Thursday, July 17, 2014

Couples Communication - Sylvia's Story

A couple of years ago, as part of my Family and Marriage studies, we did some assignments dealing with couples communication. Psychologists have come up with a couple of models of what effective communication looks like for couples, calling them the Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle.The previous links go to a couple of pages at Momentum Counseling Services that do a good job of explaining what those are, so I won't go into detail, here. What I do want to share is a portion of an interview I did for that class. It was as a way to practice using the principles behind the Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle, and to demonstrate some competence. It was with a young woman I will call Sylvia. Her name was changed to protect her anonymity.

Just so you know, I think the principles involved go well beyond just couples. I think they are appropriate for any situation where more than casual communication is desired. Not all communications need to be deep. Some kinds of communications work best when superficial. This just doesn't apply as well to them, as it does more intimate sharing.

Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle - Sylvia

Sylvia was concerned about her future. As an 18-year-old young woman, living in a rural area, she had been unable to find a regular job. She had done the occasional baby-sitting job for neighbors, but nothing regular, and nothing that paid well. The prospect of graduating from high school and attending college excited her, she wanted to study illustration, but not being able to get a job meant that she wouldn’t be able to pay for college or basic living expenses without taking out grants and costly loans.

Sylvia had learned from her teachers that, in the future, there will be less available jobs that didn’t need a college degree. She had also been warned against going into debt by various adults in her life. Her parent’s income was modest, bordering on the poverty level. She had seen them struggle to pay off their own debts, and pay the bills in general. She had also seen her older friends, who had moved away from home, struggle financially. Many of them had low paying jobs and some has lost their jobs.

Because of her own experience in trying to secure work, and the experiences of others in her life, she decided that she must start gaining work experience while still in high school, or she would be unable to secure a job as a college student. This would severely compromise her plans to study illustration. School costs money. While her parents had promised to help her in any way they could, paying her application fees and other fees as much as possible, they would be unable to pay her tuition costs.

The problem, she thought, was creating a reason for people to hire her. Her grades were good and she had basic skills most jobs require. She even had a food handlers permit, required for most work in the food service industry. What she lacked was the work experience that many employers were asking for. How could she get experience if she couldn’t get a job to get the experience with?

Sylvia was beginning to feel desperate. It made her frightened to think that she may have to give up her plans to go to school and get a degree. This compounded her fear and frustration because she knew that, as an adult, not having a degree would compromise her ability to make money as an adult. She was afraid of moving out on her own, and becoming a functioning adult, if she couldn’t find financial security.

Financial security and independence were important to Sylvia. She knew that she may qualify for various grants and scholarships, but she was afraid she would likely have to take out large student loans if she couldn’t find gainful employment while in college. She didn’t want to use her parents as a crutch in life, burdening them with undo costs. Living in poverty was unacceptable, as well. Instead, wanted a comfortable home, filled with the things she loved.

In spite of her previous failures at securing employment, to achieve her goals, Sylvia would continue to apply for work, even tasks that she wouldn’t normally enjoy doing, like working in fast food restaurants or housekeeping or cleaning jobs. She would also seek out and apply for grants and scholarships for school that she would not be required to pay back, both public and private. As a high school senior she had taken some classes in cosmetology and may take her first year in college to finish a cosmetology license. This would allow her to work as a cosmetologist while she pursues her studies in art. Because struggling as an artist did not appeal to her, she has decided to take a minor in business. This way, she will be able to better address the business side of art, increasing her chances of being more successful, financially.

Conducting the Interview

In conducting the interview with Sylvia (not her real name), I used a combination of explorative listening and attentive listening styles. I tried to use mostly open-ended questions, inviting her to give me details. Questions such as: “How are you feeling about moving away from home?” and “Where did you learn that you needed a degree to get a job?” helped her open up to me and think about details that went beyond her surface thoughts. I also used questions such as, “What do you think about that problem?,” “What do you want to get out of school?” and “What will you do about getting a job?” In some cases I simply said, “Tell me more about that.”

