I have been a professional performer much longer than I have been a music therapist, and even though I now have a full time job, I simply can’t say no to all of the holiday performance and gig opportunities. In December, whenever I was not at my job at YCCA, I was rehearsing or performing some holiday music somewhere, whether it was for various churches or my professional caroling gigs, complete with Victorian costumes. And I love it. I may be ridiculously busy during this season, but I am also able to feed my inner classically trained singer and get paid for it! Plus I love to perform. Singing for audiences and sharing music in a public way no matter the season makes me happy. It’s that simple.
Performing will always be a vital part of my life both professionally and personally, but it was a struggle to learn how to separate the “performer” from the “therapist.” In grad school, I often had to “turn off” my classically trained performer self and not worry about playing right notes or using proper vocal technique. Music therapy is not about performing for our clients; instead we again have to meet our clients where they are and make music with them, not for them. For example, when working with preschoolers, I use my best cheerful, friendly, approachable and sometimes cartoonish voice. I never use my full out operatic voice. It would probably scare all the children,or at least overwhelm them, and they would never sing with me. Instead I try to match them and their vocal abilities.
As a professional singer and also now music therapist, I am learning about how performing can be beneficial in music therapy. Part of my master’s thesis was finding research to support the idea that performing can be an effective form of music therapy. The chance to show an audience what you have mastered or created is a natural way to develop self-esteem and increase self worth. Performances are also a great opportunity to build community. In my thesis research, I found that when people feel part of a community, both their individual and collective self esteem increases. As humans, we thrive on social interaction, to a certain extent, and we like to feel like we are part of something bigger.
At YCCA this year, we held a series of holiday concerts and parties, one for each age group. In the first concert, the two-year-old Pumpkins stood on stage in front of their families, shook jingle bells, danced with Frosty the Snowman puppets, and jumped up and down to the Nutcracker. A few of them sang along to Jingle Bells or helped count candles during the Hanukkah song; others froze and barely moved. A couple of kids cried, and one had a full out temper tantrum. It was a great success.
But really it was. The point of the event was not for musical perfection. It was a chance for these little ones to show off their school to their parents, to display their love of music, and to stand all by themselves in front of all these grownups. Most had never performed before. What an exciting way to perform! All of your parents and families are cheering for you even if you cry or don’t sing or simply stand there. There was so much love in that room. And through that performance, we were continuing to strengthen our own community as parents got to meet for the first time, and everyone shared in the joy of the music making and the unpredictable nature of two-year-olds. I loved when the little girl who is one of the youngest of the group made sure she was front and center for the entire concert and had a huge grin on her face. Or when another little girl continues to ask me when our next concert will be.
I plan to continue to give my kids more performance opportunities because it helps them develop self confidence and provides them a chance to demonstrate their mastery which is so important at their young age. And in the context of music therapy, preparing for a performance allows me to work on so many different goals with them such as improving social skills, language development, and self expression. As for the performance itself, just the act of participating is a triumph for children this young. Performing is not about perfection. We perform to share our music with others and to give a gift to ourselves as well. Because who doesn’t like a little applause now and then?