Sunday, August 16, 2015

Learning about metal music and adolescents

I received an email from a sweet Year 11 student today, as academics often do, asking me to elaborate on my research to help with her question ‘How does heavy metal music influence adolescent behaviour?’  Sometimes it takes me months to get enough space to reply to these mails, but thanks to a very productive long-haul flight back from Europe, and a state of jet-lag that keeps me awake at night, I was inspired to construct her a research narrative.  I enjoyed piecing it together enormously, and share it here for posterity and anyone who is interested apart from me:)
Thanks for your question. I have written a bit of an explanation based on different research I have done and have included references to the articles where I have published these ideas formally and with more detail and reference to the work of many others.

It was a small study of 113 teenagers in Melbourne that really got me interested in this topic.  I have always advocated for freedom of choice in relation to adolescent's music, but parents and psychiatrists often asked me why.  I argued it as a critical form of identity expression that is essentially healthy, but these adults often pointed to individual teenagers they knew who seemed to make themselves feel worse through their music listening habits.  So when I did this study, I asked young people to describe how they felt before listening, what music they chose to listen to, and how they felt after.  It was a survey, so it had its limitations, but the results suggested that some metal fans were more likely to make themselves feel worse through listening than fans of other music genres. Since this contradicted my own beliefs, and confirmed the opinions that others had asked me to consider, I decided to do more research.

McFerran, K., Garrido, S., O’Grady, L. Grocke, D. & Sawyer, S. (2014 – online first). Examining the relationship between self-reported mood management and music preferences of Australian teenagers, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, doi:10.1080/08098131.2014.908942 ) (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY)

The next thing I did was a systematic review of the literature to see how other researchers had  investigated this phenomenon.  I knew lots of people had found ‘correlations’ between listening to what North and Hargreaves call ‘problem music’ and negative outcomes, but I believed, from my experiences as a music therapist, that music didn’t cause negative outcomes. I felt that it reflected mental health, more than caused mental health problems.  So I challenged some of the ways that studies had been done and attempted to show that it wasn’t the type of music that was influential, but rather the state of mental health of the person doing the listening.  This might ring true for you, since you might listen to a song that makes you feel really fantastic, but another one of your friends might have a different impression of the song.  In my experience, people’s personal preferences and associations with songs are far more powerful than the musical elements themselves.  So it is not so much about how ‘music effects the brain’, but how ‘we use music to influence our emotions’.

McFerran, K., Garrido, S. & Sarrikallio, S. (2013). A critical interpretive synthesis of the relationship between music and adolescent mental health, Youth and Society, doi:10.1177/0044118X13501343 (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY)

When the first study above got published, I received lots of hate mail from metal fans who told me that music had saved their lives, and not made them depressed.  I tried to explain that was the point I was making too, but the popular press had reported that my study showed metal music ‘caused’ depression – which it didn’t.  It was a bit hurtful at the time, but I got to write a few blogs for some metal magazines, which was cool (just google 'katrina mcferran' and 'metal' – the metalsucks and metalinsider pieces were written by me, some of the others are also interesting, and often harsh), and I also got the chance to respond to lots of metal fans from around the world individually.  Seven of them agreed to take part in my next study, where I asked them to describe how they had used metal music in their youth, which often revealed stories of empowerment and connectedness, as well as the occasional reference to intensifying negative feelings.

Hines, M. and McFerran, K. S. (2014), ‘Metal made me who I am: Seven adult men reflect on their engagement with metal music during adolescence’, International Journal of Community Music (Special Edition on Metal Music), 7 (2), 205–222, doi: 10.1386/ ijcm.7.2.205_1  (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY)

I then interviewed a group of 40 young Australians to ask how they were using music in their lives, and was particularly interested in whether they ever used it to make themselves feel worse.  This time what I discovered was that young people did not want to talk about the times when they felt worse; they really wanted to focus on how music made them feel better.  But when we really tried to think of times, they were often there, and the more we talked about it, the more I began to realise that this was a very unconscious process.  The young people often didn’t think about how they were choosing music and instead, relied on the music to make them feel better.  It seemed that if people were depressed, this strategy was more risky because they might be drawn to music that intensified their unhappiness and actually made them feel worse.  So it seemed important to see if this was true.

