One of the phrases that really stuck with me during my training as a music therapist, and thereafter, is ‘being with’. Something that as new music therapists we all learn the meaning of. So what does it mean ‘to be with’ the client?

To understand it, it helps me to think about the mother-baby relationship. Any interaction between a mother and her baby is rooted in the mother’s ability to know exactly where her baby is at. She observes so closely, often without even realising, she just knows what they’re going through. If she tries to initiate an interaction that is too advanced for her baby’s ability, her baby would never be able to engage in it and their relationship would not develop. She simply needs to know, and that ‘knowing’ is all that she can really do. For example, when the baby learns to walk, she will be there, watching the fails and falls, and encouraging, witnessing, knowing. She can’t possibly explain the physics of it to the baby hoping they’d understand. Schaffer (1977) says that the key to a baby’s growth is not the mother’s ‘doing’ things, but just ‘being with’. ‘Being with’: observing, understanding, waiting and so on. The closeness of it makes her understand what the baby is going through, so she can respond in a way that clearly communicates to the baby that she understands. As music therapists, we can try to replicate that process with the belief that the key to a client’s growth is not just ‘doing things’ to them, but ‘being with’ them. Understanding where they are at and communicating that understanding. Not giving a prescription of steps that lead to fixing all the issues, but encouraging exploration within them. Because throughout all this, the clients’ answers, whether verbal or not, will develop and grow from within, and we are there to ‘witness’ the process.

With the current lockdown music therapists have needed to adapt to the challenging times, by incorporating Zoom, or other video call software, for their sessions. I really wondered how well this would work with my clients. They all have complex physical and learning disabilities and vision impairments. Most of my clients are unable to play instruments independently or access them, so the sessions would require assistance from someone at home. I started wondering about the meaning of ‘being with’ them in these unexpected times, and about what I have to offer them. Quite obviously, the inability to be physically in the same spaces is affecting everybody’s work and life, and it also does when it comes to music therapy.

One of the texts I read early on in my training was the foreword for the British Journal of Music Therapy, written by P. Steele, where she quotes Cox and Theilgaard (cited in Steele 1988, p.3):

The essential process …
Attend. Witness. Wait.

I love that text and the quote, and it stayed with me throughout my journey so far, and I come back to it in my practice more often than any others. At times when I’m unsure of what to do, and when I lose sight of the bigger picture, I think of that ‘essential process’. It seems so simple – but in reality it’s much more complex. Those three verbs describe ‘being with’ to me, and how I try to ‘be with’ my clients. They remind me that there is more to what we do and what we can achieve without physically being present in the room. We can continue the ‘essential process’ virtually. We can continue to ‘hold our clients in mind’, where we wrap them in our thoughts and create a net, where their process lives. We can still, gently and dearly, hold that realm between us and them where their process exists and is thought about, a place where the work lives. It is something we ‘hold’ for them and with them. I believe that as long as we and they are present, as long as we ‘attend’, that process can develop and continue. We will witness the difficult and the joyous, and incorporate it in that process. I suppose that for my clients it might be the case that they won’t play an awful lot of instruments, or get to do the turn-taking we have managed previously, but I hope that they will hear my voice and realise that I am there, ‘attending’. What is more, therapy is based on a therapeutic relationship, and any relationship is a two way street. For us to hold them in mind, it helps to be able to ‘be with them’ on some level. So even if it is not always clear how they will benefit from it, us being able to ‘witness’ and communicate our presence might have great benefits on the therapy process and their emotional wellbeing. That centrepiece of the therapy – the relationship, will be maintained and continued.

The practicalities of it might not always work perfectly. It might be weird with the technology, and it might be awkward, and it might be strange. The clients might struggle to adapt to those changes, but ‘We have to be able to wait with them in the silence without knowing’ (Steele 1988, p.3), because in that ‘waiting’, in those difficulties, we might find the true purpose of our work. All of those aspects are out there, ready to be embraced and worked with. They are all new, and none of us have trained for this. But we have trained for ‘being with’, and for embracing everything that feels weird, awkward, strange. We have trained for ‘holding our clients in mind’, and we can still do that! Right now, that aspect is even more important than ever, and maybe (maybe), it could teach us an awful lot about the actual meaning of our work.

Schaffer, R., (1977) Mothering, London: Fontana

Steele, P. (1988) Foreword. British Journal of Music Therapy 2(2)

1st May 2020- Ace Music Therapy welcomes three directors

Ace Music Therapy CIC is delighted to announce the appointment of 3 directors, Elaine, Nikki and Lorraine. You can read more about them here. 

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