By Barrett Seaman—
Therapeutic Improvisation: How to Stop Winging It and Own It as a Therapist, Dr. Michael Alcee’s new book about the interplay between clinical psychology and art forms—jazz in particular, is written primarily for therapists in the early stages of their careers. It is a guide to becoming a more effective counselor.
For laypersons willing to do some work, however, the book offers an opportunity to expand their thinking about why they act as they do in various circumstances and how to improve their mental health.
With a background in counseling at several colleges, including Fordham and Vassar, Dr Alcee is currently a Mental Health Educator at the Manhattan School of Music while maintaining a private practice in Tarrytown. He recently took time to answer questions posed by The Hudson Independent.
THI: It is pretty clear in the book that you are a jazz aficionado. How far back in your life does that go?
MA: I’ve been an amateur pianist throughout my life, and it was a combination of my classical and jazz piano training and my side-gig at Manhattan School of Music’s counseling center that inspired this book. The more I do therapy, the more I see that being fully human is learning how to read the ever-shifting chord changes of life, embracing the dissonances, and improvising over the tune we all have to play. Both my classical and jazz teachers sensitized me to how to do this best, and I realized this is exactly what happens in [counseling] sessions too.
THI: What led to your job at the Manhattan School of Music? Is your approach to clients in that setting different from your approach to general clients who seek your help?
MA: I’ve worked in a variety of college counseling settings from Fordham University to Vassar College to Manhattanville and Ramapo and now at Manhattan School of Music. I love the college and grad school age because it’s such a creative yet confusing time, ripe for doing really great work.
THI: Do artists have a different psychological make-up than non-artists?
MA: Even the high-level musicians I work with at the Manhattan School of Music don’t see themselves as artists in their personal lives. As a culture, we lop off our personal creativity from our artistic creativity and only reserve the term “artist” for a small subsegment of the population: painters, actors, musicians, dancers. But this is a disservice, not only to the general public but even more so to we therapists who need to lead the way, showcasing mental health as the art of living life creatively.
THI: Throughout the book, you specifically address “supervisees” and trainees—presumably psychological counselors with a Masters degree, perhaps on their way to a doctorate degree in psychology. What can non-professionals get out of reading this book?
MA: I’ve written the book to be accessible to both therapists of all levels and to the layperson too. The first chapter includes a mashup of Fred Rogers, David Bowie, John Coltrane, Robin Williams, and Little Miss Sunshine in order to illustrate therapy and neuroscience concepts in a way that is both entertaining and informative. Presented with vivid case examples, therapists and clients alike will come away with a whole new way of looking at therapy.
THI: You distinguish between what you call therapeutic “presence” and therapeutic “authority” as strategic platforms from which therapists tackle a patient’s issues. How is a therapist supposed to know which approach is right for any given patient or when it is appropriate to switch from one to the other?
MA: I’ve had so many clients who said their last therapist was really amazing at following and listening but they still didn’t know what to do to make their lives better. Then they went to another therapist who told them exactly what to do but didn’t really listen to important aspects of their lives.
This book takes on how therapists can do both and shows clients what to look for in that ideal therapist: a combination of therapeutic presence, a deep and well-tuned ear, and therapeutic authority, a proficiency with playing back the melody and chords of your most beautiful and troubling inner experience.
THI: Most educated people are aware of the right brain/left brain division of labor, wherein the left brain handles logical thought processes while the right brain deals with the emotional, artistic, creative aspects of thought. As I understand it, what you are advising therapists to do is to employ metaphors from art, music and literature to either supplement or replace the predominantly logical approach to solving a patient’s emotional problems. How does that work?
MA: Therapists model how we’re all meant to continually toggle back and forth between this right-brained capacity of listening and imagining deeply and the left-brained skill of zeroing in and expressing with precision. Metaphor best helps us bridge these places and is often the surest way to discover our most creative solutions to the problems that plague us.
We are neurologically built to be artists, as Pablo Picasso once noted when he suggested that all children start out being artists but merely forget as adults. Our right brain’s capacity for imagination, empathy, metaphor, humor, and dreams is the true maestro, to paraphrase writer Iain McGilchrist, and our left brain, the home of our vaunted logic, language, and linear view of ourselves, is the emissary. Albert Einstein once said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Nowhere is this more important and more lacking than in therapists and in our understanding of mental health itself.
THI: So each of us is an artist in our own right?
MA: Yes, all of us– even if we’re not painters, actors, writers or musicians– are artists when it comes to our inner psychology. We all have a birthright to develop, express, and expand our unique brand of creativity and magic, and therapy helps us own that and tap into it most fully.
Therapists also need to reclaim our role as artists and take pride in the unique music, narrative, and drama that our work produces, and how it changes us, them, and our world, one session at a time. It’s crucial so we remain solidly confident and regularly inspired in our day-to-day work. And don’t even get me started on how it cushions against the rampant burnout happening on both sides of the couch during this pandemic.
THI: Are you seeing patients here in the rivertowns? How would someone seeking help find you? What is a typical week for you in terms of scholarly research and writing, teaching and seeing clients?
MA: I love working with clients here in the rivertowns—20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings who are at a transitional point, who struggle with anxiety, depression, relationship issues, etc. andare looking for something more to put it all together. I love working with individuals, couples, parents, and anyone excited about how therapy can transform what seems ordinary and repetitive into something new and creative again.
In addition to working in private practice and working part-time at Manhattan School of Music, you’ll also find me writing on my Psychology Today Blog (Live Life Creatively). I am also currently organizing TEDxIrvington which is happening early next year.
THI: Tell us more about the TEDx project. What’s the theme? Who will be presenting?
This year’s theme is ‘reading the changes’ since especially during this pandemic, we’ve been living in a world of perpetual change. From climate change to political change and cultural change, things are constantly moving. And yet, in that change, we can also find and make something new or reimagine what we thought we knew before.
Not surprisingly, the theme is also a nod to the way great jazz improvisers make something exciting and interesting out of what’s coming fast at them in the moment. As part of our series, we’ll have a jazz group showcasing what reading the changes looks like in action.
TEDxIrvington speakers will share their innovative work and inspiring ideas regarding climate change, the political unconscious, owning your own fashion style, courageously authentic leadership, making music practice fun again, and the surprising secrets behind the success of some of the most renowned high achievers in sports, medicine, business, politics, the arts, and more.
For more on the upcoming TEDxIrvington series, see here: https://www.ted.com/tedx/events/49856.
THI: Where can our readers find out more about your work?
MA: People can find me on my website at https://michaelalcee.com/ or at my Psychology Today blog at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/live-life-creatively, my own TEDxTarrytown talk on introverts at https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_alcee_introverts_college_and_the_mind_solving_our_mental_health_crisis_jan_2017
… or check out my new book from Norton at https://www.amazon.com/Therapeutic-Improvisation-Stop-Winging-Therapist/dp/132401959X
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