Being very drunk, perhaps, to the point of almost but not quite falling over, then staggering on with only a few “Oh shit!” moments along the way…
It occurred to me as a result of this that psychotherapy is somewhat like jazz, in a certain sense that I will now attempt to explain.
First, however, I should explain that the cause of all this was not my own drunkenness, but Tom Waits’ wonderful portrayal of it in the song Tango Till They’re Sore, which I recently rediscovered after a long while. Listen to the piano in the opening bars:
I think the point of the whole song (if I’m not being altogether too po-faced about it) is that life is a chaotic jumble of experiences, which we stagger and tumble through towards death. There’s no plan.
Tom Waits once described the inspiration for the song:
I had this friend who fell out of the window on New Year’s Eve. 12 storeys, not a scratch. His hat blew off. The only thing that broke his fall was the fact that he had a little confetti in his hair.
So it’s about delighting in life’s randomness. There are no rules. And in a way, being able to embrace that randomness and to embrace, too, the inevitability of death is what keeps us alive.
Yet there are rules.
If we can tell when the pianist appears drunk, it follows that we can also tell when the pianist appears sober. There must be rules that we apply to distinguish between the two states of pianist.
I have no idea what those rules are, but thinking about that reminded other rules in music — the rules of classical harmony. Here’s a chord sequence sometimes described as the ragtime progression:
You can hear it in action in the 1925 song Sweet Georgia Brown, in the last chords of each verse. Here’s a version by barbershop quartet Acoustix:
The thing about a chord progression like this is that there’s something ‘catchy’ about it — you can somehow relate to it, remember it, understand it.
As jazz became more complex and free-form in the middle of the last century, musicians started to improvise new melodies on top of the underlying harmony.
For example, here are Doc Watson and David Grisman improvising on Sweet Georgia Brown. The trick to this is that the tune’s mostly not there — you get to play the tune in your head (or sing along), and to do that you have to know the tune and relate to the harmony.
Well that’s exactly what it’s like being a psychotherapist. The patient is the band, and you have to play a tune that fits with the chord progression, which is really a sequence of feelings. To do that, you have to understand the way feelings work together in the same way as a musician has to understand the way chords work together. Neither can be learned from a textbook.
If you do it right, the complexity of what’s really happening seems to disappear and it just seems easy and natural. If you get it wrong, it keeps jarring as if you’re playing different songs.
A few days ago blogger werehorse at A Path With Heart described what it feels like for a patient. First, the counsellor, who can hear the chord progressions:
…the relationship feels very straightforward, and perhaps most importantly I feel *seen*, and seen as a whole person…
Then the psychologist, who can only play his own tune:
…with the clinicial psychologist I felt small, flat, reduced. He seemed so confident in his assertions… I left the appointment feeling unseen, unheard and despairing.
How it’s done
How it’s done is easy but deceptive. The easy part is that you must play the tune the band is playing. If the band is playing Sweet Georgia Brown, you cannot blow When the Saints Go Marching In down your trumpet, yet that’s what so many failing therapists try to do.
The deceptive part is that as in jazz the tune is not there. You get to play the tune in your head, and you can only do that if you understand the underlying chord structure — the underlying emotional structure of your patient’s story.
In the detail, too, there are similarities between psychotherapy and jazz. You’ll often hear a jazz soloist play off the beat. The band plays a chord on the first beat of the bar, and the soloist just listens to it for a moment. Then a beat later the soloist responds with a melody that fits the chord.
This is just like psychotherapy, where a therapist will often wait in silence for the patient to establish a mood, then the therapist responds in the context of that mood before waiting again for the patient’s next shift in mood.
When a jazz soloist knows the tune, he has a sense of which chord is coming next, so he can play a melody that goes in that direction. At the end of the bar both the harmony and the melody change together on the beat, giving the performance a feeling of drive and energy.
When a psychotherapist recognises the patient’s feelings, there’s a similar sense of what’s coming next, and a similar feeling that patient and therapist are experiencing the patient’s mood together. That’s what it means for a patient to “feel seen…as a whole person” in therapy.
Music and emotion
I am bewildered by the complex parallels between music and emotion. What is it about this last song here that makes it so very sad? Tom Waits has described it like this:
It’s funny eh. This is one of those songs that I sung and I never quite figured it out. It’s like a rug, you know some rugs have a design and you go: “Hey what is that?” Oh it’s not like a rug! That was a bad eh analogy, well you know. Well it’s just one of those songs that puzzles me. And eh, so I sing it and I get further puzzled. Eh, alcohol and eh writing don’t mix. If they do it takes a long time to unravel them…
That probably explains it.