Joel Kroeker ('01 MA, Music) had quite a year in 2007. It was the year he released his acclaimed album, Closer to the Flame. Cam Fuller, music writer for Saskatoon's Star Phoenix, put him squarely in the pantheon of notable male singer-songwriters, alongside Ron Sexsmith and Hawksley Workman. It was also the year he visited a village built on a trash heap in Cambodia in search of another musician, a trip that would rock his world and drive the lesson home that, beyond entertainment, music helps heal people.
Travelling with the Mennonite Central Committee in Asia as part of a group working on water-related relief projects, Kroeker was in the village that day searching for Master Kong Nay. Elderly and blind, Kong Nay is a virtuoso of the chapei dong veng, a traditional Khmer stringed instrument. During Pol Pot’s regime, the Khmer Rouge murdered millions of Cambodians, targeting artists and intellectuals with especial brutality; Kroeker learned that the musicians of the village were vital to its inhabitants.
But that day, in the village on the trash heap, he found Kong Nay was away, touring with Peter Gabriel, no less. But Kroeker’s disappointment was short-lived. He was introduced to another musician and maker of Khmer musical instruments. Kroeker sat down to play music with the man and his young son. All the barriers dropped.
“Music there is not about any of the things it is in the West,” he says. “There are no record meetings or strategy sessions about how to get songs on the radio.” Kroeker was grounded in lessons of world music from his days studying ethnomusicology at the U of A. He knew that the art of these Khmer musicians was as intrinsic to the health of the community as the community was to them.
It was the deep connection between music and holistic health that stuck with Kroeker on his return home to Vancouver and led him to become a registered clinical counselor, specializing in music therapy. “Ethnomusicology is the perfect backdrop,” he says. “Music can be a very effective way to cross boundaries.”
Today, Kroeker uses instruments, drums and a portable recording studio, working closely with patients to come up with a plan that considers each person’s circumstance. “I have a wide range of instruments – a few dozen – available for each session,” he says. “The client chooses which instrument they prefer to work with.”
An instrument can be both an icebreaker and a means to initiate communication. Kroeker says that, when he works with children on the autism spectrum, the instrument becomes a transitional object and a way to communicate. “It takes some of the social pressure off the client. We can put our attention on playing the drum, rather than facing each other directly.”
With youth clients, Kroeker might use recording software to write songs together about issues in the client’s life, or simply improvise together, which, he says, “is a kind of non-verbal social negotiation filled with all the elements of social interaction.” Some clients who are seniors have benefitted from writing “life review” songs, that help them process difficult, sometimes long-ago, life experiences. As a bonus, these songs can become a legacy for remaining family members.
Kroeker blends musical work with psychotherapeutic “talk therapy” where appropriate. “I find that blending the two approaches can be quite effective.”
Aspen Gowers’ ('04 BA, Psychology; '07 MEd) journey to clinical psychology was more straightforward than Kroeker’s. She knew in her undergrad years that she wanted to counsel people in a way that considered each first as a whole person, rather than a collection of health needs. In her early 20s at the time, an internship at Centerpoint young offender program at Alberta Hospital gave her some needed experience.
Today, Gowers calls herself a “depth psychologist.” She works with clients to address the deeper reasons for their outward symptoms, and to help them create long-term change. She fosters an awareness of the mind-body connection to help clients establish the internal resources required to live a healthy life. And she has picked up some rare skills on the road to that goal.
After receiving her master’s degree, Gowers did another internship in play therapy. That’s when it all clicked; she has since added art therapy and is now on her way to accreditation in sandplay therapy. “Sandplay therapy lets people access their unconscious to discover things about themselves that might otherwise be inaccessible,” she says. In sandplay therapy, Gowers’ clients invent a world for themselves using a tray of wet or dry sand and a selection of figurines, chosen from the dozens that line shelves in her office. This kind of narrative process and three-dimensional construction allows each client to express and manage his or her anxieties, emotions and experiences in a constructive and safe environment. The figures and scenes are a three-dimensional representation of aspects of a patient’s inner world, one that he or she might have trouble expressing in other ways. Conflicts and threats take a concrete, physical form. “Each finished tray is like a fingerprint,” Gowers says. “I’ve never seen two the same.”
The sandplay therapy and art therapy she employs (Gowers’ patients may create mixed-media mandalas to express themselves) are based in Jungian methods that encourage clients to use symbols to express their inner selves. “It explains the world in a way that makes sense,” she says of Jungian methodology. “Archetypes and symbols can access deep levels of people’s unconscious.” And both sandplay and art therapy provide a means to achieving resolution and a springboard for healing to occur. Gowers has opted to bring these vehicles for healing – and the search for a deeper narrative for the whole patient – into her private practice as a member of Aurora Counselling Services in Leduc.
Sometimes treating the whole patient means assessing one’s own priorities. At least that’s what Tom Foster ('77 BA, Religious Studies) found when he recently moved from a management position at Vancouver Coastal Health region to concentrate on developing his own private clinical practice.
Foster’s decision comes after 30 years of hard work. He has counselled addicts in Vancouver and in Canadian Forces Base Lahr (Germany) at the Alcoholism Rehabilitation Centre, violent sex offenders in jail, and self-described sex addicts in Canada and the United States. He is an accredited sex therapist and it’s this aspect of his expertise to which he has decided to devote his private clinical practice.
“Treating clients for sexual compulsivity involves helping them come to a new perspective. They have a very difficult time letting go of their self-judgments,” Foster says. “I help them look at their attitudes, beliefs, experiences and upbringing. Rather than being at odds with it, I help them see their behaviour from a more neutral standpoint, as an adaptation to a particular set of life circumstances.”
He says that the need for treatment for sexual compulsivity is burgeoning, and he believes that technology contributes to the growth of the problem. Where once a person might need to get through the workday before he could satisfy his sexual cravings, now that person can surf pornography in a moment of downtime at work, feeding and fuelling the compulsive behaviour.
Foster’s therapy for sexually compulsive clients starts, he says, where most therapy should: from a place of non-judgment and respect. “They are not sleazy marauders,” he says of his clients. “I try to help people past the point of self-loathing to uncover the human story.” He has found that broken attachments are at the root of many of his clients’ problems. Foster provides his clients a safe place to talk about their often secret back story. He says that it’s that back story that created the conditions for the expression of sexually compulsive behaviour.
He looks at the evolution of a person’s sexuality over time. “The background informs the behaviour and therapy,” he says. “Clients learn to see how they got to where they are.” Understanding root causes helps his clients create change.
Kroeker, Gowers and Foster all start from the viewpoint that effective therapy is founded on respect. “To reclaim their lives,” Foster says, “patients should start in an environment of respect. They should feel safe.” While each has a different approach to psychological counselling, each looks deeper than the collection of symptoms and behaviours to treat the whole person.
Photography of Joel Kroeker and Tom Foster by Greg Geipel
Photography of Aspen Gowers by Epic Photography Inc (Ian Jackson)
Check out our web exclusives
to hear some of Joel Kroeker’s recordings, watch video of sandplay therapy and read Tom Foster’s tips for making your relationship last.