Reflections from the SWAMTA 2016 Conference

This week, I attended the Southwestern Region of the American Music Therapy Association (SWAMTA) conference in Austin, TX for the first time! Some thoughts:

There is more to music therapy than just "music" and "therapy."
It's also about understanding our clients and learning both about them and with them. Many of our clients experience the world in a different way than we do, and we have to understand how they do and meet them there. There is no "one size fits all" sort of treatment or approach even if they have the same diagnosis, because everyone is different. As much as I think I can improve my musical and therapeutical skills, I must also learn how to understand, to love, and to really get to know each client through sessions and not through textbooks or case studies.

Everyone has something to teach and to offer. 
About 36 sessions were presented at conference; many were led by practicing music therapists and professors in the music therapy field, but a lot of them were also presented by students! Some students from our school also participated, describing their experiences and what they've learned or different possible interventions. Most of the attendees at this conference have been out of school for many years, but they came to student-led sessions, asked questions and paid close attention anyway. Since everyone's exposure and background is different, everyone has something to learn from each person - and vice versa.

I have a long, long way to go and I'll never reach the end.
At first, I was just excited, and then I was overwhelmed, and now I'm grateful and looking forward to the road ahead. Every time I learn more about music therapy, whether it's through books, classes or this conference, I realize how much more there is to learn and how many challenges I'll have to go through. I hear from nervous students in practicum but at this conference, I also heard from a professional with many years of experience who talked about her challenges with maintaining boundaries and continuing a healthy therapeutic relationship with her client. It will never stop being a learning journey and I will always have something more to improve, and that's okay. In fact, that's part of why I love music, therapy, and music therapy so much.

Even though there are things I can't talk about, I never have to do this alone.
Client confidentiality is one of the biggest things emphasized in music therapy and I will often be restricted from talking about my experiences with people or on the Internet, but it doesn't mean I'm isolated. I have colleagues and supervisors. I can talk to other music therapists. I can talk about my own feelings without ever needing to go into details. And I have family and friends who will be there and continue supporting me - no explanations needed.

Music in opening pathways for connection

Three years ago, my youth group worked with Burmese refugees, or Sun Youth with their adjustment to America by teaching them about the English language and American customs. We did a lot of activities together to learn about culture and tutor them to get them ready for exams or job applications.

One instance in particular stands out to me: during our first time meeting them, a man in a corner of the room caught my attention. He refused to talk to other people, but he was cradling a guitar and I just wanted to listen to him, so I sat next to him. He glanced at me, but ignored me and continued. Suppressing the nagging fear that my presence might worsen his unease, I remained, listening to his singing and to the beautiful melody with foreign syllables. All I knew from the way he sang was that the song was incredibly special to him. 

I expected that listening remotely would be the closest interaction that this man would allow, but when he finished, he looked at me - paused - and handed his guitar to me. Uh oh. I returned his gaze with widening eyes, trying to indicate that I was just an amateur (who literally knew nothing but the simplest chords from Taylor Swift songs), but he insisted. It struck me then, that this was a crucial moment; instead of the other way around, he was reaching out to me... So I played. I played the few songs I knew and as I sang, I looked up at him and found that he was listening. His eyes darted between me and the instrument, but the curves of his mouth held a hint of a smile, prompting me to continue. I wanted to grasp this moment of connection for just a little longer, and by that point, I had forgotten everyone else. When I looked around the room, what beheld me was a small group composed of both Sun Youth and youth group volunteer members sitting in front of us, watching me curiously, at which point I both marveled at how quickly they'd gotten to know each other and became too shy to continue.

When I returned the guitar to the man, I thought he would continue ignoring me, but he just smiled, and, in broken English, haltingly spoke of his village and his past. The foreign song, he said, had been popular there. He revealed his name and we talked until the session was over.

From then on, we conversed easily at every meeting, but I view music differently now; it's not just a studiously practiced form of entertainment, but also a language in itself. As a writer, I used to think words were everything, but music, I've recognized, transcends that. Truly, "when words fail, music speaks."

(Fun fact: this is the experience that made me interested in music therapy. Still deciding between Piano Performance and that...)

Interpersonal connection, memories, and music

In our Music Pathways class this week, we talked about residencies, and one of the things we focused on is what makes people connect with what we perform. 

Why does music make people happier? What strikes a chord in the hearts of those who can’t speak? What connects us as performers to those in the audience who have lived decades longer than us?

Several students spoke up and offered ideas and experiences from performances we’ve done in care centers and community areas. Some of us play classical music with explanations of musical jargon. Some of us play movie music. Others perform Christmas carols, while others play simple art songs.

We focus so much on evoking emotion from our audiences that sometimes, we forget where the root of these emotions is: memories. 

Isn’t it? 

Why do people love Christmas carols? Music from old movies? Why are so many songs from the past so enjoyable to people of all ages now? What makes something timeless?

Not all of us can come together to love certain genres of music. Not all of us will even LIKE music. But even in the angriest of people, a fond memory just touches something that we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.