In order to make sure I was referencing all aspects of the awareness wheel, I kept a text document open on my computer with the different areas of the awareness wheel listed as headings. I was then able to keep track of her answers and direct my questions to make sure I was getting a full picture of the issue. She knew I was doing this for an assignment, and we had talked about this issue in more casual styles in the past, she said she was comfortable with me taking notes in this way.

As she would give me answers to my questions, adding details to her original answers, I would switch to an attentive listening style. I would summarize what she had said and ask her if that was what she meant. I also kept watch on her body language, tension in her eyes, shifts in her position or gaze. I would often ask a follow-up question about those shifts related to her feelings: “Does that make you feel scared?” She would often open up more as I acknowledged her emotional states and experience, showing her that I respected her and would not judge her actions or feelings about the issue. I never interrupted her.

My Own Experience

While I was certainly assigned to do this interview, Sylvia is someone I care deeply about. We had spoken before about her current problems surrounding her transition from high-school to college, and from late childhood to emerging adulthood. My goal, then, besides finishing the assignment, was to better understand her and what she was going through, as well as help her understand her problem better, herself. I believe that talking through a problem in this non-judgment way with someone you trust will often help you see he problem in a different light, and reveal solutions that you hadn’t previously thought of. Indeed, it may show that what you thought was the original issue, may not have been the source of anxiety at all, but a deeper desire for something else entirely. She was very willing to speak to me, and chose the subject herself, without any prompting on my behalf.

Because I wanted to help her find a solution, as well, it was difficult to not “butt in” with my own ideas. The point was to draw us closer together and increase understanding, not impose my own thoughts or desires for her into the mix. To my pleasant surprise, she brought up a few things I had thought about on her own. Although I have my own feelings of what should be a priority for these actions, I left it alone in favor of letting her solve the problem herself. She may decide to ask me about them later, she may not. I practiced holding my tongue and I hope it will get easier the more I do it. We both expressed thoughts and feelings of being happy about the way the interview went and I made sure to thank her for talking with me in such an open way, as well as helping me with my assignment.

As I practice these methods of communication, I hope they will become second nature to me. That way, my conversations will naturally be more effective, and more fulfilling.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Improvisation and Insight

I'm totally digging my music therapy classes. They are personally insightful, professionally needed, and just plain fun. In my Music Therapy Ensemble class this semester, we were assigned to to some solo improvisation on a few instruments that we were drawn to, and with our voice. We were asked to be spontaneous, coming up with whatever we wanted (non-referential improvisation) and to try and improvise in the "style" of some emotion, such as joy, love, or anger. We were also tasked with picking an instrument that reflected our true selves, and one that reflected our ideal selves, and improvise on that. We reported the experience in a reflection paper. Here's mine.

