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Cultural Connections: India

By Katie Rahn, MusicWorx Intern

Traveling to a different country is both a nerve-wrecking and exciting experience, filled with countless opportunities to learn… especially when you are traveling for the purpose of furthering your career and education. Through Resounding Joy, in January of 2018, I joined six fellow music therapy students from universities across the United States to advocate for the profession of music therapy while gaining a deeper understanding of the cultural aspects that affect different music therapy approaches. During these transformative two weeks in India, I learned about some of the cultural implications that affect music therapy practice in different regions of the world, while learning a great deal about myself in the process.

First, I encourage you to travel as much and as often as you possibly can, especially to places that push you far outside of your comfort zone. Personally, I have done a fair share of traveling throughout my lifetime, and each place has taught me something new. Each unique culture, history, and language offers opportunities for personal growth and awakening. On this trip, specifically, I learned so much about a culture that was very different from my own and developed an immense sense of gratitude from the journey. Should you be fortunate enough to explore the world and its diversity, I would like to offer a few key points to keep in mind that I picked up during my adventures in India.

Be open to new forms of communication.

One thing that took some getting used to (and something I was not aware of prior to arriving), was the direction of nodding your head. In the U.S., we are familiar with moving our heads in an up-and-down motion to communicate “yes,” while moving our heads in a side-to-side motion to communicate “no”. In India, the motion for “no” is the same, but in order to communicate “yes,” your head moves side-to-side in a “bobble” motion, if you will. This simple form of communication is entirely different between our cultures.

We also had to be conscious of our outfits, taking precaution to cover up our midsections, shoulders, chests, and legs to communicate our respect for the culture, which wasn’t difficult to do, but definitely something we had to be more aware of.

Another form of communication in India shines during mealtimes. Nearly every dish in India is piled high with rice with a side of chutney, curry, or other spicy and deliciously flavorful food… and as a sign of respect, you are pretty much expected to eat it all… and then go for seconds! Personally, I grew up loving spicy foods and enjoying large portions, so I fit in well. For the typical American, however, it’s a bit difficult to handle the spice and eat everything on your plate when your stomach isn’t conditioned for it, and it’s even more difficult to communicate this cultural difference to the ones providing your meals for fear of being offensive.

Amongst countless other factors, body language, the clothes you wear, and the food you eat all change depending on your culture and environment. These little variations in everyday living can be challenging and uncomfortable if they’re not something you’re used to, but that discomfort is a small price to pay for the rich educational experience you receive.

Step out of your comfort zone.

Along with these minor differences, bigger adventures challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone. We spent the majority of our direct service time in India working in multiple schools for children with special needs, older adult facilities, and a residential care facility for children with special needs who require higher levels of care. In each of these settings, whether we were facilitating individual, small, or large group music therapy sessions, we often faced the uncertainty of the unknown. Sure, we came up with lists of songs and potential interventions for the population we would work with that day, but we never really knew the clients’ needs and goals until we arrived. My flexibility was definitely put to the test.

By the end of the two weeks, I felt much more comfortable assessing, planning, implementing, and evaluating in the moment. Arguably, this ongoing assessment is one of the most important and useful skills as a music therapist, as it helps us provide the most adaptable and effective treatment possible. As it turns out, I didn’t have much experience assessing clients in the moment until this trip threw me into it.

Sometimes we need that push in order to see the rapid growth that we are capable of.``

Embrace other cultures’ practices and traditions.

What made this train ride all the more worthwhile was the destination. We were traveling to Pondicherry to exchange knowledge, perspectives, and approaches in music therapy with professors, doctors, and other music therapy students. This rare opportunity for everyone involved was nothing short of a big deal… Allow me to elaborate:

  • India’s population is currently 1.3 billion people, making up 17% of the world’s population.
  • Within the entire country, there is only one training and research institute for clinical music therapy: The Chennai School of Music Therapy.

The students from this school complete their 6-month internship at the Mahatma Gandhi Medical College and Research Institute in Pondicherry, which I fortunately got to explore firsthand. We walked through a tour of the institute, and observed their music therapy students in action with dialysis patients. We even witnessed the use of music therapy as procedural support during an electroconvulsive therapy session! (Something you definitely don’t see every day…) We performed clinical role-plays for each other, which allowed us to compare and contrast the different music therapy approaches commonly utilized in our countries.

While a substantial amount of how we utilize and implement music therapy services were similar, one of the biggest and most obvious differences was the type of music that we use. Instruments such as the sitar, tabla drums, and harmonium are commonly used in music therapy practice in India. Voice is also used, but the melodies and scales are much different than what is heard in western music, as they use different intervals, note patterns and embellishments. Indian Raaga, also commonly known as Raag, or Ragam, is a traditional scale or pattern of notes that is widely used for improvisation and composition, making it easily applicable to music therapy in this culture. I encourage you to watch Anuja Kamat’s educational video and demonstration of Indian Raaga (at right). She explains the concept very clearly and has a beautiful singing voice, too!

I am still mesmerized by the complex and detailed sounds of Indian music. As a vocalist, I admire the tone qualities and advanced vocal embellishments that singers include in their music… they use their voices in ways I could only dream of!

Enjoy the journey.

As we know, every person has their own unique taste in music, which is affected by their cultural background, where and how they’ve grown up, what the people around them listen to, and a variety of other factors. From this trip, I witnessed firsthand the incredible impact that culture and history have on our music, and therefore our music therapy practices. I had a wonderful experience seeing older adults and children singing along to their favorite traditional Indian songs in group music therapy sessions, adult patients in medical settings finding comfort and relaxation in hearing Indian Raaga improvisation during their procedures, and everything in between.

This trip truly was one of a lifetime; filled with personal and professional growth, great challenge, and countless educational opportunities. If you ever have the chance to travel anywhere, especially for the purpose of furthering your education, take it. I promise you it will be worth it. Make those cultural connections, experience the world and all it has to offer, and learn about yourself through the adventure. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, himself:

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

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