Music Moves

Perspectives & Insights from a Local Music Therapist

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Posts Tagged ‘Humor’

Hello all!  Earlier this week I mentioned that I’d be taking part in a blog challenge put out by one of our affiliate sites, Music Sparks.  The theme?  Blue.  So simple and yet so complex at the same time, much like the musical style that comes to mind.  Most easily recognized in 12 bar “AAB” form, Blues as we know them best today are both a music form and a genre, derived from distinct chordal structures, tonal patterns, and subject matter of old African American Music.  The Blues are direct, the Blues are emotional, but above all, the Blues are accessible.  They’re easy on the ears (for the most part) and their lyrics have staying power – people across generational and cultural divides can all relate to Blues lyrics.  That’s why I like to use the Blues as springboards for working with my Adolescent clients.

Adolescents and Music often go hand and hand, whether we’re consistently aware of it or not.  Listening to, playing and writing music can often be a sanctuary for teens – it allows them to process all of their feelings about school, their peers, and their families with all of their emotions, through tempo, pitch and sheer decibel level (gotta feel that bass!).  So it’s not too surprising that when I ask students about their favorite kinds of music that I often get more personal information from them than I would have gotten just asking about their home life directly.  Who and what they listen to speaks volumes (literally!) – These kids have a lot to say, and Music can help them say it!  The challenge is reigning all that projection in.  Without the proper supports I find teenagers can be a bit like that X-men First Class character, Havoc: all power and no focus.  It can come across as chaotic and get written off as unproductive when the potential for so much more is there.  So, I use the Blues to help students isolate their ideas and work on developing them more effectively.  Here are a few elements of the Blues that I use to do that:

Lyrical Form (for our purposes, “AAB”):  Before we even look at chords or melody, I ask students to come up with a single phrase based on a question like “What’s bothering you today?” or “How do you feel about ______ ?”  I ask that they keep it short, even limiting them to a specific number of syllables if necessary.  We write that phrase down once, then again on the separate line and label both lines “A.”  After the two “A”s we write a “B” phrase.  Something that follows up on “A” but doesn’t necessarily introduce any new ideas, just a different way of saying what’s already been said.  For instance:

A:    “I’m so tired today – didn’t get any sleep last night”

A:    “I’m so tired today – didn’t get any sleep last night”

B:    “Tossing and turning til the morning – All I wanna do now is shut my eyes”

If students are feeling particularly uninspired, sometimes we will pull up Google Images on a computer, type a random word and then choose a single image to describe in order to create lines for our song (this sparked a story song about loneliness one week – can take you further than you think!) Creating simple lyrics like this helps students practice different ways of phrasing and provides an opportunity to talk about how one way of saying something might be more appropriate or more helpful than another – an important life lesson!

Rhythm and Melody: next we look at how we might say or sing the lyrics.  What’s nice about the AAB format that we use is that there’s no wrong way to to this – a student that’s more vocally inclined may want to get really technical about what beats they start the phrase on, what their pitches are, and how they emphasize specific syllables.  Others might just want to have a little guitar riff with spaces built in where they just say each phrase without any real rhythmic or melodic emphasis.  Either of those works just fine, so long as students make a conscious decision about which one they’re doing and give it their best effort (another life lesson!)

Chord structure: early in working with my clients, I might tell them not to worry about this part – I might come in with a chord set already chosen, or perhaps few templates of traditional Blues progressions that I can play through and offer students a choice, or we might take the time as a group to learn a few chords to create our own guitar progression.  The sky’s the limit!

I find that after a day of Blues writing, the pressure is off of students to be Eminem and create complex rhymes and thoughts on the first try – the pressure is also off of them to do anything too emotionally revealing.  Blues can be funny too!  I remember a class a few years back that wrote a whole progression about Tacos – it was a really fun day, and allowed the staff working at the facility I was serving to see their students in a different light.  Even the most broody, oppositional student was participating appropriately that day – that song, that day, didn’t have to be about the tough stuff – we just cut loose.  Everyone needs to do that now and then!

