[Original Voices: Story]
By Lisa Jackert (USA)
I am a music therapist. I am a musician, a singer, and a therapist. I currently practice in Southern California, USA at Community Hospital Long Beach serving adult clients on the acute psychiatric unit. I have been a music therapist for 23 years and the music has taken me on many adventures both personally and professionally. I have boldly gone where the music leads and although there is an unknown factor there is also a deep sense of trust that the music will take me where I need to be. The music will take me wherever I need to go.
“Let the music take you wherever you need to go,” is a phrase that many of us have learned or heard as those who have experienced and/or studied the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, now known as The Bonny Method. Helen Bonny became interested in the therapeutic aspects of music after giving a violin performance where she had a profound peak experience Bonny (2002). This lead her to study music therapy and later begin clinical work at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center where the opportunity to explore music’s impact on peak experience could be researched. Through this work she developed her method. As a Bonny Method level 3 student, I was very familiar with her story and this phrase and have said it and heard it many times. On April 29, 2010 I let the music take me to a place I never dreamed I could go.
It was in the evening of that day that I had a similar peak experience while singing at a memorial service. At that service the raw emotions in the room had a significant impact on me and I experienced a deep transformational process in the music. It was truly the performance of a lifetime.
This was no ordinary memorial service. It was for a man who had shot and killed two of his supervisors before turning the gun on himself. This traumatic event took place at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, a hospital that is in the same city as where I live and work. The shooter was a pharmacy technician who had came to the hospital that day with two loaded shot guns. The next day I received a phone call from Barbara Else, consultant with the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) asking if I was affected by this event. She knew I worked in a hospital in Long Beach but was not sure which one. I told her that I worked nearby and although we were not directly affected by this event the hospital felt the impact as on the day of the tragedy. I also shared how Long Beach Memorial Medical Center was on “lock down” and patients were being diverted to other area hospitals. I shared that my father worked at this hospital but was not there at the time this event happened. We talked about how the hospital had a special place in my life. It was the hospital where I was born; where I, as a high school senior, had first observed music therapy in action on the pediatric unit; where my father had worked for over 40 years and where I gave birth to my son. This hospital and I had a long history and it was unbelievable to me that something like this could have happened. Barbara and I decided that I would contact the pastoral care staff of the hospital to offer music therapy services as crisis intervention as AMTA has supported this sort of crisis work in the past. I felt a strong urge to reach out to the pastoral care staff and all of those that had been directly affected by this tragedy.
I briefly spoke to one of the pastors on staff about what I could offer and we discussed possibilities but nothing definite was determined. About a week later I received a call from Father Brian Delvaux asking me if I could sing/perform at the memorial service of the shooter, Mario Ramirez. A chill ran through my body as I absorbed this question. A rough mixture of emotions flooded me. Horror, sadness, confusion and then ultimately strong feeling of compassion was what I was left with. I immediately said that I would do it and then caught my breath. I suddenly realized that this would be the most intense performance of my life. I have sung at many memorial services but never for a “shooter.” So many thoughts were swirling in my head. I could still hear Father Brian’s voice saying, “shooter” and made the distinction in my mind that he was not using other words that could be used to describe someone who has shot and killed two people. If I agree to do this what does that mean? Does that mean I condone this behavior? How could I do this? But then I immediately countered that question with, “How could I not do this?” I concluded that no matter what the circumstances are there was a loss here. It was a great loss that left so many unanswered questions. If this is where the music is asking me to go then I will go. Let the music take you wherever you need to go.
Although this was not the way I imagined that my skills as a music therapist would be used I began to think that in this situation that it would be my music therapy skills from which I would draw. To draw strength from how music, in its various forms, improvisation, Guided Imagery and music, and performing as a singer/song-writer have always been a part of my personal and professional life. It was a part of myself-my “music self” (Jackert, 2006) that I had spent a great deal of time developing, exploring, and understanding. This term “music self” was becoming common in Strength-Based Improvisation, a practice which my colleague Robin Rio and I had developed. We both hold a strong belief that the music therapist’s direct experience as a participant of clinical improvisation was paramount and that through these experiences, her/his musical and personal strengths would be uncovered and could then serve as the tools with which improvisation skills would be built. At this point, in addition to developing my work in Strength-Based Improvisation, I had been a serious student of the Bonny Method since 2005 under the supervision of Fran Goldberg. It would be from this and from all of these experiences of developing my “music self” that I would draw from in this challenging situation. Although I had never sung at a memorial service for a “shooter” I had been in many dark places of mine own, as well as with clients, and in these situations, music had always been there to contain and comfort. It became clear to me that the music was now calling me to go to a place that I have never gone before and I became filled with a strong sense of purpose. I will let the music take me where I am called to go.
