I was caught off-guard in a recent music therapy session by a client who started to cry. This was at a group in a senior center that is primarily focused on building community within the group: supporting social interaction and life review is our main goal. In-depth emotional processing is not a goal for this group, and our music-making tends towards the light and entertaining. On this occasion, however, my client crunched up his face, ready to cry, during a rousing rendition of “Good-Hearted Woman.”
My immediate reaction was confusion. I always have in the back of my mind certain songs that can sometimes bring up intense emotions (such as “Amazing Grace” and “Cat’s in the Cradle”), and I pay attention to the participants’ emotional cues during each session to gauge whether they might be having a rough day, but I had not picked up on anything unusual from this particular client. He had commented that he liked country music and had chosen this song right after “Hey Good Lookin.’” I had not guessed that his chosen song would bring up a strong emotional reaction.
How to respond? First of all, it is important to do something, because clients’ feelings and emotions are important. At the same time, though, it is possible to overreact to emotional expression. The therapist must choose whether and how to acknowledge a client’s emotional expression (verbally or non-verbally) and how to support the client’s emotional expressions verbally and musically. What is appropriate certainly varies depending on the situation. Some potential responses include:
- Non-verbal acknowledgement during the music (e.g. eye contact, nodding)
- A short verbal statement (e.g. “Wow.” or “It looks like that one got to you.”)
- A longer verbal discussion or reflection
- A variety of musical responses (e.g. play a new song, finish the current song, slow the tempo, repeat a verse)
In this particular situation, I couldn’t tell at first whether my client was in some sort of physical pain or if he was reacting emotionally to the music, so I asked, “are you okay?” in between verses of the song. He said that he was and told group to keep singing. When we finished the song, his face was still crunched up, and he patted his chest and waved his hand towards the rest of the group saying, “I’m sorry. That music just hit me right here.” The other participants and I told him not to be sorry, and a couple of people commented that you never know what kind of music is going to touch you on a given day. One participant observed that listening to and singing music live can be even more powerful than the radio, and my client nodded in agreement with this. I asked him if the song brought up something for him, giving him permission to talk about whatever he needed, but he just repeated that the song he chose just touched him deeply that day. We moved on as a group with our musical explorations.
Since that session, I have reflected on this client’s reaction to that particular song, pondering why that song provoked a reaction and the fact that he seemed surprised by his reaction as well. That session was not the best time for an in-depth exploration of emotional material that may have been stirred up by the music, but it did allow the client to have an emotional response to music in a safe setting, where he could be supported by the group. I now have more information about this client, which will guide future sessions. We met our goals of building trust and support within the group, and we laid the groundwork for meaningful musical interactions in the future.
In my opinion, this is the power of music and music therapy – when a relationship is in place, a meaningful experience can come seemingly out of nowhere. A music therapist has the ability to help the client and the group take full advantage of these musical moments. In another setting, my client may have become tearful upon hearing a song and felt embarrassed or ashamed and wanted to withdraw from the group. The other group members may have felt uncomfortable as well, but in this situation, they were empowered to care for their friend, and my client was able to feel their support. A seemingly small musical moment became something special for this client and this group.