Music Psychotherapy - Transforming Loss Through Improved Music
"Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." Victor Hugo
The loss of a beloved spouse or partner challenges us to live through one of the most painful experience of our lives. The seemingly unbearable intensity of pain, the profound alienation and the loss of self-esteem are states that are all the more difficult to endure as we long for support from the very person we are mourning.
Music is a powerfully expressive and life-affirming force which exists in all of us. As a musician and psychotherapist, I have been able to make use of these qualities in music to help my clients and myself heal from loss and re-connect to life. To access this non-verbal world, I improvise with my clients on a wide variety of easy-to-play instruments that vary in timbre, size, shape and which can be blown, shaken, beaten, strummed and bowed. Together we create sound pictures that reflect the client's landscape of subjective experience. I tape these soundscapes and play them back to the client so she can actually hear what is going on inside. No musical training or background is necessary as together we create music that is based on rhythm, instrumental colour and melody rather than traditional classical harmony. For example, clients who have never played the piano before find it responsive and resonant, and are easily able to produce booming clusters of sound or simple but poignant melodies. As a professional cellist, improvisor and composer I am able to provide musical support, encourage and empathy in my accompaniment.
Through music, we can connect to our inner experience, express it, share it and eventually transform it. Connecting to feelings which often seem frightening and overwhelming can be difficult in the beginning stages of the grieving process. However, the process can be eased by allowing the instruments to speak for us. For example a drum can contain our rage, a piano our pain and a xylophone our fear and anxiety.
For others, a self-protective deadening takes hold. In order to heal, we have to get beneath the denial, contact our feelings and give them voice. Because music can sound the way we feel, its emotional force can (reduce/diminish) melt our barriers and ease us into a feeling place.
Sometimes buried feelings come out in the music that we haven't really been conscious of. Conflicting layers of feelings accompany our sadness such as anger, fear, anxiety, frustration and guilt. A client may come into a session aware only of her sadness but when she plays that sadness, she discovers she is also very frightened.
Acceptance and integration (explain)--important stages of the healing process-- come with the expression of the full range of feelings. Feelings in a musical form can seem easier to accept as a valuable part of us. For example, one client disliked her anger and didn't want to own it. After playing it out on a steel drum while I accompanied her on the piano, she could hear positive qualities in that anger and began to embrace it. Once the many different feelings have been accepted, they can be brought together to create an integral whole.
Music accesses the pre-verbal, non-verbal [without linguistic equivalent], unconscious, and supra-verbal [or spiritual] domains. Once we have given physical musical expression to these non-verbal parts of our grief and experienced some cathartic release, we can then use words to process our feelings for further integration.
Despite the inherent privacy of grief, sharing its burden is an essential aspect of surviving loss. When I co-create music with my clients I can stay attuned to them from moment-to-moment. Music is so immediate, so in the moment, unlike the distancing that can occur with words. Clients report feeling understood and supported in their struggle -less alone- when I play with them.
In the many different music groups for women that I have facilitated, I have found that when a group of women comes together to make music, a powerful sense of community emerges. Each woman is heard, individually and as part of a collective. As a result, alienation and isolation diminishes and self esteem is enhanced/strengthened. This occurs partly in the playback as women are amazed to hear the remarkable music they have created. Transforming our grief is facilitated by the musical process which allows us to move through various feeling states. For example, one of my clients was initially able to express her anger on a steel drum. As her anger subsided she moved into her sadness.. She expressed this sadness on a slide whistle and gradually moved into a peaceful state represented on the autoharp.
It is satisfying to transform seemingly unwanted and ugly feelings into creations of music. Self esteem is enhanced as clients rediscover their creativity while making music. Tapping into this inner resource connects us to an inner vitality and helps us become aware of new possibilities as we struggle to rebuild our life.
When I was recovering from the trauma of loss, I found solace in music. Its richness and majesty encouraged me to seek a deeper meaning in life -one not connected to a material reality. I was able to discover a larger context in which to situate my loss and a way wherein I could stay connected in spirit with the one I had loved.
It is fulfilling to be able to share this resource with other women.