It was decided that I would lead the congregation in the singing of several songs that included, “On Eagles Wings” by Michael Joncas and as well as “Let There be Peace on Earth” by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson. I was also asked to perform, as a solo, the traditional hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” However, prior to learning of these selections, I had already begun to search through my repertoire to look for appropriate songs in case I needed to make suggestions. One song I found was “Footprints in the Sand” written by: Richard Page, Per Magnusson, David Kreuger, and Simon Cowell. The song is based on the famous poem written in 1936 by Mary Stevenson that tells of the dream about a walk in the sand with the Lord. In the poem, the dreamer notices two set of footprints accompanied by the feeling of assurance that the Lord is walking along side. But the dreamer also notes how, in the most trying times, only one set of foot prints is seen and the question is asked, “Why, when I needed you most you have not been there for me?” The Lord answered, “The times you have seen only one set of footprints is when I carried you.” For me, these words from the poem conveyed a message that would have fit the occasion. (I had performed this song at a church service about a year ago and it immediately became a new favorite.) I was hoping that there would be an opportunity to sing it for the service. Really there are no words for something like this, this was beyond words, but I felt strongly that this song would fit. It would be comforting and would offer hope. I had mentioned the song and was told that it could be included in the program.
On the day of the memorial service I arrived at the church 90 minutes prior to the beginning of the proceedings. Prior to entering the church I sat in my car in the parking lot talking on my cell phone, receiving some final words of guidance and strength from my friend and colleague Robin Rio. In our Strength-Based Improvisation trainings we had co-lead many students into unknown music spaces where they encountered dark places where the music served to guide us in ways that allowed us to come through to the light. It was for this reason that I called her. Our short conversation grounded me as I prepared to enter the church and begin to rehearse. I had briefly met the accompanist a few days prior when I gave him a copy of the music. We immediately connected and there was an unspoken energy between us that expressed the intensity of where the music was going take us, as well as, what this performance would be like. As we reviewed the program I noticed that “Footprints in the Sand” was not listed. I spoke to the officiating pastor, Karyn Reddick, about how strongly I felt that this song should be included and she suggested that it be the last piece of prelude music. I spoke with the accompanist about the logistics of this and the plan ended up being that after playing several pieces on the organ he would walk to the piano, which would severe as my queue that the song is next.
The service began and what struck me first was the number of people beginning to enter the church. This particular church has a history with me as I had sung there for 5 consecutive holiday concerts (1983-1987) with the University Choir of California State Long Beach, under the direction of the legendary choral conductor, Frank Pooler. The church, First Congregational Church of Long Beach provided a wonderful venue because of the grand pipe organ and its size. It is located in downtown Long Beach and was built in 1914 in the Italian Rennasiance style. There are beautiful stained glass windows there, and I was again taking in their beauty, just as I had done more than 20 years ago sitting in the same choir loft. The organ music was beautiful, but as the accompanist continued to play another piece, and then another, until service was about to begin I began to become nervous, wondering when was he going to be going to the piano. I tried to focus on relaxing and began to breathe to the music. I had strong images of the past performances I had sung in this church. I again recalled, Frank Pooler and felt as if I was attempting to channel his spirit as I needed his inspiration. He repeatedly said that the goal of a performer is to use each rehearsal time to remove any distractions, otherwise known as mistakes, so that the music can be fully experienced and appreciated by the audience. I also remembered how he had repeatedly said that once you are part of a chord sung perfectly in tune you are never the same. This was certainly true for me. In this sense, it was while singing under his direction that I “became” a singer. Prior to that I had identified myself as a violinist because I considered it to be my first instrument. In reality, however, voice had been my first instrument, singing in the children’s choir at church at the age of 7 when I was given my first solo. But I had not thought of myself as a singer. Being a singer was not part of my musical identity back then, and I had not thought of my voice as an instrument-as my instrument. Yet, I am grateful for my years as a violinist, and I know that all my early music experiences were important in my development as a musician and as a music therapist.
