“People tend to trust the music they love because their music doesn’t scold them about how they feel, what they think, or what they do.”
Among the glowing testimonials from knowledgeable people on music therapist’s Tim Ringgold’s website, one woman mentions his “sheer kinetic energy,” and Joe Polish, founder of The Genius Network, says, “I work with some of the very best speakers in the world. There are very few people that can hold people’s attention better and inspire others more than Tim Ringgold.”
Recently, I experienced that when I witnessed Tim give a Zoom public talk about his craft as a music therapist. Even so, as a former editor of The Fix, I found the content of his talk – using music therapy to treat emotional pain and addiction – even more compelling than his smile-inducing kinetic energy. I thought Fix readers would benefit from knowing about him and music therapy.
A singer and classical musician before he was a music therapist, at 16 he sang solo to Pope John II in St. Peter’s Square before 13,000 Catholic pilgrims. In his twenties, he morphed into a rocker who played some of LA’s major clubs. In his thirties, reverting to classical music, he sang at the Hollywood Bowl and in some of the oldest and largest European cathedrals.
Ringgold’s path to musical therapist was guided by pain, including struggles as a recording artist and with addiction, with added trauma from the early death of his father, the murder of his five best friends, and the life and death pain of his special-needs daughter. Recovery took him into the Landmark Forum where his exceptional natural gifts for teaching and empathy moved him up the ladder to Introduction Leader. Then, merging his music and counseling aptitudes, he studied music therapy. In 2008, with Landmark behind him, he was certified to practice by the certification board for music therapists (there are 8,000 nationwide, with a very small percentage working in addiction treatment).
Tim began his practice working in oncology before he segued into the addiction recovery field, with a second career as an in-demand public motivational speaker. Now, apart from the sessions he leads for a multistate addiction recovery center, he manages a team of eight other music therapists across the country. Each music therapy session is one hour, once a week, and includes four to six clients, though some clients opt for one-on-one sessions.
Since 2008, Tim has annually worked with 500 to more than a thousand recovery clients, primarily in groups. He also leads online workshops, a grief retreat, as well as hosts the Stress Elimination Summit and the podcast Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold. Tim is also the author of Sonic Recovery: Harness the Power of Music to Stay Sober, and gave the first TEDx talk on music therapy in 2012.
The Fix: What’s the relationship of music to addiction?
Tim Ringgold: First, let me say that people who are in treatment for substance abuse and addiction are there because of underlying issues of trauma, depression, anxiety, high ADD, ADHD, PTSD, and/or traumatic brain injury. Addiction never occurs in isolation. The addiction is a solution to those problems. Problem is, it’s a crummy solution because it causes more problems than it solves. Most people think it is the problem itself, but it is really just a symptom – like a cough – of an underlying issue. So, the real game is to be addressing the underlying issues, which is what we want to get to with music therapy.
What’s a story example or two?
One day, I am leading a group, and we are doing active music making using rhythm instruments – drums, percussions, shakers – and we’re improvising and just creating spontaneous music. The purpose is to explore the sounds of the instruments and connect with the beat.
One of the clients is a teenage boy who doesn’t say much the whole session. We’ll call him Dave. Dave is playing a buffalo drum which is a Native American rhythmic instrument where you hold the drum with one hand and you have a mallet in the other hand and you play the drumhead with it.
Throughout the improvisation, it is clear Dave is exploring this drum. There is a discovery happening, but he doesn’t verbalize anything. At the end of the session, there is a group note that all the clients have to fill out that asks things like: “What was your greatest takeaway? What did you learn? Identify an emotion you feel.” Dave wrote: “I finally found the way to get the violence out of me.”
One of things that was notable and remarkable about Dave were all the scars on both forearms, from his wrists on the outside of his forearms up and down his forearms. Dave had a history of cutting. Clearly, he had been trying to get the violence out of him. On this day he was introduced to a drum – and in his own words the drum was more effective than anything he’d tried up to that point.
