Tag Archives: stories

The Session With The Hair Curlers

As a music therapy student, I think I have been able to conduct myself with relative professionalism, in spite of the many many unpredictable things clients can do or say.

This week, for once, I lost it. When I say I lost it, I don’t mean I lost my temper, banged or overturned any tables, or even started yelling at anyone. When I say I lost it, I mean: I got the Giggles.

“Mary” is one of the residents at the nursing home. She doesn’t have dementia and remembers us well. However, we had been warned that she wants attention and will do all sorts of things to get it, including using guilt and reverse psychology. This week, she walked past us and asked very sweetly: “Girls, can I have music therapy please?” We of course agreed and told her we’d go to her room later.

When we arrived in her room, she told us to “start” and just “carry on”. As she joined us in singing, she was also very busy taking out plastic bags from her drawer, finding a comfortable position on her bed, before deciding that she didn’t want to lie down after all, got up, and decided that she had to curl her hair. In between all that, she also managed to slip in a rather awkward piece of information from her gynecologist and explained to us why she had to do something in a certain way. *Awkward silence filled in by music*

Up to this point, I had still managed to hold it together, and was in fact quite impressed by this strong-willed lady who seemed to be really positive and cheerful about life.

Then Mary took out her curling pins from her drawer, and told us: “I’ll be back in a minute, girls.” And proceeded to go to the toilet to comb her hair. As soon as she left the room, the Coursemate looked at me immediately and hissed: “This is the weirdest session ever”. That started me off a little bit. Before Mary came back, we quickly decided that it was best to end the session soon since she seemed to be more interested in curling her hair than in having a serious session.

Mary came back, and started standing in front of her mirror, slowly putting the curling pins in her hair, all the while chatting with us about how her singing voice has changed and how she didn’t like it anymore, etc. The Coursemate then very gently said that we had to leave soon to see other residents, and that we’d sing her a Goodbye song before we left. Mary couldn’t argue with that, and seemed to reluctantly accept the fact that we couldn’t stay to watch her curl her hair.

As we started “Thank You For The Music”, Mary’s hands went back to her hair and curling pins. What was meant to be a conclusion, validation and affirmation of a session of social togetherness and present-ness, became a soundtrack for hair curling. The absurdity of the scene was too much for me to take, and the moment that thought: “soundtrack for hair curling” entered my head, that was the moment I lost it.

I giggled so much I couldn’t sing anymore, and the poor Coursemate later said it took all of her self-control to not look at me and keep the song going. And of course, Mary was oblivious to it all, her attention focused on her reflection and how nicely her hair was being curled.

During lunch, in between our bouts of giggling, we messaged a course senior who came into the nursing home on another day as an employed MT. The “weirdest session ever” was described, and advice asked. The gist of his reply was:

“Hi guys, I think it’s safe to say that Mary can be a little odd. She was labeling her clothes when I worked with her. However she enjoys old classics and having discussions about them after singing.

PS: She might want to talk about her “personal” medical issues as well. Just keep the music going and she’ll get the hint that you don’t really want to know about it.”

That just set us off on another serious bout of giggles, so much that we had to take extra time after lunch to calm ourselves down, to go back to “Professional MT mode” before stepping back into the building.

Additional skill to work on: Giggle Control.

Being Aware in Disability

Taking on an extra placement slot this semester has exposed me more to the world of adult disabilities. These are middle aged people from their 20s to 40s, who, if they had been in a body which functions according to social and cultural norms, would be holding jobs in society, earning a salary, contributing to the GDP of the country. As it is, the conditions they have make them unable to fit into society that way, and so they attend community/day programmes, with music therapy being one of the slotted activities. Among the goals for them are to encourage positive, appropriate social behavior like turn-taking, sharing, collaborating, to increase concentration and attention span, to hone decision-making skills, and to engage in self-expression with confidence.

What stuck me most about this particular group we worked with is the level of awareness some of them have. They are rehearsing an arrangement with percussion instruments, and these 2 extremely sweet girls, who can’t be older than their late 20s, were having some trouble coming in on time together. One of them would come in, while the other would not. Or both would come in, but one would be slightly faster than the other. At the end of the piece, “Ju” asked my supervisor slowly and haltingly: “Did I do well?” The question carried with it so much of need for validation and affirmation that my heart immediately went out to her. The other girl, “Ann”, chimed in: “I don’t think I did well” – just because she missed her entry – once.

I realise that to have a disability and not be aware of it is vastly different from having one and being aware that you are different. For these girls, they seem to know that they are different and that they will probably never fit into mainstream society, perhaps not in a socially-conventional sense. But in their seemingly simple world, in their own innocent way, through whatever means of expression they have, they try to make and find meaning in their existence – which sometimes could simply mean trying to sound the cymbal in time.

And again, I am humbled by the ones supposedly at the receiving end of therapy. Who’s really helping who here?

