Attunement: Tuning in to You and Your Child. The Power of Congruence in Musical Play
There is something about Julie Wylie’s Musical Play that is different. It’s not ‘just’ music, or ‘just’ movement, or ‘just’ play. My sense has always been there’s something deeper going on, and here’s one way that might be true.
I’d known Julie for a long time before I had my own baby to bring along to one of her classes. I’d watched her at conferences and then at work, scooping me up with her joy to dance with a Teddy, held in her seemingly limitless playful energy, caught – with all my being – in the present moment, and embedding her embodied wisdom into my work.
Fast forward 6 or so years, I was struggling deeply with my own experience of becoming a Mother. Many things surfaced for me that I had not been expecting, and as a therapist that works with young children, I often felt so fraudulent when I found it difficult to comfort and calm my own baby. I’d spent so many years ‘getting in-sync’ with other people’s children…why couldn’t I manage that with my own beautiful child?
The ray of sunshine in my week was Musical Play.
Music has always been my refuge, and it hasn’t failed me yet. You can know music, feel music, sense it in your body. As Julie always says: “Music is the language of emotion”, and research tells us that if we are emotionally in-sync, we are physically in-sync. When a baby feels a sense of calm within the relationship with their primary carer, this is reflected in their physiology - their heartrate and breathing are rhythmical and steady. Our entire being is influenced by the way music holds and moves within us.
So, what is it that makes these classes so very powerful? Well, quite a lot really.
This is one perspective out of a myriad. The perspective of a highly sensitive, thankful mother and trauma-informed music-loving occupational therapist.
I find it immensely fascinating, and just a little magical, that the way I’d explain congruence is to use descriptors like harmony. Congruence is the harmony between your emotions and your body, or what you say about how you feel and how that is in sync with what your body ‘says’. To explain the way that this harmony, or congruence, is communicated I’d use words like timing, phrasing, rhythm, patterning, resonance and synchrony. Communicating congruence is dependent on the timing, phrasing and rhythm of your voice patterns, the resonance within your voice/body and the synchrony that is present within your relationships. How wonderful that all of these descriptors in turn relate to music!
Congruence is important because it communicates authenticity. It teaches us to be in tune with our own body, and in-sync with someone else’s (like our child, our partner, or a friend), and that builds trust. Upon growing trust, in ourselves and in each other, we can learn to regulate. Upon regulation, we learn to relate. Upon relating, we learn to reason. Regulating, relating and reasoning are foundations for engaging in our world, for self-expression and for creativity; for ‘doing’ ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ our most integrated selves.
So, what does all of that actually look like?
In order to activate our Social Engagement System (as described by Stephen Porges) our brains pay special attention to split-second behaviours and facial expressions in others. This sub-conscious process, called neuroception, acts to distinguish whether or not a person (or situation) is safe.
Musical Play creates a space where many of the ways in which our brains perceive safety are present, and indeed can engage in ‘safe and social’ mode. True social support offers us the feeling of safety and belonging AND the freedom to embody and express our individual differences within that space. How does that unfold in a Musical Play class?
Firstly, just within the Hello song, here is what I began to (subconsciously) sense:
a voice pitch in a range that was engaging, capturing my attention and moving with intonation and rhythm that held and ‘organised’ my nervous system and my child’s (remembering, the more at ease I am, the more at ease my child is likely to be)
resonance in that voice – lots of space for the sound to vibrate means the body (especially the lungs, throat and jaw) is relaxed, rather than constricted and tense - which you can always hear in the strain of someone’s voice
a melody that moved up and back down the musical scale, which allowed me and my child to be drawn in (as it moved up) and then guided to a place of calm presence (as it moved back down again)
a dynamic that was not too loud (or too soft), so neither of us was over- (or under-) whelmed
a breathing pattern that was calm, not urgent nor sleepy/boring
facial expressions and gestures that were open, authentic, and attuned to each person as they greeted them
Over time, there was a sense of predictability, in the pacing and timing of the sessions, and in the opportunities for movement, exploration and improvisation, which added to that feeling of safety and invited (but never forced) us to engage in the present moment, and to be playful and flexible within that trusted, safe space.
The act of singing and humming itself (and the natural effect singing has on our breathing rhythm, especially in extending our ‘out breath’) has numerous benefits, one of which is that it stimulates the ventral vagus branch of the Vagus nerve – this is the branch that brings us into safe and social mode. Dr Bruce Perry (child psychiatrist, author and educator), along with many others well recognised within the field of infant/child mental health and trauma, often discusses the need for “patterned, repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory input” – singing, dancing and drumming are all well recognised and proven in their ability to bring healing and to strengthen regulatory and relational capacities.
Co-regulation and Playfulness
One of the greatest gifts that Julie Wylie’s team offers within Musical Play is co-regulation. I found myself co-regulated by the facilitator(s) and also by the carefully composed, chosen and improvised music, and in turn I was able to co-regulate my baby/child. I saw how the smallest offering my child made was noticed and recognised as a meaningful contribution, and I swelled with love for him just as he was, and I knew I was enough for him just as I was. This was something I’d often been able to give to others in a therapeutic setting, but really needed to receive for myself.
I also found that from this place, I could move into being playful. There is no problem with moments of heightened arousal / alertness in the brain. Ultimately, a heightened state is designed to ensure our survival. But shifts throughout our day that heighten our state of arousal/alertness with novelty are perfectly normal and, when matched to the situation, contribute to our sense of and ability to tap into Playfulness. Equally so, a state of shutdown can also be necessary at certain times, especially for certain folks and/or situations, and can contribute to our ability to tap into Rest. So, the point is never to avoid those states completely.
Within Musical Play we have the beautiful opportunity to experience shifts in our arousal/alertness; to experience familiarity, freedom, novelty, creativity, self-expression and flexibility, and to trust that in the context of relationship, we will be held and guided back into a state of readiness for whatever is coming next. Just like the steady beat is kept on the drum, Julie and her team remain the regulated safe space and simultaneously tune into each carer-child dyad or larger family dynamic and respond in-the-moment to what they intuit, and what they know music can offer.
The authenticity with which the power of music is believed in and the skill with which it is harnessed is key to these Musical Play classes, and just one of the reasons that makes them so rich. The understanding of how rhythm underpins everything – from our breathing to our behaviour, to our ability to move between modes of safe and social, playfulness and rest, sets these apart as classes that are far more than ‘just’ anything.
You can sense they walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Better yet, they (literally) sing it!
Julie Frew is a Christchurch, New Zealand-based Occupational Therapist and mother who works with many young children and their families. She can be contacted and followed on Instagram @grounded_therapy