Guest post by Rachel Swanick: Faith in Music Therapy

Rachel Swanick, Senior Clinical Therapist, Chroma, UK.

A few months ago, I was watching a UK television show called, “Saving lives at Sea”. The programme follows the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), who are stationed around the coastline of the UK, and highlights the heroic tasks they undertake to save people who have been stranded at sea. In this particular episode, two young girls (aged five and six) had been swept out to sea on a rip tide whilst floating on their inflatable dinghies. Their parents, who were stood just feet away from them in the shallow water, watched helplessly as they drifted away. Several people, including the parents, called the RNLI for help. Luckily, the girls were saved and returned safely to their families. One can only imagine the fear those little girls felt as the shoreline grew further away. What about their parents’ thoughts and feelings: guilt, sadness, helplessness perhaps and yet there may have been some element of hope as they called for help to the emergency services. The whole family then had to put their faith in a group of strangers, the RNLI, to keep the family safe and together. 

The standard definition of faith is a belief in something or someone. In the story here, the family had to believe that their call for help would be answered so that their precious children could be returned. If we compare this to our daily lives, how many times do we have faith in others and what does that mean to us? Do we have faith that the bus will turn up for work? Is it more than that and related to us having faith in someone being there for us when we need it most? And of course, how does faith relate to the experience of being in therapy?

As a Music Therapist working with children and families, everyday someone puts faith in my work, believing that I have the skills to help them. Faith is the belief at the start of each journey. As Martin Luther King wrote, “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the staircase”. Faith is without logical proof; is a gut feeling, a sense, it is ‘blind’. In my experience, the level of faith a family has in a professional can feel almost attachment-based. If the family have had many good experiences with professionals, they build a positive picture of them and quickly move from blind faith to trust – which is based on consistent and repetitive experiences of needs being met. If a family has been rejected or let down by professional services, they will carry this with them in future relationships and subsequently, have a low sense of faith in their relationships. When a child comes to a music therapy session for the first time, they will be affected by the expectations of their parents for their therapy, either consciously or unconsciously. I have written before about the impact of hope on therapy (Swanick, 2019) and faith is at the start of those feelings.

And what about the therapist – what is their experience of faith in themselves or the therapeutic process? Winnicott wrote about the importance of having a theory or model of work to follow as it creates a safety net for the therapist to use, i.e. it makes us feel safe when chaos is in the air. We, too, carry the experiences of therapy past. Being a musician as well as a Music Therapist, I always remember my violin teacher saying that as a player, you are only as good as your last gig. Perhaps it is the same in therapy. If we have had many successes, we can store them up and use them to bolster our confidence. If we have had some challenges, then our confidence and faith in ourselves may be low. 

I started working with the Lowry family in 2016. They were a big family with a mix of adopted children and birth children. Over the years, the family had adopted or fostered more than 50 children. They were practically experts! Molly had been adopted by the family when she was three. Mum had described her as being terrifically challenging and one of the reasons she had adopted Molly was because she was worried no one else would want her. When I first met Mum, her initial words were, “I don’t like therapy. I don’t believe in it at all”. However, they had tried lots of other options and now music therapy was a last resort. Molly and I started the work together and she began to use the sessions well. There was play, music and lot of anger. Molly was in denial about the process of being adopted (a striking similarity to Mum’s disbelief in therapy). She did not believe her adoptive Mum was telling the truth and felt that she should still be with her birth family. This is a common theme in young adopted children. Molly had been angry before the therapy started and, now the energy was closer to the surface, she was beginning to be more aware of the reasons why she was feeling this way. Her anger spilled from the therapy room to home and school. In one week, Molly was excluded from school and trashed her newly decorated bedroom. Mum immediately stopped the therapy, believing it was the cause of the issues. Mum had very little faith in the work being undertaken in the initial instance and with these events, it had disappeared. As the therapist, I was left standing on the shore hoping that the relationship could be saved. 

After many weeks of trying to meet with Mum and their social worker, we finally sat down together. I listened to Mum’s worries – about the impact of Molly’s behaviour on her other children, about her educational future and about Mum’s feelings of helplessness in the face of this chaotic child. I admitted that I could not reassure her about the future but we could work together now, in the hope that Molly may feel some peace through making sense of the past. I had hope for Molly and I had faith in the therapeutic journey on which we had embarked. Mum agreed to try again. 

I am still not sure why Mum agreed to more therapy but something changed. Over the coming months, Molly started to understand what had happened in her birth family and why she was in her new family. After a period of being home schooled, she was reintegrated in to an emotionally supportive (and much smaller) school where she started to thrive. In our work, we had used her life story to talk about her experiences. We used pop songs to make up dances together and her play changed from people being lost to parties and friendships. Molly still had a quick temper but now there was more balance in her life. Towards the end of the work, Mum told me that Molly had been at home watching her ipad in her bedroom. Mum had asked if she needed anything and Molly had replied, “no thank you, my life is pretty perfect now”. The family seemed to have found some resilience and faith in each other so that they could manage the challenges of being in an adoptive family.

The word faith has many connections with the most obvious one being religion. An internet search of “faith and therapy ’will bring up many results about religion but few of abstract belief in something. There are some comparisons between religion and therapy as a whole. The one that has the most resonance for me would be the attentive silence that is talked about when thinking of prayer or meditation. In these moments, we are mindful and quiet, reflecting and connecting our thoughts for an aim. In therapy, attentive silence is often the state of therapist as she listens and empathises with the client.  In Molly and her Mum’s story, I was with them on their journey and Mum perhaps needed me to feel the rejection that she was experiencing with Molly. In music therapy, attentive silence can be the way we reduce our words and concentrate on music, or it can be the moments before and during the music making where we inwardly reflect on the here and now of the relationship. In our work together, I contained Molly’s anger and sadness in the sessions, reflecting and connecting what was too big for her to manage. Molly, Mum and myself as the therapist had to have faith that we would each be enough to make the best of the therapy process. Molly and Mum had to believe that I would anchor their storm so they wouldn’t drift away on the tide.

All names have been changed for the purpose of confidentiality.

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Rachel Swanick Written by:

Rachel Swanick is the Senior Clinical Therapist for Chroma in the U.K. and specialises in psychodynamic music therapy for attachment, trauma and wellbeing. Rachel's work encompasses clinical work and assessments with children and families, the supervision of therapists, as well as presenting and writing about music therapy. Rachel is an Artist in Residence for the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery where she leads the multifacited arts and wellbeing project, Here and Now, and a Social Prescribing programme for families. Rachel plays violin and piano, performing regularly.

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