Individual Improvisation Exploration

 Improvisation has been a long time coming for me. It has surprised me, frustrated me, and at times let me touch the sublime. It has also let me connect with others, gaining understand I might not have otherwise had. It has given me insight into myself.
Personal Experiences with Improvisation
Being comfortable and competent when improvising is certainly a goal of mine. Before coming to school, I got quite comfortable improvising on the trumpet. I played with a quartet and it was part and parcel of the gig. I never translated that expertise to other instruments, however. Until now, I never tried improvising on percussion instruments. In a group, however, with someone else's riffs to build on, I feel safe and inspired. I hear their playing and get lost in the shared creation, trading riffs and taking turns being “in front.” The level of communication is amazing, given that it is entirely non-verbal.
Improvising alone is another matter. This may be due to the fact that alone, I usually play a pitched instrument. They seem to demand melodies and harmonies from me. Drums, on the other hand, make no such demands. Instead, they allow me to let go of that and play with rhythm, accents, dynamics, meter, tempo and groove.
Still, playing together can sometimes have a downside. I discovered this when my daughter came in and spontaneously started playing the drums with me. I enjoy making music with my kids, and we don't do it often enough, so I didn't stop her. When I was ready to end, but she was not, it got frustrating, though. Her playing spoke to me about her as much as her daily activities did. It was annoying, enlightening, and fun all at the same time.
Referential vs. Non-referential Improvisation
The difficulty of “getting into it” with pitched instruments marked my experience with referential improvisation, as well. I have to make is sound like something. It's harder to force the music to conform to an intellectual thought. When it's an emotion like anger, fear, or sorrow, I may not want to dig deep enough to make myself feel that way. Then the improvisation becomes an intellectual task, and I feel disconnected with the music. That's something for me to work on.
Non-referential improvisation was much easier. The sounds come from within, perhaps from my unconscious mind. It presents ideas and I get to play with them, shaping them like a child might playdough. An idea is created, modified, and then I get to wipe it out and start over with something else without having to care. Transience is celebrated.
Instrumental vs. Vocal Improvisation
I played with a few instruments: guitar, piano, and a small collection of hand drums. Playing the guitar was the most difficult, perhaps because it is not an instrument I have yet mastered. Still, itt was fun when I started playing with various chords, strumming patterns and rhythms. Then my lack of experience would rear its head and take me out of the groove. The piano was similar, but I felt more confident with it, and was able to create more passable results. I was certainly able to create pieces more relaxing, and more majestic, on the piano. The drums were just plain fun. My inner “jazz man” got to come out and play. It occurred to me, after the fact, that there's no reason those fun grooves can't come to play on the piano, as well.
Vocal improvisation came easily. I found myself spontaneously adding melodic vocal lines when improvising on guitar. Vocal improvisation is not foreign to me at all. It is often the first instrument I turn to when musical ideas for composition strike me, and I'm away from paper, computer, or piano.
Improvising Lyrics
Lyrics were quite another matter. I often make up silly lyrics on the spot, to known melodies, just to make my children laugh. We used to sing to each other instead of talking, when doing chores around the house. “It's time to clean your room, please. It's time to clean your room.” I might sing, in an overly dramatic, operatic voice. “No, Daddy, it's not. I need to eat my breakfast first,” or more often, “Do I have to?,” they might reply, smiling. Putting myself on the spot, even though I was alone, was more difficult. I couldn't think of much to say about myself that wasn't critical. “John is a fat man, trying to go to school,” and so on. Recognizing it, I immediately forced more positive lyrics, “He's dedicated to his music, and helping other people. He'll see this course to the end.” Perhaps I am too aware of my shortcomings, and don't give myself enough credit for my abilities.
Improvising on the Self
That notion, how do I reflect myself in improvisation, didn't start very well because of those lyrics. It was hard to choose an instrument to represent my real self, and my ideal self. In the end, I could only think of the piano. A part of me would love to someday sit down at a bank of synthesizers and improvise like Vangelis, but the piano is often enough.
Sometimes, when I hear other, more talented players in class, I feel jealous or discouraged. They are so good! I feel like a pretender. There are other times, however, when I'm pretty damn good. At those times, the piano and I become one being, indistinct from each other. The experience dwells in the spiritual and speaks of the sublime. But that is not often.

Improvisation is a spontaneous act of musical creation, and although I struggle with certain aspects of it, I also revel in it. It makes me feel connected to others, and can sometimes be a tool to tap into inner realms where thought and creation exist in the same space and time.

Thursday, November 07, 2013


I live in a cinder block cave. The three bedroom apartment we now live in has cinder block walls, and a bit more than one-quarter of the square footage our house did. The master bedroom is only a bit smaller than the one we had before, and one of the bedrooms is about the same size as the smallest bedroom we used to have, although it has more closet space. The final bedroom is about the size of a walk-in closet. There's barely enough room for my middle daughter's bed and shelves. We put her dresser in the closet so it wouldn't block the outside window. If we could get her to keep her room clean, it might seem bigger than it is.

There is a small closet in the living room that is plumbed to hold a small washing machine. It's barely big enough to hold the washer, and close the door. I had to get new hoses, with 90 degree connectors, to get it to fit, though.