Everyone Has A Story

I spotted her as I came up to the platform on the escalator. She was looking at the train platform monitors, holding a notebook in her hands, comparing the stations being reflected on the screen to what was on her notebook. When she saw me, she registered a look of relief almost immediately.

“You speaker Chinese??”

“Ya..” I replied hesitantly, my defenses going up instinctively.

She, however, seemed to let hers down and immediately launched into a detailed explanation about where she wanted to go. It took me awhile to understand that when she said “bracktowner”, she meant “Blacktown”. It took me awhile more to convince her that she was on the right platform and she didn’t see the stops in between this station and where she wanted to go because it was going to be an express train.

In the 8 minutes before the train arrived, we continued our conversation, mainly in mandarin. She expressed gratitude at our chance meeting. (“When you’re old, it’s difficult to learn a new language! So I always look for black hair yellow skin people!”)

She told of how her daughter, despite having already secured a government job teaching English in a University in China, still wanted to come to Sydney to do her masters and eventually decide to stay on, and then bringing her mother over after she had gotten her citizenship.

“That’s not a bad thing, you must be happy to have your daughter look after you here”, I replied.

“Aiya… I don’t know why she wanted to leave. Job was good, everything was paid for. Leave, then leave behind our family and relatives and friends, just like that!”
No wonder she looked at me approvingly when I said yes I’ll be going back after completing my studies.

When I glanced at her notebook, full of scribblings of station names, prominent places in Sydney, and their mandarin translations, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Because of her love for her child, she chose to uproot herself from her hometown, and unwillingly accepted her citizenship in a foreign country. I could hear the regret in her words: “I shouldn’t have agreed to let my daughter come to Sydney then…”

Just before the train arrived, the lady sighed: “I told my daughter, everyone who comes here and live a new life, has a story to tell.”

And I’m glad I got to hear a bit of hers.

Brian Little: Confessions of a Passionate Introvert

I first read about Brian Little in Susan Cain’s “Quiet“. Watching and listening to him speak, I can understand why his graduating classes at Harvard consistently vote him as “Favourite Professor”, year after year. He alludes his ability to act as an extrovert to the fact that he loves his students, he loves what he teaches and he is passionate about sharing his knowledge in his area of expertise. Typical introvert behavior, getting all pumped up when doing something of personal meaning and value. He might very well be an INFJ as well.

I will never forget the conversation I once had with a student who expressed immense surprise and disbelief when I told her I am not, by nature, outgoing or outspoken. I always knew I was acting out of character as a teacher, but her shock at my confession made me realize how convincing my persona might have been – and maybe that’s why I found myself living from weekend to weekend, only looking forward to the time of respite, when I could shed all efforts at existing and simply…  be. I could totally feel Brian Little’s agony as he described trying to find a “restorative niche” after social events and people-meeting.

May this world be a kinder place to our species…

Session’s End

I’m happy to note that connecting with M on the piano in this recent week felt a lot easier and smoother. I feel like I’m beginning to understand his musical personality, recognizing certain quirks and patterns which emerge in the way he plays. For example, he likes heavy chords, and seems to like it when the therapist validates his heavy treble playing with equally heavy bass chords, gradually transiting to an anchoring bass pattern which he can continue to play above and build on. Also, if he feels that he has run out of things to play, he might start pressing all the keys one by one, until he has covered the whole range of the piano, until he has touched every single key. “It’s one of his autistic traits”, R told us, referring to M’s need to make sure that every single note on the piano is accounted for.

This need to make sure everything is in order is also reflected in his actions. When he walks into the room, the first thing M usually does is to switch off all the electrical switches he can see, and makes sure all the windows are closed. After the session, he also automatically makes sure that all instruments and chairs are put back in place. No one’s complaining about that, of course 🙂

At the end of our most recent session, M did something which made us really tickled, yet at the same time highlighting just how observant he is of his surroundings and how much he understands of it, even if he doesn’t know how to articulate it.

“Well done today, M”, R congratulated him as we all stood up after the Goodbye Song. Apart from piano improvisation, we had also spent the session getting M to emulate the action words of a song, and play bells and drums alternately, all of which he did beautifully. “Well done”, R repeated.

M understood from R’s words that the session was officially over. He jumped up from his chair like he had just been given permission to move, ran across to an obscure corner of the room, where a stack of chairs stood, slightly slanted away from the wall. In 2 seconds, M was beside the chairs and had made sure that they were shifted that 2 centimeters so that they stood parallel to the wall. We, still standing beside the piano, realized that he must have noticed that stack of displaced chairs earlier and was just waiting for the session to end so that he could run to them and put them right. If this teenager could speak, we surely would have heard him yell: “FINALLY! That stack of chairs had been bothering me since I noticed them! I can’t believe no one else noticed they were not parallel to the wall!!!”

With the chairs in place, everything was right in M’s world again, and he happily bounced out of the room.

And because M had the last slot for the day, this is what I remember most from this week’s sessions: The gratification of musical communication. Our tickled laughter.  The feeling of pure joy and affection for this special kid.