Creative Sound and Psychotherapy

by Anne Colgan

My love of music goes back to as far as I can remember. As was the norm in the early fifties music was considered a hobby and not looked upon as a serious career. It was something to fall back on. Making up songs was not on. Learning to read music and play the piano ‘properly’ was encouraged. I always had a party piece, all of my family did. I was sent to piano lessons and learned to sing in the usual way at school. Those of us who could sing naturally were called the singers and although I was a soprano I was put in the alto section because I could hold the line that was being taught. There was never any improvisation or creativity in the learning. When I was studying music theory and structure at college voice was a required subject. My first voice lesson was a revelation to me. I realised that singing was much easier than piano playing. There was still a lot of hard work involved, but it was joyful and playful.

The need to have a job and support myself led to my music being sidelined. I was also intimidated by music notation and in getting it right. I was afraid of making mistakes. A pattern did emerge though; whenever I was stressed I would turn to my music. It would get hauled out of oblivion again. When I began to study psychotherapy it haunted me. I began to acknowledge albeit reluctantly, that my voice had been buried. I addressed it in group therapy saying that there was a part of me no one knew; my voice.  I wasn’t able to bring it in to the group at that point, but I had said it. I tippy-toed around it and eventually asked for time at the penultimate session. The thought of it made my heart race. The day arrived and my heart was thumping ferociously in my neck.  My critic was larger than life. ‘You said you had a voice. HA!  You’re a fraud! You’ll be found out!’  I could feel the anticipation in the room. I could feel the encouraging energy coming from the group and I dived in.  I felt that I had put my heart out into the middle of the circle and that it was pumping as if to burst.  My song was ‘There’s a Place for Us’ from West Side Story.  To me it is a Therapist’s song.  I had great difficulty with my breath because I was very nervous. I felt very vulnerable. But, for the first time ever, I sang from my heart.

Soon after that a friend of mine said he would love to be able to sing a song all the way through. I began working with him and that was the beginning of the work I do today with sound. Music revealed itself and pushed me towards doing more and more. It was like there was a hand behind my back pushing me towards it. In spite of all of this I was very resistant and hesitant. I began to realise that this was a process and that I couldn’t push the river. I began to research the idea of creative music and music therapy and attended workshops, seminars and conferences so that I could learn more about it. These were very helpful, but I realised that if I was to be creative and to be the facilitator for creative music, it had to come from within me and from the people with whom I was working. My greatest learning is from doing the work.

The first creative sound workshop was six years ago. I hoped to create a safe space where each person could explore his or her own voice, his or her own sound. Each piece of the work is by invitation. I hold the sound with my own voice and invite the participants to join when and if they wish. I continually emphasise that they are free to observe and free to some in and out of the sound as they wish. It is not therapy. However it can be therapeutic.

In June 2002 the Arts Department of Wexford County Council invited anyone working with music to attend a music conference in order to explore ways in which to bring music into the community, and in particular to people who would have been excluded from music for various reasons. This was very much in harmony with my own belief that music is inclusive. Composers facilitated the workshops and we were invited to compose and perform. Their passion around the availability of music in each one of us gave me confidence and encouragement to continue to work with music in a creative way. Following that conference the participants were invited to demonstrate the way they worked with music. I took the plunge and offered to do a spot. I knew I had to do it if I was to progress. But I was anxious about putting myself out there particularly when most of the group was classically trained.  I depended on ‘trusting the process’ in a big way through all of this. There was no other way I could have managed it. I did the demonstration and the feedback was great particularly when I realised that most of the classical musicians in the group said that they hadn’t composed any music themselves. They believed other people would be better at it. This really surprised me. Another hurdle over!  Shortly after that I was offered an Artist in Residence post by the Arts Department of Wexford County Council. I was to work with clients with profound physical and intellectual disabilities in St. John of God House in Enniscorthy.

As soon as I met the clients I knew I wanted to do the work. I had no guidelines. It was up to me. The backbone of the work is the humanistic approach in that we all have the ability to heal ourselves.  Again it was back to trusting the process, that the music would reveal the way. I invite the client to connect through sound and voice, to be heard, to become visible, to be witnessed.  I work best when I let go of the desire for results and allow the music to do the work, to trust that it is the experience that counts and not the performance. One group of clients are immobile. They can move their heads, hands and feet, but are basically sitting or lying on custom made chairs. I do most of the work on the floor on mattresses.  In the beginning I could only see their vulnerability. Then as time went on and we built up the relationship, they let me see beyond their disabilities. I use my voice and the energy in my body. The sounds provide the holding. I witness the constant struggle they have with being heard, with communicating. I mimic their sound when they make it and I see sometimes, in only the flick of an eyelid, their connection with the sound and with me. They know they have been heard.

The work is heartbreaking and exhilarating. They take me to a higher ground. They show me how it is to truly live in the now. I feel they communicate beyond their bodies. Their disabilities disappear in the work. They let me see how sound connects with the soul and liberates the spirit. The sound magnifies what is possible while acknowledging the impossible.

Another group in St. John of God’s is mobile. They too are profoundly disabled both physically and intellectually. I often wonder what I’m at. I have to trust that the musical experience is making a difference, that I am the facilitator but the music is theirs.  Sometimes out of the blue there will be a great moment, like the time one of the clients who had never moved while I was in the room danced with me. Most of the clients that I work with make very loud screechy noises. I mimic them and I find when I do that we move through different kinds of sounds. I encourage them to make as much sound as they can. Their noises are often the only way in which they can communicate.

The work is exhausting and challenging and yet we have great fun and great loving moments. Their love is palpable and their sense of humour extraordinary in the face of their constant suffering.  They make my own music making easier for me. When I work with them I find myself less resistant and move confidently. They ground me. I didn’t work with them for the summer and I found that when I returned it was like I had come home. St. John of God House is their home and the staff are dedicated to their comfort and wellbeing. I have great support in the work and I find that I need the reassurance and back up that the staff give to me as they too engage in the music.

I have learned new things as a result of the work. We needed to make a DVD for an International Health Conference and I learned how to do it. We also made a CD and we are in the process of making more. Through all of this I have had great support from the Arts Officer, Rosaleen Molloy and from the Nursing Director Anne McClean and her staff. This in turn pushes me to do more. I need an enormous amount of energy on a physical, emotional and creative level. I have never experienced such levels of sadness, excitement and ecstasy as I do when making this creative music.

Anne Colgan has a private psychotherapy practice in Gorey, Co. Wexford and she is an Artist in Residence in the Wexford County Council Artsability Project. Ph. 086 2501452