The subject of identity is a huge topic in the field of sociology and has been given considerable attention in Voices in relation to music therapists (Forinash, 2009; Igari, 2004; Lee, 2008; Oosthuizen, 2009; Schapira, 2005) and their clients (Ahmadi, 2009; Forrest, 2001; Lotter, 2007; Moore & Baker, 2009) and to the profession as a whole. The concept of Community Music Therapy for example has heightened a process in which music therapists wonder and debate about their professional identity, and what music therapy might mean today and in future societies (see Ansdell, 2002, and subsequent moderated discussion). Holidays can be a time for reflecting on identity, so it has been for me over recent weeks. I have been prompted by various circumstances to share some simple examples of issues relating to personal identity later in this column.
The importance of knowing who we are and what our values are in order to understand others and to be authentic as therapists has been strongly reinforced in the music therapy and related literature. Identity is often considered in broad terms of gender, class, religion, sexuality, race, and so on, and it is easy to understand the importance of acknowledging, understanding, and using these aspects of our identity in our work. Lee (2008) for example writes about being a music therapist and gay man. He is able to explain that being a member of minority group gives him insights into what it is to be alone and marginalised, and to describe how these experiences can help him as a music therapist when building relationships, and during the ongoing therapeutic process. Oosthuizen (2009) highlights some of the difficulties associated with being in the minority when she writes of being a music therapist in a room full of black Tswana speaking women and feeling “so useless, so English…so white!”
In an effort to learn more about identity a psychology lecturer, Tatum (2003), asked each of her students, over a period of many years, to complete the sentence “I am…”. She found that students of colour would usually mention their racial group; women mentioned being female; Jewish students said they were Jews; gays would reveal they were gay and so on. On the other hand white students rarely mentioned being white, men would not answer male, Protestants did not mention their religious identification, and it was unusual for students to claim they were heterosexual. The pattern was clear. The students noticed aspects of their identity that others noticed, things that were exceptional through other people’s eyes (ibid). Tatum exemplifies Erikson’s theory that we judge ourselves in the way we perceive others judge us but also in the light of what we presume to be typical. People in dominant or advantaged groups take their identity for granted, because the dominant culture takes it for granted – there is no dissonance between the way others view them and the way they view themselves (Tatum, 2003).
Individual identity is embedded in social, cultural, and historic context (Erikson, 1980) so who we believe we are is dependent on multiple and varying factors. Identity is formed through a process of simultaneous reflection and observation (ibid). Considering our identity in terms of our race, gender, religion and so on, and how that affects our music therapy practice is extremely important. However during my holiday I was reminded that reflecting on everyday experiences can also help us understand ourselves and others, and thus be used to enhance our music therapy practice. I have just returned from a wonderful stay in a farmhouse where there was no computer, in a community where there was no cell phone coverage. There – among other things – I was a cook, sudoku addict, cricket umpire or commentator (for family matches!), and shearing hand. I would also have been a hay-maker if the weather had been right for it! I was of course also recognised as a musician. But rather than rehearsing solo pieces for pleasure and to keep up my skills, practising with my regular band to prepare for a gig, working with clients, or improvising with my music therapy colleague and students, I was a participant in family and pub sing-a-longs.
I visit this farming community regularly with my family and I have become relatively well known as the pub piano player, or backing keyboard/vocalist on open mic nights. But few would know me as a music therapist, lecturer, or PhD student. We all have different aspects to our existence and persona (Lee, 2008) and to a large extent my professional selves are irrelevant in the farming community. In the farming and holiday context, I can choose to draw on my childhood, family, or other holiday experiences rather than my professional training and experience. I am seeking to “define and maintain (my) sense of identity in terms of the familial, social, cultural, ethnic and historical heritage of which (I am), or would like to be a part” (Forrest, 2001, para. 3), and to avoid potential dissonance between my family and professional lives. I try to behave in ways that are typical in the community.