So, cut loose today – have some fun creating nonsense lyrics to a song you know.  Blues form or not, popular music today has it’s own structure familiar to Western Music listeners, and many of them have lyrics and rhythms that are pretty easy to follow and relate to.  Who knows, you might just find that singing the Blues never felt so good!


So the 12 Houses Bellydancers got rained out of dancing  at the Grand Forks Fair this year.  HUGE bummer, but the opportunity I was looking for to share and educate the community on Bellydance came nonetheless as friends and family who had been planning to come to the performance showed up at the 12 Houses Store for us to perform indoors.  I am eternally grateful to those supportive loved ones and fantastic dancers who made all our practice mean so much more than we ever thought it would!

And here we are now, presented with an opportunity I’ve been very excited about sharing here: how my growing love for Bellydance compliments my life as a Music Therapist.  In my mind it all comes down to goals – setting them, measuring them, and ultimately, laying the path to achieving them.  Let’s talk first about the types of goals I set:

In Music Therapy, a Board Certified Music Therapists sets measurable and attainable goals for their clients in a variety of areas.

Often within those goals are more detailed objectives, or benchmarks, for the achievements of said goals.  The words “measurable” and “attainable” are of the utmost importance here.  The goals have to be something you can keep track of and your student(s) can achieve.  In my Bellydance classes, I have 3 main goals, each with one or two objectives.

Goal #1 is COGNITIVE.  I want my students to come away from class with a knowledge of Bellydance.  The objective? I want them to have a specific understanding of the many different styles of Bellydance, where they come from, and how their histories make them similar and different from each other.

Goal #2 is MOTOR.  I want for my students to be physically comfortable with the way their bodies move during class – no aches, pains, crunches, or twinges!

Goal #3 is SOCIO-EMOTIONAL.  I want my students to have fun!  More specifically, I want them to engage in dancing with each other in pairs, in small groups, and by themselves.  I want to see them develop the confidence to perform in front of an audience.

So, you’ve set the goals.  Now what?

A Qualified Music Therapist creates activities and lesson plans whereby the desired behaviors towards set goals and objectives can be measured.

In my Bellydance classes I do this primarily by verbal “check-in.”  I’ll frequently ask “Does that make sense?  Does that feel comfortable? Are you having fun?” and keep a mental note of those students who either don’t answer or answer in the negative.  Those students that answer in the negative I (or my co-instructor Debbie) respond to quickly, to guard against injuries and low moral.  Those students that don’t answer I usually find after class and talk to personally.

Another way I measure Goals #1 and #3 (the cognitive learning of Bellydance and the socio-emotional interaction) is by “Circle Time” at the end of class.  Just before the cooldown I invite everyone in the circle to share their favorite move learned in class that day.  It often becomes a great time for questions and an opportunity to strengthen the learning that occurred by sharing it again with each other.  As with my verbal check-in’s I always follow-up with those students who don’t respond to “Circle Time” requests or say they don’t have a favorite move, and not yet have I had a student not be able to come back the next week with an improved outlook and new favorite move to share!  We also have Quarterly “Haflas” (Arabic for “Party”), opportunities for students to perform at events like the one we prepared for at the County Fair.  Not everyone does perform, but it’s great to see those students who do feel comfortable enough come out of their shells and demonstrate the learning they’ve been experiencing.

In my Music Therapy Sessions I keep very detailed tallies and notes.  My clinical goals are usually very simple behaviors that can be measured with a + (they did it) or – (the didn’t).  Other goals I count how many times they did it and the objective is for them to increase that number over time, or maybe I want them the improve the percentage of times they do something per opportunities I give them.  Often times with some goals I’ll have to tape the session or scribble subjective notes on the back of a blank sheet to interpret and record clean copies of later.  Documentation is not always a clean process, but it’s a necessary one in order to determine that goals are being effectively met.

