Monday, June 20, 2011

If You're Happy and You Know It....


It’s a phrase we hear often, for many different reasons. We smile for pictures, we smile to put on a good face when we may be feeling down, we smile when we meet someone to be polite, but how often do we genuinely smile? I’m talking about a big ol’ ear to ear grin that makes your face sore and makes you feel excited to the pointing of bursting. Now THAT is something that doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, wow is it powerful! We don’t often dwell on the incredible power just a single sincere smile holds, not to mention how contagious it is.

My friends tell me I’m a naturally bubbly person, so I feel like I smile quite a bit and get smiles in return, but the other day I saw a smile so unlike any other that I’ve seen in quite a while, and that smile was both a gift to me and it’s wearer. So you’re wondering, who smiled so big that I cared to write about it? One of our music therapy clients, a little Thai boy with cerebral palsy.

Here’s the situation: we, meaning the music therapy team, walked into the kids’ room at the physical therapy clinic on campus and there were four kids spread around the room, each working individually with a parent and physical therapist. The PTs were working with one boy in particular trying to get him to use his arms and build up muscle tone. He was mostly compliant, but it was requiring many prompts from the therapist and much assistance from his mother. So it was going fine, but that was exactly it, just fine and nothing more.

Then we brought over the instruments.

What an instant change! When we played a drum or egg shaker, all of a sudden this boy’s face lit up and he did not stop grinning the rest of the session! Not only that, but when we used the drum to encourage him to reach out his arms he exercised faster and longer than before, and both his mom and the PT were extremely grateful.

I had never worked with children with CP before, but I could tell how much he appreciated the music and I was so touched by his smile I think it made me almost as giddy as he was. It also got me thinking about how much you can communicate through a smile with no words or extraneous factors to damper the pure simplicity of the moment. I felt so joyful for that boy during that session just seeing his excitement in having a new meaning to add to his normally mundane exercise routine.

During music therapy sessions I am always conscious of my facial expressions toward my clients and I definitely see my expressions reflected back through them. With all my past experiences and this new one combined, I’ve realized how important it is to keep a positive affect during sessions in order to create a welcoming environment for the clients. I can see that people here with disabilities are often ignored because of the general population’s lack of knowledge, and therefore discomfort with them. So for them, even a simple acknowledgement adds to their self-esteem, and a genuine smile may be so rare that it makes a world of difference to them. We as therapists should take special note to give a real smile to all of our clients, and in doing so I think we will witness encouraging responses.

Our clients’ smiles (or lack thereof) are a valuable gage of how they are feeling during a session and whether or not a particular application is working for our goal. Of course some strenuous exercises may still be necessary, but I think there are more times than we realize that a client will convey to us how much they are gaining from a certain experience through their smile. I believe that when any person is given the correct tools they can express themselves freely. (In this case it would be a music experience tailored to their needs which could include singing, playing, movement, and more.) Just as the song says, “If you’re happy and you know it then your face will surely show it!” Then, we as therapists can create a meaningful experience for them not only by the intervention but also by being present with them.

There is so much experimental learning and so many individual differences in our experiences here that I wouldn’t expect this to happen every session without putting in the work to do quality music therapy, but it is so special when it does happen. It’s also not all fun and games; sometimes our work is to help clients process through negative emotions and experiences to reach a more positive state of mind (but that’s just not what my blog’s about right now). So when people ask me what music therapy is, I can give all the clinical research and scientific details, but in general I strive to help people along the path of healing and wholeness as a person, whether that be emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual. So am I a music therapist to make people happy? On one hand, yes you could say that. On the other hand, no there’s more to it than that. Of course I love to brighten someone’s mood, but a music therapist will always aim to improve overall quality of life and help people reach their full potential. But sharing their joy in making accomplishments makes me smile.

So, how can you consciously smile more at others and to watch others’ eyes and facial expressions more closely to learn what exactly they are trying to communicate?


  1. What a wonderful experience! I'm also reminded that it's music that made the difference-- not encouraging or coercing words, but musical sounds that motivated your client to stretch and do more. I think you are spot on about the attitude and affect you present being critical. This is true no matter what profession-- but how many people take the time to think through the consequences of their facial expressions and attitudes??

  2. Just reading this story made me smile. What a wonderful way of communicating without using words. Keep up the good work and congratulations on making a difference in someone's life through a smile and music!

  3. Brighton I loved what you had to say! I think that eye contact is one of the most important things we can do when engaging in a conversation. I sometimes even get offended when the person I am conversing with doesn't make eye contact with me. And I agree smiling is the best way to go and make someone feel happy in return! Whenever I am smilied at, I find it contagious and land up smiling back in return :)

  4. Brighton, I love this post! I am usually aware of my facial affect during sessions but it is something I am really wanting to work on outside of therapy! I don't think my "neutral" face is very happy looking (which I think is unfortunately the case with many people) so I want to make an effort to smile more often in my daily life. A smile can mean so much and can really change someone's day (even if it just makes a few minutes of their day brighter) and it's so simple - why not do it as often as possible!