It’s a quiet day here at home – I’ve officially caught the annual Fall bug going around and am sitting on my couch with tea on one side of me and oatmeal on the other. Luckily I had a “mental health day” scheduled for tomorrow anyway, just appears my body couldn’t wait to get in on the action and stay home a day earlier!
I make a habit of scheduling the occasional “mental health day” or a day just for M.E. (remember that post? click here for details on those initials!) because time has shown me, along with various physical ailments, that my body and mind need recharge time in between the hectic hours I spend on the road or working with clients, as so many others in my field do. We’re “helpers” by nature, we want to be there for the individuals we serve, and sometimes that means running ourselves ragged to do it. But I was reminded in a session last week how important just taking a break can be, not just in my day to day schedule, and not just for myself, but for my clients, and in my very sessions too.
Many of my students at the North Dakota School for the Deaf have Cochlear Implants. For those of you who don’t know how Cochlear Implants work, they are made up of two parts: one is an internal metal piece that’s surgically implanted in the recipient’s skull, the other is a transmitter that connects magnetically to the plate from the outside of the head behind the ear. Without that external transmitter, the individual is totally deaf. I have preschool students with implants who will take them off during tantrums and put their hands up over their heads to cover their eyes and where the magnetic piece would attach so they can’t hear or see my instructions, which can make a person feel pretty powerless (and tantrums are all about power!), but alas, I digress…
Some of my students with Cochlear Implants have other disabilities as well, which can make the process of receiving and living with an implant, and the auditory stimulation it brings with it, very difficult. One such preschool student last Thursday came into their group session with me very upset – crying in a way that I knew was beyond a tantrum. They were legitimately upset, and scaring themselves – you could see the fear in this student’s eyes, and it broke my heart. Their teacher said to me that the student had recently gone in for an appointment to have the volume of what they were hearing through their implant turned up, and the stimulation since returning to school, it seemed, was too much. So much in fact, that mid-Hello song (even without my guitar, I had opted just to sing to reduce the auditory stimulation) this teacher and student had to leave the room and take a walk, which I should add has never had to happen before with this student. They loved music time, and even on the worst days, I had always found a way to turn their tears around with music. Strumming the guitar in particular was this student’s favorite activity, so I told the teacher that I would come down to the classroom for some one-on-one time with this student after group, that maybe this would help. The teacher told me that she was going to take the student’s implant off for a while to calm them down and that she didn’t think music would be of any use then. I reminded her that music was multisensory, and that the tactile experience of strumming the guitar was at least worth a try. We agreed, and I finished the group music session with the rest of this student’s class in my room, then packed up my guitar and headed downstairs to the student’s actual classroom to try some one on one strumming. And the result was amazing…
When I entered the room, the student was lying on the floor crying softly, without their implant, hands over their ears to block anyone trying to put them back on (which they had long given up doing, but again, when you’re in one of those “point of no return” tantrums, everything seems to be an imminent threat). I sat down in front of them and took my guitar out of its case, and the hands came down from the ears within a second. The student sat upright, and, still crying, reached for the guitar and began to strum. I let the fingers of my left hand form a little chord progression, even though I knew the student couldn’t hear it, but I could see them recognizing when my hand would move, and making little glances away from what they were doing to recognize me, and that was a valuable sign they was aware enough of their environment in the midst of all they were feeling to maybe start to come out of it. The student alternated between strumming themselves and grabbing my hand to strum, crying softly all the while, until a little smile crept across their face and the student lay back on the floor, pulling the guitar onto their lap as they did so, so that when I strummed they could feel the vibration against their stomach. This is a pretty vulnerable position, so I knew we were on to something once the student led me there! I played for a few more minutes until the student turned over onto their stomach so the guitar was against their back. Then they pulled out from under the guitar and grabbed a nearby book and opened it. Across the room the teacher made eye contact with me and just shook her head. Both of us were near tears. As this student engaged themselves in the bookshelf in front of us, I slowly stopped playing and stood with my guitar. The student looked at me as I did this, but continued to look at their book and smile, even starting to make little babbling noises, a sign that I knew the day was returning to normal. I slowly, and again in full view of the student, walked over to my guitar case, put my guitar away, and then left the room silently. When I got to my car, I turned off the radio and drove in silence for a good chunk of the 90 mile drive back to Grand Forks. It just felt right.
Sometimes the world is more overwhelming than we might realize. We are surrounded by sights and sounds that our ancestors might cringe at the sheer volume of stimulation we face every waking moment. What my student reminded me of that day was that even though my job title has the word “music” in it, and even though music might be defined as “organized sound,” that silence is a sound too – and a necessary one at that! It is through silence that we even know what sound is – it’s part of what defines it, what shapes it, and part of what what makes the right sound beautiful and meaningful when it comes through. So, I challenge you in your day to day life to make time for silence – both in your sessions and in your overall schedule. Your body – and your soul – will thank you!
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