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There’s No Crying in Music Therapy! (Except when there is…)

I was caught off-guard in a recent music therapy session by a client who started to cry. This was at a group in a senior center that is primarily focused on building community within the group: supporting social interaction and life review is our main goal. In-depth emotional processing is not a goal for this group, and our music-making tends towards the light and entertaining.  On this occasion, however, my client crunched up his face, ready to cry, during a rousing rendition of “Good-Hearted Woman.”

My immediate reaction was confusion. I always have in the back of my mind certain songs that can sometimes bring up intense emotions (such as “Amazing Grace” and “Cat’s in the Cradle”), and I pay attention to the participants’ emotional cues during each session to gauge whether they might be having a rough day, but I had not picked up on anything unusual from this particular client. He had commented that he liked country music and had chosen this song right after “Hey Good Lookin.’” I had not guessed that his chosen song would bring up a strong emotional reaction.

How to respond? First of all, it is important to do something, because clients’ feelings and emotions are important. At the same time, though, it is possible to overreact to emotional expression. The therapist must choose whether and how to acknowledge a client’s emotional expression (verbally or non-verbally) and how to support the client’s emotional expressions verbally and musically. What is appropriate certainly varies depending on the situation. Some potential responses include:

  • Non-verbal acknowledgement during the music (e.g. eye contact, nodding)
  • A short verbal statement (e.g. “Wow.” or “It looks like that one got to you.”)
  • A longer verbal discussion or reflection
  • A variety of musical responses (e.g. play a new song, finish the current song, slow the tempo, repeat a verse)

In this particular situation, I couldn’t tell at first whether my client was in some sort of physical pain or if he was reacting emotionally to the music, so I asked, “are you okay?” in between verses of the song. He said that he was and told group to keep singing. When we finished the song, his face was still crunched up, and he patted his chest and waved his hand towards the rest of the group saying, “I’m sorry. That music just hit me right here.” The other participants and I told him not to be sorry, and a couple of people commented that you never know what kind of music is going to touch you on a given day. One participant observed that listening to and singing music live can be even more powerful than the radio, and my client nodded in agreement with this. I asked him if the song brought up something for him, giving him permission to talk about whatever he needed, but he just repeated that the song he chose just touched him deeply that day. We moved on as a group with our musical explorations.

Since that session, I have reflected on this client’s reaction to that particular song, pondering why that song provoked a reaction and the fact that he seemed surprised by his reaction as well. That session was not the best time for an in-depth exploration of emotional material that may have been stirred up by the music, but it did allow the client to have an emotional response to music in a safe setting, where he could be supported by the group. I now have more information about this client, which will guide future sessions. We met our goals of building trust and support within the group, and we laid the groundwork for meaningful musical interactions in the future.

In my opinion, this is the power of music and music therapy – when a relationship is in place, a meaningful experience can come seemingly out of nowhere. A music therapist has the ability to help the client and the group take full advantage of these musical moments. In another setting, my client may have become tearful upon hearing a song and felt embarrassed or ashamed and wanted to withdraw from the group. The other group members may have felt uncomfortable as well, but in this situation, they were empowered to care for their friend, and my client was able to feel their support. A seemingly small musical moment became something special for this client and this group.

7 comments… add one
  • Oh wow! I was *just* thinking today that I wish I could turn off my personal tears when I see a client cry. I try and try, but sometimes… I start crying too! I know it’s not professional, so I cover it up and shake it off quickly, but it’s very difficult sometimes.

    This post and your suggested action steps remind me to take my personal self out of the situation so I can provide the safe space for the client. =) and not cry until later…

    What would you do if your own tears welled up during a session?

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Oh, wow, Kat, that’s a whole other question! I actually think that there are times when it is okay to show your own tears, especially when you’re in a really emotionally-charged session. We are human, after all, and clients need to know that, especially since we’re telling them that emotional expression is okay. We just need to keep the clients’ needs at center, though – for me, that means recognizing and acknowledging my own feelings (countertransference?) and using that information to guide my clinical decisions in the moment. What’s not good is letting my focus land on the fact that I’m crying and the subsequent worries that I can’t stop – this doesn’t help the client or me! Processing/reflection afterwards is really important, too, as well as good self-care – being aware of my personal emotional processes so I’m not caught off-guard by my own emotional responses in a session.

      • I have to agree with Rachelle (very insightful post, by the way). I think it’s not necessarily wrong to become tearful in a session (as a therapist). Of course, if we’re a major blubbering mess almost all the time then I think it’s time to seek our own therapy, because something is obviously going on for us that needs to be addressed outside of our clients’ sessions.

        I’ve had the experience, more often, in community music groups, when staff get choked up (we’ve had a couple of staff who’ve lost close family members), and it is hard not to feel the sadness as well. I think, in that case, it was simply modeling for our clients that we’re all human, and we all experience pain.

        Interestingly, I find that I’m less likely to be tearful if my client is owning his/her own feelings (versus days when I’m experiencing the miracle of projective identification and suddenly find myself feeling ready to weep in a session I entered in a cheerful mood).

  • One further thought (thanks for indulging me here, Rachelle): I think the reason I particularly appreciated your post is that there is this expectation/assumption/misperception regarding music therapy- this idea that we’re all nicey-nicey, fun and games and fa-la-la, and I find it frustrating, because it diminishes what we do and how we use the various elements of music to support people. I mean, what an insult! We didn’t go and get Master’s degrees so people could see us as the entertainment whose job/responsibility it is to make them happy. (Sorry for getting a bit rant-like) (Okay, a lot rant-like.)

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