By: Jason S. McKinney, LMSW, Ph.D.
Walking to class as an undergraduate student, with the pleasant view of autumn leaves and the soothing sounds of rehearsing jazz students, I would never have guessed that the most precious advice for my social work career would come from a course in jazz improvisation. Throughout the course, I would learn jazz standards on my guitar and then rehearse with the instructor, who played piano. After learning the melodies of the songs, I would practice improvised solos while being accompanied by the piano. My instructor often provided me with various “tricks of the trade” for producing more substantive solos. What was intended to augment my playing in reality diminished my confidence, as I would focus intently on counting the rhythm or selecting the “best” notes, rather than on creating a piece of art commensurate with my level of comfort and ability. The learning that transpired not only helped my jazz improvisation skills, but also encouraged me as a new professional social worker.
Remembering and Forgetting
Remembering theoretical frameworks and interventions can sometimes feel like a daunting task for new social workers, especially when deciding which are most applicable for each person. As a new family social worker, I faced many questions about which family therapy models would prove most beneficial for the families with whom I was working. The choices were many, including solution-focused therapy, brief strategic family therapy, narrative therapy, functional family therapy, and so on. Sometime during the first few weeks on the job, I remembered the lesson from my jazz instructor and the suggestion that liberated me to use my skills to the best of my ability. He said, “Forget everything you’ve learned, and just play.” Students become so accustomed to the process of remembering academic information that it can be difficult to transition into the workplace, where memorization is of less value and application becomes paramount.
In the conversation that followed, my instructor informed me that I had spent enough time developing my technical ability and that the time had come for me to let my skills unfold. That’s not to say I would never think about theory again. In fact, just the opposite was true. Theory became more and more important; however, the time and place for theory in practice shifted.
Instead of predetermining which riffs I would play in a song, I would have a general idea of the types of riffs that have historically worked well over this type of song, allowing myself the freedom to select from a repertoire as appropriate for each song. In the same way, a social worker should not determine the reason a person is seeking counseling and the interventions to be applied without first consulting with the person and determining which interventions have seemed to be meaningful in similar situations.
The Art of Social Work Practice
As a social work student, one studies theories of human development, interventions, and participates in role-plays, practice seminars, and internships to develop skill sets for working with individuals, groups, families, and/or communities. It is hoped that through these experiences, students will retain the learned skills and become effective social workers.
For students, theory is deconstructed and analyzed in order to foster understanding of practice principles. Until praxis occurs, however, merging theory with practice, the student has nothing but memorized textbook information. It is not until the information is brought to life in practice that the magic occurs—the art of social work practice.
Just as in jazz improvisation, a social worker must be so closely in tune with every unique individual and family to determine the appropriate rhythm and flow of the therapeutic process. As a dancer must follow the lead of her partner, a social worker must also develop a course of services that is specific to and based on the involvement of each consultant.
A jazz musician didn’t learn to play overnight, nor did she ever stop practicing and learning.
Jason S. McKinney, LMSW, Ph.D., supervises a therapeutic foster care program and is an adjunct professor of social work at the Greater Rochester Collaborative, State University of New York (SUNY, Brockport) and Nazareth College, and also at Roberts Wesleyan College. His practice experience includes family therapy, parent training curricula, community based participatory action research, and his research interest is caregiver-child interactions and the development of self.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Fall 2011, Vol. 18, No. 4, page 11.