My Google search for a definition of “Container” garners this result: con·tain·er: Noun. An object that can be used to hold something. I’m thinking a lot about containers. First of all, I just like them. Everything should have its place, and if that place can be stylish, all the more fulfilling. Having just moved and set up a new office I’ve been investigating and investing in many such holding spaces. And, as my experience often goes, art imitates life, literal mirrors symbolism. The “musical container” is an essential element in GIM work. The size of it, the content or energy invoked in the choice, it’s clinical, musical kinda thang. But, oh, it’s so much more. My primary GIM therapist said to me the other day: “After years of doing this I don’t even know how I pick the music anymore, it’s just instinct.” I can see that, 20 years from now maybe. In the meantime, I’m thinking long and hard about which music program to select, and a good part of that is the scope. A musical container gets bigger as the music gets bigger. That is, traditional classical music is considered larger in what it may evoke than contemporary. But even within the classics there is a myriad of choices. Certain composers used smaller or larger orchestras depending on when they lived and what was hip, more strings, more emotion—well, theoretically. And let’s face it, some composers just wrote more intense music than others. The fact that it often corresponded to the level of drama and angst within their private lives is a blog post for another day, but of course, my personal preference is for what I lovingly call the “balls to the wall” composers. Your Beethoven, your Chesnokov, Rachmaninoff, and I put Bach in that category, Bach just kills me sometimes. In my lighter moments I am a huge Handel fan and just recently I’ve had some special moments with Mr. Brahms. But personal preference aside, we need it all. We need the whole gamut of musical options because people, and the challenges they face, cover them all.
So what is a musical container other than instrumentation size, energy level and length of a piece or pieces? It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s the walls around you (again, quite literally and on a purely emotional level) that hold a good part of the therapeutic experience. As a Music Therapist part of my job is to evaluate what will meet you where you are, but also maybe nudge you along a bit, if that seems appropriate. If my estimation is off and I give you something you are not ready for the whole experience can be blown. Think about taking a small child to an elaborate fine art exhibition, he’s probably missing the point and looking around for something he can play with. If he doesn’t find it a tantrum may ensue, or maybe he just goes to sleep. 40 years later he ends up going to a Music Therapist because he can’t figure out why he feels so triggered in art galleries, but I digress.
But, there is something else. Something that happens in a Music Therapy session, especially GIM, that often does not occur in other forms of therapy. The musical container holds the Traveler in a way they may never have experienced or have been longing for. The music is more than a buffer between in our conversation, although there is that, and all the science about how both sides of the brain and now engaged. The right musical container can put the traveler at ease and allow them to go where they’ve never gone before. People use mood and mind altering substances for a similar effect, (to be clear, I am in no way promoting that) because it helps them tell the truth, dance better, be social, go to the outer realms. If you look at the origins of Helen Bonny’s work it began at the Maryland Psychiatric Institute programming music for subjects on LSD trips. She found, of course, that the same types of experiences could be had with NO drugs at all, if the music was right. “Right” is about style sometimes, but often it’s about container.
I’ve been awestruck at the power of the GIM experience, and so many forms of Music Therapy, really. I know it’s my “Co-Therapist” doing the work when the Traveler says something along the lines of: “I’ve never told anyone about this before, I can’t believe it’s coming out,” and that’s not an uncommon occurrence. Of course, that isn’t every day or every session and some people are so defended that there is no music that’s going to get through. We ALWAYS have the power of choice when revealing our tales. Music is not a magic potion that finds you waking up in Vegas with one shoe on and a new companion. Nor is it an instant truth serum, but it certainly can create a safety net where growth and healing take place.
I think I’ve been in search of something to help me understand the truth from people for a long time, if you really want to know, and I assume you do if you’re reading this. When I was about 6 or 7 I used to spin around in the back yard waiting to transform into Wonder Woman. I wanted access to her golden lasso because even then it seemed that people bigger than me had a tenuous relationship with the truth. There are many days where I wish I could find one and use it on myself so I could better understand why the broken flower pot caused me to burst into tears. People are so multi-layered and complicated, is it any mystery that people have flocked to see the Super-Hero movies of late (who knew Wonder Woman would end up being an Israeli Goddess?) We’re all holding out for a hero (my 80’s are showing), and I submit to you that GIM can bring out the hero inside of you.
I wrote in a recent post about how singing choral music used to surround and heal me like 100 nurturing arms. I’ve known that instinctually my entire life, but now I know that it’s literally helping me HOLD whatever I’m wrestling with (which on any given day might be either my own mortality or a spot on the carpet). For those who have a trauma history I don’t have to explain how far we fall, when we fall. We could not sit with the experience then, because no one could, and now we’re bewildered at how everyday life events seem to throw us so off kilter. Music can provide invisible guards that strengthen you until you’re able to put yourself back together, and we all need that, to be held and helped in our vulnerability.
Finally, I will say this. I believe there is freedom within the boundaries. I had none as a kid and it confused the heck out me (and made me into quite the smart ass). When I attended Interlochen Arts Academy for High School I experienced my first uniform, work service, curfew, Prefix, laundry machine, strict music program (what do you mean I can sing rock and roll here?) I thrived. I learned more and felt safer in an atmosphere where I knew the rules and what was expected of me. Sure, I broke a rule here and there, and I thought I was amazingly bold (which I wasn’t), but it was the beginning of what would become a wonderful life. Musical containers can also provide this steady, predictable, appropriate direction in therapy, which I believe helps us progress. I do not believe in endless therapy. I believe we never stop growing and needing and hurting and helping and bettering ourselves, hopefully, but if you’re still having the same conversation about your mother with the same therapist from 1989 that you started with, we should meet. You, me, and the music.