So, music therapy is about empowering and equipping clients and patients to use music as a tool for their own regulation, their own expression, in ways that talk therapy simply cannot access.
Larry. It’s his first day at an adult residential drug abuse treatment program. In group, Larry says: “No offence, but I don’t trust anybody in this room and I certainly don’t trust any of the staff here,” myself [Tim] included. I said, “That’s okay, Larry. What’s one of your favorite bands?“ And he answers “The Eagles,” and I said “Cool, what song from the Eagles do you really connect with?” And he answers “Desperado.” Now this is one of those clinical moments you cannot make up. Because the lyrics from “Desperado” are so auto-biographical for so many men who find themselves in treatment. The song paints the picture of somebody who is tired and alone.
And so it was no surprise that this guy – who said he doesn’t trust anybody – identifies with this song. It’s his story. So in one word he’s told me clinically more about himself by saying “Desperado” than if he had spent five minutes telling the narrative of what brought him to treatment.
So, I say to Larry “Okay for the next week I don’t want you to trust anybody here but I do want you to trust the Eagles and I want you to trust “Desperado” and I want you to listen to the Eagles during the week.” Well, you should have seen the look on his face that I gave him permission to trust something that he felt safe with as opposed to something I felt safe with.
People tend to trust the music they love because their music doesn’t scold them about how they feel, what they think, or what they do. So, they feel emotionally and psychologically safe around their music. That’s why someone can actually be feeling more safe and connected alone in their room with their headphones on than in a room full of people.
PS: the next week in group Larry was fully invested – not just in group but in treatment overall. So that’s Larry’s story.
What’s the age range of most clients?
We mainly treat adolescents and young adults, which is very inspiring to me, because potentially they have so much future ahead and comparatively very little past. Because we imprint music on our psyche so deeply between the ages of 14 and 24, music is like our co-pilot in our journey of becoming our identity as an adult. To leverage music in such a personal and powerful way at such a time of crisis is so deeply rewarding.
Even if they get sober, they are going to have a deeper relationship with music for the rest of their life – and it’s not going to be just entertainment. It’s going to be a vital tool in their ongoing recovery. Because music can trigger a craving, or it can relieve one. Showing clients the right way to reach for their music so their own music doesn’t undo all the work they are doing in treatment, is not only important but deeply satisfying.
For me, to be a part of their treatment at this stage of their chronological journey holds great promise compared to when I worked in oncology with people at the end of their life and I was soothing their transition, which was deeply gratifying in a different way.
How do you as a music therapist make it relevant to everyone in the room? What is the process?
There are five clinical outcomes that we are addressing in any given group, and when combined they spell the acronym SOBER. It stands for Stay present, Open up, Be creative, Escape stressors, and Reconnect. The different types of groups that we lead are all focused on addressing one or more of those clinical outcomes – and those clinical outcomes are relative to everyone in the room.
The session is tailored to address one or more of those outcomes. The interactions include active music making, song analysis, relaxation, creative arts, songwriting and song selection. The difference between song analysis and selection is that in song analysis the therapist chooses the music to address an underlying theme of treatment. In song selection, the clients choose the music that describes some part of where they have been, where they are, or where they want to go.
Okay, so there are six clients in a room with you, and what is the flow? What do you start with, what happens after that, and how does it get individuated to six people?
Let’s take an active music-making session, for example.
Why do you even choose an active music-making session?
Active music making is the most effective session because it addresses all five clinical outcomes simultaneously. It is efficient and effective – and empowering – because a lot of people have a story or belief that they are not musical, or not musicians, or couldn’t possibly play music, that they don’t have talent… some version of that belief. However, through our training, music therapists know how to get any human being making music in a matter of seconds.
So, we are able to smash that belief – not by convincing but through a person’s successful engagement with the music. And the tools we use are rhythm-based instruments and voice because the human body runs on rhythm. Every cell, every organ, every system, literally every body – the fundamental organizing system of everything happening in the body is rhythm. For example, you walk in rhythm, talk in rhythm, chew in rhythm, sleep in rhythm, your heart beats in rhythm, you breathe in rhythm, you even scratch in perfect rhythm.
