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Observations placeholder

Music Therapy - Catherine O’Leary and Martha with Psychological trauma and extreme unhappiness



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From Music Therapy – Intimate Notes – case studies compiled by Mercedes Pavlicevic

Based on an interview with Catherine O’Leary who lives in Nottingham where she has a private practise.  She is a Fellow of the Association of Music and Imagery [AMI]

A middle-aged lady came recently, she was very ,very upset. She'd had two people in her life become severely angry with her out of the blue, phoning her up and being abusive. At the same time she was moving house which was extremely tiring.

While Martha talked I listened to how she was, to how she was walking, standing, sitting, talking, feeling, being. Sometimes I could hear music, I could almost hear what piece she was 'playing'... I could hear a whole resonance, a complexity of sounds... I tried once to write this music down but the notes we have were not appropriate to the sounds I was hearing. I listened also to what piece of music I heard playing in my ear- that was to be the piece of music that I would choose for the imaging. At the same time I was listening to what music we were sounding together, while she spoke and I listened and responded to her.

I was listening in musical terms.

As music therapists, we talk about clients' rhythm, their timing, the timbre of their voice, their own sounds, the pitch... almost their biological music, if you like, and the music of their feeling states. But there is also the music of their soul:     of their journey through life, and the timing and rhythm and sound of that.

So when somebody comes to me, I am aware of all of this - I am listening to this movement at this time, the music here in the room, that is part of us both, and I am very aware of all the other music that has gone before that - and also their own music, to do with other levels of their lives.

So with Martha, as she talked and I listened, I felt her tiredness and what I was hearing in the immediate was about her anger, and also that she had begun to move on within herself, through her own processing.

She reclined, put her feet up, she was covered with a blanket, and began to move from normal consciousness towards a relaxed state. At this stage I didn't need to draw her attention to her exhaustion. I took her attention from her body and directed it towards a focusing image which had come out of her talking: people sometimes show you, in their talking, what they want or need to focus on. Or else you can offer an image - something like a place in nature - from which they can begin to image.

For Martha, I chose Brahms' Symphony No 3, the allegro con brio. As she listened to the music and looked closely at the image that had come to her, she realized she was in a little village in Cornwall. She was talking over the music, she may not even have been aware that she was hearing the music as the image engrossed her more. For Martha, the music evoked this village in Cornwall. She explained afterwards that she had gone to this village as a young girl at a time when there was enormous tension in her family, a lot of it directed at her. This little village had been a paradise for her; it was the most restful place she'd ever been in her life. Now her psyche had chosen to start the session at this place - she had no idea when she was lying down relaxing that this would happen, but this is where she found herself. And this is an extraordinary thing, that there is a part of us that does this: it was both acknowledging the difficult time that she'd had now as an adult, by drawing a parallel with when she was little, and yet, at the same time, it was placing her there, a place of healing and nurture, preparing her to go on from there.

This happens over and over again in GIM: there is a level of knowing that we already have which is surprising to us - even though we are doing it ourselves, it is part of our psyche - and the more we trust it and get in touch with it, the more we settle down in our lives.

Martha also had another image, in a different session. This time, we were listening to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, and the image was that she came through a black world with sharp black rocks and thorny bushes tearing at her skin. There were images of war, death and destruction all around in that world, such a difficult journey. The music changed to Gounod's 'St Cecilia Mass', the Offertoire and the Sanctus, and she ended up on a bridge, a suspension bridge, not very stable, over a huge gorge. Way way below was the river. Ahead of her lay even worse pain... not attractive at all, so she couldn't go back, or forward, and down below was too far, there was no way down. . . and she felt completely stuck. Now, my experience of GIM is that you do not remain stuck. The psyche finds a way through - but what that will be. . .is rarely predictable. As a guide I have to trust that also, and not step in to rescue.

She said, 'now I'm really cross and I spin around'. And there on the other side of the bridge, the river was a small brook running so close to the bridge that she could dip her aching hand in it. The brook was gentle and there was a boat there! Her answer was to turn around on the spot! It was enormously empowering for Martha! But what exactly was going on there? The answer wasn't in the future, and it wasn't in the past: it was taking another look at the present.... There is another perspective to this: it was looking in another direction of the present. And, you see, if we take another look at where we are - and it is not something we can do in our head, it is not something we can work out - but if we allow ourselves to stay still rather than move 'forward' all the time, just keep still, relax with it... and just be there... we may get another perspective. And interestingly enough, a lot of spiritual and mystical traditions are about getting into the moment, rather than out of it - being present in the moment. The answer is there where you are...but we all tend to spend our time looking forward to see where the answer is.

The source of the experience

Other ill or disabled person

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps