Our correspondent gets a taste of music therapy.

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I’m asked to imagine a point of light. With my eyes closed, I wait for something to happen. There’s no light, only a sense of mounting anxiety. A panorama of darkness engulfs me. Then something in that space breaks off and moves toward me, a black sun, a negative light, fringed now with a faint orange glow. The light I want is obscured. I’m asked to throw the light up into the air and follow it. The darkness dissolves into a cloudy day, in the north of England. Now the music starts, something symphonic, lush and pastoral. I’m walking along the edge of a field of barley. I’m probably about eight-years-old, on my own. It’s a familiar scene from my childhood, a field at the top of “the lane” as we called it. I feel afraid as a car—a Citroen—drives slowly toward the old house to my left. That’s the old vicarage. When I’m prompted to go to a safe place, I crouch down and embrace a dog in front of me—my beloved dog, Spot—stroking his fur and smelling the top of his head. I’m safe for now, hidden from view by the tall barley.

I open my eyes and I’m back in the room. My therapist has stopped the music but its effect is powerful. It’s clear something has been stirred up. This is my first taste of music therapy—or more specifically a session of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)—one aspect of a very broad field that uses music in a therapeutic context.

“Music Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals,” according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), a national not-for-profit with 3,800 members in the United States, which maintains educational, professional, and ethical standards for the field, while trying to increase quality music therapy services for the public. A professional music therapist must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher from one of AMTA’s approved college or university programs. In addition, the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) accredits practitioners, who take a national board exam designed to measure and maintain competence. A growing number of states have formally recognized the profession of music therapy in various ways, and have begun to regulate it, via licensure, registration, or other mechanisms. In New York, music therapists with qualifying graduate training and post-graduate supervision are eligible for licensure as creative arts therapists under a larger mental health licensure law.

Although music therapy as a clinical practice has been around for at least a half century, public awareness of its healthcare benefits is growing, along with access to a broader range of music therapy services. Research into this field, according to the AMTA, supports its effectiveness amongst different groups, including children who have autism, older adults with dementia, hospitalized patients in pain, and people with brain injuries. Ten months after being shot in the head (in January 2011), Congresswoman Gabby Giffords relearned how to talk, in part, thanks to music therapy. The bullet damaged the left side of her brain, in a region that controls language. But neurologists were able to use music, as a kind of melodic and rhythmic speech therapy, to open up an alternate pathway back to language.

My experience of music therapy felt more akin to a psychotherapy session, a journey toward some kind of emotional catharsis. And certainly, music therapy can be used to treat everyday neurotics like me. I was fortunate to be in the experienced hands of Dr. Brian Abrams, a music therapist since 1995, currently based at Montclair University as Associate Professor of Music, and Coordinator of Music Therapy. I asked him later for an assessment of my session. What happened to me in that altered state when my imagination produced such vivid imagery? “When you enter into a deeply imaginative state, you’re finding ways of dealing with the energetic material of the unconscious in a very present and accessible way. You’re actually able to interact with it, operate upon it, deal with it,” Abrams said. “So, imagination —empowered by the artistic experience of the music—is the modus operandi of the therapy.”

It so happened that the piece that had provoked my imagination was a section from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, a rich orchestral work complete with wordless choir. I learned this use of masterpieces from the Western canon is specific to Guided Imagery and Music, which was pioneered by Helen Bonny in the 1970s.  (It’s also known as the Bonny Method). The method uses a sequenced program of classical music “to stimulate and sustain a dynamic unfolding of inner experiences.” Bonny’s observations about the power of music were drawn from her own experiences of playing music; she was a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and remained a violinist all her life.  According to Bonny, there is something about the music—its harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and structural patterns—that helps push our imagination to the limit. That’s true. But what’s the difference between music therapy and simply listening to music without a therapist present?

