of me.”

A voice for D, perhaps, who has never uttered a word in his life.

Hesitantly, I ask. “Are there… any songs he liked in particular?”

“Not really…” A pause. “Maybe… Can you sing You are my Sunshine?”

And we did.

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
when skies are grey
You’ll never know dear
How much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

“D, I’m sorry I did not dare sing this song to you because I was afraid I would cry. You will always be my sunshine ok…”

Needless to say we were all emotional wrecks by this time. Yet, it felt like the right moment to wrap up the session.

“Can we sing a goodbye song?” – This, I had not expected.

“You mean the one we always sing in class?”

“Yes that’s fine”

It’s time to say goodbye
Goodbye to D, goodbye
Thank you for your music
And now we say goodbye

 

After we left, we heard that mum had brought D home. And D passed on at home the next morning.

How do I even begin to describe what the journey was like after that experience?

I moved through the world feeling numb, drained and fatigued for the next week or so.

I could not sleep, and woke up early.

I continued sessions but could feel that my heart was nowhere there with the kids in front of me.

I don’t know if it was grief, or emotional exhaustion. Or maybe a combination of both. I didn’t understand how everyone around me, my colleagues – could continue as normal when inside I felt so hollow and empty. I felt isolated – no one else could understand what that space felt like, what it felt like to be holding the space with music and connecting in those moments through song and music. I tell people “It was an emotional session” but that did so little justice to the experience that it became a chore to even try to explain.

Doubts also crossed my mind. Was I being unprofessional by investing too much of my emotions? I should not have allowed myself to get so deep emotionally? Is it a sign of my incompetence as a therapist that I’m unable to handle the emotions when it gets this tough? How do people working in palliative settings do it? Does this mean I’m not suitable to work in palliative settings?

But.

It’s getting better. Even though there were times when I thought it would not.

And I am glad I can honestly say: I’m very thankful for the privilege. For the experience. It has deepened my practice so much. To have been there, with the music, as the music therapist. When I started working in this job, I never imagined that I would get to do a session like that. And now I can look back and see how it has helped me grow, helped me know myself better, helped me truly appreciate what music can do.

The feelings may be difficult, but they can teach us so so much.

And the journey continues.

“That Was Hard.” – a Lesson in Self Compassion

“That was so hard! You did amazing for what you were given to deal with!”

These words meant a lot to me for 2 main reasons.

  1. It’s not our cultural norm for someone to acknowledge how hard the things we have to do sometimes may be. I mean this in a widespread sense, not job-specific sense. But when your job is sometimes seen as nothing more than “having fun” and “making music with kids”, it can be even harder for people to understand why you feel like you have a hard time. So, having someone who understands when we have a difficult session, and acknowledge that it was hard, can be enough to move me to tears.
  2. I learnt that acknowledging and accepting when something is hard does not necessarily include admitting that I’m incompetent, which is one of my greatest fears. I learnt that acknowledging and accepting when something is objectively and naturally hard actually opens my mind to think about what can be done to overcome the difficulty of the problem, without getting too personal about it. Without thinking that if this doesn’t work = I’m a complete failure. Simply acknowledging the mountain-like nature of the tasks we have to do (Eg: Engage 6 kids at once on the same task, each of which have a different developmental delay diagnosis and/or have ASD and a cognitive age estimate of below 12months..) can go a long way in accepting that sometimes we don’t get the kind of completion and success we want, but can still learn and grow from the experience.

After that line was said to me, I felt so touched that the challenging nature of the situation was acknowledged, and I felt myself become more open than ever to take in suggestions for change and improvement. And some of the suggestions given were really good.

Of course I would have accepted the suggestions given anyway. But if not for this line, I don’t think I’d feel as confident about moving on, and might have even internalised some negative messages about myself. Not exactly the most healthy thing.

So today, I am thankful for this lesson in Self-Compassion. May all be well and happy!

Music Collage

At a session one evening, we did something called a Music Collage. The process involves participants choosing a theme, actively listening to a recorded piece of music, selecting images from a range of pictures to fit the theme, depending on how they interpret and think about it, and sharing which aspects of their collage stood out the most for them.

The theme we chose was Movement vs Stillness, and the music selected was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, 1st movement.

“The person on the wheelchair… because it seems like he is still, but at the same time I realised the wheelchair is also about movement.. and I realise… it’s all about perspective. There is no full movement or full stillness. It is all how you look at it.”

“I feel that my collage represents my… character. Like, sometimes I can be really active and loud and outgoing, but other times I will just be quiet and still. So there is no picture that stands out for me.”

“I feel like the music was describing something bad about to happen. So I chose the picture of this crab… the music is describing the journey of the crab as it’s about to be killed and cooked and eaten… from movement to stillness..”

Through their insights and sharing, I have got to know this group of people over the past 2 months. Their personalities, sense of humour, quirks and what means the most to them. And with the time that has flown by, we are also on the brink of parting ways. It has been a blessing to be with them on this journey, one I will always be thankful for.

Music and Mood Regulation

Sometimes it frustrates me that the potential of music doesn’t seem to be reached in the classroom. Especially after experiencing what music could really do for individuals and small groups. It frustrates me that that has to be compromised in the name of curriculum, school needs and manpower.

If holistic and equal education is key, why doesn’t the government provide funds for small group instrumental instruction and music appreciation? Students would still be able to experience the relationary and social nature of music making with the close relationship of a teacher, without the same teacher having to monitor 35 other kids in the classroom at the same time – something will have to give.

This week’s article is “The Role of Music in Adolescents’ Mood Regulation“. The immense and expansive nature which music can play in mood and emotional regulation in adolescents makes me wonder if they really need classroom music teachers at all.

We all have the instinctive and intuitive drive to use music in our daily lives – to counter sadness, to pump up joy, to divert attention, to focus, to fill voids around and within us. How can music lessons in school build on this intuition, such that students feel validated and valued as a person? And I believe that this is something the arts can do and scaffold, far more than any other subject, which usually involves a steep learning curve.

I thought about my overarching aim for this year – for students to leave each class feeling accomplished and developed. Be it cognitively, physically, socially, emotionally – there is potential to touch any of these areas through music at any one time. So while students may already have the ability to use music for self-mood regulation, surely they can also be expanded to feel the beauty of creating a song cover arrangement, feel the adrenaline of playing in unison, feel the anticipation of listening for nuances and basically just become more “whole” as a person through these experiences.

And so could we – even as adults.