“Let’s sing a song about fishing!”

As a new collaborator in this process, I was constantly assessing every single group member. The only familiar face in the group was Maria, whom I have guest-lectured in one of her classes. Every person in the group seemed to be so comfortable with each other. It did not come as a surprise to me because I was invited to collaborate in this process a few months after it has started.

Maria was looking for a “music therapist familiar with musical theater” and approached NYU’s music therapy faculty. My name was immediately thought of as I have always been very vocal about my passion for the art form. A few phone conversations later, I leapt into this whirlwind adventure of witnessing everyone’s journey towards self-discovery.

During my first few sessions, I noticed there were some collaborators who just can’t help but make music. Some were poised and cautious, some were hesitant, and others were resistant. My goal was not to have everyone join in the music making experience. Instead, I wanted everyone to contribute to the community of music makers in the most comfortable way each one of them could. The two hot-blooded young men of our group, Ethan and Henry, would always take a hold of the reins and catapult the entire group into an exciting improvised musical journey. These 20 minute singing experiences range from improvising about beautiful girls, making references to 90’s pop, reenacting Disney love ballads, and outrageous debates between a lawyer and a plaintiff. Sky’s the limit.

During these experiences, the youngest in our community, Bernardo, would usually feel more comfortable observing the group or playing on the iPad. His gentle sweet smile lets us know that he appreciates the group for accepting his degree of involvement. One session, the group asked Bernardo about his interests. Bernardo’s face lit up and said, “fishing!”

“Let’s sing about fishing,” said Ethan.

It was such a random request, yet it was so appropriate. We wanted to express to Bernardo in song that we celebrate his interests. I can say that in my 5 years of working as a music therapist, never have I ever sang a song about fishing. The comicalness of a fishing song immediately reminded me of Ziegfeld Follies. In a folly number, ANYTHING could happen – even fishing.

The music was peppy, comical, and most of all – inviting. The boom-chuck accompaniment gave the music motion, and our two singing leaders, Ethan and Henry, immediately took off. They took charge in leading the entire group to sing about fishing – the preparations, the motions, the waiting, oh the dreadful waiting! Bernardo joined the fold by the piano with a bright smile on his face, while Ethan and Henry shaped the song, and giving opportunities for Bernardo to chime in. The two mothers of the group – Bernardo’s mother, Cecilia, and Ethan’s mother, Maria, sang proudly with their children.

What happened here was an example of how the improvised music therapy experience provided opportunities for the collaborators to play different roles. The task was comical and absurd – to sing a song about fishing. Ethan and Henry were swept by the musical accompaniment and became leaders, role-models, and caregivers for young Bernardo. Here, two young autistic men stepped up to the plate to dive headlong into creative freedom to celebrate Bernardo’s individuality and interests. They took on the role of caregivers by musically guiding Bernardo to join everyone in a co-creative experience. The mothers had a chance to step back and watch the experience unfold as Bernardo now has new caregivers that he trusts and is modelling after. It was a powerful moment for all involved. The music inspired fluidity in the roles and dynamics of group members, allowing Ethan and Henry to unconsciously shine in their newfound roles as caregivers and leaders.

The creative arts is a platform for people to challenge themselves and their perceptions of their own identities. The accessibility and attractiveness of the artistic process allows people to ease into making the growth choices, and breaking their developmental thresholds. Our courageous collaborators took a chance on music and explored the nuances of their stories on a deeper level. I am immensely proud to have facilitated and witnessed their creative journeys, and am looking forward for the audience to take part in our journey as we share them with the world.