Psychology & Psychoanalysis
It’s 13 years since I closed my Los Angeles psychoanalytic practice with children, families and adults. Looking back on my former life, four areas jump to the fore as these relate to my current life in music and painting:
1. Ways of life of an artist and psychotherapist
1. Ways of life of an artist and psychotherapist
From today’s vantage point, it seems to me that the life and work of an artist and psychotherapist call forth different forms of courage. An artist must be fierce in his or her resolve and ruthless in the pursuit of the work – he or she is sometimes misguidedly accused of ‘selfishness’. Rachmaninoff described this well when he said ‘A creator is a very limited person. Always he revolves round his own axis’. A psychotherapist must also be brave and resolute but, in order to work well, the practice of therapy requires a capacity for egolessness. A therapist needs to take second place in the conversation. Even if each hour in the consulting room is new, the therapist does not face a blank page. He or she is not required to generate everything from within. There is a person in the room who presents ‘material’ and the therapist must think about and respond to this. Like an artist, a therapist can feel lost and anchorless, but this state is usually evoked by what has been presented to him or her. My one regret about the 35 years of my adult life that I spent working as a therapist is that I don’t have enough time ahead to improve my music and painting skills to the level I wish to attain. There is so much to learn. Although I practiced the piano on an almost daily basis and worked intensely, but inconsistently, on painting throughout my life, nothing can replace the lifelong immersion in, and total commitment to, these arts.
2. Learning from Teachers
I count myself extremely fortunate in the teachers I have met since I was a young child. I meet them and they meet me. We find one another. At my boarding school, we had a generous, kind, inspiring music teacher who was a singer and cellist as well as a refined pianist. At the London secretarial school I attended when I was 18, a journalism teacher selected my work for praise. She said that I should write. I will never forget the feeling of hope this teacher gave me. At the Glasgow School of Art, I was lucky to be encouraged and taught by the Head of the Design Department, Robert Stewart. During the same period of my life, I was taught to play the organ by Herrick Bunney, organist of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. At University College London, I learned from outstanding teachers and writers: Richard Wollheim, Jerry Cohen, Bernard Williams and Hans Sluga.
During the time that I trained as a child psychotherapist in the Children and Parents’ Department at the Tavistock Clinic, I studied, and later became friends, with John Bowlby, who pioneered the long ignored, and now popular and somewhat formulaic, theory of Attachment. I also studied with R.D. Laing, who was a forerunner in the development of Family Therapy and the treatment of schizophrenics outside the closed wards of mental hospitals. I was a frequent visitor to Kingsley Hall, Laing's experimental community center for the 'mentally ill'. I was supervised by Frances Tustin who dedicated much of her professional life to the psychodynamic treatment of autistic children; she also became a close friend and colleague.
When, in the mid-90s, I planned to leave the field of psychotherapy, the figurative painter and longtime friend, Martin Lubner, taught and encouraged me to return to drawing and painting. His dedication to and focus on drawing, on eye-hand coordination, not to mention color and composition, resulted in a huge step forward in my visual abilities. And on reaching New York and leaving behind my home and career, I was again lucky to meet my revered piano teacher and friend, concert pianist, Mordecai Shehori. His unique teaching skills, pianism and musicianship, together with his kindness and encouragement, have contributed greatly to my love of music and learning. Perhaps one could say that this was a meeting not only of minds but also of ears. I knew from the first bar of his playing the D Major Rondo by Mozart - a piece that I had attempted to play and with which I was very familiar - that the sound I heard was the very one that I longed to produce. Music bypasses words and, in that way, it can speak from heart to heart.
Like many therapists, my career trajectory has been guided by loss and personal difficulty. Ultimately, I believe I lacked the courage to sustain the artist’s life. I was driven to understand the ways that I and others around me conducted our lives. Lacking financial and family support and unable to rely on others, my sense of security was built on self-reliance and I believed that I needed a ‘proper’ job and profession. Thus, I entered the field within which I have tried to make a creative contribution through study and writing. I believed that the study of psychoanalysis could open the door into human understanding and consciousness. I owe much gratitude to the patients from whom I have learned so much about ways of thinking, emotion and humanity – perhaps, most of all, from the children I played with and who talked so naturally about matters of life and death.
From these many years of study and therapeutic work, the greatest gift, and carry-over, has been a unique training in listening. Perhaps I was a natural listener since I was a quiet child who observed and listened carefully to what was going on around me. I had a good memory and, when I started my training in child and family therapy, I could record long sessions of play and mother-infant interactions with considerable accuracy (recording devices were not permitted at that time). I used a system of headings that provided the labels under which I could enter many details. This listening training has served me well in piano playing. Without listening to how you play, you cannot improve, however many times you may repeat a phrase or page. As Mordecai Shehori advises – play and listen, and listen before you play, hear the notes in your head and then play. Listen to the rests. Listen to the end of a note as it decays.
If I try to summarize my way of working, perhaps the description ‘translator’ best fits my approach to my psychotherapy clients - that is, someone who struggles to understand the words, culture and environment of a person that speaks a different language. In the early days of psychoanalysis in Britain, analysts were expected to have a strong literary background so that they had an extensive vocabulary at their fingertips when formulating useful interpretations to their patients. Today, this literary vocabulary has been replaced to a considerable extent by the vocabulary of medication. I don’t think I considered it my primary task to make interpretations into the language of the unconscious; my goal was something more ordinary – to find new words into which the words and emotions of my clients could be translated so as to achieve a different perspective. A therapist’s practice is an ongoing training in listening out of which new transcriptions of recurring themes sometimes emerge.
When studying piano works, I do not interpret as much as try to translate the intentions and directions of the composer into the notes that I play. I must enter the world of, say, Bach, imagine myself into his life and times, and his unique ways of composition. It is an egoless activity. And, in this respect, playing the piano resembles the practice of psychotherapy.