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Nina Simone – Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life – YouTube.

I haven’t been able to get this song out of head since watching this video over the New Year. It’s originally from the musical, “Hair”, and Nina Simone sang and recorded this song many times in her career, each time switching up the words to fit the moment.

I love watching her sing this in this video – the ease in her body, her effortlessness, her musical instincts so spontaneous and artful. And the song itself is such a fantastic reminder to come back to the body, and recognize one’s aliveness, no matter what else is going on.

“I got life!”, she sings. And I, too, feel alive. It reminds me of another video I watched – a TED talk given by the Brit, Sir. Ken Robinson. I quote:

The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak; when you’re present in the current moment; when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing; when you are fully alive.

Wow. What a great definition of the aesthetic experience. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of the creative arts therapies, right? If you can be fully alive in the therapeutic process, then there is tremendous potential for real transformation. So, what has this got to do with Nina Simone singing this song? Listen to it – the beginning lyrics are like the list of sufferings that our clients come in with. And, the work of the therapy can be to bring them back into contact with their inestimable selves, like the second half of this song does – their bodies, their creativity, their beauty. To experience being fully alive, even when they are feeling at a loss.

 

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I’m sitting here, processing in music and art, the passing of Clive Robbins. I am more deeply affected by his passing than I might have imagined. He was my teacher for a semester at NYU. He was also a colleague – I stood in and lectured for him at Nordoff-Robbins once, in the same lecture series that I’d once sat as a student. But I didn’t know him socially, and am not sure that he could have remembered my name had he bumped into me. However, whether he ever knew it, his life and work has touched my own beyond what words can possibly say.

I am spending some time in music, contemplating his indelible mark on me and the profession of music therapy, and the world in general. As I contemplate him, I can’t help but see his spirit, emanating in yellow rays against a bright blue sky. And as I think on both him, and Helen Bonny who passed away last year, I realize why I am so moved by the work that they both pioneered: they were deeply spiritual people and this showed in their work. This is so clear in Clive’s autobiographical writing, Journey into creative music therapy. And was clear to anyone who met him. Why is it that we have so abandoned the transpersonal in music therapy, for the safety of the biological, measurable, quantifiable? There is nothing easy or safe about exploring the transpersonal aspects of music therapy. Every movement into the transpersonal creates more questions than answers, but Helen and Clive dared to do this.

At a presentation Clive gave a few years ago, with Paul Nolan, Clive talked about “committing to beauty”. I find this brings tears to my eyes as I write the words. What a call to action! Commit to Beauty! Wow – it gets me every time. I hear Clive asking this of all of us, not just as therapists, but as human beings. Clive embodied beauty – he was beautiful in his words, in his passion, in his commitment and generosity, in his focus, in his humor, in his innocence and fearlessness. He was a magical teacher, someone who helped me commit to this work and all the depth of experience it brings.

As I have been sitting here, I am struck by the realization that Clive’s influence runs deeper in my life than I had previously made conscious. He changed my life about 20 years ago – in high school I learned about Nordoff-Robbins’ music therapy through a news segment. That news segment inspired my dream of being a music therapist all those years ago, leading me eventually to study at NYU and be taught by the man himself. It never occurred to me to go anywhere else. Clive is why I came to this field, and the reason I studied in New York. I’m just sad that I’ll have to continue my journey knowing he is no longer in the physical world.

I remember him as being so emotionally alive. I carry that image in my mind, and hope to emulate his emotional-availability and willingness to be moved by life. Thank you Clive.

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Next time you sit down at a piano or pick up an instrument or open your mouth to sing, try this:

  • Play
  • Listen so deeply to the sounds – focus your entire mind on the sounds.
  • Don’t hold on to maintaining one sound or melody or phrase. If the music should lead you somewhere else, follow.
  • Notice when you judge yourself, and recognize that you can start again in the next moment, without judgement. Each moment of sound is new. Allow yourself to be present to each moment, without worrying about how you got there or where you are going.
  • Feel the music so deeply.

This approach to making music is really about giving yourself permission to to be transformed by it. It’s about deepening your relationship to yourself through the music. Have fun playing!

