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Thoughts from our Public Member – Chris Kallas

I remember taking a music class in seventh grade. We learned to read music, and some of the highlights of the history of music. I enjoyed it thoroughly. But with all the other things I was studying, I didn’t study it again.

Then about 10 years ago I joined my church choir. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I had been attending church for my whole life. But suddenly, the services felt very different, because I was paying attention in a whole new way. When we sang each hymn, I had to learn the words – in Greek, of course. I felt that I was using a whole new part of my brain. I was paying attention to what the priest did, and what the cantor did, and seeing their parts and the choir’s part as intertwined in a new way: antiphonal, to be precise. Antiphony can be defined as: alternate or responsive singing by a choir in two divisions. So there is no way for the choir to just ‘sing’; we must wait for our ‘cue’ from the priest, or the cantor, as he waits for us to cue him. 

In the beginning, this approach was exhausting, requiring me to pay attention to what was going on liturgically. I started to notice if the priest’s part was in the same tone (key) as ours. I noticed that tenors sound different from altos (that’s me) and sopranos and basses, and that there are further distinctions in those categories. I started paying attention to the composer’s instructions concerning how to sing the music: it’s speed, it’s acoustics, when we take a breath, when we stop singing. And I learned that our Liturgy has been set to music by many composers, so there are many variations in how the service sounds. I developed significant respect for our choir director, who has to be on top of all the music, and its weekly changes, as well as lead us to form a cohesive unit.

By now, when we sing, I still have to pay attention to what’s on the page. But I can also feel the music take over. My prefrontal cortex doesn’t have to be in charge all of the time; that’s quite a difference from my normal daily functioning. The feelings that the music evokes range from deep sadness to unspeakable joy. Sometimes it’s a little hard to return to the ‘real world’ after the service.

It seems to me that singing in the choir is much like being in a family with a member who has BPD. There are different parts for different members, and often they are all singing at once. Sometimes not everyone knows his or her music, and may not want to admit ignorance, so he blurts out his part anyway. Or he criticizes the composer: “this music shouldn’t be written this way!” Or he criticizes the conductor. That’s where you come in.

A mental health professional is like the conductor. The music is already written; you have to figure out how to help the client sing along with the rest of the choir. Is he a tenor? Can he read music? Does he need confidence to sing out loudly, or confidence to pull it back until it’s time to go “forte”? Is he paying attention to the composer’s cadence and volume instructions? Or does every line end with an “attacca”? How do you help him identify what’s not working? And how do you help him to come up with a plan to make it work?

You have an individual client, and that is the person to whom you owe your loyalties. But remember: the client doesn’t live alone; he or she is part of a family. And everything that you help the client do can benefit the family as well, even if we are not in the treatment room. You help your client in rehearsal; we sing with him all week.

So thank you for helping us to sing our family music so that it sounds more beautiful.

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