As music therapists we just put instruments in the way of rhythms that the body already has experience with. That’s relevant because the person in treatment has that belief that music is hard, time consuming and relegated to those who have talent. But when we smash that belief in a matter of seconds by improvising with rhythm instruments, it opens the door to a conversation about what other limiting beliefs they have that aren’t serving them and are simply an illusion.
Again, what is the step by step by step process?
First thing we start with is teaching the acronym SOBER so they know why we are doing music and it is not for entertainment and is not for education, but as a tool for recovery. And then we introduce the instruments in the room and demonstrate them, showing how easy they are to play successfully. Then I will invite the participants to select an instrument that looks interesting. I play a bass drum and lay down a heartbeat on the bass drum and I simply say, “Explore the sounds on your instrument and then connect the sounds to the beat.” They only have two tasks: one Explore, two Connect.
After we groove for a period of time I have them switch instruments and a new groove begins. After a period of time we switch instruments a third time. At this point, depending on how long we have been improvising together, I can take the group in one or two directions. The first is a discussion around what instruments they connected with and why?
Now we begin the verbal process and look at how the tasks of “explore and connect” apply to all the other kinds of therapy groups they attend at the treatment center. We know they are not going to connect with every group, just like every one of us doesn’t connect with every type of exercise, but we all know exercise is vital in minting mental health. So, it is up to us in recovery to explore different types of exercises so we connect with one we enjoy.
So, we use the music therapy experience as a metaphor and expand the conversation further out into their treatment. We might ask them to talk about what groups they have connected with in treatment, what staff have they connected with, which fellow client have they connected with, what family member do they feel connected with? The client begins to see the thread, the connection, as part of the road to recovery – and it all started with “just a shaker” or just a drum.
At this stage of the group we will circle back to the SOBER acronym and ask them which one of the SOBER letters did we address in the group? And now they have to integrate their experience with the outcomes – it’s almost like a recap that cements the whole experience. It’s almost like “lecture, then lab, then lecture” – lecture and lab all in one. Its analytic and left brain and its experiential and right brain all in the same session.
Say more about the instruments available.
Usually there are more instruments than people. It’s like a buffet. They play three or four in the course of a session but there are 10 plus instruments at their disposal – mostly rhythmic percussion instruments – so drums, shakers, wood blocks. I used to run a group where they had to raid the kitchen and make instruments out of utensils, pots and pans. But the chefs didn’t like that.
Are the one-on-one sessions much different?
One-on-one mimes the others but we focus on guitar or ukulele lessons because learning guitar or uke is really useful as a recovery skill. That’s really hard to teach in a group setting but really easy to do one-on-one. But the main difference maker is client song selection where the client is the DJ for the hour and selects music that represents how they are feeling. What they are struggling with or, on the flip side, music that inspires them – there are lots of different prompts.
The music creates a bridge between the client and the therapist because oftentimes an artist articulates emotion in the form of music and lyrics better than the clients with just words.
So, you ask a client how are they? And they say, “I don’t know.” But if you ask them to play a song that might match how they are feeling, there is a whole world of emotion contained in the music and lyrics and it helps a client express those elusive feelings that they may not be able to put words to.
Seems music therapy works best in concert with other therapies.
In treatment there is no therapy that is a stand-alone therapy for addiction. Addiction treatment is a cluster or constellation of modalities. It is an inter-disciplinary approach because talk therapy alone doesn’t treat trauma, so you need multiple modalities that address the bio, psycho, social and spiritual aspects.
Have you been doing this all on zoom this last year?
During the pandemic we’ve been leading Zoom sessions most of the time and some of the time we lead in-person sessions wearing masks and social distancing.
Learn more: Tim Ringgold.
View Tim on YouTube.