McFerran, K. & Saarikallio, S. (2013). Depending on music to feel better: Being conscious of responsibility when appropriating the power of music, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41 (1), 89-97,  (FREE ACCESS ONLINE)

My colleagues and I then designed 13 questions to ask young people about how they were using music and discovered that the answers they gave could be correlated with a measure of depression called the K10.  This seemed to suggest that there was a connection between the mental health of young people and the ways they were using music.  Note that I continue to emphasise the ‘uses of’ music, rather than suggesting music ‘effects’ young people.  I have come to believe that music has an inherent potential (some people say affordances) that is enacted when we use it (the word appropriation is even better than ‘use', but most people don’t know what it means).  So it has power, but the way the power is used depends on the person listening or making music.  If you have a tendency to ruminate for example, you will probably use music as a way of ruminating – by playing the same song over and over, but not reaching any different conclusions.  If you tend to distract yourself from your problems, you will probably find that music is a great way to take your mind off things, which is the opposite of ruminating.  It is a complex interaction between the individual (who exists in a cultural context that influences them reciprocally) and their music (which is also culturally shaped – so nothing occurs in a vacuum).

Saarikallio, S., McFerran, K. S., & Gold, C. (2015). Development and validation of the Healthy-Unhealthy Uses of Music Scale (HUMS). Child and Adolescent Mental Health, online first. doi: 10.1111/camh.12109  (FREE ACCESS ONLINE)

In one of my latest articles on this topic we ask people to think about how music is not always used for good.  It seemed appropriate to write this with a German colleague, since Hitler was one of the people who knew this better than anyone.  In this article we suggest that music can both prevent violence, support people who have experienced violence, and also, promote violence by encouraging people to vent and intensify in ways that are aggressive.  Music therapists work with people to ensure that their experiences with music are safe, and if people explore difficult emotions, they do so in relationship with someone they can trust and who will help them to process the material.  Many people use music independently, without the need for a therapist, but some people benefit from the support of a therapeutic relationship, and music is a very powerful force for change in this context. 

McFerran, K.S. & Wölfl, A. (2015). Music, Violence and Music Therapy with Young People in Schools: A non-refereed Position Paper. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 15(2). doi:10.15845/voices.v15i2.831 (FREE ACCESS ONLINE)

The young people I have worked with in group music therapy have often reported on the benefits of expressing their emotions and feeling better in our sessions together.  They describe how difficult it is to find safe ways and people to share emotions and use the opportunity of therapy to process complex feelings.  This has been particularly true in my work with bereaved adolescents, who sometimes struggle with sadness and anger because of their grief and loss.  It has been wonderful to watch and help young people to sing and play, write songs, and improvise music that allows them to achieve their goals in therapy.

McFerran, K. (2011). Music therapy with bereaved youth: Expressing grief and feeling better, The Prevention Researcher (Adolescent Grief and Bereavement Special Edition), 18 (3), 17-20. (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY).

So thanks for asking for a summary of my work – I really enjoyed pulling all that together. In fact, I might publish it on my blog, since it is a pretty good summary of one of my streams of research to date.  I hope it answers your question.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Thinking about men in my life

I have always been a fan of men, and during my adolescent years actually found that I favoured the company of men rather than my female peers.  At that time, the women seemed more complex and difficult to predict, and the power games that were at play were beyond my ability to negotiate.  I had no female friends for an entire year of my schooling because of some female bitching that I never understood.  I then gradually and carefully re-built a mixed friendship group, but it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I finally found a woman that I could confidently call my best friend.  This was a turning point, and maturity, combined with motherhood has bought me back to women, and I am deeply indebted to the women friends in my life for their love, support and flexibility.  In addition, it seems that life is a long game, and where women were perhaps more complex at the onset of adulthood, it is middle age that seems to challenge men.