I consulted Dr. Lisa Summer, a music therapist who studied with Bonny and is a first-generation practitioner of her ideas. She likened the process of GIM therapy to a scuba dive into deep water. A therapist can act like a diving instructor, taking a client out more gradually into the ocean. “When you feel safe, you feel safe enough to have strong images,” said Dr. Summer. When a client seeks her out, typically there’s a therapeutic intent that she recognizes, and directs the session accordingly, assisting the client as they go on this deep dive into their imagination. She recalled a case study where she worked with a man who was traumatized by sex-abuse, had turned to drugs and alcohol early in his life, and was diagnosed with depression. In his first session he described an existential feeling of dread. But he said there was one redeeming piece of music in his life—Albinoni’s Adagio, which he said he heard in his mind over and over. In fact, Summer observed, “he was holding onto this piece as if he were holding onto himself.” So when she chose to play the piece for him—after careful consideration—she helped guide his imagination. He described a flower inside of his stomach, all black and made of metal, whose petals were all closed up. “It was such a disturbing image that when I heard it, I directed him to stay open and see if the music affected the flower,” Dr. Summer said. The man described the petals opening up, and then a bright yellow light emanating from its center. And that was the end of the sequence. In Dr. Summer’s assessment, it was this humanistic approach that helped her client manage the horror his imagination signified. “It rejuvenated his relationship with that piece of music,” she said. “I felt like I had given him bullets for his gun to fight his depression.”

“This is what is so powerful about the aesthetics of music therapy,” she added. “I feel that classical music has special aesthetic power. When we feel our pain with this music, it brings us our pain in a different way. The music makes it digestible.”

New York-based music therapist Suzannah Scott-Moncrieff, and a former student of Dr. Summer, said that this intuitive approach to therapy is especially effective when dealing with clients who have suffered trauma. In recent years, Scott-Moncrieff said neurological research into the field of psychological trauma has validated the work of music therapists. “The field is more and more supporting relationship-based, right brain, creative, body-oriented approaches as opposed to cognitive-behavioral strategies. This is mostly because of what we’re discovering about trauma and the brain,” she said. “Integrative approaches like music therapy can address the trauma, beyond even explicit or retrievable memory, effectively working with lower brain processes where trauma becomes embedded. These kinds of approaches are the future of effective trauma treatment.”

Interest in the science behind music therapy is growing. In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts teamed up with three units within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the National Institute on Aging, the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine — to convene a public workshop to research the use of art, including music, to improve the health and well-being of older adults. The report summarizes some of its findings: “Participation in arts interventions has been linked with improving cognitive function and memory, general self-esteem and well-being, as well as reducing stress and other common symptoms of dementia, such as aggression, agitation and apathy.” In addition, the NIH is currently funds several clinical trials into the uses of music and its effects on the brain, including work on aphasia and to help children on the autism spectrum. One of the recommendations of the NEA workshop is to “develop better research models to inform the research agenda.” Dr. Abrams says he’d like to see music therapy “more comprehensively integrated throughout the healthcare continuum.”

It should be said that the benefits of music therapy are not restricted to people with musical ability. But often those who seek out this type of therapy—especially the psychotherapeutic model I experienced—tend to have some special relationship to music. “It’s a natural resource for them, perhaps the only place where they have felt understood,” said Scott-Moncrieff.  That was true for Vania, a 33-year-old writer based in Seattle, who recently turned to music therapy to deal with negative feelings she felt around her three-year-old son. As Vania described it, she detected an underlying anger that troubled her. She ascribed this to being raised by a “very abusive mother.” Her mother had been a pianist, and she too had played the piano. “The few good memories of my childhood are based around music,” she said. Her first session of music therapy—a one-on-one GIM session—made an immediate impact. “It felt like the music had curled around my hand and was dragging me along,” she said. “I was immediately taken to a place where I was five- or six-years old. I was broken already and I felt so unloved.” For Vania, the revelations of the therapy had a fairly quick impact. “I woke up one morning with this sudden realization that his last year and a half I’d been so anxious around my son. It was a moment of clarity as if a huge weight had been lifted. Now, looking at my son, I was able to see a contrast between then and now.” Vania said, although she didn’t understand the “mechanism” of the therapy, she trusted it.

