The concept of musical identity has long been of interest to me. It was the starting place and central theme in my research and is a cornerstone in my approach to teaching music therapy students. More recently it has led to a niche in my private therapeutic practice of working with injured musicians. Not surprisingly, it is also a notion that figures prominently in my own sense of identity.
As my turn to write this column approached I have reflected on ways that music has impacted me lately. Of course there are the explicit ways that music has, and continues to provide meaning and structure to my existence: as a music therapy clinician and instructor, music teacher and musician. But very recently I have become aware of a sense of the overarching story of music in my life and of a kind of symmetry currently running through the roadmap by which I construe my musical identity.
This awareness was cued by the photograph of myself I have included with this column. It was through a recent music therapy experience that my attention was brought to this particular photo, for I am writing this text rather fresh from attending a weekend Group Analytic Music Psychotherapy workshop. The process oriented group was led by Finnish music therapist and group analyst Heidi Ahonen- Eerikäinen (who currently teaches and practices in Ontario, Canada). The workshop was attended by six other music therapists from Vancouver, Canada, where a number of us in the group teach music therapy at Capilano College.
As a jumping off point for analytic exploration using art, musical improvisation and discussion, group members were asked to bring a current or past photo of themselves. The photo you see above was the first that popped into my head. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, other than knowing that it was definitely the image I wanted to use for the workshop, and that I did occasionally think of it even though it had been packed away for years. The problem was, once the photo popped into my head, it refused to pop out when I couldn’t find it. So a rather desperate scenario ensued which found me late on the afternoon of our evening group, flashlight in hand, crouched underneath our very dark and dusty porch, hefting around and tearing open plastic wrapped storage bins - This one? No, darn, camping gear. How about this one? Nope, more books. How can we have so many books? Could it be this one? Photo albums…yesss!
Once I began to contemplate the image it became clear that it represented a pivotal time of real freedom and possibility. The photo was taken on a beautiful summer day at a Music Therapy Association picnic at a beachside park. I was twenty four; at what now seems about the mid-point of my coherent narrative memory (I’m presently forty three). I had recently become a music therapist and was bristling with enthusiasm about embarking on what somehow felt like a custom designed career. (There’s a job that does this?) Although I’m playing flute in the photo I’m actually a guitarist. I had taken up the flute when training as a music therapist and for a time played it a lot. The photo was taken in the midst of a group improvisation. Improvising with others, just for its own sake, was an almost daily event back then; actually more of a staple of being. At that time I was also playing in a rock band, performing our own brand of quirky songs at local clubs, and playing jazz in cafés. It was also about the time when I met Kristine, whom I married and who continues to expand my world in many wonderful ways. What a time! As someone in the weekend group pointed out to me, look at the photo, the sky is the limit!
It’s no wonder that as life has become increasingly complex with the multiple roles and responsibilities that busy adult life and maturity inevitably brings (husband, father, professional etc.), that I look back at that time with a degree of longing... and, no doubt, a generous dose of idealization and simplification. For of course, if I really think about it, that period was not without its challenges. With regards to becoming a therapist (and managing life in general) at such an age one does not carry the confidence and emotional capacity that experience brings. I was also dealing on and off with a playing-related overuse injury that dealt a devastating blow to my musical identity and for a while turned my world upside down. But hey, this is my narrative, and the salience of this photo is in it’s symbolism of a part of myself that for a time has felt somewhat marginalized with the increasing demands of adulthood. Demands which, by the way, I would not change for the world. I harbor no wish to go back, that would be regression, and I pretty much embrace and derive great meaning from my adult life. But something that is feeling really good lately is picking up the thread that connects me to the guy in that photo. And that is where the sense of symmetry fits in. But first a bit of back story.
When Kristine came into my life so, by part and parcel, did her extended family. (This was good news, for I really lucked out in the in-law department) One of these folks whom I met early on (again, the time of the photo) was her young cousin Neil. Seven-year-old Neil took a keen interest in this mid-twenties guy who always had a guitar or some kind of drum with him. It was routine to have family sing-a-longs when we visited their farm, which was a few times a year. At some point, after a few years, Neil got his own guitar and began to strum along. I’d show him some chords and riffs which he’d happily pick-up. He was consistently taking lessons and after a few more years we were showing each other new chords and riffs. At some other point along the way we were actually able to "jam." I remember this moment clearly. We were playing and singing the song "The Cat Came Back", which has a nice descending kind of Spanish chord progression (Am, G, F, E7). We had finished singing, but continued playing with some rhythmic variations on the chords. Then we began taking turns at single note improvising. Well, this really opened the door for playing blues and eventually onto jazz.
Each time I saw Neil over the years he was a better player. His lessons led him in directions of his own, namely classical and flamenco playing. He had the bug. Money was saved, guitars were dreamt of, consulted over, and eventually acquired. After high school Neil came to Vancouver to attend university. Now jam sessions were more frequent. By his fourth year we were playing weekly. With my jazz background and Neil’s flamenco/Latin influence (he spent a year in South America) our music evolved into a combination of swing jazz/blues and Brazilian bossa nova. This past year after finishing university Neil got a job in Vancouver and took an apartment three blocks from my place. We now play twice a week and have a fortnightly gig at a local café.
This brings us roughly up to the present and back to the photograph. For as I further consider the constellation of meaning surrounding the image, it occurs to me that Neil is now the very same age I was in that photo; which is also the very age I was when I met him. And there lies the symmetry; in what feels like a full circle, or two concentric circles.
There is something poignant in all of this. It is exciting to have a close connection to someone at this pivotal age of freedom and possibility; to witness a blossoming of skill and character – in music and in life. Is it that I’m reconnecting to something of my younger self in Neil? Picking up that thread of musical identity? Or is it more to do with role-modeling and mentorship? Certainly it is both these things. But lately it’s increasingly become about something else as well. Something found just in the music. And here I run into a limitation with words. Kenny points the way when she talks about music as a particular kind of interactional experience, "…an aesthetic engagement which cannot be described, only experienced directly with others in the music." (Kenny, 1999, p.130). Maybe that’s it; we are simply two human spirits assisting each other in doing one of the most outrageously fun things imaginable. And there’s something in this notion of assisting each other that also rings true here, in that we are providing that ‘particular kind of experience’ for one another.
As Neil recently observed as we sat down to play, "You only had to wait twenty years for a music partner."
"Well," I replied, "I decided to grow one. And it was worth the wait."
Kenny, C.B. (1999). Beyond this point there be dragons: Developing general theory in music therapy. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 8(2), 127-136.
Howard, Martin (2007). Symmetry Revealed in the Musical Map. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colhoward120307