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  • Writer's pictureJessica Barker

How I Learned to Feel The Music

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

For the past 8 years, I have been a Zumba instructor. When I first became an instructor and started learning songs for my playlist, I became very overwhelmed- everyone seemed to be able to pick up on choreography far easier than I did. It took me so much longer to learn songs, and as I listened to my peers say “just feel the music and it will come,” I tried and I tried to do so, but it just didn’t work. I really started to pay attention to where I struggled and what made it easier for me. I realized quickly that whenever I knew the meaning of the words, the exact number of beats, or had a verbal mnemonic for the step (“slow v-step then march it out, one two three four”) I was able to pay closer attention and the steps came easily. Whenever I wanted to learn a new songs, I started first by writing out all of the lyrics and learning any words I didn’t know if they were in another language. I would also slow down songs if a step was confusing me so I could figure out if it was exactly on the down beat of a note or just a fraction of a beat before. I created elaborate charts where I colored the lyrics of each same part of the song a different color, and made sure to note if there was even a little bit of a difference in the songs. Some of my instructor friends laughed when they saw my elaborate notes, and again said “just feel it.” But I couldn’t just feel it without these notes and charts, in fact these notes and charts were the way that I became able to just get lost in it. Once I knew the meaning and each intricate detail of the song and steps, I lost myself in the beauty and complexity, and knew just how to teach it to my class so that they would get the step effortlessly the first time. While I was happy I had found a way to learn my songs and found great enjoyment and pleasure in doing so there was still some shame that I couldn’t just learn it the first time I heard it like so many of my colleagues.

For some people, there lies a great joy in the unseen, and the effortlessness that comes with doing something intuitively. For some, we are able to get lost in something the more we know about it, and our enjoyment increases. But so often in therapy and counseling, we ask people to just feel it, and not break it down, not let them learn and enjoy it in the way that they would like. I know now that the way that I love something the most is to learn everything I can about it. I find peace through knowledge, and information. Even if the information I find out isn’t always positive, I find the healing through knowing the truth. I know that I can make peace with anything, but I have to know what that is. Too often I think we tell people who simply are not calmed by ambiguity that they need to be. This is a great disservice to them. Therapists need to be willing to help a person to heal, in whatever way that might be.

There is no doubt that for a large percentage of people with eating disorders, tracking information such as amount of exercise, food consumed, etc is negative. But for some with certain personality profiles, collecting data is helpful. I have seen some people with eating disorders get a Fitbit and compete for the highest number of calories. I have also seen people with a Fitbit be surprised and just how active they are, be calmed by the data, and be willing to cut down on movement or increase nutrition. We have to be open to the different learning styles of each of our clients, and stop short of condemning most practices as a whole. Even if a practice is has negative consequences for many people, we still need to be open to embracing when these methods might be helpful.

As we move into truly personalized medicine, especially in mental health, we need to look at what works for the individual person. As a researcher, I love statistics that describe group norms. But even more I love data about individuals. When I am working as a therapist, I am still gathering data: what do I know works for this person in front of me at this moment? What do I know does not work for this person? And in listening, observing, and collecting data, we will be far more able to help each and every person with an eating disorder, or any other mental health condition that we treat. We have to pay attention to how each person feels the music, we can't just tell them that they should.


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