Culture & Context in Music Therapy

February is the shortest month of the year which usually means it comes and goes in the blink of an eye. However, it is a month that holds a lot of value for me. It is the month of love! We don’t necessarily need to limit acts of love to the month of February. However, it is beneficial to have a highlighted period of time that can be dedicated to the giving and receiving of this critical act/feeling. Nevertheless, I feel we should celebrate love everyday. 

Similarly, Black History Month is celebrated in February. Within our current society there are comparable views that this is something that should be celebrated all year round. Why do we need to make a big fuss over it during one particular time of the year? 

Like Valentine’s day, and celebrating love, it is also important to celebrate diversity and pay our respects to our history as human beings. We are not always perfect. We mess up. And in the case of minorities...we’ve messed up pretty badly. In my opinion, it is only right to give a voice to the voiceless and celebrate the future that is slowly becoming more of a collective and unified picture of community.

Being a minority working in a helping profession doesn’t seem too out of left-field if you choose to admit the stereotype that exists within service professions. I was however, unaware of the extent this might impact my decision to stay in Canada to practice music therapy. 

This was brought to my attention during my music therapy internship in Perth, ON. The onsite-counselor, at one of the long-term care facilities I was interning for, sat me down and stated plainly, “you are a brown-skinned woman working in a very white, anglo-saxon community. No matter the state of their mental health, inappropriate behaviour is never okay. If you experience racism or sexism in any way please feel free to talk to me.” 

If I’m honest, I hadn’t really thought of this as a possibility before that moment. I was unaware of my own cultural context within that community and the extent to which that could (potentially) impact the relationships I was hoping to foster with the people living there. Thankfully, I can say that my experiences were mostly lovely. I learned a great deal about myself as a music therapist and became more adaptable in my ability to use music to connect with people. 

One significant change I had to make was my response or presentation of RHYTHM. This isn’t a joke. Growing up, I learned to innately respond to the beats 2 & 4 whereas most Canadians innately learn to respond to beats 1 & 3. This might seem like a simple change to make however, it was incredibly difficult for me as the facilitator of the music making. I had to change the rhythmic accents I placed on certain strumming patterns and drumming cadences.

As a music therapist, it is my job to connect with the clients preferences and musical history. I had to use music to best represent the memories and experiences of my clients. This meant I needed to change quite a bit about the types of music I prepared for sessions. I learned so many songs I had never heard before from genres that I was not heavily exposed to growing up. I had to learn about different aspects of culture I had never been exposed to. 

Here’s an embarrassing example…

I grew up in Bermuda. Upon moving to Canada, I had no concept of farm culture. One evening, I was at a sushi restaurant with a friend referring to brown coloured cows as “Chocolate Milk Cows.” She jokingly said this but I definitely had a REAL internal debate with myself about whether or not brown cows actually produced chocolate milk. So much so, that I posed this question aloud. Of course, I was met with an intense amount of laughter that I am convinced I will NEVER be able to live down. Lesson learned. Moo-ving on… 

My point is that understanding cultural context is incredibly important for the personal relationships I hold within my community and create within my work as a music therapist. I enjoy learning about someone’s history including the way they grew up, their family dynamic, their sense of humour, the places they’ve travelled, etc. I can only hope that when I’m an older adult, someone will take the time to learn about me in great detail. I wholeheartedly believe that our lives are just as important at the end as they are in earlier years. At every stage there is always room for growth, community, and LOVE.

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