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Feminist Perspectives in Music Therapy

Hadley, Susan (Ed.)(2006). Feminist Perspectives in Music Therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

br2007_076Susan Hadley has drawn together 22 women under the wide and diffuse umbrella of ‘feminism’, who each write ‘something’ about music therapy and feminism, music therapy as feminists, and feminist music therapy theory, practice, supervision and ethics. Much of this book becomes a testament to music therapy work with women, as women, written by women.

Inevitably, all sorts of questions come to mind regarding a ‘feminist music therapy’, some of which are addressed in Susan Hadley’s 35-page long introduction entitled ‘embracing feminism’. Here is a personal background leading to a feminist stance in life, love and music therapy; a historical overview of feminism’s ‘three waves’; an explanation as to why male voices are (rather conspicuously) absent; an explanation about the book’s conception and process of working with the authors and their own preconceptions (and in some cases puzzlement) about the need for a book about feminist music therapy. Hadley is at pains to point out that a feminist position is about more than examining gender inequalities within the profession, despite the gender-based inequalities in level of certification, job status and (in the US at least) in salaries. Rather, we are persuaded by Hadley and several others that a feminist music therapy critique seeks to address the inequalities inherent in the therapeutic relationship, which inequalities (Kenny talks of ‘power differentials’) are part of a broader social palette, already critiqued by sociologists, linguists, and political scientists. (Here, Edwards’ and Rolvsjord’s insistence on music therapy practice being political rather than politically neutral sounds clearly). So what might a feminist critique offer music therapy – beyond this being a first public twinning of the two, drawing from both fields’ theories and from feminist activism?

The geographical range of the work presented – although not the intention of the book – is inspiring, and (apart from Far Eastern voices) I can’t help questioning the absence of voices from Latin America, Africa, from Arab-Islamic nations, to name a few. Impossible to include everyone (and in any case, the book is rather long already) but some absences are loud. This is a pity, especially in a book such as this, and especially given Goldberg’s point about feminism’s past imposition of values and characteristics on women of different colour (for which we might read, for women from different parts of the world). The risk in homogenous voices is that feminism remains a ‘privileged’ activity – although I suppose, who is privileged and in whose eyes is part of a larger socio-discursive critique.

Under the equally broad umbrella of music therapy work are chapters to do with theory and discourse in Part III, and here Rolvsjord’s chapter is captivating, while that by Edwards wonderfully energetic. In part I are chapters clustered under a ‘sociological’ label, and here, both Carolyn Kenny and Frances Goldberg speak as older women with distinctive life experiences whose pivotal positions help to broaden the notion of a ‘feminist music therapy’. Part IV is to do with feminist training, supervision and ethics and research, where well-known ‘names’ are drawn together (for which, read Hadley, Wheeler, Dileo and Forinash), and Part II portrays clinical work (more on this later). What the range and scope of his book conveys is that music therapy as a profession has become ‘grown up’, now able to ‘brand’ itself (as Streeter reminds us) in whichever way it might choose.

Various thoughts came to mind, reading this book. One is flagged by sociologist Jennifer Adrienne, in the first chapter, who, on the basis of feminist values, proposes some principles for a feminist music therapy. Reading these, I was struck by the close parallels with another critique of music therapy, this time from emerging community music therapy writings. By happy coincidence, chapter 2, by Lucy O’Grady and Katrina McFerran, addresses this very issue, in their lively and punchy ‘Birthing Feminist Community Music Therapy’. Whatever next, I find myself wondering. Another thought is more of a question: what does feminism offer music therapy as a profession (in other words, beyond being interesting to a finite number of music therapists – male and female)? Like some of the authors themselves, I remain unclear: Joke Bradt’s refreshing question (am I feminist enough to write in this book) resonated with my own (am I feminist enough to review it). Cheryl Dileo questions the limitations of a feminist critique of music therapy, while the need for a broader music therapy critique is raised by several writers. Kenny’s disillusionment with the language of psychology and the search for ‘a new language’, hints at a broader offering, as does O’Grady and McFerran’s search for an antidote to ‘psychoppression’ – which implicitly suggests that this might not only come from men. Happily, these kinds of broader offerings (and there are more) are part of this book, which says something about inclusivity from which our profession can only benefit.

To return to the geography of this book, I found the chapters by Kim and Lee of their work in Taiwan and Korea particularly fascinating. Kim writes of the traditional roles of women in Korea and the bravery shown by the women’s movement there, while Lee’s account is of traditional indigenous medical practices, and the role and place of music therapy in Taiwan, and of women within music therapy. Both are fascinating as socio-political narratives, and Kim’s insistence on a Korean feminism to help address Korean women’s issues, helps dispel the issue of an imported and ‘colonising’ discourse. One question these two chapters raises, is whether women’s issues are addressed only by feminism, but that is another discussion.

At this point, I want to focus on one aspect of the book that spoke the loudest and clearest to me: the thread that binds it together, rather than feminism, is the power of the clinical stories in Part II. How unsurprising, I can’t help thinking. The fact that these stories are written by women, of work with women, is possibly immaterial (after all, Forinash reminds us that 88% of music therapists in the US are women). The stories told by Dorit Amir, Theresa Merrill, Joke Bradt, Sandra Curtis, Elizabeth York, and Laurie Jones are powerful and moving –their feminist framing adds little to their power. In fact, in some cases, the rather self-conscious feminist voice framing the chapters are distracting and distancing – and repetitive. We are given similar quasi-formal overviews of feminism over and over, and here the editor’s pen should have been ruthless. A case in point is Laurie Jones’ chapter, whose main text on popular music, girl bands, and song lyrics is informative, and distant. In her conclusion is a snippet which caught my attention: the story of a bunch of teenage girls taking on a local radio station to redress the negative portrayal of women in Rap and Hip Hop music. Here is ‘real life’ musical activism – and teenage girls moreover. That’s the kind of story that makes this reader sit up and take note. And take note I did, when the writers told their stories personally and with passion.

This leads to another aspect of the book, which is (again) broader than feminism. This is to do with how, as music therapists, we tell our stories, and what we take for granted (and exclude) in their telling. This book raises this point through a feminist frame, seeking to redress the (possibly mechanistic, and positioned here as patriarchal) distinction and separations between our personal- idiosyncratic stories, our social identity as a men or women, our professional-cultural identity as music therapists, and our identity as writers about music therapy. In much music therapy writing, our various roles and identities remain a given – or rather, a hidden. Here, with few exceptions, the authors ‘tell their stories’ as well as their stories about music therapy. At the end of Parts 1 and 2, I felt that I had been privy to a range of writers telling their personal experiences and beliefs– which was enjoyable and satisfied a rather voyeuristic curiosity. In this sense, here is a fascinating book. I learnt things about people whose writings I have read for many years.

Finally, this book has some interesting bits and some truly long-winded repetitive bits. The distinctive voices are refreshing, while the more formal disembodied voices alienating. Some of its points are part of a wider music therapy critique and debate, and, to repeat, there are some fascinating clinical stories. However, to frame all this as a feminist stance, taken by feminists, writing about work by women, with women, speaking women’s language – feels limiting. Perhaps, (to borrow from Rolvsjord) Feminist Music Therapy needs a further ‘de-stabilising discourse’.

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