Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Power and Love

Power and Love are two words that are rarely spoken in the music therapy literature.  Love, like spirituality, has often been considered too soft; too open to misinterpretation.  Love does not share the same space as evidence-based practice, and therefore it always seems to be regarded as a little bit dangerous.  Discussions of power are avoided for different reasons.  We love to talk about 'empowering' others as music therapists, but we don't like to talk about the power that we have.  Adam Kahane (Power and Love, 2010) suggests that "This problem of love that conceals power often shows up in the helping professions, where power is always present bur frequently indiscussable." (p. 48)  I think he has a point.

I have been thinking a lot about power in my discussions with the music therapy students this year.  I have been arguing that focusing only on people's strengths is a form of denial.  For those that know me, it goes without saying that I find an exclusive focus on pathology even more abhorrent.  I have been using language from Ignatian Spiritulity to emphasise the importance of 'discernment'.  It's not so different to assessment in traditional, clinical music therapy language.  In relation to practice, it involves having understanding and compassion for the unique challenges that people face, in balance with a recognition of their capacity and resources. 

In my own music therapy journey, I now think that I have been overly focused on strengths.  To some degree, I have been in denial of people's limitations.  Music is such a wonderful tool for adopting a positive perspective after all.  Teenagers who will not speak to their counsellor will happily write a song that details their emotional journey.  Children with profound disabilities are able to reach out and connect in music whilst not being able to communicate in any other traditional way.  Older people with dementia can sing all the lines of their favourite songs, but cannot hold a conversation.  The examples are endless, and I love them all.  It feels so good to engage with the healthy aspects of someone who is usually seen through the lens of their limitations.  So what's my problem?

Adam Kahane has articulated it better than I can.  "Love without power is sentimental, and anemic, or worse. Power without love is reckless, and abusive, or worse." (p. 53)  Sometimes my music therapy work can be a bit sentimental.  It's full of assumptions about the fact that beautiful relationships create a space for personal growth.  These ideas are deeply grounded in my study of humanistic theory and the core tenet of unconditional positive regard.  You might notice that unconditional positive regard is not discerning, or at least, not overtly.   Ken Aigen seems enamoured with these kinds of ideas too, and I love reading about his deep commitment to the power of musical relationships (see Music Centred Music Therapy).  But I've been thinking about how easy it is to deny how mutually satisfying it is to be in these relationships.  Randi Rolvsjord begins to delve into this in her theoretical treatise and her ideas are pointing in the same direction, but perhaps with a little more restraint than I am advocating (see Resource Oriented Music Therapy).

I continue to believe that mutually empowering relationships can lead to change - they afford opportunities for change (to use the language made popular by Tia De Nora).  But the relationship  needs to be actively in service of that change.  I have been expecting it to just lead there, naturally, through extended music making.  As I become more interested in creating systemic change that leads to personal and social justice for many more people, I am beginning to recognise that ensuring the benefits of mutually empowering, musical relationships extend beyond the therapy room takes a huge effort.  Grace Thompson turned me on to this years ago, and I've been allowing it to influence my thinking and direct my research ever since.  Another voice has been that of Lucy Bolger, who keeps demanding that we turn our attention to developing sustainable programs, music therapy that doesn't always need a music therapist...

I know, it breaks every definition of music therapy in the book.  But that's what I'm wondering about at the moment.  Is this precisely the unspoken power dynamic that we could become conscious of in music therapy discourse?  Do we need to be needed in order for music therapy to be helpful.  It's interesting, isn't it?