These relationships between men and women have been of renewed interest to me lately as I have turned my attention to using music to end gender-based violence against women and girls.  Power has been an ongoing theme in my exploration of this topic, and I have been reflecting on my own experiences in relation to the theoretical and advocacy literature that I have been consuming.  In doing this, it occurs to me that there are two types of men in my world at the moment.  There is the traditional man and the equitable man.  They often appear the same based on how they look, dress and talk; I have only been able to distinguish between the two types based on how they respond when I assert my own power.  Some men tolerate it until it reaches a point where they can’t anymore.  Others enjoy it and are happy to switch between being the leader and being directed, as suits the situation and each person’s strengths and interests.

I think the traditional, tolerant men believe they are good and fair men.  They accept that I earn more money than them, although they secretly wonder how it happened and quietly feel that I have benefitted from ‘women’s lib’ in the same way that they have been downtrodden by it.  They notice that I work, but they assume this must be to the detriment of my children and do not, for a minute, consider that their father should have to compensate for any absences that occur due to work.  This is most actively demonstrated when I travel for work and people say ‘oh, that must be tough on your husband’, rather than, ‘oh, your husband must benefit from the income you bring in that allows him to pursue his passions; nice to see that you get some benefits too.’  At a dinner party recently, an older woman friend of mine made the point quite nicely when she said ‘don’t you dare congratulate him for drying the dishes, it is the only thing he does.’  She loves her husband, and this was not intended as a criticism; rather, it was a reminder about equity.

There is little emphasis on gender equity in Australian culture, so the tolerant men I know are constantly congratulated for their contemporary stance.  “Oh, that is sooo wonderful that you dropped the kids to school today, how does your work react when you come in late?” In contrast, the attitude to me is “Oh, you’re dressed up, do you have to go in to work again?  How do you juggle it all!” This is also enacted in a myriad of ways that attract excellent social commentary from the young feminist women I read and speak with.  It was painful to watch the Australian police respond to the rape of a young woman in a park during the day by saying that women should not walk alone in parks. Why not acknowledge that we have a problem with male violence?!?  Similarly, there is a legal clause that allows men to claim that they were provoked to murder their estranged spouse because she did something deserving like … oh you know, challenge their masculinity.  There are many little acts in Australian culture that support the idea that men are already being generous to women by allowing them to have a seat at the table.  In some places, women are even allowed to speak.  But, to continue the metaphor, women are not yet allowed to speak if they disagree with the men at the table, and they certainly should never try and suggest they may be the cause of the problem.

Feminists who choose to speak about women’s rights on social media have shares the horrendous comments made by men when they dare to suggest that male behaviour is inappropriate.  How dare we protest that a child’s computer game routinely includes raping women as part of the chase!  Surely it’s ok to have magazines in supermarkets that promote rape culture by telling young men to ignore women’s protests and help themselves to the action!?!   As the hyperlinks in this blog suggest, women are beginning to protest against a number of male privileges that have been in place, without being questioned, for a long time.  The road is rocky, and many men have been getting angry.

That is the experience in my life too.  I am allowed to go so far, but at a certain point, the tolerant men begin to put on the brakes.  They begin to question my motives. They begin to blame me when their wives also start to protest.  They credit a fellow man’s incongruent descriptions of me above what they know from their own encounters with me.  They make intentionally sexist jokes just to get a rise out of me.  These men are often ‘snags’ (in the old language) and ‘hipsters’ (in the new language).  Perhaps they do not realise that they are enacting the traditional rules of men having the power and choosing when they distribute it, and when they don’t. As with all of us in a privileged position, they cannot see what I am talking about when I suggest their position is not equitable.

On the other hand, I increasingly meet a new brand of man.  These men have their own internal power.  They do not need to take it from those around them.  They have an abundance attitude which suggests that there is plenty more power where that came from.  These men that I know love women.  They love powerful women. They love vulnerable women. They love other, equity-oriented men, and interestingly, they can smell the men who still want to control the behaviours of others.  I am yet to develop such a good sense of smell, but I am working on it.  The smell of the new kind of man is tantalising, I must say.  Long live great men. May my own marvellous son grow up to be one.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Using music to stop violence against women and girls

