It is said that French composer, Maurice Ravel, grew up in a household where he was much loved by his mother and father. Whatever the truth, Ravel had an intuitive understanding of how a nurturing environment is created, one where a person can grow.
Here is the performance of the Bolero by The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gengiev. We’ll then explore Ravel’s genius, at least from a psychological perspective.
The Bolero is built on an unchanging rhythm (an ostinato), played on a snare drum. The ostinato creates the foundation for two simple melodies, which are repeated throughout the piece. Interest is maintained both by the melodies being passed between different instruments, and the inexorable rise to a crescendo. The listener can relax into the music and be gradually swept into the crescendo.
One of the tasks of the parents of a new born is to set up a foundation that caters for the infant’s wellbeing. The infant must be protected, and the various tasks associated with the child’s maintenance carried out.
As well as tending to the physical requirements of the child, the parents also have to establish a foundation for tending to the baby’s emotional needs. The emotional task of settling the infant can often be more taxing than the late night feeds.
The foundation is created by these tasks being repeated over and over again, in the same way the drummer maintains the beat in the Bolero. (The French actor, Jacques Villeret, gives a humorous performance of a drummer bored by his role in the Bolero. I’ll come back to this in a later blog).
If this foundation is in place, the child is freer to explore different melodies. He/she can accept a variety of people interacting with them in a multiplicity of ways. The infant can be introduced to different aspects of the parents. The infant can start to explore different aspects of themselves.
As Ravel shows, these different experiences should not be introduced in a way that doesn’t shock or overwhelm the child. What each new person brings, or how different aspect of the parents are introduced, should be kept simple and build on the melodies that are already in place. They definitely should not critically endanger the foundation.
In this space, the child can build an internal foundation that allows them to explore different melodies within themselves and in the world (see Grandma, Superstar blog). There are a few interesting aspects of this performance by the London Symphony.
The conductor, Valery Gengiev has swapped his baton for a toothpick.
Babies do that to families. Power structures are upended. These days, the shifts may not be as gender related as in the past. However, the love of a baby can challenge commitments to work and success. Parents who were previously determined to fit their child into a tight work schedule can suddenly find their priorities have shifted.
Parents that have felt in control of their lives can suddenly feel overwhelmed. Beliefs about child-rearing, and even the meaning of life, can be thrown into disarray. What felt like a baton of knowledge is shown to be only a toothpick.
Sometimes when I play this video, the performance is interrupted by an advertisement at the ten minute mark. No matter how hard the parents work to create a nurturing space for the baby, life will intervene. A child who has been held in a caring and thoughtful way will be better prepared to deal with life’s intrusions.
The creation of a good psychotherapeutic foundation begins with the assessment of the patient’s ability to engage in a therapy. The therapist makes sure they are always ready when the patient arrives and is clear as to when breaks, such as holidays, will occur.
In the session, the therapist builds the foundation by maintaining the moment to moment relationship with the patient. This includes ongoing explorations of what the patient is thinking and feeling and offering interpretations that allow the patient to feel understood. The therapist also needs to accurately judge when to speak and when to remain quiet, and what is important and what to let pass.
While one part of the therapist creates the foundation, another sits in the background, processing everything the patient and the therapist have brought to the therapy. This is not a conscious process. Rather it is intuitive. It stems from the therapist’s trust that all their training, experience and even life experience will bring something to life in the therapy, a melody, that will propel the process forward.
In this place, insights suddenly form, rather than derive from analytic thinking, at least in the classic use of that word. One moment, there is no clarity, the next, there is. This understanding can take half a session to form, or many years.
This aspect of the therapist is far more spontaneous. When it is in full flight, I find myself speaking with a confidence that surprises me. I can find myself leaning forward.
However, as Ravel shows, this new information needs to be introduced in a way that doesn’t shock and overwhelm the patient. What is said, and how it is said, has to be fitted into the melodies of the therapy. It certainly cannot challenge the foundation. In a way, the therapist must develop an inner foundation that facilitates these spontaneous insights to be safely brought into the therapy.
One way to think about a psychotherapy is helping the patient to create an inner foundation that works with them, forming a basis to explore their own melodies. Often, they come to therapy with no ability to create a foundation. They have all sorts of melodies as to how to live their life, but no structure on which to make things happen. Or, their foundation works against them, a steady drum beat that tells them how useless they are.
Bolero gives us a metaphor for understanding how the foundation and the melodies can work together. A way of thinking about parenting and psychotherapy.
Thank you Maurice Ravel, and his mum and dad.