I just started working as a counselor at the Manhattan School of Music, and I’ve been struck by how much music can teach us about how to navigate life more creatively and effectively. There are myriad analogies that come to mind, but I’ll just focus here on a few to open up some new ways of thinking.
The most basic is that psychologically speaking, we are much more like an orchestra than we realize. We all have so many different instruments inside of us, and it is crucial for us to recognize them, know their respective ranges, and to learn how to encourage some sections, i.e. strings, winds, or brass, while temporarily holding back others until the right moment. It is easy for us to think of ourselves just as one instrument, but that doesn’t do justice to the complexity and richness of what we are all capable of expressing, the interesting music that we can all can make.
The other fundamental premise is that what instruments are brought out largely depend on the social context and what our relationships encourage, discourage, or even deny. Therapy is so helpful in this regard because it helps us not only to notice this reality, but it also allows us to practice with somebody who is trained to conduct the entire orchestra, rather than focus on certain sections or individual players.
A second very interesting musical premise relates to how to look at challenging situations in our lives. Musicians are trained to work on difficult passages. Initially, these can be frustrating and even daunting, but the trained musician learns not only how to break them down, they also learn to embrace the process of figuring out how to make a game out of them, seeing them as opportunities to develop and refine some aspect of their musicianship. They work them inside and out, varying their approach, and trying on different ways of engaging the notes, finding ways of understanding their structure, developing their line, and bringing together their analytical and emotional connection to them. In short, they develop an intimate and creative relationship with these situations, so they can put them together and master something that initially felt insurmountable. This requires not only discipline and flexibility, but also the hope and faith of being able to bring something together with sustained engagement, the belief that this is not only going to strengthen us, but it will also lead us to more interesting music that we can truly relish. It is the kind of feeling that we all need to bring to our most challenging situations.
Another musical metaphor that can help us in our most stressful and tempestuous times comes from the sonata form. A sonata begins with the exposition section, which articulate the main theme, the feeling of home and stability, and yet shortly into the middle, a development section occurs. This section often moves through a number of keys, wildly tinkers with the initial themes, and reharmonizes them in ways that can feel dislocating and rather stormy. It is so helpful for us to remember that the development section is part of the interest of the sonata in that it develops what we already know in novel and original ways, and even more so, brings needed momentum. Furthermore, the development section also must be remembered as a transitional section. The sonata, like ourselves, doesn’t just stay in the waves of the stressful and anxiety producing situation, it becomes a place that spurs us towards something else. And it turns out, that just like in creative therapy, the sonata brings us to a recapitulation that both brings us back home and to someplace new.
These are just some beginning thoughts of how music can teach us and enhance the ways we view our own psychological growth process. My hope is that they can remind us all how we can benefit from embracing the difficult passages and those development sections which together, remind us how to change and stay the same. In short, they teach us the beauty of creative engagement!
Michael Alcee, Ph.D is a clinical psychologists who works at the Manhattan School of Music and is in private practice in Tarrytown, NY. He enjoys making creative connections between therapy, music, the arts, and literature, and most importantly within the people with whom he works! Check out more about him at drmichaelalcee.com.