 There's a spot for a gas dryer, as well. Outside on the porch. I've hung clothes outside to dry, but never taken them to an outside dryer. Its' pretty well protected from the elements by the upstairs balcony and a dividing wall, but I think I'm going to get a tarp to cover it, with winter coming along. There's also small storage room, just off the back porch, opposite the dryer. Trust me when I say it's packed to the ceiling.

 The kitchen has taken the most adjusting. It's tiny. The refrigerator (standard size), sink (two basin) and oven/stove are butted up against each other, wrapping around the corner the sink sits in. On the other side of the stove is a counter top about the size of a movable chopping block. That's it. No more built in counter space.

 To cope, we've gotten creative. There are, thankfully, plenty of cupboards that go nearly to the ceiling. There was also room for us to stack a few large storage buckets in one corner, and put in a freestanding shelf against the wall, opposite the stove. We've also turned an aquarium stand into a microwave stand. Putting the cut-out from a sink installation on top has given us a bit more counter space. The bread-machine lives under the microwave, on the floor.

 Parking is weird, too. It's been many years since I lived in an apartment, and at least those had assigned parking. Not so, here. There is resident parking, but I'm not guaranteed to have a space of my own. There are a few parking lots adjacent to our complex, but the one that's closest to our apartment is shared by the football stadium. Every time there's a home game, I have to move our van so the university can sell the parking space to some rabid football fan for $10.00. I also can't get to my apartment easily because the close down the street that runs in front of it. All the better to control access to the game and sell the almighty football tickets.*

 In spite of how different it all is, we're getting used to it. The university shuttles are reasonable, at least during the day, and the city has free public buses. The routes and stops are a little screwy, but we're coping. The kids have made friends very quickly, the neighbors are nice, and I love my classes. My wife and I have both found work. It doesn't pay as much as we really need it to, but at least we're employed. All in all, I'd have to say my life is pretty good. Busy. Weird, when compared to our old life, but good. Now if I could just find more time to update my blogs, regularly.

 *In case you're wondering, I really don't like American football. Yeah, it's nice when the college team wins, but to be honest, that doesn't happen very often.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Running Scared

In case you didn’t figure it out, my family is moving to another city so my wife and I can finish school. We’re quitting our jobs, trying to sell our house, packing up the family, and moving into a three bedroom apartment. Neither of us has a job lined up or any idea how we’ll keep up with our rent and utilities if we don’t get one, although my wife has an interview set up. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always had a job during a move. In fact, the only time I’ve ever moved as been because of employment, not in spite of it. I’m scared witless, but for a reason I can’t fathom, we’re going through with it, anyway.

The security-craving part of my brain is going ape-shit. It’s like I’m talking to myself, “Self! What in heaven’s name are you thinking? You’re acting like an idiot.” The adventurous side of my brain is saying, “Wow! Think about it, Self! You’ve freed yourself to work on music full-time!” I can’t decide which one is screaming louder.

I can dream pretty well: releasing and marketing a solo piano CD, playing clubs and coffee shops, setting up a piano trio/quartet with some other students, getting involved in the local arts scene, teaching and doing something concrete with music therapy. Maybe I’ll write a book or create an online course.

I can frighten myself pretty well, too: how are we going to pay the rent if we can’t make a decent wage, how can I get a job given how scattered my schedule is, how will this effect my two youngest daughters, let alone my other children, how will I deal maintain the connections I want to maintain in Salt Lake and Tooele if I’m living in Logan, and so on. What if this makes us homeless and I have quit school?

I admit it, I would love to play the house husband, work on my music, and let my wife work as the full-time bread-winner. She’s planning on it, but she has a few classes to go to finish her degree, and I don’t want that to go by the wayside because of fear. It’s not fair to her or to our daughters. Either way, the adventure begins this weekend.

P.S. If you’d like to help us move, show up Saturday morning and help us load the truck. If you’re in Logan, you can show up at Aggie Village and help us unpack. Any help is appreciated.