Andrew Bland: Collective Resonance through Music Therapy with a Group of Sexual Abuse Victims

Andrew Bland


“Music touches our innermost being,

and in that way produces new life,

a life that gives exaltation to the whole being.”

– Inayat Khan


Background and Personal Introduction

Following the completion of my Master’s degree in humanistic-transpersonal psychology at theUniversity of West Georgia last year, I have been working as a direct care counselor at Inner HarbourHospital in Rockmart, GA. The facility, set in 600 acres of pine forest, maintains a strong emphasis upon holistic healing by way of experiential methods. My primary group of clients consists of eight boys (ages 13-15) who are victims of sexual abuse and the majority of whom are severely cognitively challenged and/or developmentally truncated. What I would like to share with you here are some means by which I feel I have initiated a sense of collective resonance within the group by way of music and art therapy.

Music and Meditation-Mediation

As a group, the clients with which I work have struggled a great deal since their initiation into the program last summer. Among the major problems that I have encountered are (a) their avoidance of treatment issues; (b) their lack of intrinsic motivation, and difficulty in transition from one component of the day to the next; and (c) their strong limitation of communication skills and other aptitudes expected for healthy interpersonal living.

Active Listening and Building Better Communication

In my use of music thus far, I have made a strong effort to choose material that seems to invite – rather than demand – the listener to pay attention. In turn, I have consciously worked toward developing a better sense of active listening in the clients, whereby some aspect of the music may captivate and help focus their concentration. This is inspired not only by existing research on the subject of music and cognition in its various forms, but also my own experience. I feel that as this listening skill is developed by way of exposure to music, it may also help pave the way toward a better sense of active listening and participation in day-to-day interactions.

I have observed consistent positive results with my group regarding this issue. Typically, on days in which I have played music prior to school or some other activity, the clients tend to (a) sit quietly without staff prompts while the music is playing, (b) better communicate with one another in the subsequent activity, and (c) engage in conversation which seems less frivolous and more applicable to their treatment.

Music as a Means of Aiding Transition

As for my selection of music, in accordance with a notion shared among many composers and musicians that certain keys and rhythms tend to correspond with the cycles of the day as much as the moods with which they are associated, I tend to play works which seem most conducive to the periods of transition in which I present them. For instance, I typically play classical or chamber music in the morning to help focus their attention before school. Recordings of modern jazz ensembles, flamenco guitarists, Celtic dances, or African folk songs may be heard midday as a means of helping revitalize the patients when they tend to get sleepy after lunch and/or school. And chants of the East and West, Native American flutes, piano or guitar works from the Baroque era, or so-called ‘New Age’ or ‘meditation’ music are generally utilized at lights out to help lull them to sleep.

Sound Healing: Music and Active Imagination

Moreover, I believe that music may be employed as a recreational therapy technique. During the days surrounding the holidays (when there were no planned school activities and heavy rains prohibited us from going outside), I initiated a series of active imagination sessions. I played Enya’sShepherd Moons and asked the patients to draw or write what came to them. The results were quite encouraging. One client with a reputation for avoidance scribbled a three-page cathartic letter to his abusive father – which, to my knowledge, may be the most substantial written treatment work he has completed during his time in the program. Another, known for his refusal and/or inability to discuss his anger problems, drew a rather dramatic and vivid picture of his inner demon. Third, a client who had been struggling with his initiation into an intensive treatment program at the gates of puberty confronted a healthy developmental crisis in the form of the symbolic death of his childhood. And overall, the clients’ usual instigative-reactive behaviors decreased dramatically, and a genuine sense of togetherness seemed to unfold.

Music, Education, and Anger Management

In addition to providing a space for therapeutic opening within the context of a structured environment, I have had other agendas in mind. First, many of the clients’ musical knowledge tends to be limited to gangsta rap and boy bands. By playing a wide variety of music from around the world and across genres and epochs, I have intentionally helped expose them to different styles other than that typically broadcast on the bandwaves. This, I hope, may broaden not only their sense of appreciation for music beyond the popular material with which they may be typically accustomed, but also their awareness of cultural diversity.

One day I brought in an album by the Beatles (with whom several of my clients are unfamiliar, or they associate with their grandparents!). Familiar with hearing comments like “This is stupid,” I was astounded to hear the clients ask that I play a number of the songs again. (All the while, I was also using the songs as a means of purporting ethics [i.e., “We Can Work It Out”], not to mention treatment values [“Help!”]). One day during a group processing session in which I encouraged the clients to recognize other means of expressing their anger than by way of outbursts and altercations, I reminded them of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (which they had been recently expressing their appreciation for) and asked if they knew much about the people who had created it. “No,” they said. I replied, “JohnLennon was a very angry man. Angrier than you, perhaps!”

The clients appeared astonished, giving me looks as if I should be the one residing in a treatment facility. But I continued, “He had a terrible childhood. His father left when he was four, and he watched his mother fall to her death when he was barely older than you. But he did not take his upset out on others. He did not argue with his staff and his peers. He did not throw things across the room. Instead, he made beautiful art.”

Since that time, I feel that my relationship with the group has improved immensely. I like to believe that I was able to attack from within – not from the familiar staff-patient prompts, but rather from a relatedness that often only arises from a sense of shared resonance. In turn, I feel that I may have helped promote the notion that anger and suffering may be positively transformed so long as they are appropriately channeled.

Toward ReCreation Therapy

In light of these ideas and illustrations, I believe that as the patients have been played a variety of music, they seem to have become better in touch with their own inner tones and rhythms, and a genuine sense of recreation therapy in its truest sense – i.e. re-creation of the person – has ensued.Moreover, I feel that their functioning as a group has improved immensely – their sharing the common experience as victims being superceded by the common experience of being healed with the help of music, a medium with the capacity to resonate among all humans regardless of culture and time.

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