Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Listening in Music Therapy


Arnason, Carolyn L.R. (2002). Musical Listening: Giving Audience to the Music and Our Clients. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved November 29, 2009, from http://www.voices.no/mainissues/Voices2(3)arnason.html


This article explores the concept of listening in music therapy by looking at research the author conducted with music therapists on the topic, as well as by examining the author’s own clinical work. Dr. Carolyn Arnason wrote this article while conducting a research study on how music therapists listen to improvised music. The research consists of interviews (in person or by e-mail) with music therapists from various countries who are active clinical improvisers using a music-centred psychotherapy approach and who also listen to recordings of their improvisations.

The underlying research question of the study is “What is musical listening?’ Dr. Arnason structures the interviews around six topic areas, addressing the listening that occurs both in and after improvisations, ideas of analyzing and interpreting improvisations, and the context or background from which these improvisations come. From this research and her own clinical work, Dr. Arnason identifies a number of levels of listening, including the client and his/her music, the music therapist and his/her music, the interpersonal relationship between the two and their co-created music, verbal dialogue, silence and space, and the intangible or spiritual.

In addition to relating ideas from her research, Dr. Arnason draws heavily on her experiences working with Sarah (pseudonym), a 51-year-old woman with severe cerebral palsy with whom Dr. Arnason had worked for three years when writing this article. Sarah’s movement and speech are quite limited and thus instead of engaging in active instrumental playing or verbal dialogue, Sarah engages in intent listening. Dr. Arnason explores what it is that she is listening for in her work with Sarah, and what factors affect this listening.


I really appreciate how Dr. Arnason addresses the issues of listening and of silence in music therapy. Not being a music therapist myself, I often have an inaccurate vision of a music therapist walking into a room and initiating a musical of sorts, in which everything from “real life” is incorporated into music. I was interested by what Dr. Arnason wrote about primarily playing for and not with Sarah. Even though I know that in many instances active participation in the traditional sense by the client is not possible, I suppose I had not given due consideration or respect for other ways in which clients can be actively participating. Dr. Arnason refers to Sarah as being “remarkably available through her listening presence.”

The manner in which Dr. Arnason refers to Sarah’s active, intent listening inspired me to reconsider my view on what constitutes active participation. I have worked as a camp counsellor leading small discussion (or “counselling”) groups and usually strive to get all campers contributing to the discussion with their ideas. I often feel as though I have not succeeded in creating a comfortable environment for all campers when some hold back and remain silent. Even though I can at times see that the silent campers are quite engaged in the discussion, it is hard not to wish that they would speak up. This article stimulated in me a reassessment of this situation.

I can see in myself a certain degree of discomfort with silence, and feel that this is fairly common in our society. When someone is silent we are quick to ask what is wrong, and frequently refer to the “awkward silence” that sometimes occurs in our conversations. I find it quite interesting having conversations with people who incorporate silence in their speech. My first response is to attempt to fill in words for them if they are mid-sentence or make a statement myself if they are between sentences. With some people I know, it has taken me a long time to feel entirely comfortable with these moments of silence without trying to fill them. When I finally stop trying to fill in the silences, I find it remarkable how easy the conversation becomes and how natural a flow it takes on.

I wonder what this tendency away from silence means for our music making. In observing masterclasses, I’m sure we have all seen the ever-common scenario of the coach trying to encourage the student to “take more time” at a certain point of the piece, or allow for a break in sound that is longer than a few milliseconds. As performers we seem to have trouble getting an accurate sense of how long a break we are making and feel uncomfortable in this momentary pause.

I once took an improvisation course in which our professor frequently reminded us of the option of silence in an improvisation, particularly when playing with others. We can easily get caught up in what we are doing or in trying to respond to what others are doing. We may forget that we are still participating in an improvisation if we put down our instruments for a while and let other voices speak more freely. In music, are not the silences between sounds as important as the sounds themselves?

In her research, Dr. Arnason explored the idea of what music therapists listen for both during a session and also after when reviewing the session tapes. As I read, I began to wonder about what could be gained by recording a lesson. As performers we often record ourselves performing to get a more objective view of what is coming across to the audience. We may also ask to record a lesson or masterclass performance to remind ourselves of what we were coached on and again, to get a more objective view of the results of this coaching. I feel it is less common for teachers to ask to record a lesson that they are teaching. Though perhaps it is not as useful as for the music therapist, I suspect that we would still be able to see much about our interaction with our students, giving us a better perspective on how we come across and how our students respond to our comments and actions.

I find it remarkable that Dr. Arnason refers to listening for “Sarah’s intense listening to the music” in their improvisations. I also find particularly poignant the way that Dr. Arnason phrases one of her clinical aims with Sarah as giving her “an aesthetic and relational experience in music that would otherwise be denied her because of her disability and isolation.” Though I’m sure most of the desired implications of this article for music therapy were entirely lost on me, I found the article to be both thought provoking and somehow beautifully reassuring.

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