You're looking for a therapist. Are you surprised that you landed here? Well, I wouldn't be surprised if you are. If music therapy is even on people's radar, that is, that they even know that there is such a thing, it's likely that they are aware that music therapy tends to be used for populations where communication is difficult, literally, such as people with autism who may be nonverbal, or an elderly person with Alzheimers. But choosing a music therapist for your psychotherapy needs might very well be the right fit for you, if you have someone with the right training. Music therapy can be very effective for many common reasons why therapy is being sought out, such as treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, and relationship issues, such as ...communication. Even if your actual ability to communicate, e.g., speak coherently without any problem, how often do you still struggle with communication?
Can we talk?
I always let people who contact me about therapy know that talking is always an option. After all, most people who are looking for a psychotherapist are looking to talk to someone about their problems. There is a reason why they are seeking therapy, and typically it is because there is a something going on their lives that is not working for them. So they want to talk about it. Of course! Unless I am working with a young child, or someone who has difficulty with language, speaking with me about your problems is a really good way for me as your therapist to learn what’s going on with you.
Tuning into Body Language
And that’s fine. I’m all ears. But my listening to you goes beyond talking in therapy. And telling me about your problems rarely paints the whole picture. As a Gestalt therapist, I am interested in the Gestalt of you - the whole person. You are way more than a talking head. You have expressions on your face, you gesture, you sit a certain way, you interact a certain way. Those are clues into your inner world. Maybe you’re aware of feeling angry, but you’re not going to show it and you’re certainly not going to say, “I’m angry,” because that’s not how you roll. But a gesture, a change in your tone of voice, or your body language - your hand balling into a fist, for example, gives us something to get curious about in terms of what is going on with you. What are you saying with your hands? In a nutshell, these ways of observing how you are, help us to move beyond talk. If you’re making a fist, or your voice raises even just a little bit, and your posture just stiffened, some shift has just occurred that’s worth exploring. Maybe you’re angry. I’ll check it out with you.
Limitations of Talk Therapy
What’s wrong with just talking? Nothing! But if I just listen to your words, and put my attention on your words, so much meaning gets lost. There’s this song by King Crimson called Elephant Talk. See what you make of the lyrics (and check out the actual song, too):
Talk, it's only talk
It's only talk
Talk, it's only talk
Babble, burble, banter
Bicker, bicker, bicker
Brouhaha, balderdash, ballyhoo
It's only talk
Talk talk talk
It's only talk
Comments, cliches, commentary, controversy
Chatter, chit-chat, chit-chat, chit-chat
Conversation, contradiction, criticism
It's only talk
Talk, talk, it's only talk
These are words with a D this time
Dialog, duologue, diatribe
Double talk, double talk
Talk, talk, it's all talk
Too much talk
Talk that trash
Explanations, exclamations, exaggerations
It's all talk
Written by Tony Levin, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford, 1981.
This song is a good illustration of what I’m getting at. (I love how songs can do that!) I'm not saying that talk is not important. I take what my clients say thoughtfully and seriously. However, sometimes when it comes to talk, we can fall into a trap of “it’s only talk.” We can get too left-brained, we’re reporting, we are talking about something rather than really getting into the meat of what is really going on with us. We can be straight-up bullshitting, deliberately, or perhaps out of awareness. And this is why I love bringing music into the process.
Introducing music therapy into the process
There are several ways to do utilize music therapy into a session when talk is taking over. When I get the sense that the talking is no longer in service to the client and they are open utilizing a creative intervention, here is an example of how things might go:
The client is talking about her brother. How she needs to walk on eggshells around him. She tells me some history - the time when she tried to talk with him when he was upset and her intentions were good. She wanted to see how she might help him feel better. Instead, suddenly he flew into a rage and starting screaming at her. He even threatened to hit her if she didn’t go away. He used to punch walls, leaving holes in them, although that was many years ago. Presently, he has been having some issues and she’s worried about him. However, this is through the family grapevine. She really wants him to know she’s there for him but she’s reluctant to call him.
I ask what she thinks might happen if she does call him. I imagine she is afraid to speak to her brother. Maybe he’ll start yelling again. I let her know just that. She gets very quiet. She seems like she's gone far away. I ask her where she's gone."I don’t know," she says. While there are a lot of interventions a therapist can take at this point as I don’t know can be a rich jumping off place, I ask if bringing music into the session seems like it would be helpful to her. Is there a song? An instrument in the room that might have a sound you want to convey?
She chooses to sit at the piano and begins to play. She slowly picks out three chords. When he feels confident that these are the three he wants to stay with, he plays them slowly. Then he starts to sing, “we found love in a hopeless place” by Rihanna. I am familiar with this one as an upbeat dance tune. She, however, is choosing to slow it down considerably as if it is a ballad. I find myself really appreciating the new tempo, and how there is just that lyric, and it is being stretched out, as if wrapping around her like a blanket.
She stops after repeating it about four times. The music lasts for only about two minutes. She places his hands on her lap and looks down. I hear her swallow. She turns and looks at me, and then looks away. I ask her what she is feeling at the moment. She says she feels sad. I concur that she appears to be sad, and that her music sounded melancholy. She chuckles a bit. I ask her about her laugh. She says, “well, my brother and I would play music together sometimes. Nothing big, just me playing guitar a bit and him singing. We’d make up goofy songs. I’m just realizing in the lyric, it was a way for us to find … well, I don’t really want to say love…”
“You don’t really want to say love.”
“Well, it’s hard to say, it feels funny to say…”
“To say, ‘love’?
“To say, I love my brother.” Her face contorts a bit. “Your face. What just happened?” “My face?” “Yeah, it looks like you frowned a bit.” ”Oh, I wasn’t aware of that.” We sit for a few seconds. “I don’t know,” she says. “I mean, I love my brother, but…”
There are so many ways to go from here. Most likely I would gently see if she's ready to talk more about loving her brother and how difficult that is, because along with that love is fear of him, anger at him, all kinds of things. The point is, we've already gotten to this rich place, where at this point in time in the session could be enough: admitting her love for her brother and how hard that is. And it might have taken a lot longer to get to that place, relying on talk alone. There are many choices to give the the client at this point, from listening to a song together, lyric analysis, improvising together, using an instrument for exploration (for example, if client wanted to get in touch with her anger we might choose to explore with drums), writing a song... all with the goal of deepening the client's experience and awareness of issues that affect their lives and for becoming their authentic selves.