Rhythm and Blues

On reflection I should have seen it when I heard Leon Fulcher’s brilliant lecture during a CELCIS conference in Scotland some years ago, but for some reason it only dawned on me last week! For decades there have been discussions about the distinctions between residential work and field work, social work and residential care and the like. But what I had missed completely was the role of music in all this.

Put simply, in social work there is no music. Think of the assessment process and the forms; think of the meetings involving children and young people; think of management; think of training and the lectures; think of the whole ethos including the administrative offices, and you immediately get the point. This is a world, a way of operating, in which music has no place.

Then think of foster and residential care, and the penny drops: there is music of all sorts: on TV, Ipads, Ipods, MP3s, radio, and still, against the odds, children and young people actually playing instruments or singing themselves. There is music being discussed, background music, concerts, dances, and film music. One is a world devoid of music: the other is replete with it.

If this sounds obvious to every reader, I am sorry that it has taken me so long to catch up. But, I hear you say: why does it matter? What might it mean or signify? And this is the point that struck me: if you are dealing with assessment, administration, planning, and with matters of the mind, then music is of little relevance. In fact it may get in the way. But if you are dealing with matters of the heart, and spirit: with feelings and the deep inner world of a person or a group, then music is vital. It is a sine qua non of creative relationships.

Let me give you a quotation on the matter and see how close you come to guessing who said it and when:

“I was deeply moved by the music….the sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”

The answer is Augustine of Hippo, and it was written in his Confessions some time between 370 and 450 AD!

There are, of course, many varieties of music: but what they all have in common is that the sounds cannot be explained by or contained within the mind. Music spills out of boxes and frameworks, and seeps into the recesses, conscious and unconscious, of the human heart or spirit.

We are moved by music: that is patently obvious in films. It communicates moods without us thinking about the process, or even being aware of it. And the range of emotions that it can express and convey is as varied as the number and extent of human feelings intra-personal and inter-personal expressed in human history.

So when we are seeking to understand and relate to a person (which I think we can all agree is at the heart of social work and residential/social care) we will never be connecting with their heart or spirit unless and until some form of music is at work.

What a blessing it is to live in a residential community where we can listen to and discuss each others’ preferred forms of music. I think of how a young person many years ago wanted me to listen to the music of Rollerball with him. He warned me that the music, like the film was dangerously violent. And he was right. What took me completely off guard was the fact that he particularly wanted me to listen to one track assuming that, because I hadn’t sent the film, it was new to me. It shocked me to discover that it was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor. No disagreement about the intensity of the music: just about what we called it!

And then I recall the long evening travelling to North Wales when a young person talked to me about Rap music, and especially Eminem. Over the time I cannot recall any human emotion that wasn’t alluded to in one way or another. And this helped us to understand each other at a deeper level than hitherto. And it meant that we were able to discuss how he related to his younger siblings too.

Why do we listen to the music that we do? And why do we choose particular pieces at specific times? We probably aren’t able to explain, because it is unlikely that we even think about it very often. But I remember my own children telling me that they knew what I was feeling by the pieces I played on the piano, and the way I played them.

When we feel joy and elation there is music to help us express the feelings, even to nurture and encourage them. And when we experience loss and failure there is music that will provide succour, serenity and comfort.

Lullabies are sung or hummed worldwide to babies and little children to help them relax and sleep. And trumpet or bugle calls have been used since time immemorial to stir troops into battle. There may be words that accompany some of these sounds, but words are not necessary: the sounds convey their own meaning.

Many years ago I was teaching at what was then called the Social Care Practice Centre in Bangor University, North Wales. Great store was set by insisting that all social workers should speak Welsh, the first language of most of the residents in Gwynedd. Given that much of the social work literature and guidance was in English I asked why the Welsh language was so important in this context. The reply was simple: English is the language of commerce and administration, but when it comes to matters of the heart the people cannot communicate without Welsh. They may be fluent in English, but it is a fluency that fumbles in the home, and when emotions are to be expressed, and relationships and feeling to be described and shared.

And it occurs to me now that they could have been speaking of music as well as of Welsh. If we are trying to understand and connect with the rhythm and blues of life then we will need a language deeper and more personal than that used to do business and administration. We overlook music at the risk of functioning on a different level from the person or group with whom we seek to communicate. And with all forms of music it requires the development of the art and skill of listening in order to hear what the other is thinking and feeling.

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