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Working with Resistance

by Emily Greenleaf Greenleaf.Emily@MacPhail.org

Here is a very common portrait of resistance in a MacPhail Music for Life™ class:

Nick Johnson has brought a bowed psaltry to today’s session. He gives a demonstration of the instrument, talking about its origins, as well as this particular instrument’s history in his own life. He then brings the psaltry around the circle, handing the bow over to each participant so they can play. The first three to take turns improvise enthusiastically, but the fourth says: “No, I don’t want to play, I can’t play.”

Without missing a beat, Nick responds: “You can play, Roberta. We can play together.” He has her hold the bow, and puts his hand over hers. He gently guides her hand so she can bow through a C major scale. By the end of the scale, Roberta is smiling widely, and everyone in the room applauds. The entire interaction, which takes less than two minutes, looks effortlessbut something really important has just happened. A moment of fear and anxiety and its associated reluctance to try something new has been turned around. Roberta has played a new instrument for the first time, and she has expressed joy and pleasure in the process. She has received validation from everyone in the room. Meanwhile, everyone else has had the satisfying experience of seeing someone overcome a fear and succeed at somethinga process with which we can all identify!

This is not the first time I have seen Nick gracefully help someone through a moment of resistance, and I compliment him after the class. But what he does is so intuitive to him, that he can’t even remember the specifics. So let’s break it down.

  1. Nick is enjoying himself. Everything about his body language, speaking voice and facial expression communicates: “There is no place I’d rather be right now than here in this room with all of you.”
  2. Nick squats as he works with Roberta, so that his head is at the same level as hers, and he can look directly into her eyes. This is an important technique to use with older adults who may have memory loss and difficulty with visual tracking.
  3. Nick takes the time to tell her that she can play. He is indicating that he is going to spend a little extra time with her, and that she is important to him.
  4. Nick uses Roberta’s name (which, by the way, I’ve changed in the interest of her privacy), effectively communicating: “I know you, I recognize you.”
  5. Nick gives Roberta a way out of her initial “no” statement. He doesn’t just contradict her, but changes the parameters of the activity, having them play together, so they are doing something a little different than the original exercise. In doing so, he both acknowledges her refusal to play, while still getting her to engage in the activity. Roberta has been both respected and pushed a little. The social aspect of the activityplaying togetherhas been increased.
  6. Nick uses physical contact with Roberta, which helps reinforce her sensory experience of holding the bow and the arm movements necessary to play the instrument. The physical contact also provides additional connection between the two of them, a physical acknowledgment of her being-ness.
  7. It is worth noting that even though Nick is focused on a single person in the group, the whole group stays engaged with the activity. Transformation, even in such little moments as this, can be compelling and inspiring. Roberta receives validation from everyone in the room because they stay engaged with her throughout the exercise.

It may seem like overkill to analyze something which took place in less than two minutes to such an extent. However, as teachers, I think it is often easy to write off the things we do well, and that seem effortless to us.

I’m curious to know how other teachers see and deal with manifestations of resistance among their students!

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