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Observations placeholder

Art and Music therapy – Case history of a visit to an art gallery



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From Community Music Therapy – edited by Mercedes Pavlicevic and Gary Ansdell


Ten of us are off to an art gallery. We compare notes and find that for most of us a school trip to the National Gallery is the extent of our experience, although one or two have been to the local gallery. We're going out of east London today though - to north London, home of posh art galleries (and posh therapy).A small gallery there is holding an exhibition of sculptures which are also musical instruments. I mentioned it to people over lunch at Way Ahead a few weeks ago, someone designed a poster and quite a few people were interested. It's primarily people who do music therapy (either individually or in the group) and members of the art therapy group.

Everybody arrives at the underground station on time. We can do the journey with one change of train, or possibly faster with two changes. The group opts for the double change. We manage the changes fine. The faster ones wait for the slower ones and we all emerge at our destination together.

With the aid of a map I have brought, we straggle across roundabouts and block the pavement for everyone else - but we're enjoying ourselves.

Once inside the gallery, we are impressed. This is real north London chic: shiny floors and everything really clean and sparkly! We are also impressed to see how much money we're not having to pay to get in (I have somehow arranged a free visit - I had no idea it would have cost THAT much to get in).

We are guided into the exhibition room. It's a lovely airy, cool space - again so different from what we are used to. The sculptures are beautifully presented and beautifully lit. We are drawn in amongst them. We want to touch, but at first even the most disinhibited amongst us isn't sure whether we should. The attendant raises no objections, however and soon we are passing around sticks and beaters. People begin to explore the instruments - visually, tactilely and aurally. Some people do it quietly, alone, far from others. Others do it in collaboration, even in competition, with others. A couple of people wander around, watching others and trying different instruments as they go.

I wander too, learning about the instruments, encouraging some people and mildly restraining others. As the collective confidence rises, so does the resulting cacophony. I am struck by the similarity between this and an orchestral rehearsal. The musicians have assembled in an unknown venue, and are just tuning up.

Like the orchestra, there comes a point where the tuning ends and the work begins. It falls to me as conductor to indicate this, to draw people to order. I call out above the noise and the instruments gradually fall silent. All eyes are on me and there is a real sense of expectation - of impending performance. This is different from what we get week in and week out- but why?

It must be the place: its specialness, the sense of something being created.

Even the lighting is focusing us on our task as musicians.

I invite people to play for us, one by one. The rest of us listen, gradually learning the palette of sounds we have at our disposal. Then we improvise together, a few of us at first but gradually more and more of us. We are creating - really creating as if from nothing, from unfamiliar lumps of metal - extraordinary sounds. They twist and weave, interrupt, accompany and provoke. But most of all we are really listening to each other. Nobody is going through the motions here - the atmosphere is truly electric.

After 40 gripping minutes of this, the music brings itself to a close. There is a long silence at the end. Then people laugh, shout, sit. There is a feeling of real achievement and tiredness. We declare a tea break and head for the courtyard we can see through the window.

Revived, we gather once more amongst the instruments. Remembering my comparison with the orchestra, I invite people to take turns to direct the rest of us. It's a chance to create on a much larger scale, but also an opportunity to be in charge, to wield real power. And everyone has a go. Somepeople are restrained, some conduct in an almost classical manner, and some are quite unconventional but entirely communicative as to what they want. But one person's directing strikes me most forcefully. He is a Somali man in his 50s, small and quiet, due in part no doubt to his lack of English.

Mostly he shuffles around slowly with his head down. He seems institutionalised, ordered around by others. But with a stick in his hand, he is transformed. He becomes a man who knows what he wants and can communicate it. His directing is imperious: he makes us wait. His piece is full ofstrong silence, all eyes trained on him for cues. At the end he grins in a way I have never seen before. We are astounded.

At the end, somebody pulls out a camera and we gather round to havegroup photographs taken. They will be souvenirs, pinned up in the Way Ahead cafe, not just of a good day out, but of a remarkable excursion into another world, one where we have created a new, and listened afresh.

Is this music therapy?

I believe that it is. We were a group brought together by involvement in mental health services in a particular area. We travelled together out of our normal environment - geographically of course and socially too, but also certainly beyond the boundaries of the consensus model. And in doing so we deepened our own experience of ourselves as individuals, of our peers as our fellow community members, and of our community in relation to others. Some might dismiss this as the kind of jaunt more appropriately run by a nursing or occupational therapy assistant. I disagree: I needed all my musical skills combined with my understanding of people and mental health. This was a radical, political and musical act. An act of Community Music Therapy.


The source of the experience

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Music therapy