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?