As the prelude music continued I again became more nervous and began to doubt myself. I needed to convince myself that I could do this. Not only was I a music therapist but I was a professional singer as well. I channeled the spirit of my university vocal coach, Patricia Smith, who was no longer living. Like Frank Pooler, she helped me to own my identity as a singer. It was she who first told me that I had a big and beautiful voice. She gave me challenging arias to tackle and encouraged me to give a senior recital, even though, it was not required of music therapy majors. I recalled then how Dr. Kay Roskam was also supportive of my singing performances, but also how at first she was hesitant to encourage me to sing with the University Choir due to the demanding rehearsal and concert schedule, and because the degree requirement to be part of a performing group could be met by being a part of one of the other choirs involving less demanding schedules. Ultimately, she was glad that I, as a music therapy major, became a member of the choir and then encouraged other music therapy majors to audition as she now realized it was important to show that music therapy majors should be taken seriously as performing musicians.
In these moments of preparation for the service, I also recalled other memories, particularly of great performances in which I been involved in that took place in this church. This had also been the venue for the performance of Handel’s "Messiah" where the University Choir served as the chorus of the Long Beach Symphony in those days. For five straight years we had performed this great masterpiece under the director of Maestro: Murry Sidlin. One of our holiday concerts included a guest performance by Richard Carpenter (as the American Pop vocalists/composers, Richard and Karen Carpenter had sung with Frank Pooler in The University choir, during their early days at California State University Long Beach. Being a part of this choir also prepared me for my future work as a paid professional singer as I would later sing with the St. Louis Chamber choir and serve in several churches (as a soloist and soprano section leader). Yes, I was a professional singer and a music therapist. I convinced myself that I was the right person for this gig. This was not an ordinary gig but I could do this. Let the music take you wherever you need to go.
Finally the organist stopped playing but now the service was to begin and he had never moved to the piano. He then sat next to me having no idea that he had not followed the plan and I told him that he had missed the song. He profusely apologized as we searched for how we could fit the song into another place in the program. We agreed that it would best fit prior to me singing “How Great Thou Art.” We quickly arranged these two songs as a medley with the plan to keep “Footprints” in its entirety and then (without a break) moving to “How Great Thou Art” with only a one-measure introduction, cut the second verse, and repeat the refrain at the end. This was all said in quick hushed whispers as the service was already in progress. I was now more nervous than I was before. All my insecurities came back me to and I began to question myself. Was I being too pushy by suggesting this song be included? Did they really want me to sing it? Let the music take you where you need to go.
Leading the congregation in singing “On Eagles Wings” (with me playing guitar in addition to the piano accompaniment) was a good “warm up” for what was to come. The service was beautifully planned with heartfelt prayers and bible verses read from the team of pastors that are on staff at the hospital. Then co-workers and a few family members spoke, telling wonderful stories and expressing feelings about what a kind and giving man the deceased was. Then, it was time for the sermon which was given by the senior pastor, Karyn Reddick. She chose the perfect bible verses for this occasion. She acknowledged the raw mixed emotions around how difficult it was to comprehend what had happened. She did not sugar coat anything but offered comfort by reassuring that there is a spiritual source that can carry us through this. She personally knew this man, and I remember her saying, “There were obviously some dark parts of himself that we didn’t know about and perhaps he didn’t even know himself.” It was after this that I was to sing and as she continued to emphasize the power of God’s love to sustain us I was reassured that the song was now in the perfect place to follow this message. Let the music take us all where we need to go.
When I began to sing I was aware that to my left were the four pastors seated on the chancel next to me. I felt their support and I silently expressed an intention that they trust me that what I was about to sing was the right music for this moment. As I started the song I felt their energy shift and knew there was some surprise and confusion, as obviously this song was not “How Great Thou Art.” I again thought to myself, “trust me and just go with this.” I continued to sing and was immediately aware that the emotions in the room were strong and I initially felt I needed to detach from this and just think of this as one more performance. I was intentionally not looking at the shooter’s family but then something shifted and I did allow a bit more expression to enter into my awareness. As I continued to sing I felt that my voice was now coming from a different source, it was me, but not me. It felt soaring and freeing like it had never felt before. I continued to allow the intensity in and this quality continued. The song is in a gospel style and thus allowed for some improvisation on my part. The tone was clear with just the right amount of vibrato to be expressive, as I again sang the chorus: “I promise you I’m always there. When your heart is filled with sorrow and despair…I’ll carry you when you need a friend. You’ll find my foot prints in the sand.” This beautiful voice continued and carried me into the climax of the bridge, “When I’m weary, I know you’ll be there and I can hear you when you say…” Then there came a change of key to a half step higher for the chorus one more time to bring it home. The energy continued as we moved into (what turned into to be a very soulful gospel version) of “How Great Thou Art.” Again my voice felt free to ad lib, which was not how I had rehearsed it but the emotions and the intensity of this sacred space carried me through and I became aware that pairing these two songs was truly appropriate as the familiar of “How Great Thou Art” was a beautifully holding song to comfort all of us. The music took me where I needed to go.
