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In Flow

Joanna Ballard – Music for Wellbeing Practitioner


In this case study I will explore education and teaching styles personified through music for wellbeing sessions in a GP surgery. The title expresses one of our guidelines in the project. When we achieve the sensation (for that is how I understand it) our future and past worries melt away and we are present to what is unfolding - we are bought into the now. Making music together for wellbeing is a great tool to use to support embodying and attuning to the present and this can be healing. Perhaps I am teaching that, – if teaching is the right word for it.

The idea of ‘Us’

This is so cool, this is fantastic. And She can’t wait for her next session.

What am I doing right in the music sessions? I believe it’s the element of creativity and bringing a sense of joy, play and fun which is important. But how as practitioners do we achieve this in a co-produced way?

When I’m working/playing with a young person I wear different hats. The music hat is often a collaboration, I am not the expert or the teacher, we are both navigators, exploring a new world together, I may sing whilst others plays or the other way round. The innate musician in us both shines out. Collaboration gives permission (shall we? Yes lets!) and helps to give a sense of agency to the child and can be a great tool to support their feelings of empowerment. I find this is well achieved through finding flow often through improvisation and composition.

I wear my supporter/helper hat when I am there to listen and to reflect back as we talk, also as a trauma informed practitioner I can easily use the PACE model and mental state talk and all that goes with the approach. Mentoring/coaching can come into play too – this can be more goal led (in terms of personal and social goals). Lastly, my teacher role where we learn musical skills - theory, chords, songs, composition, pulse and rhythm on the guitar, piano or drums.

Importance of Equality and Play

In my write up reflection I ask ‘did the young person achieve mindfulness and/or flow?’ I always want to change the remit to ‘we’ - if I am not in flow then the other probably isn’t either. Both the child and I feel comfortable if we have a sense of equality.

Music making for well-being also seems to instigate and inspire equanimity, and this sense of journeying alongside and not being the authority or specialist. When I listen, I feel, I listen with equanimity. In a Buddhist context the word is filled with calmness, composure, compassion – a ‘steady conscious realization of reality’s transience.’ How wonderful then, to use this as a root for being with other, to be present without judgement, thought or feeling.

I find the music especially powerful in helping us to find a flow state which is probably something similar. Teaching piano in this context is a vastly different experience to the teaching I had when I was young - when I was frightened to get it wrong. I teach very lightly with no attachment to outcome for the young person. This is an intense relief for pupil and teacher alike. And so every sound is the right sound and that can be quite hard to achieve when you are a musician!

A session in flow can be very playful with lots of laughter – improvisation or coming up with a song can be quite a funny experience. Laughter is the best medicine and it’s important that we have a jolly time.

A playful and child led approach to teaching music

The more I do this work the more I realise how important a child led approach can be. Children have enough targets and goals and pressure from school to achieve academically and whilst some children thrive in this atmosphere it really doesn’t suit most of the children I see. It must be a relief to explore creativity and flow, improvisation, learning at your own pace, listening to music, mindfulness and have a one-to-one experience with someone who sees you and your wellbeing. Of course, schools really care too but sometimes don’t have the resources to address this cohort of children – who may be wildly creative but, on the edge, somehow.

I am reminded of a young person who was wonderfully playful but very controlling, lots of busyness and curiosity, a short attention span, her creativity really suited the keyboards. I decided to see how I could help her to focus more through teaching some skills on the piano but as soon as my agenda became apparent I lost her. She went into overwhelm and had to leave. If I had just let her explore and be her own unique self she would have really benefitted. What right had I to nudge her into being something different than she was. She didn’t want to come back after that.

Then there was the young person who seemed so tired and down, he tried everything dutifully but wasn’t really feeling it, he seemed shut down. I played his favourite football songs and we looked at their origins. I dove into my warmup games, my approach became even more light and playful, quite childlike, the session became about that - connecting to our inner child. Although there was an intention here (more play) it happened very organically and each session saw his enthusiasm grow and he began to brighten up, relax and laugh.

The learning

I have really enjoyed the sessions at the surgery, it’s meaningful work and I’ve learnt so much, more than I thought I would. I’ve become much better at working with the whole family unit, feel more relaxed, it took one amazing family to help me to know that I was doing well - we learn from the people that come to us too.

Some young people have been waiting for years and years to see someone, anyone, one family quoted it’s been 9 years and this is our first input. When a young person is on a waiting list to see a counsellor or has fallen through the net they sometimes need to talk. It’s their first chance to open up I didn’t feel qualified for this aspect of things so I took on some CPD – level 2 counselling which really helps me to state – I am not a qualified counsellor but I am here to support and help where I can. I can use my “Advanced shutting up skills,” which certainly gives me permission and I’m very mindful of staying in my own seat as I feel I can want to ‘fix’ the other sometimes.

Writing this case study reminds me to vocalise my thoughts about flow to the young people and children, experiencing it and living it but also saying-this is what it is, can you feel it? You can do this and find this in different ways-through engaging in doing things that you love. We must role model creative flow for our children.

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