Monday, May 2, 2016

Senior Reflection: A Musical Journey

    Truth be told, I have not looked forward to writing this reflection because it means my time of being on the SMWC campus is coming to a close. I was also worried I would not be able to fully articulate how much my time here has meant to me in writing.  Until last week, I had a very different reflection I was going to share. As often is the case with wonderful Providential timing, I witnessed something recently that allowed me to more effectively process what I wanted to say.

Nathan Mensah in first year of cello lessons
    As part of the Spring Choral Concert, the Madrigals performed the seven movement work “Magnificat”by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen. For the past few months I had heard this piece being rehearsed and was really excited to hear it all the way through. During the 40 minutes of music, I was taken on a very powerful emotional journey. My eyes teared up nearly the entire time. I was moved by the beautiful music and could not help but close my eyes and bathe in the auditory ambience. This music spoke to me (and the audience) and it pervaded me. The experience was extremely cathartic and I did not need to understand the text to have it speak to me. How could a (very talented) choir of twelve, a soprano soloist, and an organist move me in such ways? The answer should have been more obvious for someone who is in school learning about how music affects each of us in different ways.

    Music is the way I often process, communicate, and share with others. Music is the vessel through which I can express things I cannot put into words. When I hear a piece of music, I can often be seen bopping my head shamelessly or just flat out dancing. When I am learning and performing songs on guitar and piano, how can I not groove if the music is telling me to do so? With our beating hearts, our lungs expanding and collapsing, and the circadian rhythms on which we operate, our bodies are rhythmic entities, so when I’m fully engaged in the music it is impossible for the music not to be in my body regardless of whether I’m listening to something, playing a new instrument, or conducting.
    I discovered one of the most difficult parts about the Music Therapy program at SMWC was to simply let my authentic self come through in sessions with clients. I had always felt that “trumpet Nate”, “music therapy student Nate”, “composer Nate”, etc. were all different identities. On the contrary, all of these boxes were part of the fuller whole. My musical identity is comprised of many elements, and it was only when I felt comfortable enough to bring all of those elements into my core that I was able to start being fully authentic in sessions. As a music therapy student, it was my job to use clinical and evidence-based music interventions to help my clients accomplish their goals and work toward healthy change. Normally this took place in the form of using familiar songs while challenging clients to accomplish tasks such as playing instruments, responding in certain ways, or to engage in a verbal discourse afterwards.  I was most challenged to be fully authentic in sessions where improvisation was the primary method of communication. 

    Last semester, I worked alongside a board certified music therapist (MT-BC) with an adult client with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities.  One of our goals for this client was to help increase his level of initiating interaction, so we were challenged to play piano music and other percussive instruments to assist him with staying engaged in the music. Unlike my other sessions, pre-composed songs were not used and we created piano and vocal music for the client during the session using clinical improvisation techniques. Clinical improvisation allows a client and music therapist to create spontaneous music in the moment, often resulting in unique epiphanies, growth, and authentic connection within the therapeutic relationship.  As our mind, body, and spirit are all connected, music can often bring about a transformation for a client. I felt like my identity took a shift after working with this particular client. Initially when working with this client, I noticed I was having trouble building a connection with him. This has been a struggle for me in my past. That semester I also felt like I had become musically stagnant: I was in a decent place, but I knew I was not growing. Through a musical improvisation with my on-site music therapy supervisor, and a discussion about “being in the moment” with my faculty music therapy supervisor, I was challenged to improvise on my own time to try to work through these issues. When I played music on the piano alone, I started to realize I did not need to separate my “musical selves”. Why couldn’t a piece of music reflect all of my tastes? Improvisation has no rules, and it is a place where we can be free to express ourselves fully. This does not mean the result is always pretty or beautiful, but this makes sense: we all have days when we feel down, and we all have days when we feel like a million bucks; so, then, our created music can also change day by day. 
     When I started to accept these ideas, I started to trust my musical intuition, and when my client vocalized and made high and low noises with his voice, I started to imitate him. This was a pivotal moment- over the rest of the semester, the client and I connected through vocalizing with each other, responding to each other, and harmonizing. I believe he became more aware of his own role in the music, and he started to do new things like hold notes for over 20 seconds (a very long time to try to sing along!) and explore his lower and upper registers. We took a new and risky journey together and the result was a fun, beautiful, authentic connection. As a musical being (as we all are), I feel most connected when I can rely on music to do the talking for me. The easiest music connections can occur when we become our uninhibited selves. If we can’t bring our fully real selves to clients, how can we expect our clients to do the same?
    How a client engages with music (their body language, their dynamics, tempo, frequency of notes, facial expressions) reflects the inner being, and by assessing a client’s needs in the moment we can adapt to whatever they are communicating.  For example, while I was placed at ResCare (a day facility for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities) I worked with a client who seemed to be in a bad mood one day. He was crossing his arms and his eyes remained close with his head turned down. I played “Let it Be” by the Beatles and encouraged the clients in the group to close their eyes so they could just focus on listening to the music and relaxing. When I looked to the client who was previously in a bad mood, his demeanor had changed throughout the song: tension was released from his shoulders, he stopped frowning, and he smiled. I played quieter near the end and played a lighter accompaniment pattern and the client opened his eyes and afterwards said the music helped him relax and feel good.

