"A magic beyond all we do here!"
A workshop on music in solution-focused practice
Guy Shennan writes - This blog post is about music - songs in particular - and solution-focused practice, and it is also about Family Based Solutions (FBS), where I ran a workshop one afternoon back in October. The only workshop attendee was Matt Rider, a member of the FBS team, and Matt is the co-author with me of this post.
FBS is a family support charity with a difference (they make wonderful Christmas charity singles for a start - see at the bottom of this post for how to buy this and thereby donate to support their excellent work). Created to offer support to families where there has been child to parent abuse, the expertise it has developed in this area has led to it offering a range of services to schools and professionals as well as to the families themselves. The people who run FBS also know a thing or two about utilisation, "perhaps the most important" of the principles of the work of Milton Erickson, who is probably the single most important influence on Steve de Shazer, the main originator of solution-focused brief therapy.
Earlier this year, FBS appointed Matt Rider to join their team. As well as being experienced in working with children and young people, Matt is a songwriter who has worked as a professional musician. Soon after he was appointed, I was contacted by Ayse, Matt’s manager, who asked if I would run a workshop with him on music and solution-focused practice. It made sense to utilise the interests, talents and experience that Matt would be bringing with him. We met online to make a plan, and set a date for the workshop for a month or so after Matt was due to take up his post. I had wondered whether it should be opened up to others, but Ayse was keen for it to be one-to-one. More than happy to have a go at this, confident that anything would be possible with a solution-focused approach, I was intrigued by what we would end up creating together. It turns out I was not alone in wondering - let me hand over to Matt at this point…
Matt - When I began in my role at FBS, though I was new to the solution-focused approach, it all felt strangely familiar, a comfortable fit. Something about it clicked with me, while at the same time I was daunted by the task of undoing the years of problem-solving thinking that had been hammered home by my work in various educational roles and settings. My bosses are fantastic and, knowing about my work in and with music, they arranged a training day with Guy, before I had even started, to look at using music and SF together.
This excited me greatly and baffled me equally.
I have loved music since before I got in to double digits, getting my first (mouldy, two-stringed) guitar from a school jumble sale when I was 9. This started me off on a journey that has transformed my life. It has put me on stages in front of thousands, taken me to other continents and given me numerous precious lifelong friendships. It is safe to say I love music and music making. It has also given me a greater understanding of people, of community, communication and camaraderie, and of how connections are made and understanding found.
So, music and people, these are two of my main passions. And the ‘soft skills’ I developed as a professional touring musician were to prove useful in my work with young people in primary schools, with those leaving care, and those caught in the cycle of violence that is the unseen current driving the more widely reported ‘knife crime epidemic’ in the UK.
I was not sure though how a connection would be made between music and SF. I was confident they would fit together, I just couldn’t work out how! It did seem to me that music making is inherently solution-focused. When it comes right down to it, music making is expression, it creates change and so leads to new outcomes. Often, it seems like music comes from nowhere, but we all have an innate ability to feel, create and enjoy it. Music is in there, we just have to find the right questions to ask in order to let it out. I admit though to feeling a little anxiety about how this workshop would work. Questions about best hopes left me with a blank mind as I tried to make sense of what I was even beginning to expect!
Guy - It was interesting for me to read this, after we had done the workshop. I had planned a whole lot of things for us to do, but, a one-to-one workshop on music, I didn’t know what to expect either! I wrote a blog post about my first online teaching experience, near the start of the first lockdown in early 2020. I had been anxious then, until I discovered that once people started arriving in the zoom meeting, we just connected as at any other time that people meet to do something together. So here I was, out and about again, to do something with someone, and we started by just connecting.
Matt - Any anxieties I had were quickly alleviated as Guy and I spoke about SF, music and football. The holy trinity! We spoke about the afternoon ahead and it became clear that it would be productive in its own as yet undefined way. Anxiety’s twin, Excitement, took the reins and what followed was a beautiful example of how the SF approach can enrich and enhance even the unlikeliest areas of our lives and work.
Guy - And then into the actual workshop - we began by decorating our room for the afternoon, with some favourite quotes on music I have gathered over the years, which we wrote on flipchart paper and stuck on the wall. Here’s a selection -
It’s the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part - Nick Hornby (talking about music, of course)
If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music - Albert Einstein
Whenever new ideas emerge, songs soon follow and before long the songs are leading - Holly Near
Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music - Goethe
“Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!” - J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
They would always want to look beyond the horizon, not just at it - which might explain a lot - George Martin, on The Beatles
While we were doing this, I played some music. First, Take It Up, by World Party, and I told Matt of how I heard this at the start of a morning assembly at a junior school where I was the Chair of Governors, spending a day in the school, and given a seat on the stage so I could see all that was happening. Watching the children file in class by class, and sit down in orderly fashion, while Karl Wallinger was singing “I promise you miss/I will do my best today… We came to take it up… We came to move it up/We came to raise it up/We came to praise it up…” and the music rising and swirling, brought a tear to my eye. I must have known that music could create an atmosphere at the beginning of an event, but you never really know, you keep on learning afresh when something like this happens.
And then for a little contrast, I played The Monkees Theme - “Here we come…”, as we finished writing up our quotes.
So, the scene was set, and we launched into lots of activities and discussions, with music, naturally, playing an important part all the way through. You will get an idea of some of this by taking a look at the slides that show some of the exercises we did and ideas we considered.