In 2015 I pledge to make a difference in stopping violence against women and girls.  After a long period of contemplation over the new year period, it dawned on me that this was the next natural step to take in making my unique contribution to the world.  I have been grappling with issues of power and control for a long time – who has it and who wants it and what they do with it.  When I took a moment to look over my previous blogs, the steps leading to this place were pretty clear.   Power and love was an exploration of the ways that music therapists frequently deny their own power in professional relationships.  Reconsidering resilience was the beginning of my awakening to the power of societal responsibility and how resilience is not just located inside an individual.  Are you my client challenged the words that music therapists accept as normal, without acknowledging the power that language has. Thinking about servant leadership followed this through into thinking about collaboration and sharing power when you get it, which I then considered in relation to the possibility that mutually empowering conditions is what music therapists create.  And slowly, I have started to release a little bit of rage about the abuse of power that occurs in the world, regularly posting horrendous accounts of violence against women and girls on my facebook page and that led me to return to Feminism.

So it is, and so it shall be.  I’ve finally connected the dots and connected with my anger and examined by beliefs.  I’m writing a position paper on Music, Violence and Young People in Schools that will be out soon.  But in the meantime, I find it absolutely unacceptable that we continue to tolerate the systematic and persistent abuse of power in relation to women and girls - as well as anyone else who isn’t from the dominant form of a white, Anglo-Saxon man. As I read through Laurie Penny’s ‘Unspeakable Things’, I was blown away by the clarity of this young British Feminist.  She could name the ways that the dominant view on how men need to behave is systematically abusing all of us.  The gender norms she powerfully describes are destroying all of us, including the men who don’t fit the mould, as well as those that do. I am choosing to focus on how these accepted beliefs are impacting women and girls, and I trust that others will also join in the mutiny and bring all the other, equally important perspectives, to the table.

So the question becomes, how can I make my contribution?  Over the past few years, I have been working with a wonderful group of people on the MusicMatters project.  We tried to expand our vision for what music therapists could contribute to mainstream schools by sharing what we know about how to use music to achieve wellbeing and connectedness.  It’s been a beautiful project and we learned a lot from it.  And now I’m ready to take a bigger step, and to stop playing nice.  By focusing on building school’s musical resources, I had fallen into my usual pattern of being strengths-oriented, and deficiency blind.  Schools reflect social norms, and the dominant social norm in my country is an unequal distribution of power.  White men are usually the principals, white women are often taking a lot of responsibility and getting some power in return, other adults from different cultural groups and younger ages are given a little bit of power, and this is used to manage the young ones so that they can learn.   These students then re-enact the same power hierarchies. Yes, I’m generalising, but as Laurie Penny argues, just because a generalisation doesn’t apply to everyone, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

So instead of going sweetly in to schools to discover how music can build on their strengths, I’m going boldly in to schools to uncover the power imbalances through music.  My plan is to begin the investigation by getting groups of young people to write songs about the balance of power they perceive between boys and girls, women and men.  Since I’m a researcher, I’m going to analyse the main themes that emerge in those songs and see if there’s anything in particular that comes up when we use music to frame the discussion.  I’m guessing that objectification might be a feature (think music videos), and I’m wondering about stereotypical gender based behaviours (think rock stars).  Then, I will go back to schools, better informed, and use music to shape a heavier discussion, about how power imbalances underpin abuse and violence, and to explore exactly where that line is between men feeling that they are meant to be powerful and in control, and women being raped, murdered and disposed of.  Should be some interesting musicking, huh?

The way I see it, it’s all in the name of inspiring more mutually empowering relationships, which has been my personal and professional goal for a long time.  But I’ve had enough of playing it nice.  It’s not working.  Women and girls are dying all around us.  Did you know that intimate partner violence is the most common type of violence against women, affecting 30 per cent of women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.  Or that it is the leading contributor to the death, disability and ill-health of Australian women aged 15-44?  Or that one in four children are exposed to domestic violence? Or that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of somebody they know?  Really, did you know that?????  Think about it. 

It suits the system and it suits the economy to keep this balance of power skewed in one direction, and I’m not buying it.  It’s time to music up, people.  Who’s in?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Retreating in order to Re-Emerge

I had the opportunity to attend a retreat in New Zealand this Easter, where the leader was a spiritual and relationship guru by the name of Stephanie Dowrick.  As a self-confessed self-help book junky, I have followed Stephanie’s work for over a decade (with special thanks to Jodie Webster who has provided me with a number of books from her publishing house –, and have been longing to attend the retreat at Mana for the past five years.  So I prepared diligently for the experience by spending some time in contemplation before I left and taking some areas for personal development with me that I wanted to address.  And I was not disappointed.

