Music as a First Language
Each time I attend a live musical performance, I am always awed by the soul-piercing effect of music on the audience, be it jazz, blues, gospel, rock, or classical. I witness how music moves the listener spurring relief, joy, play, or an escape into imagination.
Earlier this summer, I visited the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy and spoke with director,
Dr. Alan Turry, on the healing aspects of music and the unique treatment approach of the center.
RM: I would like to hear about Paul Nordoff and Clive and Carol Robbins, the founders of the Nordoff-Robbins approach. They sound like magical people; I know that Paul was a pianist-composer, Clive began as a special education teacher, and Carol trained with them.
Turry: When people heard Paul Nordoff's music, his ability to improvise and his passion, people had very strong emotional feelings. I heard people say they cry because his voice sounded like the father they never had. People felt it was magical, in a sense that they wanted to know more about what he was doing and certainly were drawn to it. Carol had such a maternal voice, an archetypal mother, very warm and nurturing and so she was very good with young children, and Clive recognized both of those things. Clive was magical in his ways of looking at the creative process and describing what the process is. By the time he passed away in 2011, he was probably the most renowned and loved music therapist in the world.
RM: What is so striking in reviewing footage of the music therapy sessions is the intricacy of the approach.
Turry: Yes, the intricacy and the intimacy of it, you are developing a musical relationship. When you are reading the body language of somebody who looks to be in turmoil and they begin to make sounds, you are going to engage in that moment with music. You build on that response, and the response can give you a new idea of what the development could be for this person. It’s an intricate process, because you know what music can do and have some ideas about what you want t0 work on, but the path to that is going to unfold through the process of therapy.
RM: At the center, you work with children to adults across all abilities; can you speak to what is it about music that is so immediately engaging on a mind-body-spirit level?
Turry: Music can stop your everyday time, your everyday concerns, your everyday “What do I have to do next?” All of a sudden you get engaged to music, time is altered. Music allows us to be engaged with ourselves in the moment. What you said made me think of Joseph Campbell's statement that people think that what they're looking for is finding meaning in life, but that's not what I think people are looking for. They're looking for the feeling of being alive, and that's what music can do, give the feeling of being alive, bringing together the past, present, and the future. That's an amazing thing that music does.
RM: I also observed that in many of the sessions movement is part of it; is this common?
Turry: We had a session the other day with a person who came in with a traumatic brain injury; we started to play music, and she started to dance. It's so connected to movement. You can't separate them out. Music can allow you to feel what you're feeling, but also what you could feel, or what you want to feel. It's a very powerful thing, and it relates to, as you say, body, mind, and spirit. It's something that brings you to a different state of consciousness.
RM: I am thinking that the reason that songs and lyrics are so emotionally stirring is because most often people get to express only a fraction of what they experience in a lifetime?
Turry: We don't know what's inside, there is certainly the potential to explore and express it, but many people don't get that opportunity, and I think music therapy is a way to be able to do that.
I asked Turry to provide an illustration, and he offered an example of his work with an adult woman who was in need of a new approach to cope with emotional strains of her diagnosis of Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Having tried regular psychotherapy, she sought out music therapy at the center.
Turry: She sang, making up words, improvising her feelings about the diagnosis. I think she felt she was exhaling—her spiritual, her emotional and her cognitive worlds. She began to sing different parts of her own personality: her wounded child, her critical mother voice, her father who she felt was more nurturing. All her life it was her sister who was the creative one, the artistic one. Her sister was an architect. She was the business person. Through the sessions, she began to change her sense of self into a person who values creativity and music.
RM: For people who may have idiosyncratic movements outwardly, in this approach, these differences are the foundation of building that bridge; can you say more about that?
Turry: Everyone has their quirks, things that they feel uncomfortable with or embarrassed about or things that they're trying to squelch. We all have that. For children with autism who may have no language, for example, it's very difficult for them to even comprehend what they're feeling or what's going on around them. What we're trying to do is to connect with whatever communication or potential communication is there. In the same way, we are looking at somebody who's rocking and trying to find a way into that isolating kind of movement and make that into something that we can now share and communicate in. It's probably the first time where that kind of behavior is looked at as something that we're going to use as a bridge to a meaningful way to engage and relate.
RM: Are you saying that music can be a first language?
Turry: When a mother and infant start communicating with each other there's no verbal language, right? It's all non-verbal and what does the mother do? She reads the body language. She reads the sound of the cooing or the crying to try to understand and build upon the communication that the infant is giving her. In sessions, we look at how a child interacts, listen to their voice and look at their body language and try to create meaning from the musical interaction. You're asking questions as you're going…this person seems very committed to a certain tempo? If I can engage them with music could this be meaningful in the way they can be more open to the world, more variable to the world, less trapped in their experience, so to speak.
RM: The center is brimming with delightful instruments. How do you decide what sounds will shape a session?
Turry: A lot of the session can be vocal work. Then we do what we call scan up the different instruments. Is this person a tonal person? Are they a rhythmic person? Do they like the high timbre sound of a wind chime? Do they like the low bars of the xylophone? There's a lot of work done with drum and cymbal. When you get a person's way of beating the drum, you're taking a temperature as to what's going on internally. How fast are things going on inside them? How much can they vary their way of playing? How organized is their playing? Can they cross the mid line? Do they understand that they can play fast and slow? Can they play the drum and then understand that this cymbal can be a punctuation to the end of the phrase? We can get a sense of how people organize their present musical time. Our idea is that being a human being is all you need to be moved by music, or to benefit from music making.
RM: Is there is a difference between music and noise? The idea of music making as you describe it does not follow a structure as you would in a music lesson.
Turry: I think in some approaches to music therapy, noise, or whatever you want to call it, is a part of the sessions. It could be like you're hammering something or throwing a pillow. That's all part of the client's development. It's really important to discover with the person you're working with how they perceive music and how they perceive noise. That being said, there can be very powerful moments of pure primal expression in the session where you may say, "Boy, that's noisy." On the inside, it's a very different experience, and actually, as a music therapist you come to appreciate the aesthetic power of somebody's primal expression because they're moving through something and you're a witness to that and you're bringing music to it.
RM: A narrative on music that means a lot to me is one by folk singer Odetta. She refers to music as a healing force while writing and singing songs during the civil rights movement; do you find this to be true?
Turry: I've heard people call it a transitional object. People hold on to their songs as something that gives them comfort. I think a lot of blues and jazz is about that. Music is often the way that the human condition can handle being oppressed, being trapped. It’s definitely a resource that anyone can cultivate. Music is almost always involved in the most important rituals of our lives.
RM: We can also have attachments to songs; I have heard songwriters refer to songs as their children, or a companion to soothe difficult moments.
Turry: There's all sorts of ways different cultures do that. It becomes a resource—bringing together pain and ecstasy. Look how important music is through a person's life in developing a sense of identity. Every generation, adolescence into adulthood has its rebellious music. It's music that breaks away from the norms of what happened in the past. You're carrying on a tradition of how people have used music to develop a sense of themselves through time.
RM: A final question, what is the legacy of the Nordoff-Robbins?
Turry: The legacy of Nordoff-Robbins is that if you tap into your own creativity, and I'm talking about the therapist, and you are a receptive witness to the person's creativity, you can help somebody develop in profound ways. We see that music has an effect on the physical functioning of a person. It's one of the reasons why we're excited about the collaboration with Rusk, and the people there recognize that if you're working with somebody who has an upper limb problem, you're not just working with an upper limb, you're working with the whole person and how can music help to integrate the two.
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