When the music was over I was shaking. Prior to returning to the choir loft there was a wall that I could stand behind for a moment to catch my breath. I could hardly walk as I made my way back to the choir loft and continued shaking and breathing heavily. But I wasn’t scared, as I immediately remembered the many times I had read of Helen Bonny’s mystical experience while playing violin and I instantly knew that this is what happened to me, and felt that I was in good company. Her experience changed the course of her life as it inspired her to become a music therapist and then develop her famous method: The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music. But would this experience change the course of my life? I was already a music therapist, a twenty year veteran at this point. What did this mean? I decided to use my training in the Bonny Method for this moment and not get caught up in analyzing this experience. For now, I just needed to stay with this, to be with this, to take it in fully. I then focused on soaking in every moment of this and to record it in my body, mind, and soul. I didn’t need to know what exactly it meant. I just needed to bask in the light to which I had traveled. I felt an opening in my chest, in my heart; a deep sense of compassion for everyone that was there, particularly for the family of the shooter, including, his young children, and his wife who were sitting in the first row. Had the music taken them where they needed to go? I mentally reached out to them and hoped that music had provided some sense of comfort and light into the darkness that covered them. My parents were also there in the congregation as this tragedy happened at the hospital where my father works and they had always been there for my performances whenever possible. They had always been supportive of where the music took me. I felt their support and the supportive of everyone who was there. The accompanist and I exchanged a glance that captured the intensity of the moment. There were no words; there was no need for words. This was a musical journey that would tie us together forever. When the service was over there were many wordless embraces that took place as that seemed to be the only way to express the magnitude of the experience that we had all shared. When I embraced the senior pastor we shared a deep soulful look that continues to connect us to this day. The music had taken us all where we needed to go.
Becoming one with the music is what happened to me. I recall this idea coming up in the movie “The Black Swan” which I had recently seen. What stayed with me most is the ballet director’s directive to the lead dancer that she must be willing to lose herself. He repeatedly tells her this throughout the film, and towards the end of the movie she does lose herself, imaging herself growing black feathers until she completely embodies the black swan and gives a magical and breathtaking performance. In looking back at this experience now I see that I became the music and lost myself yet, in my case, find myself again.
I have wanted to write about this for a long time. It is obviously a tremendous experience that is difficult to recount but nevertheless important to document as one of the most meaningful performances of my life. This was a peak experience and I am now aware of why the “The Peak Experience” music program, designed by Helen Bonny has always been special to me. It was the music program I choose for my creative analysis project in my training and I have performed the second piece on the program, “Et in Terra Pax” from Vivaldi’s Gloria, many times. I listened to this program many times while I was pregnant and it was playing while my son was born. I want to know more about having a peak experience while performing the music vs. listening to it (both are important to explore).
I think this experience is also important as it speaks to my identity as a musician and as a singer, and it has influenced and shaped my identity as a music therapist. I am thankful that I was chosen to be the vessel for the deliverance of this music. I am humbled and honored that I was asked to be a part of this experience and I am so grateful that I was brave enough to go where the music called me to go.
It saddens me that I did not finish this before the passing of Helen Bonny. I dedicate this essay to her now and to all those who dared to let the music take them wherever they needed to go. Let the music take you wherever you need to go.
I would also like to acknowledge: Stan Dewitt, my minster of music at Grace First Presbyterian Church for selecting “Footprints in the Sand” for me to sing and for our shared experiences with Frank Pooler and the University choir and for encouraging me to finish writing this piece. Finally to Barbara Wheeler, my writing mentor and guide: Thank you for your encouragement.
Bonny, Helen (2002). Music & Consciousness: The Evolution of Guided Imagery and Music. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers
Jackert, L. (2006). Developing My Music Self-The Prelude to Strength-Based Improvisation and the Joy of Collaboration. [Contribution to Moderated Discussions] Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved November 3, 2006, from http://www.voices.no/discussions/discm53_01.html