Qualified Music Therapists regularly evaluate their goals to determine which have been achieved and can be built on and which have to be re-assessed or discarded.

Just as I check in with my students, I have to check in with myself sometimes too – I set aside regular office time just for looking at my notes to see what’s working and what isn’t, and how I can adjust accordingly.  In my Bellydance classes, students that have been coming longer than others will get new information every week, regardless of whether or not I have to break some new people in that day.  A fun part of Bellydance is what we call “layering.” You don’t always have to do one move the same way.  If I’m teaching the group, half of which might be beginners, to do a hip circle for example, I’ll tell the beginners to move their hips in  a smooth arc from the front to the side, then back and to the other side, while I tell the intermediate dancers to do what the beginners are doing, but with their feet or some other body part in a different position or moving a different way.  Layers offer me and my students the important chance to grow and never be stagnant in our performance, to always be looking for different ways to move.

And that’s what I want for my clinical clients as well – for them to always be growing, always be learning, always be striving for different ways to be the best individuals they can be.

You can learn more about 12 Houses Bellydance (and Bellydance in general) at our class Youtube page here or on Facebook here.  We regularly post videos and information not just of ourselves, but other dancers and musicians we want our students to see and learn from.  And I hope you will too!

“It’s so funny, ah-ha-ha!  Please excuse me, ah-ha-ha!”

So begins the English translation to the chorus of one of my favorite arias, the “Laughing Song” from Strauss’s Die Fliedermaus (you can see a clip with just the chorus here).  The character singing the aria is mercilessly mocking her scene-mate in public for the purpose of embarrassing him, but I’ve always loved the song for its portrayal of infectious laughter.  The kind that you try to keep down as long as humanly possible before it just bursts out of you and all those around you can’t help but laugh with you.

There are songs about laughter (like “I love to laugh” from Mary Poppins) and even more songs that utilize laughter in their lyrics, as the Mary Poppins song does, but they may not come up in a Google Search.  The one-hit wonder “They’re Coming to Take me Away” by Napolean XIV comes to mind in that category, as does Alanis Morisette’s “All I Really Want” , though it could be argued on that latter song that the “Ah-ya-y-a-y-a-ay-ay” that doesn’t typically appear when you search for the song’s lyrics may not be Alanis laughing at all, but perhaps crying, yelling, or just spouting nonsense syllables.  Maybe it’s all of the above, each “Ay” serving a different purpose each time, or perhaps every “Ay” is a laugh, a cry, a yell, and a little bit of nonsense all rolled into one sound.  Regardless it makes me smile every time I hear it, and laughter serves that many purposes (and more!) in our lives.  We laugh when we’re happy or excited, we laugh when we’re embarrassed (or at other people’s embarrassment), some people even laugh when they cry or when they’re angry.   So what, if any, effect do the things we laugh about have on our tastes in music (and vice versa)?  How does laughter affect us generally?  And how can laughter be utilized as a therapeutic tool, specifically in Music Therapy?

I’ll confess to being an occasional “stress response” laugher.  Lines like Morisette’s “Why are you so petrified of silence – Here can you handle this?” followed by approx. 3 seconds of silence (an eternity for those of us who can’t stand it!) really make me chuckle, but not for the cleverness of the lyrics – I laugh whenever I hear that passage because I’m trying to fill the silence, which is funny (or not so funny, depending on how you look at it) in itself.  So whether I’m feeling clever and confident, or stressed out an insecure (both feelings you’ll note in “What I really Want,” and other song lyrics across Morissette’s discography) you might find me listening to an Alanis Morisette Song because the duality of her lyrics elicits laughter from me that serves dual purposes as well, to either validate my current feelings or console them.

