On a djembe, the centre of the drum produces a lower, more resonant sound than the edges. I’m playing in the middle of the drum, producing the most bassy beat that I can manage, in an effort to give our music some kind of an anchor; a steady pulse that might provide a common element to all our playing. Nobody moves to join my beat. A young man plays on one string of a guitar. To my left, the black notes of a piano are being played with the palm of a hand, with the volume turned up high. Two teenage boys strum across the open strings of guitars, miming at playing solos with their left hands. We’re playing music at the same time, but not together. We’re sitting in the same room, but not together.
Feelings of isolation are common amongst teenagers and adolescents living with HIV. Marginalized by communities, families and peers, and facing relentlessly ignorant opinions that continue to stigmatise people who are HIV+, young people can become truly isolated. They can feel alone in their experience, and become increasingly isolated in their behaviour.
Evaluation of group music therapy with young people living with HIV in Rwanda has shown profound, positive changes to feelings of isolation, with participants reporting that they have come to enjoy connection:
“I was feeling hopeless, somehow isolated from others. It was kind of a lonely life. Now with music therapy sessions, I feel as a new born.
I can sing, discuss with my colleagues, I can write and compose my own song with my own words and play that song with instruments. The experience helps me to be able to speak up when I’m with people in public.”
In music we can hear the separation of people. Often in a first session together, group members will be involved with their own sound and experience. Isolation outside of music therapy can result in disconnection in music, so right there in our session we face up to this. Irvin Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, calls this working in the “here and now.” The material that presents itself in a session is the material for the therapy, and by working in the “here and now” therapy can impact outside, everyday lives. This is illustrated in the group member’s comment, “The experience helps me to be able to speak up when I’m with people in public.” The positive shift within therapy – from isolation to communal playing, composing and singing – impacts on everyday life.
Always this is the hope, that participants become able to transfer changes from within the safe therapy space to benefit themselves outside, where it counts. In evaluation of group music therapy in Rwanda, this is what we see happening again and again:
“If we begin to play music and singing we relax our minds and forget some of our problems despite family challenges and many problems. We know that we leave these sessions with a positive note and make sure that we share happiness and joy from music therapy sessions with others in the community – mostly our own kids.”
Thank you for supporting us to continue this work.
In September 2012, Chris Nicholson set up a music therapy program for people living with HIV and AIDS at a clinic in urban central Rwanda. In September 2013 he returned to continue his therapy work with vulnerable HIV+ adolescents and to establish training a program in Music & Health. He is Project Manager of Rwanda Youth Music and Tanzania Youth Music. Prior to his involvement with music therapy, Chris had an international performance and teaching career as a classical guitarist. He studied classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and in Spain with maestros Jose Tomas and Alex Garrobe.
When fear of ‘the other’ is used to divide and control, connecting people across divides becomes a radical act. We train musicians to empower people who, as refugees, are often marginalized, maligned and excluded. We celebrate their talents and help build connections with their new communities.
Music can offer safety to the most vulnerable, community to the displaced, and a voice to the unheard.
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