However while on holiday I met a family living in this same farming community who have a child with special needs, and for whom I provided a music therapy consultation approximately six years ago. After the consultation when they asked about where I was staying we realised, and were perhaps unsurprised, that they knew my host family well and were good friends with them through rugby and farming connections. I have not been professionally involved with this family and their child since the consultation. However, in the way of small communities, I have met them several times with my host family for social events. We are relaxed in each other’s company and enjoy our time together immensely. On the other hand they are naturally keen to talk about their child’s progress and it often seems as if they are making enquiries of me as a professional rather than talking with a friend. I draw on my experience and knowledge of professional ethics to guide my responses, yet I am disconcerted to be positioned in a role I am not anticipating or eager to be in. In this example there is dissonance at times between this family’s view of me (a music therapist) and the way I viewed myself (a family member and friend on holiday).
Later, on my return from the farm, I visited a friend who lives in a retirement community. Anne had just attended a seminar organised by and held within the community, which focused on her area of professional expertise. Her work was mentioned several times by the presenter. Afterward a fellow resident asked if she had a daughter named Anne who might have been the person mentioned during the seminar? “No” replied Anne – “that was me!” Although Anne has been a highly respected professional, she rarely has opportunities to draw on that aspect of her identity. Some of the people who know her now are unable to imagine her in that role. Rather than feeling offended, Anne was amused by the encounter. She enjoys her new identity as a member of the retirement community and there is probably for the most part very little dissonance between the way others view her and the way she views herself. Anne had been able to make a considered choice to live in this village, and thus to live a life that was typical of such a community. Nevertheless age is an aspect of our identity that we are unable to control. There would therefore have been significant potential for Anne to feel dissonance, and thus considerable pain when she made the move to the retirement village.
Identity is not a simple affair. It keeps changing. Or at least our perception of who we are keeps changing. Different contexts and circumstances demand it. We spend a lifetime attempting to integrate our past, present, and future into a cohesive and unified sense of self (Erikson, 1980; Tatum, 2003). Nevertheless various aspects of the self become prominent at different times in our lives (ibid). And when particular aspects of our identity come to the fore or new identities are formed, it is often necessary to give up or lose something. When we take on new identities others might not remember us in our old role/s, or easily recognise us in our new role/s. When we are unable to choose, that is when circumstances dictate who we can be, or who we are perceived to be at any given time, life can be difficult. Remembering these things can help us to better understand the people we work with.
Participants in music therapy sessions are usually unwell, and are often isolated from their familiar communities and confused about their identity and future. They might have experienced or be in a process of experiencing physical or mental health difficulties that result in altered appearance, role, and status, and thus a loss of personal identity (Aldridge, 1996). Music therapy is helpful because music is not only integral to developing individual identity, but to maintaining or reclaiming it. Music therapy interaction is not limited or obstructed by the patient’s condition, rather music enables them to “explore and express their being in the world”, that is to recreate their identity through music (Aldridge, 1996, p. 216). Music enables patients to recall events, people, and places, and to confirm and/or re-establish previous identities. Cancer patients involved in music therapy sessions for example can experience identity affirmation in powerful ways (O'Callaghan, 2002).
Further, by understanding and reflecting on various aspects of our own identity we can maintain authenticity in our music therapy work. I might even have occasion for example to use my historical and familial farming identity in work with elderly clients. While it might be a bit extreme to enter a music therapy session wearing the gumboots I wore as a shearing hand, an easy rendition of Click Go the Shears is likely to be valued by many people in New Zealand for its cultural familiarity (even though it is a traditional Australian bush ballad!). This song is part of my cultural identity, and I can offer a genuine presentation of the song. There is an intensely intimate and complex relationship between music and one’s sense of self – it plays a role in constructing, negotiating and maintaining both individual and group identity (Bowman, 2003; MacDonald, Hargreaves, & Miell, 2002; Trevarthen, 2002). So sharing, without imposing, one’s own music in music therapy sessions can be a way of proclaiming identity as a step towards developing the therapeutic relationship.
Knowing who we are and how to position ourselves in particular contexts is a complex process and, as Erikson (1980) said, it is lucky that the process is for the most part unconscious! But bringing the issue of identity into consciousness and employing ongoing reflection on everyday as well as the ‘big’ issues is important for therapists.
 Not her real name
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