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Maxim talks to Tiziana Pozzo about body music, sound-painting, and making music therapy accessible to deaf and disabled children.
Ciao Tiziana, thanks so much for taking the time to chat today! I’m curious as to what inspired you to go down the path of becoming a music therapist, as opposed to being a regular therapist?
Personally, my path in music has been quite hard. My mum is a music teacher, and in Italy the conservatoire is very difficult, so I had to practice piano all the time. I realised the mental effort that I had to put into this in order to reach the level my parents wanted me to reach, and I decided I did not want to be a performer. I started teaching piano when I was seventeen, and I loved that - music for me was the biggest passion, and I always kept it in my life, even when I was struggling with it. When I started teaching piano, children with disabilities would come to my sessions, and I realised that I had to study to be more prepared in order to be able to help them properly. Every individual disability has different needs, so I really needed to go deep and study psychology and its related fields. I’d also been doing lots of training for teachers, and in those situations I could see how adults could benefit from music and dance as well.
You talk on your blog about how music can sometimes have effects on us when language or reason won’t work, for example when trying to calm down children. Why do you think music so often works in helping us to feel more peaceful, when all else fails?
Music is definitely able to touch emotions in a different way. But emotions are also parts of our brains, so everything is connected to a cognitive aspect, it’s not just about our feelings. When we play music or sing for children, babies or elderly people that have mental health issues, first of all, you move their attention onto something different. You shift their focus from something that’s causing anxiety onto something else. Then, once the attention is caught, you can go deeper. Of course, when you’re singing gently or bringing the right music to the right person, you are also activating all the other elements connected to the feelings. For example, with my baby, I know there are particular songs she recognises from the womb, so for the first months of her life whenever she was upset, I could just sing a particular song and she would immediately stop crying. It was so powerful. It was a song I was singing during my piano classes basically every day, so she learnt it because I was practising with my students, and I now use it as a lullaby with her. With elderly people it’s the same, if you sing the songs that were part of their youth, it stimulates their memories, so they become more alert and aware of what’s around them, and a lot of things are brought back. Through the memories they get back to the emotions and the feelings they felt at the time, and it’s a way for them to feel really alive again.
So it’s the familiarity of a song that can make it so powerful?
If they are familiar with it, they can predict what’s going to happen in the song, and it’s that kind of prediction that makes you feel relaxed. If you sing something new, your brain can be attentive, but that’s not what you want if you’re anxious - you want to listen to something you already know and that you can predict, because then there are no surprises in it!
You participated in the amazing Sounding Out project, where you worked with deaf children in creating music for a show. I have a hearing loss myself, so this is particularly resonant with me, as I often feel it’s a blessing rather than a curse because I get to hear music in a different way to most people. What was the experience like working on the Sounding Out project?
It was amazing. It helped me realise a lot of things, for example, the important role of an interpreter. Some students were communicating just through sign language, and I didn’t know BSL at that point. Having a third person in-between me and the students was a filter and that really broke the communication I could have with them, so I knew I had to learn sign language myself. I also learnt another form of sign language for musicians, called ‘sound-painting’, and with that I could open the relationship with the children. Then, of course, I saw all the incredible possibilities that deaf children have. There is the common idea that a deaf person cannot do music - when you are in the situation with them, you can see that is not at all the case! You just need a different way to propose music in the beginning, and through many different approaches you can reach many goals and help them to realise that they can do music. Sometimes maybe they are children of deaf parents, and the parents think they cannot do music and they bring this idea to the children too. So it is great to see that these projects are in the schools now, and the children have these possibilities to explore and become better in music, if that’s what they want.
Could you explain a bit more about what sound-painting involves, and how you use this to help people in your sessions?
Sound-painting is literally sign language that was created by Walker Thompson in the 1970s in the USA. He was a composer, and as he was conducting one of his pieces, he realised that he wanted to change something during the live performance. Through signs, he communicated to the musicians the changes that he wanted to implement, and they understood. From that moment, he created this sign language which now has more than a thousand words to describe and conduct live performance with musicians, dancers, actors, and visual artists. It’s wonderful for children, I had two or three situations where I could create a piece of music with them through sound-painting in just one week, and then we performed it at the end of the week. You can use the children’s ideas and bring them to the music, and then they can conduct it themselves once they have learnt the signs. A lot of work goes on here in terms of boosting self-esteem, confidence, teamwork, responsibility and turn-taking.
I’ve been reading on your website about the incredible effects that ‘body music’ can have. Firstly, what is body music, and how do you find this helps?
Body music is born from the origin of human beings, because we were stomping before speaking, and clapping before being able to say ‘thank you'. It is about creating rhythms and dances that produce sounds through the use of our bodies and voice. When you do something that involves singing and moving at the same time, and with other people around you, your brain is 100% busy in that moment. You enter into this state of flow. It’s a way of leaving behind everything that doesn’t belong in that particular moment, and you focus on the here and now completely. When you’re feeling the flow, your mental health improves, your anxiety and stress levels decrease - there are a lot of connections between entering into this state, and there being an increase in your general wellbeing.
With body music, not only are you creating music, but when you’re doing it with your whole body, you’re actually doing it materially on your body - even the fact that you’re hitting yourself sends different information to your brain. You’re not just strumming or playing an instrument, your whole body is involved. When you’re doing that with other people, there is an even greater sense of flow - not only are you working on your intra-personal relationship, you’re working on your inter-personal relationships. You’re constantly moving between a state of ‘myself and myself’ and ‘myself in the group’. How do I perceive myself in the group? How do I feel? Can I cope? Can I learn? Can I lead? Can I improvise? There are so many aspects that can be developed through working in music together. You don’t need to be a good musician or able to play anything - you just need to stomp and clap! It’s accessible for anyone. It’s like going to see a concert and you are synchronised with all the other people, so you feel energised.
I think it was the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh that said, “We ought to listen to music at the beginning of every meeting or discussion”, because it stills our mind and prepares us for constructive conversation, rather than hostility. You’ve spoken before about the power that music can have in building empathy - how do you think music can accomplish something like this?
We all feel something magical happen when we're creating music, especially when we’re creating it together. But on a cognitive level, our brain is really synchronised through the observations of our body doing the same movements as others, and through the vibrations that our bodies perceive. It’s not only a case of ‘It’s cool because I feel part of the group’ - no, you feel part of the group because there are a lot of vibrations and there is resonance happening in your brain and in your whole body through the possibility to move like other people. All of this synchronicity happens through a general connection of minds.
Finally, we ask all of our interviewees to name their top three favourite songs or pieces of music that have a great theme of mental health and therapy. What would be your choices?
1. Feeling good - Nina Simone
2. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough - Diana Ross
3. Man! I Feel Like A Woman! - Shania Twain
All images taken from tizianapozzo.info
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