The first months of 2006 met a group of young South African music therapy graduates, eager to find any and as much music therapy work to do as possible. My colleagues and I soon realised that our actual working experiences as music therapists were not quite as we had expected. We took up a number of job opportunities, mostly in places where we would be the first and only music therapist to be employed, working for people who found the proposals we offered interesting and exciting but had little idea about what we did (and quite a few who had alternative hidden agendas for what our roles would or should be). We entered what were often less than satisfactory work situations where music therapy was not a priority. Our training course had luxuries like co-therapists, intensive supervision or peer group discussions that were sorely missed as we found ourselves attempting to balance group dynamics, instruments, music, therapy and institutions, with a constant watchful audience of employers wondering whether this music therapy act would make it.
A chaotic experience I recently shared with a music therapy group of young offenders creatively reflected and highlighted some of my own disorientating experiences of beginning music therapy work in South Africa. I offer the story...
I arrive at the clinic in Soweto a few minutes before the session begins to allow time to set up. Each week, I eagerly await working with this group, who attend music therapy as part of a diversion programme. I enjoy their energy and intense expressiveness and bring along carefully constructed plans for this, our final session together. I park my car and soon notice that the entire clinic is cordoned off for building renovations. I have not been informed of any changes to our music therapy group as a result of the renovations and so assume arrangements would have been made for us. I find the secretary. Yes, a plan has been made.
"Could you work outside? I'll see about organising power for that 'thing you like to play' (the keyboard)."
I look at the sky, now an ominous grey, preparing for a heavy storm. Also, the only place outside for us to work is a shabby patch of grass situated beside some foul smelling containers filled with rubbish, bordering the parking lot.
"Are there any other options?"
I set up, disappointed. After rushing about frantically, the secretary informs me that she can't get an electric cable for me to use either, she's sorry. That means I can't use the keyboard, the instrument that I find most helpful for holding the group's often loud, heavy playing. I begin scrambling and shifting plans in my head, wondering whether to go ahead with the session at all. I know those group members who will attend have paid their taxi fare and would not be happy to cancel, and I decide I need to at least be consistent in keeping session times as negotiated.
Our group starts as usual with a drumming circle. The six group members who have arrived arrange themselves, most looking for the biggest or loudest drum, tapping this one or that. They begin beating short, complex motives quite competitively, trying to outdo one another. I take a lead and we begin drumming together. I notice the progress this group has made. There is a sense that these boys are listening to each other. For the first time, they manage to play quietly together, with an energetic flow between them. Though we're outside, with many distractions including people curiously glancing our way to see what all this drumming is about, the group is completely focused on the music. There are even some smiles as they notice that they are 'on show'. I must admit, I also feel quite proud of what we have been able to achieve despite our unusual circumstances.
Then it starts to rain. It's a typical Johannesburg thunderstorm - a sudden, unannounced downpour, with heavy droplets wetting us and our drums as we hurry to a nearby carport. Our music circle gathers again, while the rain beats down loudly on the corrugated roof above us. We decide to try an improvisation with a range of percussion instruments and guitar. But the rain is so loud that if we play quietly our music is unheard and if we compete with the rain we cannot hear each other. I feel the group's music losing momentum, even as the rain peters out to a light drizzle. The music continues, but I notice group members starting to giggle, leaning back in their chairs, not following any kind of musical structures. The group feels tired, disorientated and unfocused as we are interrupted once more, this time by an important looking member of staff in a slightly creased suit. He indicates that we should stop playing, then cuts in: "What is it that you are doing here? I mean, do you remember these beats you are playing, are you creating anything that you can produce or do something with? Or what is the point?" He waits for a one line answer from a rather frazzled music therapist before revving his loud diesel engine and reversing his 4x4 out of the parking lot (and our music therapy space).
The staff member's questions rang in my head. I suppose they were questions I had asked myself as the group lost direction, questions I have often asked through the year. Just as this group's music was stifled by rain and constant interruptions, I have often felt pressurised to quieten my own music therapy voice in order to fit with various approaches already accepted and established in institutions. Though I have valued the guiding of fellow professionals in multi-disciplinary teams, I often felt I was tending towards working as a pseudo-teacher, or pseudo-social worker, rather than the music therapist I was employed as. I do feel that music therapy needs to adapt to fit varied contexts, but I was beginning to feel that the particular unique and valuable qualities inherent in this creative and often non-directive approach were compromised as I negotiated my work in various institutions. What was it that I was doing?
I felt frustrated about having to close this particular music therapy group in this way, with so many events detracting from our group process. And yet, as we ended off the session with joking, laughing, and quite relaxed music, I felt a strong feeling of unity, belonging and mutuality growing within the group – this group that so often struggled to be together at all. The distractions around us (and perhaps also our therapeutic process that took place before this particular session) served as a catalyst for drawing this group together, so encouraging their development. What could have been a difficult or negatively perceived closure of the group thus became quite a memorable and positive experience for most group members, even if not quite what was initially intended.
After one year of working as a music therapist I am thankful for other music and arts therapists who have shared their achievements as well as some disorientating and chaotic moments with me and allowed space for my own sharing. As with the music therapy group, it has been the experience of entering into work situations together with others, in supervision or less formal meetings, that has brought meaning and insight to difficult, chaotic experiences. These moments have served to revive my passion for what music therapy can and does offer, even in a parking lot, in the rain.
Oosthuizen, Helen (2007). Drumming in the Rain: An Experience of the First Year of Music Therapy. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=coloosthuizen010107