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The Fine Art of Accompaniment: How Is Music a Model for Living?

13/08/2013 14:20 BST | Updated 12/10/2013 10:12 BST

Growing up in a small town, I had piano lessons with the local butcher. He had huge hands - like sausages - but they could string a Chopin line together like no-one else. Apart from the plain truth that 'all hands are piano hands', the other thing he taught me was how to accompany people. I guess he had the natural balance of supporting, challenging, and blending that accompanists need. He taught me how to listen and prepare, and how to stay just out of the way enough. One aspect of being a music therapist is to use this art of accompaniment strategically so it brings out the best in people.

Cut to last month, where I found myself sitting in on a conversation between the Public Programme curator at the Zabludowicz Collection in London, and artist Jack Tan. They were discussing a forthcoming performance event, featuring works by Tan, Emma Smith, and Katrina Palmer. It was to be an evening of art performances incorporating sound and music made in response to the Collection's current exhibition Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part II which presents paintings from the gallery's permanent collection. As Tan was developing a new work, the ideas were flowing but not totally fixed yet. I suddenly caught a whiff of accompaniment in the air, as the excellent curator Kelly Large drew, led and followed her artist through the forest of ideas his work had generated.

It seemed so musical how she listened to the themes, giving them a context that was almost harmonic, and then asking questions to clarify or provoke new ideas. Drawing out an art work from an artist appeared to be a quite lovely image of how a music therapist works with a client; they are both versions of accompanying someone on a journey of discovery. I started to wonder, how else is music a model for our lives?

Actually the Nordoff Robbins approach is in some ways based on the idea that we can see a portrait of a person in how they play. Or rather, we see how a person can be, when they play music. It's one of the exciting parts of being a music therapist that you can dive into playing music with someone and discover (often along with them) that they can be vastly different when playing music compared with how they are in their regular life. Suddenly someone who is usually limited by the effects of illness or trauma might become unexpectedly free, powerful or coordinated when they're playing music in music therapy.

In healthcare, this idea about music being a model for living has taken an interesting step. We've started to explore how the art of accompaniment - like listening, waiting, supporting, or being alongside - can be applied in daily care situations. We are starting to wonder, does it feel different if your personal care in hospital is done with these values, rather than being a race against the clock? What if you apply these musical basics in nursing? Or in management? It's certainly become a theme among the more left-field post-modern management gurus, too. Throw a tuba in the air at a management conference these days and you'll probably hit someone on their way to the 'Jazz and Organisational Behaviour' workshop.

So finally consider this: among the Inuit of Northern Canada and Greenland there is a practice of dispute resolution in which two opponents fight their legal battles (all except murder) by singing. Clearly in some parts of the world you can still be as acclaimed for your ability to sing as for your ability to afford a good lawyer. Song duels involve insults and obscenities that you and your opponent would trade, before an audience. As each verse is invented, the audience begins to take sides according to who is funniest, or maybe the most potty-mouthed. Like with Eminem in 8 Mile, one singer starts to get the crowd on his side. By the end, he is the only one to get applause, and he becomes the winner of a bloodless contest. But the point is that because they have sung together, a connection is still possible for them, somewhere in the community. Imagine if we could all settle our disputes like that...#whatwouldyokodo