During the second part of my own experience with GIM therapy, Dr. Abrams suggested I select an instrument from the room to express and deepen the feeling I had discovered in the barley field. Improvisation, active music making, is another key element in music therapy—the opposite of the “receptive” listening mode of GIM. There were many instruments from which to choose—an upright piano, an electric guitar, xylophones, glockenspiels, and many different drums from around the world. I approached the piano, which is an instrument I can play, but somehow it didn’t feel right. I needed something else, something more naïve and less percussive. That’s when I spied a small wooden flute, a Native American instrument it turned out, on top of the piano. Though I’ve never played this instrument, I picked it up and blew into it producing a soothing mid-register tone that I liked. Placing my fingers on the holes, I managed to move slowly up and down the scale, while Dr. Abrams accompanied me on a percussion instrument to enhance the vibe. “One thing that’s nice about music therapy is that those who tend to evade important, challenging issues in the verbal realm achieve greater access to these issues in and through music,” Dr. Abrams told me later. “It’s also important to understand that musical virtuosity, too, can be used to defend and evade; yet no matter how well trained one is as a musician, an astute music therapist is able to hear beyond that, into the ninety-nine percent of the music expressing the whole person, beneath any façade.” Even if it had been possible, virtuosity was beside the point. That was a relief. In that moment, playing the wooden flute felt right, peaceful, and more honest than words.

Originally published in Listen: Life with Music & Culture (Spring 2015).

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One of the chief pleasures of watching On Site Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro is the sheer proximity to the singers. This week the innovative company presents a lesser-known but nonetheless sparkling version of this famous comedy by Marco Portugal (1762-1830) in a classy, old townhouse at 632 Hudson Street. The house, which dates back to 1847, has been renovated as a magical, antique space complete with a cupola, its underside painted by a set designer to mimic a Renaissance mural adorned with flying cherubim. For the purposes of this opera, the house serves as the perfect setting for the singers, which brings me back to the question of proximity.

At a time when the Met is struggling to fill its cavernous 3,800 seat capacity, it has found success with its Live in HD broadcasts. These broadcasts have allowed audiences far and wide to get up close and personal with the singers. A similar effect is achieved in the flesh by On Site Opera with its small company of singers, in this case an exuberant cast led by Jesse Blumberg (Figaro) and Jeni Houser (Susannah). The vocal prowess of each singer is evident and never more than a few feet away. The musicians too—a small but effective chamber orchestra performing a re-orchestrated score by guitarist José Luis Iglésias and OSO’s Geoffrey McDonald—are in the room with everyone. The action of the opera unfolds inside several rooms of the house, obliging the audience, musicians and singers to move from place to place, which is both a novelty and a virtue. We interact with the space and with the characters.

Another observation: The singers cannot really afford to break character as they’re under the constant scrutiny of an attentive audience around which the action plays out. Live in HD makes similar demands. It’s an unusual experience for sure, and surely demands singers who can also act. Director and co-founder of On Site opera, Eric Einhorn has succeeded here in finding a company of great operatic thespians. In Act III, at the climax of the drama when the entire company sings from above, behind, and in front, the audience is immersed in the cross currents of the music; we can feel the physical vibrations. When it comes to the concept of surround sound, this is the real deal.

This week’s run of the show is sold out, due to the obvious limitations of space with its maximum 50-seat limit. But the notion of intimate chamber orchestra outside of the opera theatre continues to thrive. As its popularity continues to surge, the question of how such boutique productions will achieve economies of scale will have to be answered. But for now, it’s the intimacy that counts.

—Damian Fowler

 

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I can’t wait to read the latest Julian Barnes novel, The Noise of Time, published this month in the UK. The American edition is due out on May 10, but I’m too impatient to wait and have ordered the hardback direct from Britain. The book is a fictional biography on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich and the artistic compromises he was forced to make during Stalin’s reign of terror, leaving the composer humiliated and scarred. By all accounts, the book is a meditation on how art is produced in a climate of fear. The Guardian is already calling this short novel a masterpiece.