As you’re probably gathering, I’m a big fan of irony, but not just in lyrics.  Ironic or odd pairings of lyrics and the music they’re set to really get me going too – that’s part of why I enjoy Mashups so much.  Lyrics about one thing paired with music that makes you think of the complete opposite make me laugh, and I love to share these kinds of songs in my sessions with teens whenever I feel we could use a light discussion.  Covers of popular (or at least infamous) songs like  Richard Cheese’s Lounge Piano version of the Metal Song “Down with the Sickness” have become favorites for the sheer ironic placement of angry, profane lyrics in one of the most relaxed styles of music on the planet (so be warned, you and any passersby may not find it so funny if you click on that link with your volume all the way up in a public place).  Everyone’s view of lyrical and musical humor is different, and so everyone’s view on what makes a funny song will be too.  I feel bringing (or finding) songs that make me and my clients laugh helps me to learn more about them, and that’s a valuable part of the relationship necessary for any therapy to achieve results.  I’d be interested to hear some of your favorite funny songs as well!

So what benefit does laughter have for our lives?  This fun little page from cites a few interesting ways in which laughter affects us, that, not surprisingly, music offers too:

1. Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones and can help release the “feel-good chemical” Dopamine (Waddya know? So does making and listening to music!)

2. Laughter can be a workout, particularly for the abs (singing, anyone?)

3. Laughter can connect us with others (Remember my posts on Making Music as a Family? Am I starting to sound like a Sitcom Flashback Episode Yet?)

Note that third benefit of laughter (and of music) is of particular importance.  Laughter can connect us with others.  Laughter can also be hurtful, restricting, and invalidating.  It’s important to me as a therapist that I am none of those things to my clients, so I am careful to utilize laughter only in such a way that it celebrates the unity a client and I or a client and their peers might feel in any given moment.  For example:

A few days ago, a speech disorder client of mine was singing through the old song “Don’t sit under the Appletree” when the unfortunate placement of an “h” in the word “sit” changed the meaning of the song entirely.  Typically when such mis-placed sounds happen, I will stop the song to go back and correct it, but I thought to myself “I must have heard her wrong, that can’t have been what she just said,” and moved on, hoping it wouldn’t happen again.  But it did, and as I felt that familiar giggle rising in me (as it did when I learned what the French word “derriere” meant in 7th grade) I knew I had to stop the song and correct the error.  So at first I tried to do so without telling the client what the error was, I just stopped and said “Let’s go back to ‘sit,’ I need to hear don’t sit under the Apple Tree.”

“Why?” my client asked, “What was I saying?”

I paused.  She asked again, looking slightly nervous.

Then I told her.

Her hands flew up to her mouth and I cringed.  “It’s ok!” I said quickly, “no big deal-”

But then I realized she was laughing.  Genuinely, hysterically laughing.  So I smiled and let myself laugh with her.

“I guess you wouldn’t want to do that either!” she said after her laughing subsided a little.  We were outright rolling then.  It was a good time.  We were laughing together.  That’s the best benefit of laughter in music for me: the way in which a slip of the tongue creating a silly lyric, or other incidental moments in music (making it or listening to it) can bring us together.  That’s how I like to use laughter in my sessions – as a tool, planned or accidental, that celebrates our common joy and frailty (there’s that irony again!).  It’s like a comedian whose name escapes me once defined good humor: it’s the kind that reminds us we’re “all in this together.”

This coming Wednesday (March 16th) is St. Patrick’s Day.  A lot of Irish ditties have a little air of the silly about them – I’ll be using songs like “Michael Finnegan” with many of my clients this week.  I encourage you to find a silly song this week as well.  Irish or not, I think you’ll find the release from laughter to be quite liberatin’!

One last thought: to those readers who have contacted your Senators thus far about HB 1352 to create a Music Therapy Registry on the North Dakota Century Code, Thank You!  Testimony before the Human Services Committee occurred this past week, but the bill does still need to go to the floor for an official vote, so check out last week’s blog post for more details if you’d still like to get involved – input from citizens like you is what helps to make bills like that (and blogs like this!) make it.  We Music Therapists couldn’t do what we do without you!