Get Off of My Cloud

October 14, 2011

There are many challenges in working with other people to create music.  In my sessions, I am not rigid about structure if something doesn’t feel right, and because of my experiences, I’m hyper-aware of comments people make that may cause the session to go in another direction, for better or for worse, and that’s okay.  Unless there’s a shortage of space, I sit in the circle with my clients so I’m not mistaken for an entertainer (unfortunately this happens quite a bit working in older adult settings) and I encourage their input in most aspects of each session.  Most of my clients are not only non-musicians, but usually have some sort of physical, mental or cognitive difficulties, and are grateful to have a “leader” to guide and facilitate the group.  “Well” elders are sometimes a little different.

This past year, I helped a local Jewish housing organization write a grant.  We received funding so I began working with well elders in an independent living setting.  Most of the clients are Jewish, though there are some who aren’t but who have assimilated to the communities with ease.  In the spring, one of my groups was made up entirely of Russian speakers.  ENTIRELY Russian speakers.  I did have a translator, but it was extremely difficult and intimidating working with that bunch.  There were some wonderful moments, but after some consideration, the organization decided not to have me go back to the Russians, and have me instead begin working at another (brand new) location.  My first group at this new place was yesterday and it went really well, BUT…

In every group, there is one.  One what?  You can use your imaginations, I’m sure, but I’ll tell you anyway.  One very pushy know-it-all who would rather be doing my job than cooperating for the greater good.  They exist at every age.

For my first session with these “new” well elders, I decided to lead a Senegalese hello song so I could learn everyone’s names, explain who I am and what we’ll be doing over the next three months, open up the group to suggestions about songs and then do a songwriting exercise.  I ended up leading the Senegalese hello song, and then the seventeen women in my group began suggesting songs.  Forever.  That’s fine.  I’m just getting to know them, and I want to know about their tastes, their cognitive abilities and their motivation to participate spontaneously, which can all be deduced from a rowdy sing-along.

There was a woman next to me, R. who is a singer in a 300 member chorus and has been an amateur musician forever, and when she suggested the group do a “round,”  I was excited.  During the first try, she didn’t sing with her own side, but instead micromanaged the others because they were having difficulty, thus creating much confusion on her own side and leaving me without a smaller group to work with.  Everyone ended up singing the same thing.  Usually it would be my job to facilitate, and though I always enjoy well elders because of their abilities to do exercises that others sometimes aren’t capable of, this didn’t work.  If there are two people leading a group, they should at least be on the same page, not to mention the primary facilitator should maybe be notified of a shift in leadership to adequately adapt.

We tried again.  This time, I suggested she lead her own side, and that they start first, so I can cue the other side to start and conduct an ending when it’s time.  For a group of non-musicians, they did really well, but it only worked because there was a designated leader.

Anyway, the group ended and I was bombarded with questions, song suggestions, affirmations, and an Israeli woman singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav passionately to me while holding both of my hands.  One of the suggestions was from R. who suggested that we not sing so many Jewish songs next time, as there are some people who aren’t Jewish.  She was fixated on this, even though she herself is Jewish.  It was a wonderful piece of constructive criticism, and very considerate of her, but I hadn’t I sung more than two Jewish songs in the hour-long session, and the other group members seemed to be just fine with their peers’ song suggestions (I didn’t suggest any songs during the group).  But I said okay, because it just wasn’t that important.  We are going to be doing many MT interventions, and we’ll only be having singing groups three or four times in the fourteen week “semester.”

Then she suggested that I make song books so that everyone knows the words to all the songs.  I tried, amidst a ridiculous amount of interruption by R., to explain why song books don’t meet certain goals in what I am trying to accomplish in these sessions with everyone.  I explained that because of my MT background, I’m concerned with the goals in every session, and that while looking at the words can be easier than trying to remember them, that’s really not why we’re here (insert tangent on cognitively-based goals here).  She informed me that she’s older than I am (umm, really?) and that she’s not really interested in “exercising her brain,” but is more interested in having fun.  Fabulous.  She also mentioned that it seems like we have different ideas about what the group should be about.  She said that she’s concerned with how well everyone sings, and the skill level in our group (pretty much the opposite of music therapy’s general philosophy), and clearly I don’t feel the same way.  This very frustrating conversation (I felt uncomfortable with several other interactions I don’t need to go into detail about) was exacerbated by R’s incessant interruptions whenever I was trying to answer her questions.

I don’t know everything, but judging by the bright affect and enthusiastic participation by all of the individuals in my group, I’d say we had a great time without having to shuffle papers around and make sure the tenants with memory loss were on the right page.  R will come again next week, and I’m sure she’ll have something to say about what we should do differently, but she’s not responsible for meeting the goals written into the grant that helped start this program.  We can do as many rounds as she would like to try (with organized direction), and as I told her, I would be happy to set aside one group where each member can either suggest a favorite song, or pick one from a list, and I can then make a group songbook for us to sing from (one time), and for them to take home with them.

I am all for flexibility, and I love when participants contribute spontaneously to a session, but I’m not willing to compromise my integrity so one out of seventeen group members can monopolize a group I was hired to facilitate, who doesn’t seem to even want to understand why the group exists in the first place.



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