Stephanie’s greatest contributions to the discourse about relationships have been in emphasising kindness and the importance of choosing happiness (see ‘Kndness and other acts of love’ and ‘The Universal Heart’ at ).  This intersects with her inter-faith spirituality, which focuses clearly on love and compassion as the necessary characteristics for an evolving world (see ‘Seeking the Sacred’ and ‘Heaven on Earth’).  And it was precisely in the intersection of relationships and spiritual abundance that I found what I was looking for.

As a survivor of a failed marriage, I feel that I have journeyed deep into the terrain of interpersonal relationships within my own life, as well as exploring it to better my practice as a music therapist. Personally, I explored the self-help literature with the intention of saving my relationship, and then later, with the intention of exiting it in the most positive way.  I have sought teachings from a range of sources, including the very beautiful Conscious Uncoupling process that Gwyneth and Chris recently invoked in the ending of their own relationship (  And importantly, my work with the related Feminine Power group ( helped me to develop the personal strength I needed to respond to my circumstances with vision and inspiration, rather than feeling defeated.

What Stephanie Dowrick reminded me of this Easter was my need to return home with a renewed commitment to compassion.  Given my personal history, as well as my work as a therapist with an increasing interest in manifesting greater equity and justice in the word, I was particularly moved by her reflections on how to integrate compassion into situations that lack harmony.  She responded to our deep need for insights on how to deal with conflict by asking us to consider the following. 
When the bell of disharmony rings loudly, it asks ‘what can I learn here?’ and also, ‘what is disrupting the harmony on the other side?’. 
Instead of reacting in a defensive, or an offended way to conflict, she asked us to bring our willingness to learn something to the encounter.  Instead of focusing on our own hurt, or blaming the other person, she asked us to look deep within ourselves to find a response that combines love with an intelligent curiosity.

Whereas I had previously wondered if Stephanie was just a bit too positive, the Easter retreat revealed that this was an incorrect perception.  She was well able to understand the need to make choices and take actions to move out of situations where mutual respect is not possible.  She did not suggest avoiding conflict, but rather that we need to move gently into the territory where conflict exists in order to discern whether it is possible to bring a mutual sense of ownership to the situation.  She spoke about the ways that moving beyond defensive reactions can increase intimacy, particularly when we bring a willingness to understand the needs of the other in equal measure with our own needs.  And she emphasised the importance of honouring our own boundaries when the other/s is not ready for mutuality.  She asked us to notice when the situation was more than we can bear, and to be kind to ourselves by moving away from those conditions where moving towards has not resulted in a change.

There were bounteous spiritual references throughout the weekend, and Stephanie repeatedly shared the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh and Jesus, as well as the music of Krishna Das and her own colleague, Kim Cunio.  We meditated often, spent much time in silence, and I personally trekked up the mountain on a daily basis to spend time in contemplation of the gorgeous west coast of the North Island in New Zealand.   I am pleased to report that my commitment to compassion has not reduced since my return, and I have chosen to bring it to my workplace as I communicate with students and negotiate the politics of leadership in the university sector. 

It is always much easier to hold on to such loving feelings when surrounded by others who are similarly determined, as we were on the retreat, but I do believe that it is the way I grapple with the real life challenges of being in relationship with others that truly defines who I am.  It is true that I have struggled and not always succeeded, but this does not deter me from my trying. For me, spiritual faith allows me to remember that I am only human, and that it is not expected that I should be perfect – that is the terrain of the Gods.  So I go imperfectly forward with less defence than ever; knowing that I have the inner strength to handle pain, rejection and failure when it comes and that I do not need to live in fear of it by trying to avoid it.  Instead, I go forward with love and compassion.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's just not fair mate. Why we need more music in schools.