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Helen Bonny died on May 25th, 2010.  She was a pioneer in the field of music therapy, leading the way in using western classical music to expand explorations of consciousness, through developing Guided Imagery and Music. She was a wonderful example to us all, whatever our calling –  following her bliss, unafraid of criticism, and using her love for music in service of others. I am deeply honored to be a second-generation student, studying under Helen’s own student and friend, Lisa Summer. And I feel Helen Bonny’s legacy in all that I do, re-discovering her brilliance as I experience more and more of the power of her music programs, for myself and for my clients.

Recently, my book club discussed Helen Bonny’s article entitled “The Language of Immediacy”. As she understood it, music brings us, with immediacy, into the present moment. It is a language which is experienced in the now – a language which integrates the past and the future in this moment. And it speaks so much to what I experience with my adult clients in psychotherapy work. I am learning that the integrative healing happens when a person is helped to slow down,  supported in deepening their awareness of their feelings in the moment, and guided to an increased level of consciousness in the here-and-now. Music can be a powerful key in bringing a client into this type of experience. Music is immediate in a way that few experiences are.

And what is the healing potential of the immediacy of music? Ken Wilber writes in his 2001 book, No Boundary, about eliminating the self-imposed boundary between the hearer and what is heard. I think this has implications for the experience of music in music therapy:

“Close your eyes and attend to the actual process of hearing. Notice all the odd sounds floating around – birds singing, cars rumbling, crickets chirping…But with all those sounds, notice that there is one thing which you cannot hear, no matter how carefully you attend to every sound. You cannot hear the hearer…You can’t hear a hearer because there isn’t one. What you have been taught to call a ‘hearer’ is actually just he experience of hearing itself, and you don’t hear hearing…There is no boundary here…

If you let the sensation of being a ‘hearer’ inside the skull dissolve into hearing itself, you might find your ‘self’ merging with the entire world of ‘outside sounds.’ As one Zen Master exclaimed upon his enlightenment, ‘When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just the ringing’…When you try to hear the subjective hearer, all you find are objective sounds. And that means that you do not hear sounds, you are those sounds. The hearer is every sound which is heard…”  (pp. 46-47)

This is not unlike T.S. Eliot’s famous line in The Four Quartets which nests in the these lines –

“…For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts…”

In one of my most recent personal experiences in my own GIM therapy, I experienced the truly transformative power of music – the experience of being one with the music. There was no me as hearer – the music was inside of me, and I inside of it. This deeply felt and real-time experience of music is able to transform a person, forever. In one short piece of the music program, I was able to experience myself in a completely new way.  And the music didn’t just bring a new part of myself to my awareness – I was the music – the music offered me a lived experience of this, previously hidden, part of myself. The music brought me fully into the living, feeling, breathing, present moment. What was previously an unconscious part of me, is now a constant here-and-now experience.

Thank you, Helen, for being so open to the transformative, transpersonal aspects of music and finding a way to share it with the world and me. May we all have the courage to do what we are called to do in this lifetime, as you did.

For those who are interested, there is a new edition of Voices online, commemorating Helen Bonny: https://normt.uib.no/index.php/voices/issue/current

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Last year, whilst in Edinburgh, I had the good fortune to go hear a bunch of fine musicians in the space of about 3 days. (They included Emily Scott, Teitur, Benni Hemm Hemm, Withered Hand, and Alasdair Roberts). Those few days still stand out in my mind – the music connected me to parts of myself that had been a little lost. The music reminded me that those parts still existed and there was some ineffable experience that occurred, best described (though difficult to put into words) as “wholeing”. I was made more more wholly me by the experience.

As I wrote in a previous post about beauty, I find that health (or wholeness) is evidenced by one’s ability to experience beauty (fully feeling the music, or enjoying art, or appreciating the beauty of a sunset). And that we can often see when a person is “out of health” or disintegrated, or “not whole” when we see them not being able to listen to, enjoy, feel, or fully immerse themselves in the music they play or hear.

That is not to say that all music is “beautiful” to all people. Of course it’s not. But I do think that one person’s tastes versus another person’s tastes speaks also to the integration or lack of integration of certain parts of the self. For example, for the longest time I couldn’t listen to rap music (this was before I studied to be a music therapist). OK – you could say that the facts that I was born in Scotland, I studied classical music from a young age, and I wasn’t terribly exposed to popular music, contributed to this “taste”. Of course. But, it’s not just these environmental factors. Something in me was under-developed, or lost, or disconnected.