Matt brought to mind a song that he thought a close friend might have chosen to evoke and represent some of Matt’s qualities. This was not an easy task, and required some hard thinking, and led to tentative answers, in the way that many solution-focused questions do. It enabled Matt to also think about the contribution he has made to his friend’s life - one of several narrative influences in the workshop.
We talked and thought a lot about how songs can be both used for and introduced into clients’ preferred futures. For example, what song might transport you into a future you hope for? And then, after you wake up to a day when some particular hopes have been realised, what song might you feel like playing? And, especially given how so many people carry songs around with them these days, on the internet, on their smartphone, that song can be played during the session - making the experience of the preferred future more real, even bringing the future forward into the present.
We also had an interesting discussion about an exercise I had created with my colleagues Jonas Wells and Sander van Goor for our workshop at the SF World Conference in Frankfurt in 2017. The starting point of this exercise was to “search through your smartphone/iPod/
tablet for a song or piece of music that has made a positive difference to you”, and this raised the question of whether people still carried a discrete selection of their favourite music around with them, or whether they have access to just about everything, through Spotify for example. This might make the search intended in this exercise a little harder - less personal, though some people will have playlists they have created to look through. In case you were wondering, the exercise continues with the person playing their music, and then being asked about the differences it has made to them.
Matt - Looking back at that afternoon spent with Guy, what strikes me is how limiting my thoughts were about what was possible and valuable in terms of using SF with music. I had my experiences of songwriting with children with social, emotional and behavioural needs firmly ingrained In my head. Pre-session, the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and being attached to my previous methods of working had caused a block. How would I shoehorn a miracle day into the fluid process of songwriting?! How would scaling work (unless of course we were talking ‘major’ or ‘minor’)? As I mentioned, those fears and that rigidity were dispersed pretty swiftly.
The workshop was collaborative in a way that I have rarely (if ever) experienced in a training session. I felt emboldened to steer the afternoon when an exciting thought presented itself and to share my thoughts and queries in an open, curious way. I should point out that this, in itself, isn’t unusual for me, but rather it was the extent of the expansive quality that seemed to surround the afternoon.
There were some great discussions about using music as a tool in a session; for connecting miracle day discussions in sessions to clients’ everyday lives and also for empowering clients and helping to create an environment where it is easier to join with them. And then there was the actual song writing! A short SF session generated ideas and best hopes which in turn generated lyrics. Some of our shared tastes directed the musical style (punk, obviously) and we worked at a frantic pace to finish the song by the end of the day. I think the song was written in about half an hour! We used lines and lyrics like jigsaw pieces; turning them round, trying them in different places, putting them aside until we found their place. And this is how I see the connection with SF. Everything is important, but not every line is the hook, not every line can be the killer phrase in the chorus. But it IS all important. It all fits together in some way. And sometimes, moving a line from one place to another, or changing an ‘I am’ to an ‘I’m’, or a ‘have not got a clue’ to an ‘ain’t got a clue’ can unlock the rhythm of the words and open up a whole new set of rhythmic or rhyming possibilities.
And ain’t that the magic of SF? Sometimes those small changes can make a big difference.
Guy - Let me just add a little about the song that Matt wrote, as the culmination of the workshop, and the process of its writing. In one of the emails we exchanged before the workshop, Matt had said, “As with all songs, you need a starting point and it can often end up somewhere completely different, but getting something down is always the first step”. The first step in Matt’s song was a solution-focused conversation between us, in which I asked him about being at his best the next day. During this conversation, to use a memorable expression from David Denborough from the Dulwich Centre, the home of narrative therapy in Adelaide, Australia, I “rescued” some of Matt’s words by noting them down. So, at the end of the conversation, I had a sheet of paper covered in words and phrases all of which had been said by Matt as part of his description of himself at his best. These were the pieces of the jigsaw Matt mentioned above, that he put together (this was very much his work) with the chords and melody that they suggested to him. It was wonderful to witness this act of creation, and to hear how the music and words grew together.
And here it is - Matt’s song, with all the lyrics “rescued” from his description of himself at his best. One of his favourite songs by Arcade Fire appeared in this description, and its title formed part of Matt’s song’s title. We had played it earlier, during one of the exercises we did, and its echoes provided some inspiration as Matt took up his words and his guitar and gradually created:
Morning Beyond Mountains Beyond Mountains
And the cup of tea
Nutmeg, fried egg
Go for the spinach
Trust in strength
Smiling, lo fi
Chance to be at my best
Chance to be my best
Mountain beyond morning
Doing this and doing this
Listening and laughing
For the day
Be kind, my toast
All at the same time
Chance to be at my best
Song by Matt Rider, assisted by Guy Shennan, 14th October 2020
Blog post by Guy Shennan and Matt Rider, 11th January 2021
Coda - If you are interested in the connection between music and SF, you might want to watch the video of one of FBS’s live chats, which took place on 6th January. Matt and I were joined by Jonas Wells, Mark McKergow, and Ayse and Joe of FBS, live on their Facebook page. We had a very lively conversation, which I’m sure you will enjoy - https://youtu.be/sAur5BwabcU
Coda 2 - to buy the FBS Christmas single, their amazing version of Huey Lewis's The Power of Love (lead vocal - Matt) - https://www.givey.com/fbsxmassinglex