A Reflection on Robin

The role of music

It’s taken me some time to process Robin Williams’ death and its impact on me. Whether he was an alien or genie, professor or therapist, grieving husband or cross-dressing father, Williams provided opportunities to share in communal laughter and absorb moments of authentic human experiences that resonated with me as a child and have, in many ways, continued to resonate into adulthood. Reflecting on this I have found is that, in contrast to other celebrity losses (e.g., Heath Ledger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wherein I had immediate and relatively brief emotional responses ranging from shock to sadness, I’ve actually been grieving.

This grief has provided me plenty of opportunity for internal reflection on my own art and my use of it as a music therapist. Principally, I’ve been considering the role of music for patients working towards end-of-life resolutions and caregivers working through prebereavement. I’ve often thought about the various roles I’ve assumed as a music therapist in hospice, but had never so deeply considered the various roles of the music itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, these roles have been a struggle to fully articulate. More often than not music is described in terms of outcomes, e.g. relaxing, happy, stimulating, etc., but these products are not reflective of process. How useful is the knowledge that music can alter physical and emotional functioning if we don’t have thicker and deeper explorations of the musical and therapeutic processes, including theoretical foundations and clinical decision making? Subsequently, I’ve been left struggling with the question of what role(s) music, in the therapeutic setting, assumes at the end of life.

Art as joining with others

Since pop culture helped elicit these recent questions, perhaps it was only natural for it to provide clarity as well. I began revisiting Williams’ movies in the aftermath of his death and a pivotal scene in the back half of Good Morning, Vietnam connected with me. In this scene Robin Williams’ counter-authority character, recently stripped of his morning radio show due to broadcasting classified information, finds himself surrounded by trucks filled with soldiers being moved to the front lines. Williams is suffering a depressive episode at this juncture – the classified information he shared was the local bombing of a popular watering hole for soldiers, and the loss of those friends coupled with his superior officers’ punishing him for disseminating that truth has left him feeling out of place and at odds with his community. When among the soldiers his friend (Forrest Whitaker) encourages him to be a performer once more, but Williams is reluctant to assume a role that led to this recent clash of personal values and military service. Eventually forced into identifying himself to the troops, like a locomotive slowly building speed, Williams comes into his own with a flurry of jokes delivered with the fury and ferocity of angry bees. (Skip to 7:12 in the clip below)

It is vintage Williams, a wholly unique force shaped by his sharp observations, acute intelligence, and deep compassion. The stoic and anxious solders resonated with this energy, quickly shifting as they laughed from the belly-up and shared their names in the hopes that he would work it into a well-intentioned burn. At the end of the scene as it becomes apparent that the convoy will be moving on, Williams modulates and without missing a beat transitions into a brief but heartfelt send off.

What strikes me about this scene is how no assessment needed completion, no activities or interventions needed designing, and no narrative needed writing up for us to observe, feel, and internalize the power of that transformative interaction. Williams, through the sheer force of his art and his intuition, compelled men surrounded by others but living in isolation to join in a meaningful shared experience. And yet, it was not Williams’ experience to own or trumpet as a triumph. He merely facilitated an interpersonal experience by first connecting himself to the soldiers, and then helping them resonate with each other’s humanness. The soldiers were not the punchline, but partners with Williams in a co-constructed experience. That experience was shaped as much by the soldiers’ presences, both as individuals and as a collective, as it was by Williams’ personality which balanced gravitas with humor as well as anybody ever has. As they began sharing their names with Williams you get the sense that, within the creative experience, they were being seen and felt in a wholly unique manner.

Art as knowing others

Soon after that viewing I found similar insight in a movie I happened to stumble across: Philadelphia. The two principal characters in this film are played by Denzel Washington, a man with an unrepentant prejudice towards the LGBTQ community, and Tom Hanks, a lawyer (who happens to be gay) suing his firm for wrongful termination due to their suspicion he has AIDS. Washington is representing Hanks in the subsequent trial. In one of the movie’s climactic scenes, Washington is attempting to engage with Hanks on a question-and-answer review before he takes the stand. Hanks, whose health is rapidly declining at this point, is distracted by a selection of opera he has playing at the time. Hanks is unable to concentrate on the Q&A and, while hooked up to an IV, finally stands up and closes his eyes to more fully engage with the music. He expressively speaks the Italian lyrics in English, ostensibly to translate for Washington but perhaps more to embody the art, while his body and affect actualize the emerging emotion.

Washington quickly transitions from annoyed to stunned to overwhelmed. Not shown in this clip is how, at the end of the aria as Hanks re-engages with his surroundings, Washington excuses himself while clearly flustered. We follow Washington home as he lays down in bed with open eyes and active mind, clearly unable to fully process what he had just observed.

I remember watching that scene as a teenager and feeling unenthused, having wished that a more blatant and explicit counter to Washington’s prejudice would have been presented for the audience. Back then anti-gay sentiment was stronger and more pervasive, and I wished to see that hate combated with equal blunt force. That scene has evolved for me over time, however. Watching it the other night with these thoughts about Williams and music therapy swirling in my head, I realized that there was no intellectual argument founded on ethics, biology, and reason and expressed in words that would allow Washington to truly perceive and receive Hanks’ humanity. The access point for Hanks’ humanness was Washington’s joining with him in art, just as Williams’ access point to the soldiers’ humanness was their joining him in his art. I would actually argue that both creative experiences were in fact co-constructed by all involved parties – Hanks’ performance of the aria was informed by Washington’s prejudice as much as Williams’ humor was informed by the quiet desperation of the soldiers.

Aesthetic contact boundary

These two roles – art as joining and art as knowing others – provide a unique access to a client’s humanness as manifestations of a larger construct that I conceptualize as the aesthetic contact boundary. The contact boundary is a foundational tenet of Gestalt therapy, an existential/humanistic understanding of the individual’s here-and-now interactions with the various contexts comprising the surrounding environment, or field. The contact boundary is the psychic point at which the self interacts with the field. This is an enmeshed interaction in which one absorbs into the other – ultimately a separation is needed, but in that union there is a sharing of multiple forms of information: physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive.

The aesthetic contact boundary is how I understand the contact boundary in music therapy, wherein the interaction between self and environment is initiated and facilitated through creative and artistic engagement. Music helps establish an intersubjectivity conducive for joining (art as joining), and the collaborative process of musicking facilitates unique perceptions of both the self and the “other” (art as knowing).

At the end of life, these roles can serve vital functions. Through music that explores themes of passage and transition, hospice patients can more actively explore what their values are during their final chapters and help ensure that the support they receive reflects those values. Through co-constructed musicking, patients and caregivers engage in ways that are both new, e.g. hearing a loved one sing for the first time, and familiar, e.g. dancing to a long-forgotten song while recalling meaningful memories. Music brings together the self and the multiple contexts in the field that are necessary for achieving self-actualization (to the extent that is possible).

An important part of grieving is accepting gratitude, and moving through this process I feel grateful for Williams’ art and inspiration to illuminate these functions of music in my practice.

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