Barnes wrote about a composer once before in a short story called “The Silence,” published in a collection called The Lemon Table in 2004. The story deals with an unnamed composer, easily identified as Sibelius, who suffers a 30-year creative drought. I heard Barnes read an excerpt from this story in March of 2014 when he  teamed up with the pianist Angela Hewitt to present an evening of words and music at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. The format was quite effective, I thought, and opened my eyes to prose and poetry on the subject of “classical” music.  In advance of the concert, I interviewed Barnes in the Spring of 2014 for Listen: Life with Music and Culture, a magazine published by Steinway, who muses on the importance of classical music in his life and art. I’m posting this link to it again.

Here’s one of the selections he read that has stayed with me.
“The Stillness of the World Before Bach,” by Lars Gustafsson.

There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
Isolated churches
where the soprano-line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters’ axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child’s ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater’s silence before Bach.

 

 

I enjoyed this radio interview with North Shore Community Radio, which is based in Grand Marais. The people of this community well remember the small plane crash from 2003 in the Superior National Forest, and the remarkable story of Grace and Lily Pearson, the two little girls who survived the crash. They were found by a brave local pilot, Dan Anderson, and the then Deputy Sheriff Mark Falk and his team.

http://www.wtip.org/drupal/content/author-journalist-damian-fowler-his-new-book-falling-through-clouds

My Spotlight on the French conductor Louis Langrée, in the February 2015 edition of Vanity Fair. Because of the compressed nature of this profile, there’s so much more in my notebook that I couldn’t include. Maestro Langrée—who moved from Paris with his family—says he’s happy to have settled down in Cincinnati. “Most of the life of a conductor, or a musician, is to be a nomad…You’re like a little bee going from flower to flower and it’s delicious. But in the end it’s very important to have your own place with your musicians, to create a collective artistic identity.”

“There is this image I have of a little Japanese garden. From this little, miniscule place you embrace the entire universe.”

In October, I was invited to attend the Twin Cities Book Festival. That weekend, I dropped by the Guthrie Theater to pose with Tennessee Williams, who is rarely seen without a cigarette or a drink. I’d been thinking about the great man because I was reading John Lahr’s magnificent new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. I was fortunate enough to talk to Lahr about his fascinating subject and wrote a preview piece in the winter edition of Listen: Life with Music & Culture. The book is an inspiring read about a man who suffered and drew on that suffering to create some of the most wonderful plays of all time.

At the Guthrie Theater
At the Guthrie Theater

After more than 15 years as a journalist writing for both British and American publications, I’ve become adept at keeping my British- and American-English feature pieces strictly separated. I’ve learnt how to do this to keep editors on both sides of the Atlantic happy. But, wait a minute. Maybe I learned how to do this to keep editors happy? (Discuss, if you feel like it.)

From the beginning my book, Falling Through Clouds, was going to be an American story; I may be a Brit, but it was clear from the beginning that this would be an American story, told in an American idiom…it is set in Minnesota. How a British guy/bloke came to write this story of a family in the Midwest is for another post. But still, when the idea presented itself, I leapt at the chance. I’m not sure I could have leaped at the chance. I might have ripped by trousers. Still, it’s not just a matter of spelling. There are fundamental differences in the meaning of words, as one sharp-eyed proofreader found in a fairly late edit of the book:

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Uh oh.  Somehow the British version of “windscreen” had been missed during the copy editing process. The American version of this word is, as corrected in blue pencil, “windshield.” But, surely that wouldn’t have mattered, would it? I mentioned this to a couple of American friends and they said, “Yes, I have no idea what a windscreen is.  Is it something you attach to a window. I would not have known.” For British readers, windows on American houses often are fitted with screens to prevent mosquitoes and other large, troublesome insects flying in.

I have no problem keeping my American-English separate and discrete. For example, I talk about a “lead-colored lake,” a “slate-gray sky,” and “favorite bottles” of wine in the book, but then I wondered if I’d unknowingly inserted other exclusively British words into this American text. There it was, in draft one, a sheriff who’d “learnt” the news about an accident. Little did he know.  Even now, that word is sitting there in draft with a red line underneath reprimanding me for the apparent error. Oh the tyranny of spell check for the Anglo-American scribe.