Shall We Dance? When the therapist is vulnerable, too.

Here’s a tale of a music therapist becoming vulnerable in order to fully engage in the musical process with a client.

Warning: If you thought therapists should be somehow all-knowing and perfect, you should stop reading here.

A new member joined a monthly music therapy group that has been going for a few years now. He told me his name, and he participated in the first few musical experiences we shared as a group. Then I turned on a recording of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby,” encouraging the group to play drums and other rhythm instruments along with the music. I intended to provide hand-over-hand assistance to some of the residents who needed more help in playing their instruments. Once the music kicked on, though, this new resident could not stay in his seat, and he stood up, made a bee line for me, and asked me for a dance.

Here’s my confession: my initial reaction was to say no, sorry, I’m too busy, I can’t dance, etc. I’m not comfortable with dancing. Yes, I know that dance and music have been inextricably linked for all of human history, but dance feels like an alien experience to me. I was not sure how my resident-turned-dance-partner would do, and (if I’m being totally honest) I was worried about looking stupid. But, this dance was this resident’s full-out, authentic expression of his musical being. How could I not engage with that?

Fortunately, my wiser self kicked in and, glancing around the circle to make sure that everyone was engaged in the music, I accepted the dance.

My dance partner had to tell me to loosen up and follow his lead. He had to simplify his step. But then we fell into a rhythm and danced for the rest of the song, with other group members cheering us on. My partner was beaming.

We each returned to our seats, and I facilitated a few more experiences to close the session. After the session ended, this resident came up to me to thank me for the dance and to tell me that I did a fine job dancing. (I’m sure my need for reassurance was showing on my face, even if I was trying my best to conceal it.) He asked me to guess his age (70-something?) and told me he was 80 years old (80!). He was absolutely thrilled. Full of life. I am certain that this interaction provided him with great joy while validating the importance of his presence in the group and the value of his experiences.

So, what was my role in this session? My job was to be vulnerable. Music therapists ask a lot of their clients. (If you’re thinking about starting music therapy, you’re probably nodding your head right now.) We ask folks to share some of the most personal, intimate aspects of their life by sharing their music with us. It can be scary to sing in front of someone you’ve never met who is, by definition, a professionally trained musician. (Don’t worry, though – sometimes we’re shy about our voices, too.) It can be a little intimidating to play a drum if it’s something you’ve never tried before. It can be anxiety-provoking to share something as personal as a song that you’ve written or even to name a favorite song.

Therapists are usually in the driver’s seat during sessions. The therapist is the one who is bringing the instruments and the song lists and the recordings. The therapist is the one who starts and ends the session, and it’s the therapist’s job to provide the structure that helps the therapeutic process to move along. Being in charge sometimes lets us hide our vulnerability, but we don’t have all the answers to life’s mysteries either. In music therapy, we’re really just stepping out into the mystery with you, trusting that we will find courage in each other’s willingness to take that first step.

I have enormous gratitude for the courage my clients show by entering the musical process with me. Sometimes it may seem simple and easy, just singing a silly song or beating on a drum, but you never know quite when it will become challenging. You never know if you’re risking tears of sadness or more questions than answers about the future.

I guess that’s when you just have to accept the dance, and see where the music takes you.

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5 thoughts on “Shall We Dance? When the therapist is vulnerable, too.

  1. Ann Becker-Schutte (@DrBeckerSchutte) says:

    Rachelle,

    You have just described an experience that cuts across all modalities of therapy. That moment where we acknowledge our vulnerability, face a fear, risk being wrong, risk being human. It’s always a balancing act, to show up vulnerable AND professional, to be genuine AND create safe boundaries. When we do it right though, we really do create sacred space. I love the imagery of this story, and I love that you let your own authentic feelings shine through as you told it. Thanks for that gift.

    Warmly,
    Ann

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Thank you so much, Ann. You’re right – it is always a balancing act, but it’s certainly worth the effort!

  2. Carolyn Stone says:

    Rachelle,
    Thanks for sharing this experience. It’s unnerving and magical all at once when we are swepted up in a moment like this. I love the way the music and the dancing and your ability to respond really made this man’s day. My mother spent years in a skilled nursing facility with a skilled music therapist. I felt she was the best part of the services offered.
    Best,
    Carolyn

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Thank you for your kind comment, Carolyn. As scientific and objective as we try to be, sometimes it’s really hard to avoid the word “magical” about experiences like this one! I am glad that the music therapist was able to do so much for your mother.

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