Let’s talk about trauma. I shouldn’t, because I have a talk in exactly two hours and I need to prepare a Powerpoint. But since my talk is titled “The Humanitarian Musician,” the topic is relevant.
Trauma in the physical body is damage to a biological organism that comes from physical harm from an external source. Trauma can also be psychological, damage to the psyche that comes from a severely distressing event. Social trauma comes from systems of oppression and stigma, as found in racism or sexism or fundamentalism. In all cases, trauma causes a person to go into shock or denial, to shut down, to close up, to numb oneself to feeling as survival strategies, because it’s simply too painful to remember or feel. It’s a healthy physiological response, but an unhealthy way to live a life. People who have been traumatized experience unpredictable emotions, depression, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
In the normal cause of events, time can help soften the effects, but alone cannot heal them. And here’s an important piece of information that every one should consider:
Trauma lives on in the memory of the nervous system so that if something triggers an association with the traumatic event, all the emotions of that time come back as if it was happening in that moment. The body remembers what the mind has worked so hard to forget or get over. No amount of reasoning can convince the body flooded with the chemicals such emotions release that there is nothing to worry about.
In my work as an Orff music teacher, I often hear stories like the one a student shared today. As a Level III student, she is vibrant, alive, alert and fully aware and fully receptive to the invitation of the Orff approach to freely express herself. She takes risks, improvises, freely explores the sonic possibilities of recorders, xylophones and her percussive, dancing body. But today she confessed that if she holds a trumpet in her hand and is asked to improvise, she freezes and can’t think of a thing to do. Because she learned the trumpet in the narrow approach of pushing down valves while reading symbols and in the context of the competitive jazz band where the hot soloists were rewarded and the rest felt inadequate, the simple act of holding a trumpet in her hand releases all those traumatic feelings.
Now trumpet trauma is minor compared to veterans of horrific wars (read all wars), but the general feeling is exactly the same. That sense of being frozen, shut down, unsafe, wholly in the instinctive brain stem with no access to the imagination of the neo-cortex. For her to recover, she would need to pick up the trumpet as if for the first time and play a successful solo on one note, even for 4 beats. I could help her do that, playing piano with her and slowly reprogramming her nervous system to experience the pleasure of a successful note improvised on the spot. She would need to do this over and over and over again until the new emotion started to overshadow the old. A slow, laborious process and along with a re-telling of the stories surrounding the event from a new perspective, the only kind of healing available. (The scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams—may he rest in peace— tells the shut-down and traumatized Matt Damon that the parental abuse he experienced was not his fault at a moment when he was primed to hear it is a case in point. The re-told story combined with the genuine caring of the therapist was able to open again those doors to the heart so long shut down.)
Maybe I’ll write a screenplay as a rebuttal to Whiplash. Because just as the emotional body remembers trauma, so does it remember joy and love and affection and fun. Kids in such classes may not remember the details, but their nervous system remembers the feeling tone and it stays with them their whole life. I know I could have been a better music teacher to all the kids I’ve taught and could have loved certain ones more than I was capable of at the moment. But at the far end of the career, I’m getting lots of testimonies from kids who remember me with affection because of the echo of the fun and games I aimed for in each and every class. That’s a good start to my talk today— and I better get to work organizing it!