In the case of rap music, there can be a driving rhythm, a strong bass line, minimal melodic lines, repetitive harmonies. When one really takes all these elements in, on a sensory level, they can awaken sensual, grounded, physical sensations in a person. It was a disconnection to my body that I now realize I was experiencing.When I connected to the music in a sensory way, taking in the elements, listening on a deeper level, I could experience the “disconnected” part of myself. I could become more “whole”, and healthier.

Through my training as a music therapist, and my need to open myself and my ears to many types of music, and the many musics of my clients, I also opened myself to the many forgotten/lost/disassociated parts of myself. As a music therapist, we can guide a client in knowing and accepting the many aspects of themselves, through knowing and owning the many sounds that they make, and the many musics that they listen to. Thoughts anyone?

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I just had the great fortune to go and hear two incredible bluegrass musicians – Chris Thile and Michael Daves. The energy between them was electric, and their voices, though strikingly different, went together like finely woven threads. I laughed, and whooped, I clapped and even cried. The music moved me in every which way. They re-vitalized me in body and spirit and I feel myself to be fuller today for having heard them. Yep – the world turns today today because two musicians played yesterday. Thank you to all the musicians who make the world go ’round.

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Yes – I’m tackling Beauty on my first Blog post. And chances are it will be a recurring theme in these posts.

I am a music therapist. My work involves facilitating aesthetic experiences with and for my clients. Beautiful sounds make up a majority of the therapy sessions. Who are my music therapy influences in this regard? Definitely Carolyn Kenny, Helen Bonny, and of course Clive Robbins and Paul Nordoff.

Carolyn Kenny writes so eloquently about how Beauty in human beings is not just relegated to the ‘pleasing’. Beauty is inclusive of darkness and light, sadness, horror, fierceness. It is my thought that beauty in music can allow for a person to experience their entire selves as beautiful. Carolyn Kenny writes, “[As] one moves toward beauty, one moves toward wholeness, or the fullest potential of what one can be in the world.”

A while ago, I was pulled deeply in Elaine Scarry’s essay, “On Beauty and Being Just.” In it she writes:
“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people…” She suggests that beauty invites us to stare – when we see or hear something beautiful, our eyes and our ears want more of it.

I understand this instinct to “stare” as a gift, allowing a person to be still with something. When we are in the presence of beauty, we wish to stay with it longer. That is how we know beauty.

So, what is the purpose of the aesthetic experience in music therapy? Perhaps it is to awaken that instinct to stare. Through the music, we are able to stare at ourselves, and know ourselves as beautiful. Beautiful in the fullest sense of the word. Maybe even the most “ugly” of experiences can be transformed into things of beauty through art? In this way, through the beauty of a musical experience with another human being, we can make our sadness, our grief, our anger, or our longing, into an act of beauty. And in doing so, that grief or that pain is easier to be with, to stare at, and to be still with. And just maybe, it can be transformed in this way. Transformation is rooted in being able to stay still with and feel fully, even those most difficult of emotions. Transformation in therapy is about the client becoming Beauty.

Clive Robbins (personal communication) suggests that we, as music therapists, “become committed to Beauty”. What does this mean for us? It means skillful execution of our musical craft – time, focus and practice in making beautiful music, so that we can consistently facilitate these experiences for our clients. Clive talks about his and Paul Nordoff’s famous “Edward” case study (written about in their seminal publication, Creative Music Therapy), and how Edward increasingly wanted more and more to do with Beauty. From his first coming in contact with Beauty, he began to experience himself in the music, as a thing of Beauty. And this experience led him to want more and more of it. He was invited to stare, and listen deeply. He began relating to beauty in others, and in himself. The world became an increasingly beautiful place for a boy who had only known frustration, fear and limitations.

I believe that our capacity for beauty, creative endeavor, and imagination is dependent on our health, and our state of health is dependent on our capacity to embrace beauty and engage in creative endeavor and imaginative practices. Music therapists remind a person of their beauty and the necessity of creating and imagining.

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