In the key of us

In my first few weeks of the Masters training at Nordoff Robbins we were each tasked with presenting a ‘musical biography’ to our fellow coursemates and tutors.

A desert island discs-type compilation of music which holds meaning for us as musicians, as therapists in the making and as individuals. And just like the much-beloved radio programme, every choice helped tell a story of our backgrounds, our experiences and what had led us to that point in our lives. I relished the process of compiling my own playlist and listening to those of others. These musical introductions truly felt like an important beginning to our training together, which paved the way for thinking about the role of music in our own lives and the lives of the people we would soon be working with.

“I’ve laughed, cried, formed life-long friendships, been deeply moved, achieved, felt motivated, elated and inspired.” 

It’s a fact that certain pieces or songs – or perhaps even just a snippet of melody or a chord progression – can stay with us and become meaningful. We can be taken by surprise and, even if only fleetingly, stopped in our tracks by what we hear. The reason for this lies in all those unique elements of music that make creating it, playing it and listening to it such wonderfully rich human experiences. Music can motivate and mesmerize, unite crowds of thousands or connect an individual with their innermost feelings. It can ignite a memory or provide an entirely new experience. It can communicate without words and, as Aldous Huxley so brilliantly put it; it can certainly come close to expressing the inexpressible.

Throughout the practice rooms, auditoriums and the muddy festival fields of my life, I’ve laughed, cried, formed life-long friendships, been deeply moved, achieved, felt motivated, elated and inspired. It’s these personal experiences that shaped my musical biography, and which cemented my belief in just how powerful music can be. Discovering that I could use this belief, along with my skills as a musician, in a meaningful and useful way – and make a career from it – was a revelation. Now I get to spend every working day putting what I have learned and the belief that it’s all founded on, into action.

“In the thirty minutes we spend together each week, we find common ground which allows us to meet in the middle, in the music.”

Flynn is just one of many extraordinary people I have the pleasure of sharing music with every week. He has cerebral palsy which affects his physical skills, his communication and his learning. He can get anxious and upset quickly, and can find it hard to tolerate unfamiliar situations and sounds. He uses a wheelchair and needs help with most everyday tasks. His experience of the world is, in some ways, quite different to mine; yet in the thirty minutes we spend together each week, we find common ground which allows us to meet in the middle, in the music. 

Our sessions are entirely tailored to Flynn and there are many ways in which he benefits. When we share the piano he knows that if we take turns to play, we can create elaborate musical conversations which don’t rely on verbal understanding. When he does talk or sing, I’m noticing not only the meaning of his words but the music of them – the pitch, intensity and quality of his voice – and responding to this. When I offer the guitar for him to strum at the climax of the song I’m setting him up to succeed musically and through celebrating his success, his self-esteem is boosted. When our music motivates him to play the cymbal in a steady pulse, he is exercising his arm control whilst at the same time experiencing how great it feels to be in sync with someone else. Often I can visibly see him becoming less anxious and more relaxed, confident and readily able to engage during the course of a session. This, I hope, will then help with developing his ability to cope in stressful situations outside of our sessions too. With the focus very much on what he can do (rather than what may be difficult because of his disability), his potential unfolds.

It’s an absolute privilege to do this work; partly because from two year olds to octogenarians, each session and each musical encounter in my week is different, and through this I get to contribute to, be influenced by and meet elements of so many different musical biographies. For me, what makes these personal soundtracks that emerge and develop over time in all of us so wonderful, is the very fact they are uniquely our own.

Flynn’s story

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