Dimensions of Music Care Part 4: Musicking

by Sarah Pearson

In this, our fourth installment of this blog series on the ten dimensions of music care, we look at musicking. Musicking refers to spontaneous music-making, but it comes from a deeper theory that music is an action that always involves all people. Whether we are listening to a song on the radio, performing on a stage, ripping tickets at the Met Opera, hitting record in the studio, dancing to the horah, or enjoying the busker in the subway, we are all engaged in musicking. It is an inclusive, relational act.

During the Music Care Trainings, we have fourteen hours of content to cover in two days. That intensity can be daunting for an instructor, as well as a participant. Sitting and listening to someone instruct for fourteen hours straight on the value of music in care would be impossible. These are concepts that must be experienced.

I was trained in an approach to music therapy called “music centered psychotherapy.”  In this approach, we are called to deeply trust that the music alone can create the therapeutic change, if we use it skillfully, carefully, and wisely.

So as an instructor of the Music Care Training, I’m constantly looking for moments where musicking as a group can teach the content.

“Musicking” is a wonderful word, coined by ethnomusicologist Christopher Small, to describe music as an action.

Most of us make choices about whether or not to “music,” on a regular basis, and for reasons and for various roles. Film editors may be thinking about when a scene calls for scored film music; a yoga instructor may think about when the class calls for some recorded music; a person driving home from a long day at work may ask themselves whether their car ride merits a particular playlist, or simply the silence of one’s own thoughts; an athlete may wonder whether to train to music today, and if so, which music.

I try to go in and out of musicking as much as possible during these Trainings, as well as in more therapy-based groups I facilitate. Signs for me that it’s time for musicking I look for are:
- I’m getting sleepy
- I’m depending too heavily on words to explain a point
- I’m becoming too “teacher-y”
- There’s a felt sense in the room that we could go deeper into an experience
- We’ve been sitting for far too long

Then the question becomes – what kind of musicking?
- Will we listen to a recording of a song that someone is sharing that is significant to them?
- Will we do something silly and fun to lighten the mood, break the ice, and make the energy more buoyant?
- Will we do something mindful and peaceful for focus, attunement, and non-verbal connection?
- Will we do a dyad – where two people improvise together while the room holds the space?

By musicking together, it energizes us. As an instructor (and therapist), I experience less of the fatigue that can come from lecturing or talking too much about an idea, or anxiously trying to establish and hold a therapeutic rapport. It connects the us as a whole, and it gives us a shared embodied experience.

Thinking about music as a verb is a great way of understanding its power to transform lives and relationships. “Musicking,” to me, is like running – it’s a feeling, experience, and process. I know what I feel like before, during, and after running – it changes all of me, mind and body. Similarly, I know how I am when I’m “in music” from when I’m not. It changes me, and changes the space around me.

Musicking is also like breathing: it happens subtly and unconsciously. We may have music stuck in our head, or music playing in the background at work. And just as a deep breath or sigh may signify to a loved one that we are there with them, so may a sudden drop into musicking communicate presence and change the space. Spontaneously singing an upset child a lullaby, or asking a friend in distress if you can play them a recorded song we think might speak to them, or singing to ourselves in the shower or the car, are all ways that we can breathe into musicking. These moments aren’t programmed or pre-meditated; they arise from our instincts and change us.

Thinking about music as a verb invites us to think of music as life itself – ever evolving, always in process, always in relationship. It’s a living, breathing tool for caregiving.

Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in oncology and palliative care in Kitchener, ON . She is the Program Development Coordinator for the Room 217 Foundation and Lead Facilitator of the Music Care Training program.