Music as a metaphor for life is a common thread in my work as a music therapist. Though I implement this practice with my clients to nurture their growth, I recently had the opportunity to cultivate this concept outside of the clinical setting. This past September, I was invited to lead a 2-hour music therapy experience for a group of psychiatrists.
The Southern California Psychiatric Society has a committee called the Art of Psychiatric Medicine. This committee aims to support the artistic nature of psychiatry, and hosts events with guest artists to promote creativity and community among clinicians. I discussed with Dr. Michelle Furuta, the event’s organizer, how music therapy could support this purpose. We conceptualized a project titled, “Life as A Song: Personal Melodies and Collective Rhythms.”
On a Sunday afternoon, the group gathered to share a creative music experience. The psychiatrists in attendance brought a wide range of clinical experience, knowledge, and musical interests. I felt inspired and honored to be in the presence of these dedicated medical doctors who were taking valuable time for their personal growth, connection, and artistic exploration.
My goal for the day was to use music as a lens to enhance self-reflection and as a bond to enrich positive social connections. We used music as a metaphor to explore individual traits and roles, and to celebrate the collective rhythms present in the group. We spent time with music on a personal level. Then, we created music together.
This seven-minute video captures the essence of our 2-hour session and the product of our creative efforts. Below the video is a brief explanation of the session and process (a full step-by-step guide for the interventions are available in my e-book, The Harmony Handbook, Vol. 1).
Prior to the songwriting experience captured in the video, the session opened by first exploring the elements of music in relation to the self and others. We looked at how our individual lives can be described in musical terms…our voices as melodies, the tempos at which we move, the dynamics we emanate and prefer, the harmonies that exist within and around us, and the rhythms in our everyday lives. These elements exist in unique combinations for all of us. Our group also explored how these elements differed in personal and professional roles.
With this musical language in place, we moved into improvisation, creating music spontaneously. The freedom of expression that improvisation brings allows for a non-verbal social connection and making music for enjoyment, with openness, cooperation, and fluidity. Here, the elements of music exist in pure form, and this allowed the group a break from words before getting into songwriting.
I chose the song “Times Like These” to facilitate a songwriting experience because of its universal themes, adaptability, and form. This song is structured so well for the encouragement of songwriting to describe oneself and reflect on the present moment. Originally written and performed by the band Foo Fighters, this song is also versatile and can be played as a rock or folk song, and I have even seen adolescents turn this song into hip-hop. Our group played the original version together to get a feel for the melody and rhythm, and then each person was encouraged to write his or her own lyrics to the song.
With these new lyrics, we collectively created a group song that represented each individual and the group as a whole. As seen in the video, each person chose a part of a verse they wrote, and together we wrote a group chorus. With this, we created our own version of the song that allowed each person’s voice to be heard, and for the group to unify. Their song flowed with honesty, vision, and courage, and the support and cohesiveness of the process was powerful to witness and share.
I admired each person’s willingness to reveal their creative side, as the nature of music requires a certain level of audacity, especially in the presence of peers or colleagues. This was also out of my comfort zone, and allowed growth for me as a clinician. Though I have worked with thousands of psychiatric patients over the years, to work with their doctors was new for me. In the end, I was left with a strong sense of gratitude and validation that music therapy may not only be recognized in psychiatry, but that there are clinicians also willing to take a step in.
This day was a compelling reminder that music is not only therapeutic and beneficial for those we as practitioners define as clients. For all of us, practitioners included, music is a catalyst that awakens an awareness of who we are and why we do what we do. Music connects us to each other and to ourselves.
Special thanks to the Southern California Psychiatric Society‘s Art of Psychiatric Medicine Committee, Dr. Michelle Furuta, Mindi Thelan, all of the participants, and videographer Tim Thelan.