I have recently returned from being involved in co-organizing and teaching on a January World Song, Rhythm and Dance Summer School (please note NZ is in the southern hemisphere!) in which a rich mix of song, rhythm, dance and creative activity were experienced by the twenty-plus participants during a lively week. One morning we had an interesting combination warm-up which began with some Tai-Chi exercises and ended with a round of juggling. To give you an idea, here on the left is Amanda our facilitator, a musician and circus school graduate, accompanied on the right by Eileen, a summer school member and juggling-apprentice.
Figuratively-speaking, I have always thought I was quite good at juggling. You might agree it is rather an important part of a music therapist’s job to manage many facets of our world at once – the musical-technical; the musical-expressive; the reflective-thinking about what we do; the aural notating of a pattern or tune from today; the time-managing; the writing-up; the planning for next time, perhaps for some, the research or management and supervisory layer too. However, I was rather stunned to find – practically-speaking – that I was quite far-behind in the juggling stakes. ‘Throw – throw’ Amanda chanted and showed me several times with two balls. And I liked throwing them, but catching was quite another matter. In the end I settled happily for one ball, throwing gently from hand to hand, marveling (occasionally) at the beautiful arc I could make and just enjoying the simplicity. It fitted with the feeling created by Tai-Chi, a peaceful rhythm of movement, gently executed.
During the course of that five-day summer school, I began to delight in concentrating on just one main thing - the making of music with other people. Since returning, I have seen my more usual working world in rather sharp relief and wondered if it is really possible effectively to multi-task as much as we apparently need to do? There has been a great attraction in considering another life; perhaps applying to be re-incarnated as a beautifully-focused horn soloist, concentrating on my line, expression and harmonic articulation, practising, going out to play Mozart and Tchaikovsky and that’s it! (I do not play the horn by the way, but it is a lovely dream, as the sound is so enviable.) Otherwise I could be a bus driver on a route around Wellington, enjoying maneuvering the corners carefully and getting people where they want to be in a timely way. Oh the joy and job satisfaction in doing one thing really well.
Please don’t mind me. I am having end-of-the-summer-holiday blues. New Zealand school children return to their new classes and teachers tomorrow, replete with new compasses, protractors, tech diaries and haircuts and there are three weeks before universities start again. I am anticipating the twenty-sixth new intake of eager music therapy trainees that I have had the honour to be involved with, but am beset with existential doubt and worry about the discipline. Is it really fair to ask people to hold all of this together?
Everyone has their areas of real strength and challenge. At the same time, my teaching colleague Daphne Rickson and I are busily guiding and helping second year students finish their research projects (for most students a first experience of original research), due the same week as the new academic year begins. For them there is also the sharing of great anxiety and doubt about whether they will be good enough to pass a substantial academic music therapy project, despite significant achievement in the clinical sphere and employment awaiting them.
On one level this all seems rather mad. There are big hurdles to entry; high levels of practical musical and academic competence required (including both intuitive and scholarly musicianship) genuine compassion for others, a well-sorted and integrated personal life, and real passion for the subject. As Daphne put it in conversation this week: ‘Well really only God need apply’! Once enrolled in a programme, the stakes are high, and the workload consistent, demanding and wide ranging. Rewarding in wonderful ways – yes – but a real journey of the soul and body! How does anybody survive it?
I once said to a student who was struggling hard with their studies that I thought maybe you had to tolerate doing a lot of things rather badly for a time (quite opposite to the perfectionist tendencies that most musicians grow up with) and that the important thing was to keep open to possibilities and ‘afloat’. The student was very cross with me: I knew she thought this was an irresponsible thing for a programme leader to say and I suppose I am a bit ashamed of it now. Another student recently told me that ‘good enough’ (the much loved Winnicott phrase) was inadequate too, because if you were not excellent at everything and did not get strong marks you would fail to win scholarships and therefore training was not affordable.
Is there anything to console me here in my music therapy ‘dark night of the soul’? Well, there are some thoughts that have been helpful this week. I remember talking to my old friend Denize Christophers (recently retired long-term administrator of the British Society of Music Therapy) during the time of the X World Congress in Oxford UK about how she managed everything at that time. She said something I have always found useful for the multi-tasking environment and that is to: "Keep everything moving forward – just a little bit." Perhaps it does not immediately solve the problem of focusing and completing things, but it gives a way to manage the tension between demands and to keep ourselves mobile and positive. It also helps us hold all the contrasts in mind. Another thought from my recent conversation with Daphne was that it may be important to have different times for things, and sometimes we have to let something drop for a while (admin might wait, practising music might take a pause, or we might have some time off from clinical work) just to be able to give full concentration to one specific area.
Katrina McFerran says in her November 2007 Column for Voices: ‘I have always believed that music therapists are a unique and particularly flexible group of people. We seem to constantly embrace change and look for the most helpful way to work our craft.’ (McFerran, 2007). Reading these words reminded me that crossing over between all the areas we have to consider – observational, psychological, musical, academic, intuitive, creative – is what trains us in this flexibility. We have to learn to manage the uncertainties, to problem solve, to keep the psychological implications in mind while you help the physical, to manage the needs of a parent while talking to them about their child, to play music in the morning and write reports in the afternoon. George Kelly, the founder of Personal Construct Theory wrote very encouragingly about additional ‘crossing over’ between disciplines and felt that this created particularly ‘healthful mixtures’ of ideas for those working with people (Kelly, 1955, p. 185).
Rather than juggling, perhaps I should consider another circus skill - the (metaphorical) activity of plate spinning - as my analogy? It looks alarming, but it seems to work well with Denize’s ‘Everything moving forward a little bit’ maxim. Maybe it would not matter if the odd plate came off the pole as long as everything didn’t crash at the same time; and it looks as if would be more fun to have noisy plate-smashing occasionally. We’ll think about building it into the 2008 music therapy curriculum - I am sure there’s a little space somewhere. I shall keep you posted!
Christophers, D. (2002) Personal communication.
Kelly, G. A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Vols 1 and 2. New York: Norton.
McFerran, Katrina (2007). Another Ripple in the Ongoing Evolution of Music Therapy. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved February 3, 2008, from http://www.voices.no/columnist/colmcferran051107.php
Rickson, D. (2008) Personal communication.
World Song, Rhythm and Dance Summer School, (2008) Riverslea Retreat, Otaki, Kapiti Coast, New Zealand. Community Music Junction, Director Julian Raphael. Email: email@example.com
Hoskyns, Sarah (2008). So Music Therapists.... How Good is Your Juggling?. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colhoskyns280108