In this Temper series, art and non-wasteful behavior aficionada Kate Kologrivaya sits down for a Deepdive and some Chitchat with people who are changing the face of China’s urban landscape. Xingyu Yao, MT-BC (board-certified music therapist),jazzes up people’s overall wellbeing with a spot of, well, music!
Where words fail, music speaks.
―Hans Christian Andersen
Xingyu Yao is an entrepreneur, composer and a board-certified music therapist. In her eyes, music is creative expression, communication, spiritual practice, transformation, medicine, and a catalyst for social change.
Xingyu enjoys co-creating the musical and conscious community of people who play music for better selves, wellbeing, and world.
Throughout her career, she has worked with people across the lifespan in various settings–from newborns still swaddled up in hospital, children, adults, seniors with various physical, psychological, and spiritual needs, to end-of-life care.
Xingyu integrates her extensive professional training and personal experiences in psychology, creative arts, neuroscience, psychotherapy, medicine, and philosophy to support and help her students, clients, and audiences to identify and connect with their authentic selves and handle challenges with resiliency.
Past and current performance/presentation venues include Community Music Therapy Symposium and Jam Session Series at Panama Jazz Festival, Boston Symphony Hall, Berklee Performance Center, Shanghai He LuTing Concert Hall, American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama Annual Conference and Shanghai HongKou Psychiatric Hospital, among others.
I love cats, they’re great, they take all your negative energy and turn it into purrrs.
And you’re a jazz cat yourself, right?
I am! You know, Shanghai was a jazz center of Asia in the 1920-30s. But then, of course, things changed. My mom and dad are huge music lovers, so we had all those records at home. They were listening to all kinds of music from all over the world, including jazz. I believe this very groovy music kind of made me into who I am. But when I was growing up, jazz was no longer a strong presence in Shanghai. There were some people playing, but it was pretty much underground.
I started playing the piano at the age of five. Before that, I wanted to be a drummer, because I was already picking up chopsticks and hitting everything in reach. I wanted to play the drums, but teachers were quite reluctant because I’m a girl, so they wanted to pick me something more elegant – and subdued. So, I took up classical piano lessons and then I began experimenting how to express myself further. During middle school, I wanted to play Beethoven, but with a jazzy vibe. For years, I searched for mentors who could support my passion until 2013.
That’s when Berklee College of Music hosted audition in China the first time; I met the president R.H.Brown and enjoyed my audition. I followed my intuition and decided to go there. And it was just like a dream-come-true kinda place—a music utopia and I found home. The professors are openminded, super supportive and amazing musicians; they have hundreds of different drums from all over the globe and just go: come over whenever and play whatever. The Institute of Jazz and Social Justice at Berklee promotes the slogan “jazz without patriarchy.”
I never knew jazz was seen through a patriarchal lens; interesting fact, thanks for that one. How did you start aligning therapy with music?
I started out by helping my piano students with special needs, by addressing their emotional, social and behavioral challenges. Additionally, I volunteered at nursing homes and hospitals, offering therapeutic music activities. I was always concerned that people, at least those I met in China and the U.S., saw music purely as entertainment, so they’d never give it some deeper thought. The idea of musical healing powers and how music reflects a person is something that entranced me.
Anything you specialize in?
Besides music therapy, I really enjoy psychodramas and how people can express their emotions through the stage and playing a role in each other’s story. I am interested in intergenerational trauma and how it’s passed down. It is fascinating that those psychological consequences impact our health and to the most extreme level, namely our genes.
It’s cool to see how you are trying to uncover the foundations of problems; digging into the roots instead of addressing the results. When did you first take this approach?
I think from a young age onwards already. I love absorbing things and I want to always find out why things are the way they are. I was a curious cat.
Any particular books that changed your views on life?
Oh, many… For a longest time, I found books to be my best friends, especially when the Internet was still in the early stages of development. And the one book that springs to mind is The Roots.
The African-American author traces his family history and it’s absolutely brilliant. His work subconsciously inspired me to explore intergenerational trauma.
And I also like to write myself; I’ve started my own memoir. I remember my first “record,” my mom singing to me as a baby. She was constantly using music to regulate my emotions. She was using waking up music, playtime music, naptime music or feeding music; she was constantly creating playlists.
