Guest Post by Paul Fernie: My first session as a student music therapist; ‘The Imposter Within’

My clinical supervisor turns to me and asks “so, are you ready for your first client?” 

My eyes close and my thoughts freeze as I ask myself “What am I doing here?” 

I scan my mind, searching for glimpses of the lectures about therapeutic relationships and I try to recall sentences from case studies that have brought to life the experiences of music therapists, who at one time, may also have sat anxiously trying to recall their learning to date while awaiting the arrival of their first client. 

And so, while I await the arrival of my first client, I find myself questioning whether I am capable of developing a therapeutic relationship, and wondering if I will recognise a transference or countertransference, let alone what I should do with one?

And then there is a brief moment of panic as I consider what I should do if the client asks me to recite the entire Ed Sheeran back catalogue on the piano.

Almost as though my thoughts can be heard aloud, my supervisor offers me this advice: that if nothing else is possible, being present and available for the client is what is most important. 

There is a knock at the door, my eyes open; I look to my supervisor and reply “Yes!”.

Sitting at the piano, my client sat next to me, I reach out to the client. I play a single note. As this note drifts outwards from the piano it carries a weight of anticipation; will the client respond? Will the client acknowledge the note? I observe as the client looks away into the distance, as though they are watching the note as it vanishes. 

We sit in silence, it feels like hours but in reality it is more like minutes, and then, just as I begin to desperately searching my mind for an Ed Sheeran inspired melody, my client’s eyes widen and their face warms with a beaming smile. They gesture with their eyes that they would like me to play more. I begin to improvise a simple melody. My client’s smile broadens and they reach towards the keyboard; they first play a tentative single note, their finger quickly withdraws and there is a moment of hesitation before they play again, this time all 10 fingers and thumbs connect with the piano, the resultant sound accompanied by laughter.

A dialogue develops between us, I play a single note and they respond with a single note. In the moment I find it difficult to identify specific examples of reflection, mirroring or matching, but later with the guidance of my supervisor I can identify where I have utilised these and other techniques to support my client.

While we play I sense a deep connection, and wonder if this could be what is meant by ‘being in the moment’? And is something that role plays did not prepare me for. I found myself filled with a sense of awe at the power of the connection created by the music.

But as quickly as it arrived, the moment is gone, and silence falls on the therapy space. My client withdraws, their face no longer warm – had I done something? The silence hangs heavy in the air, I’m unsure of how to proceed, should I play or should I wait? Inside of me the silence stirs something else, a discomfort of my own, I don’t like silence – I find it disconcerting, I sleep with headphones on, playing music to protect me from its grip. Before I can make a decision there is a gentle knock at the door, my first session is over – how did 30 minutes pass so quickly? But how to end? The knock at the door has broken the silence, but there is still a tension that I need to dissipate. I turn to my client and with my most gentle voice ask ‘are you ready to leave now?’ they nod in the affirmative. I ask ‘would you like to come again next week?’ again they nod and reply ‘OK’. I open the door and I am greeted by my client’s support worker. My client leaves and as the door clicks closed I breath, I breath for what feels like the first time in 30 mins. WOW!! I did it, I smile to myself and a sense of accomplishment washes over me. 

My supervisor congratulates me, a well done on completing my first session. As we talk I can’t help but find myself keep returning to the same question – why did my client withdraw? My supervisor suggests that is unlikely that I had done something to precipitate my client withdrawing, but asks how the silence felt for me. In considering this, silence, for me, is symbolic of loneliness and abandonment, acknowledging this has enabled me to do some work with my own therapist, and in becoming aware of the feelings silence elicits in me, I am better able to understand what I may bring into the therapeutic space. 

As the weeks on placement pass, and as each session brings a new challenge to be overcome – the first broken instrument, the first extended period of silence; the doubt somewhat fades as I become more comfortable in my role as a therapist. 

Although I am becoming more comfortable, those doubting questions – ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘What do I know about music therapy?’ still hang in the air. But what is it within me that leaves me feeling doubtful of my abilities? Having considered this question I have been left to wonder if I am experiencing Imposter Syndrome, and that the feelings of self doubt and of not feeling suitably qualified can be attributed to this condition. A possible origin for this condition could be my tendency towards perfectionism, a character trait that has been challenging me since adolescence and probably before. A step towards relieving this anxiety has been the adoption of an idea that was originally presented by Donald Winnicott.  

Winnicott advised new mothers that they did not need to be perfect but instead they should be good enough to meet babies needs in the moment; I wonder if the same can be applied in my case and for other student therapist, that being perfect should not be the goal, instead we should aim to be good enough to meet our clients needs in the moment, that good enough is good enough. 

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Paul Fernie Written by:

Paul will shortly be starting his final year of his MA Music Therapy at USW and has an undergraduate degree in Music Production and Sound Engineering with an emphasis on music technology. Paul would like to specialise in analytical work, and work with young people with complex needs. Alongside his studies he continues to work as a resident DJ at a Bristol nightclub. His current bedtime read is Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’.

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