I am passionate about the fact that music can create mutually empowering conditions within which people have the opportunity to flourish.  If there is no decent foundation for engaging in music together, then everything begins to get unbalanced.  The situation in Australia is far from equitable, with a significant discrepancy between the possibilities for music that are available to those in publicly funded and user-pays schools.  It sucks.  So I wrote a little piece about it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Return to feminism

As the amount of time grows from the end of my marriage, I am more clearly able to see some of the deeply rooted beliefs that had taken hold during those 17 years of relationship.  One of them was turning my back on feminism, which I can see now was actually a break, rather than a conclusion.  I have spent some time in the past few days reflecting on my relationship with feminism and being pleasantly surprised by how important it has been to me, not least because my mother was a feminist of the 60s and 70s.

During my years living in a residential college at the University of Melbourne, I became the representative of the colleges on the Universities Feminist Committee.  To this day I am not sure how that happened, and I remember feeling utterly under-qualified for the position but determined to learn as much as I could. This experience of being thrust into positions that seem far beyond my abilities has been a recurring pattern in my life, but with the Feminist Committee, as with many other situations, I seemed to find my way and ultimately began to identify as a feminist.  This sometimes involved battling with the assumptions of the other women on the committee who felt that all women living in residential colleges were unduly privileged and therefore uninformed and un-critical.  I felt this was unjust and oppressive and told them so, and some of the members began to treat me with a little more respect.  Of course, there was some truth in their accusations, but I was right to suggest that women excluding other women from potential growth opportunities was a small-minded response.

During that time I purchased all the contemporary pop-feminist literature that was available, including Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash: The undeclared war against women’, and Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ and ‘Fire with Fire’, as well as the less politically correct ‘Get your tongue out of my mouth, I’m kissing you goodbye’ and an older text by Colette Dowling ‘The Cinderella Complex’.  I also stole some books from my mother’s collection: ‘The Hite Report’ and ‘The Women’s Room’.  My social work lecturer encouraged us to read Foucault’s ‘The History of Sexuality’ and I remember Virginia Wolf’s ‘Orlando’ coming out as a movie during this time.  All in all, it was a reasonable beginning and I was well supported by my ‘privileged’ friendship networks to challenge assumptions and make loud speeches at dinner parties, even if I only had a few pieces to string together.

Over the next two decades I began to question feminism however, and I can see now that this was caused by the incongruence between the ideals of the discourse and the realities of my life.  I clearly remember thinking ‘What’s the point of all this feminist reading, it’s just making me terribly unhappy.  I can’t live up to these standards’.  After years of quiet raging, I turned my back on critical beliefs and turned towards more positive readings.  I reignited my passion for Humanism and it’s emphasis on unconditional positive regard – the opposite of holding critical perspectives.  I imbibed every positive psychology text that supported my individual choosing of happiness, and I focused on flourishing and creativity.  And I reignited my faith, moving through Buddhism to Integral Spirituality.  These were not wasted decades.  I learned a great deal from these scholars and I am particularly grateful to have developed a capacity to take responsibility for my own part in any challenging situation, rather than simply blaming others. 

In the year before my marriage ended however, I discovered a new discourse.  My studies of Ken Wilber’s integral thinking led me to two women (one American, one Australian) who had developed an on-going conversation called Feminine Power – Claire Zammit and Katherine Woodward Thomas.  This on-line group provided me with the impetus to value the contribution that women are here to make in the world.  The focus on mutually empowering relationships and choosing a calling that is bigger than individual happiness literally changed my world.  Learning to value myself again allowed me to make the important decisions that I had been trying to run away from.

It still took some time to come back to critical feminism however.  I recall participating in a Feminist Music Therapy symposium in Argentina in 2008 where I declared that there was no more need for feminism and that our mother’s had achieved all they could through this discourse (ahhh, it is a humiliating memory, I must admit).  But lately I have found myself tentatively poking around the edges of feminism again.  I have bought more books, read more articles, and allowed myself to be truly appalled by the statistics about the treatment of women in the world – supported by viewing many TED talks that provide important information about the issues facing many women in countries around the globe.  In my own privileged world at the University I have participated in women’s leadership forums where the facts are also oppressive and where male domination is still the status quo.  And finally I have found my way back to feminist theory. The opportunity to work with Sue Hadley as a Co-Editor of Voices: A world forum for music therapy (along with Brynjulf Stige), has been particularly inspiring.  And so have many women colleagues in my field and beyond – particularly the anti-oppressive work being advocated by Sue Baines, and Randi Rolvsjord’s ‘Resource Oriented Music Therapy’. 

