These Tiny Things

Posted in Blog on 16th November 2011

A part of the project not mentioned here so far, though central, is the work we have done directly with children. This has acted as a model for staff members, who have observed, participated in and, finally, run sessions. The needs, and the strengths, children have revealed in the groups has formed the basis of the training course and the development of the project.

Although the thirty children participating in music sessions have shaped the project, the sessions themselves are the hardest thing to write about. Perhaps the difficulty comes because things that feel significant are small moments, miniscule shifts, glancing, provisional interpretations and glimpsed possibilities – nothing definite. Each child responds moment to moment in his or her own particular way. It is hard to generalise and perhaps that’s the point.

Music therapists tend to write about their work through case study examples; I am starting to see why. If it is impossible to generalise – and when it comes to human interactions perhaps it should be – case studies at least allow us to be specific and definite about the unfolding of a particular therapeutic relationship. In a similar spirit, I wanted to mention a few tiny things that have stayed with me:

An autistic boy spends most of the first three sessions at the back of the hall, usually taking an instrument with him. We try to stay in musical contact, responding to sounds he makes and using his name. During the fourth session, he is able to take his place in the circle.

A young woman with little speech, who staff members describe as generally unresponsive outside the music room, joins in with a familiar Georgian song. As it ends she lays a palm across her breast bone. ‘Guli,’ she says. Heart.

A small girl called Mari spends most of the first session hiding her face with her arm, as if blocking out strong sunlight. She refuses all instruments and, thought she shows keen interest in what is going on, any attention sent her way leads her to hide her face again. By the fourth session, she reaches out to take and play instruments offered to her and, at times, makes clear eye contact.

A group of five children who share a lack of confidence and a tendency to silence spontaneously develop a musical game. We pass an imaginary object around the circle, which changes shape from person to person, ‘speaking’ for the child. In one child’s hands it is a scary monster, growling, in another’s it becomes a cat, miaowing. The children are engaged, laughing and delightfully creative. During the following session this game develops quite naturally into a group vocal improvisation, where each child has a voice and can experiment within the game’s structure.

Though moments like this are just a start, their significance is felt by staff attending sessions. The women see the children’s usual behaviour day to day, so they are alive to any new responses. They are quick to notice if a child becomes more vocal, or seems less anxious, or begins to take more initiative.

One of the carers tells us she has seen a boy who lacks confidence in the classroom introducing a musical name game to his classmates. Another tells us that a girl she has worked with during music now seeks eye contact with her when they pass in the corridor. She feels this is a sign of a developing relationship, sustained between sessions.

The more these women see what music can offer here, the greater their enthusiasm to develop the work. We begin to talk about how the sessions might change over time, and about potential therapeutic goals for children. Staff commitment is vital because the success of the project depends on these busy carers and teachers choosing to continue the work despite the extra pressure this will put on them – and on the school’s resources.

We are in Georgia for three weeks, only long enough to see glimpses. We are hopeful, but every seeming development for a child feels provisional; we don’t have time to explore and test our hunches.

We plan to offer support, both virtually from Scotland and through regular follow-up visits. In between times, staff at the school will need to hold a sense of what’s possible, not only to give the work shape and direction but also to motivate them to continue.

When we were planning this project, I had all sorts of grand ideas. I hoped we would be able to facilitate an exchange of knowledge between those engaged in traditional Georgian practices of healing through song and professional music therapists in the UK. The reality has been different from the plan, less neatly poised, and I hope this is because we have responded to the context and to actual need.

Perhaps the best thing we can do in a short project like this is to recognise and draw out the skills these women already have. Many of them have worked at the school for several years and have a wealth of experience in caring and teaching roles. They show an ease in their interactions with children, a good-humoured confidence and sharp intuitive sense. We bring a specific way of thinking about music and about nonverbal interaction, one that prioritises listening over directing, and shared creativity over authority.

Though not in the way I had imagined, this project has been a real exchange between cultures. We have learned as much as we have taught.

I hope and believe this is just the beginning.

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