― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) was my nemesis as a 17 year old piano student. I checked out a recording of Arthur Rubenstein playing this piece by Claude Debussy from my local public library. I was in love with the slow, watery, misty cords. The parallel fifths each create powerful waves of sound and sensation that pass through me every time I hear it. The music draws me into the mystery of the sunken cathedral rising up from the water to a place that is neither here nor there.
Technically, the music was out of reach for me.
I brought the score into my lesson with Robert Mayerovitch. He closed the cover on my piano and sat down in front of the other piano in his studio. He asked me to close my eyes and pretend to play the piece while he played it on the other piano. Freed from the technical challenge of the music, he gave me the opportunity to experience the feeling of playing the music through my physical body without being encumbered by the notes.
At least that was the idea. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed and don't really think I got what my teacher was trying to tell me until I was much older.
Dr. Mayerovitch scrawled on a yellow sticky note the word "patience" and affixed it onto my sheet music. We continued on with my lesson for the week.
A careful observer in my office might notice, off on a bookshelf, Dr. Mayerovitch's sticky note held within an inexpensive metallic frame. This note has been in every office of mine since 1997. It reminds me to get out of my head, stop thinking about the technical aspects of what I'm supposed to be doing, and feel and listen to the music.
My gift as a pianist wasn't my technical skills at the keyboard. Myriad were the students who surpassed my skills. It wasn't until years later, well after I stopped making music, that someone happened to discuss the notion of synesthesia and auditory-tactile synesthesia in particular. Suddenly it all made sense. I didn't know that other people didn't feel sound, The gift I had was my ability to sense and experience music (and words) in ways that other people can't.
I've yet to be able to fully understand or describe this experience. I probably never will.
What I do know is that my musical training combined with my auditory-tactile synesthesia and training as a psychologist, has allowed me to think about structure, pattern, dissonance, and harmony in the things I hear/feel. Words, feelings, culture, race, sex, sexuality, ethnicity, history, experience, gender, body language, and the empty spaces all form together into a complex score that I hear, see, and feel.
This comes in handy. More often than not, people walk into my office with a bag full of notes that have fallen off the page and no longer make sense to anyone. It's my job to hear these notes, pick them up, and create a space where each patient can figure out how their song is supposed to go.
Modern day notions about therapy have taught clients to expect that I'll scoop my hands into the bag, arrange the notes on the page, and send them on their way. That's not who I am.
I often find myself smiling as I catch a glimpse of Dr. Mayerovitch's note on my bookshelf. I put the music away, close my keyboard, and listen, feel, and see the music that's unfolding in front of me. My skill as a pianist was my ability to feel the music and translate that into something that other people could experience. The notes rarely mattered to me (though mattered a lot to everyone else).
I've learned the same holds as a psychologist. What I'm really good at is paying close attention to the things that I hear and feel and see. I notice things. My patients figure out the song.
So young therapist, this is my challenge for you today. You've learned a lot of technical skills in your schooling and supervision. It is important to get the notes right. Technical skill, however, is not sufficient.
The difficult business of the psychotherapeutic enterprise is paying attention. Hearing the songs our patients sing and finding ways to help our clients hear the sounds they are making is the challenge that meets us at our door every time we welcome another human into our office.
Can you hear a person's song?
Can you let a person sing their song and make meaning of it without encumbering them with your notions of what music should be?
When I hit a rut, she says to try the other parent
And she's so kind, I think she wants to tell me something,
But she knows that it's much better if I get it for myself...
And she says
Oooooooh,aaaaaaah, what do you hear in these sounds?
What do you hear in these sounds?
For more letters to a young therapist see Dear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark; Dear Young Therapist: That Time My House Burnt Down; Dear Young Therapist: Cultivate Patience and Listen to the Music; Dear Young Therapist: Consider Your De Rigueur Requirements | The Post-Doctoral Tie Incident; Dear Young Therapist: Are You Ready to Jump; Dear Young Therapist: Perspective is Everything; Dear Young Therapist: Sometimes We Can't Put Humpty Back Together Again; Dear Young Therapist: Sometimes Race and Sex Matter; Dear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid to Love; and Dear Young Therapist: Allow for the Unexpected.