I am making a re-commitment to feminism in this summer-time blog.  I aspire to problematize my research findings, and to shine light on the assumptions that underpin the oppressions that impinge on people’s full participation.  I recognize that my circle of influence is limited, but I aim to contribute what I can and to support others to do what they can.  I take up Craig Hamilton’s challenge (from the Integral Enlightenment group) – if not you, then who?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Mutually empowering conditions - is that what music therapists offer?

I was lucky enough to be invited to present a keynote paper at the European Music Therapy Congress in Oslo this year.  It was a huge honour and I took the opportunity to think very carefully about what I have learned about music therapy as a result of the various research projects I have read and conducted, as well as my experiences in working as a music therapist, and the theoretical frameworks that have influenced the ways I understand these things.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to condense my thinking into a one-hour presentation, but luckily, a few hours on the slopes of the beautiful Mt Hutt in the South Island of New Zealand helped me to align with my intentions and a structure emerged that allowed my story to unfold in a short time.

The key message I tried to impart was that music therapists create ‘mutually empowering conditions’ when they engage participants from a person-centered (Rogerian Humanistic) orientation.  More than building positive relationships with people, music therapists have the possibility to impact the environment around players by changing the ways that they are seen and understood in that context.  Whereas traditional music therapy practice emphasized the ‘sacred space’ around the therapeutic encounter and sought private and confidential experiences (in line with psychodynamic thinking), contemporary practice actively seeks engagement with the people and systems that surround individuals.  This might begin with private ‘musicking’ experiences, but can often grow beyond the walls of the therapy room for broader impact, as community music therapy theorists such as Brynjulf Stige, Gary Ansdell and Mercedes Pavlicevic have advocated.

The idea of mutuality has also become increasingly important to me under the influence of Randi Rolvsjord’s writings about resource oriented music therapy as well as the learnings from the Common Factors meta-analyses in psychotherapy (particularly Scott Miller who presented a fascinating workshop in Melbourne some years ago).  I think Randi has been able to name a particular quality that I always admire when I read about the work of therapists who move me – Irvin Yalom for example, or Andy Malekoff, or Reed Larson.  It goes further than having unconditional positive regard for the people we work with and allows space for the contribution that we make as therapists. I think that therapy is a mutual process that requires everyone to engage and commit, or it just doesn’t help that much.  For me, it’s the opposite of the teachings from Neurologic Music Therapy school, where the emphasis is on what the music therapist does to help, rather than the people themselves being the ones who work hard to achieve that change.  That said, I do think the notion of ‘empowering conditions’ can still encompass NMT, just not so much emphasis on the mutual.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what empowerment is, and have come to a personal conclusion that being empowered means making good choices.  We often talk about offering opportunities for choice and control in music therapy, and I think that what we are referring to here is a part of creating mutually empowering conditions.  One of the stimulating PhD scholars in our group, Lucy Bolger, has been stretching herself to try and work out what we mean when we invoke a concept like empowerment.  As a result, her descriptions of collaborative processes truly capture the ways that music therapists who listen carefully to what players want can create conditions that people choose to ‘buy in’ to and therefore make an active contribution towards their own positive growth.  An important part of this is not taking all the responsibility for making things ‘sound’ or look good and successful.  A wonderful woman called Paula D’Arcy also captures this in a lecture with Richard Rohr that speaks to empowerment – she describes how we cannot and should not ‘save’ people, but should instead have faith that our destinies are mutually dependent and that opportunities to realize what we all need will arise.  To take that spiritual learning into a therapeutic context means that we cannot and should not ‘help’ people, but rather we should create conditions that encourage people to reach towards what they need.  This is similar to the ecologically informed definition of resilience that Michael Ungar and Bruce Perry offer, where it is partially the individual’s willingness to take steps towards coping, but also the availability of a context that supports those steps and provides something to step towards.

Anyway, the keynote went for an hour, and obviously there is decades of thinking behind it, but I did want to share some of the ideas with you all.  What do you think?  Mutually empowering conditions.  It’s an interesting idea, right?