    I can’t begin to put into words how much I have enjoyed and felt blessed by the past few years. Many tangible milestones have taken place of which I am proud: my Ska band finished recording their first album, I got to be in my first professional theater production, I learned how to play guitar and fell in love with it, I attended two schools at once for over a year and survived a year working the third shift at a hospital. But none of them feel as accomplished as getting to share countless musical moments with others. I feel nothing is as important as knowing I witnessed, and engaged with, each client who chose to share their music with me. I was placed in sessions to help clients determine new ways of thinking about things, but in reality, they taught me more than I could ever hope to learn.

    People sometimes say I am a relatively closed off person, despite my outgoing nature. This is not because of them, but because I often only share what I consider worth sharing.  I only find it worthwhile to open up to someone when I know they can truly listen and when I know I can trust them. Over the course of this final semester, I realized I needed to open up more, not just for others, but for myself so I could grow. One friend of mine challenged me to tell them a new fact about myself every few days. Another friend promised to always be there to listen and keep personal matters private. This opening of my personality, while cumbersome, has made me feel more connected to others. We all have flaws and problems we go through- no one is an island- and we are not meant to go through life alone. In music therapy, we are hoping to help our clients realize thoughts like these; but, if they can’t achieve growth by themselves, we can help. While I was placed on the Behavioral Health Care Unit of Regional Hospital, my co-music therapy student and I often played songs (such as “I Can See Clearly Now”) with clients and then discussed the lyrics and meaning of the song. This was done to see if clients could draw conclusions from the meanings of songs to apply to their own lives. One of my on-site practicum supervisors told me the music is an identity in sessions, just as important as the persons in the room. It is only through true connectedness when we can help to reach beyond ourselves in music and in life.

Mensah and fellow SMWC music therapy students
    I will say my time at the Woods has been some of the most challenging and rewarding times of my life. I am beyond thankful for my professors who pushed me, challenged me to think in new ways, made me a stronger musician, and provided the support to help me make it through. I can’t ever look at music in the same way after my three years here. Whether we believe music is a universal language or not, I believe it is something accessible to all. I believe we are all musical beings, and we sound aspects of ourselves when participating in musical creation. In the end, there is no way for me to put into words how much my time at The Woods has meant to me, and how much the community has changed me. Perhaps if you find me some time while in the Conservatory, I can try to play for you what I feel instead of not doing it justice with words. After all, I am a musical being, and you are too.

*Author Nathan Mensah, SMWC senior music therapy student, completes his coursework May 2016 and will begin his 6-month clinical music therapy internship at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in July 2016.
Editor: Sharon R. Boyle

For more information about the Undergraduate (Bachelor of Science in Music Therapy) or the Music Therapy Equivalency Campus Programs, contact Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC, Associate Professor of Music Therapy:
phone: (812) 535-5145;


  1. I am so fortunate to have met Nathan and talked with him. I will miss seeing him in Woods news. I wish you the best of everything, Nate, and am so pleased that you will be such a great representative of The Woods as you help others.