What can be more feminine than to nurture someone in this beautiful way? I love this.
My mom wanted to make sure I would have a feeling of support and care. My mom’s vision in 1990s China was so ahead of the times, it’s unbelievable. And when I was teaching music, I got interested in students’ reactions to different classes.
At Berklee, I took this approach to a more scientific level and wrote my thesis about creativity and self-expression, studying the psychological explanations behind what music does to the brain. Over time, parents would come to me asking to not only teach their children music, but help them with ADHD.
You are lucky to meet such parents; thank goodness they didn’t medicate their children. We all hear many similar stories…
Yeah, one of my students came to me because his teacher suspected that he had ADHD. His school teacher urged his parents to get him diagnosed and take medication. Fortunately, the mother brought him to me first. It turned out that he did not need medication but help to process his emotions and a more stable home atmosphere. His parents were going through divorce, fighting every day, and he was a super sensitive kid, he had a hard time concentrating. Subsequently, teachers advised the parents to get him on meds.
Putting kids on meds.. A no-no in my book. Did I mention already that I don’t like people? Keep that in mind. Anyway, I think writing your own book is a beautiful way to release your thoughts and share your experiences, much more mature than posting on the Gram—ed. note, we couldn’t agree more #evilgrin.
Have you ever had an experience where you show people a different side to music and then you notice a change in them?
I have a great story here. I was working at a rehabilitation center. And so, in the AM, I was usually doing a morning music ritual in groups. People would get up, get dressed, and have breakfast; but their mornings bear a different energy. For many of them, it’s a painful process to wake up and be in pain; it can involve stress, anxiety and confusion.
One morning, I brought in my piano and started a session. All was calm and peaceful, when we suddenly heard screaming on the first floor. The man was very old, he was cursing and seemed violent. The staff tied him to his chair given he wanted to run off and could have hurt himself. He was refusing to eat breakfast and rejected everyone who came near. He was screaming, “Get me out of here! You’re all evil! You want to kill me; why am I even here? Call my wife!”
Nurses were trying to calm him down, but to no avail; so they left him be. He was mumbling and visibly upset. I decided that I should try to do something. So I started playing the piano for him and at first he began shouting again, something like, “It’s hurting my ears, stop!” To access whether the pain was psychological or physical, I started singing with a soft voice and he went silent. Then I started talking to him and realized that he was not in touch with reality, he didn’t know where he was. Or why.
I began walking him through his own musical memory lane. Suddenly, he recalled being a little boy at home. He’d loved music as a kid, so he started remembering songs and sounds. He was talking incessantly, laughing throughout. The nurses were stunned. At some point, he turned to me and asked, “Are you married? I have a son; you should meet him.” FYI, his son was about 60, but in the man’s mind was still a nice young guy. Nevertheless, I perceived this as a great sign that he trusted me and felt safe in our relationship. This effect transfer into his entire stay.
It turned out he was suffering from severe dementia with psychotic episodes. His wife had already passed away many years before. He couldn’t remember what he’d said 10 minutes earlier, but he did greet me enthusiastically from a far every day for the next two weeks during his stay at the center. And as he began to develop more trust and a sense of safety, his feelings of agitation subsided and he managed to complete his recovery.
Thank you for sharing, I love this. High scores all-round for music!
Without music, life would be a mistake.
― Friedrich Nietzsche
ABOUT THE AUTHOR — DUE TO A PERSISTENT TECHY HICCUP, #WESIGH:
KATE WRITES ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION (EE) CURRICULUMS USING EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING METHODOLOGIES (EXL) WHILE AT THE SAME TIME CONNECTING LEARNER’S KNOWLEDGE BUILDING AND EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE DEVELOPMENT.
THE NERDY STUFF ASIDE, SHE ALSO DEVELOPS HER OWN CLASSES ON ART AND FILM AND EXPLORES THE CONTEMPORARY ART SPHERE IN CHINA. SHE GRADUALLY WANTS TO BECOME A COLLECTOR AND PROMOTE PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN NAMES TO THE PUBLIC.
ALL IMAGES COME COURTESY OF Xingyu Yao
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