Tomáš Pálka: A concert can be therapy. Therapy can be a concert …

We can choose from two types of paths to take in life: more convenient ones where we stay within the confines of what we know, what works, and what seems to be safe to us as long as we can, or paths of change, courageous decisions, personal development, and new directions and visions. The latter option will likely involve a lot of work and uncertainty for us, but in the end, it will also give us incomparably more fulfilment and inner satisfaction.
The AMU students and graduates who we will present in this series have chosen the latter path. They are people who have been successful in pushing their jobs into new directions, developing them, and pursuing them with all their talents and skills; people who have had their own successful projects. Without a doubt, they are people who are worth meeting.

A composer, a musician, a therapist: such was the initial information I received for my interview with Tomáš Pálka. I had no idea which of these topics would prevail during our conversation, or how they were linked together. Eventually, the rhythm and content of our talk unfolded completely spontaneously and naturally, similarly to the natural way in which all of Tomáš’s topics in life and work are related. We discussed music as well as things that can heal the soul and how one can move forward in search of happiness.  During the tough present times, people seek help from therapists more than ever.

What is the most common reason why clients approach you?

I’m not a psychologist; I focus primarily on finding balance in one’s physical and mental condition, because the two are related. When someone’s muscles get stiff or spastic, it doesn’t just happen because they don’t exercise correctly or suffer from imbalance in load without compensating: this is also due to psychological issues, or a combination of the two. I’m often approached by people who are on the verge of burnout, and my therapy takes the path of relaxing the body while also releasing mental blocks. Interestingly, many of my clients spontaneously mention that their – mostly mental – problems began during the Covid times. 

What are the most frequent problems?

Covid totally disrupted the way people were functioning, their existing lifestyles, work, and daily rhythm, and they have a hard time finding their way back. When you drop out of your mode of functioning just briefly, you can go back easily, but when it lasts for a long time, it can lead to mental disorders that often cause people to not see any way out. I help them to find the way in therapy, on various levels. I also work with food supplements I recommend. I can often tell at a glance if someone’s body is lacking certain elements – by the condition of the skin, the hue of the whites of their eyes, the appearance of their tongue…

What can the body tell us at a glance about our psychic state?

In a Chinese medicine course, Dr Komárková explained to us things you can ‘read’ from the body posture and facial expression within seconds: You can tell if the person has scoliosis, fatigue, and what condition their blood circulation is in… There is almost always correlation between a body’s posture and look and its disease(s). The thing I discuss first every time a new client comes to me is what is happening in their life and where they work. If someone works as a truck driver, it’s immediately obvious they’ll have lumbar spine issues. It’s similar with people who sit in front of a computer all day – they usually have problems with cervical and thoracic spine. It’s difficult to say in general – everyone is different – but there are signs that spring from the type of job people do. Only 5% of people try actively and consistently to compensate for physical imbalances for example by going to a gym or getting up from the chair and making a few exercises every two hours. I have a method that works quite well – all it takes is doing certain exercises for five minutes two or three times a day. This is the bare minimum, but clients can see the benefits if they do this regularly. But since I perceive a person within a context, and not just as a physical unit, I believe that when things are happening in their life, it’s no coincidence. If a client works out yet still suffers from pain and issues anyway, maybe they harbour unprocessed traumas from distant past. It can stem from early childhood or even birth, or – if you accept the concept of reincarnation – from something that happened much earlier. Regression therapy can help in cases such as this. 

We are discussing therapy, yet you are also a composer and musician. What motivated you to take up therapy?

It happened the other way round, or at the same time maybe. I had played the violin and piano since an early age, but I wanted to be a physician. I took acupuncture and acupressure courses when I was in high school, and I loved that. Then I joined a folklore ensemble; a great bunch of people who inspired me to take a musical path. When I had to choose between a medical school and the conservatory, I realised I didn’t really want to go down the western medicine path. I knew I wanted to work with people, but in a different manner. So, following high school, I went to the conservatory, majored in composing with the violin and piano on top of that, and then I went on to study composition with Professor Kopelent at HAMU. I have always perceived composing music in the sense that music has healing potential. I’m certainly not talking about superficial meditation music – I was seeking a way of combining therapy with an art experience, so that the two would work together. I use music in my therapy and I want it to not be shallow – I want it to help with the therapy while giving the client an art experience, or maybe a musical or sonic experience. It’s not a substitute to listening to music in a concert hall. Music or sound act as a guide. But, figuratively speaking, I think a concert can be therapy, and therapy can be a concert. You can create space for ‘healing resonance’ with music. This way, music becomes an important aspect of therapy. In turn, you can reach deeper levels of meditation during a concert performance. 

How does your music emerge? What is your primary inspiration?

Sometimes, I will write for a pianist friend who asks me to write something for him. Or a string quartet will approach me. That sets the limits within which I will compose. Other than that, music comes into existence quite spontaneously, from my internal urges. I can get inspired anywhere and at any time. For example, I will hear a stream gurgling, and it will spawn a theme that I find interesting, so I start to process it. I have always been into the potential of peace and quiet, such as when you walk out and listen to nothing but leaves rustling. These are the feelings and inspirations that I bring to the world of music. I seldom get so excited as to pound listeners with fortissimo; my music tends to be more on the calm side. This is not to say it cannot build up in intensity if the musical idea asks for it.

Do you focus more on music or on therapy?

It depends; sometimes there is more therapy work, and sometimes I tend to work on a musical project more, but one without the other wouldn’t really work for me, I guess. If I stayed in the musical world only, maybe I’d lose the sort of lightness I have now. And had I graduated in medicine and worked in a hospital, it could crush me in the long run. So, both planes are key to me. Both fields are my lifelong themes, and they inspire and encourage each other. 

What is your therapy training?

I completed various courses, adding to my knowledge as I went. If you want to work as a therapist and be an equal partner to all physicians here in Germany, which is where I live with my family, you have to take a two-year course and end it with an exam equal to those in medical schools. I didn’t complete my studies at the institute because it was time-consuming and our second child was just born, so the priorities were elsewhere. It was important for me primarily because it helped me to realise that the path I was going down in therapy is the perfect match for me.

Your profile cameo quotes St Augustine to the effect that without humility, you cannot achieve a truthful existence… Why is humility a topic for you?

I guess it stems from childhood experience; I have always sensed that some people tend to skim the surface, seeking fun and quick profits, whereas other people think deeply about what they do and the meaning of life in general. Why I took interest in that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s my karmic theme; at any rate, these considerations and implications are the foundation of everything for me. I can’t just sit down and ‘just write’ a piece – that would make no sense to me. After all, this is precisely what the quote is about: To understand the world and oneself, one must dig deep. Many people are afraid of that because there is a lot of pain and seeming misunderstanding deep down, among other things. But if you succeed, the world will open up for you and you will see life in context. That is humility. I think it’s impossible to understand the essence of being without it. But everyone needs space and time to find the meaning of their life and understand it. People often start thinking about it because they face the same problem again and again. You find a new partner, but he is an alcoholic. And then again, and again… because you follow a pattern or model and keep repeating the same mistake. Realising and understanding the context, which is humility, can help you a lot. It can help you break free from a spiral and move on. The experience of crisis is a very important point in this. Through it, you progress forward.  

The modern times are not very conducive to humility. The cult of youth, ostensible happiness, and success prevails. Maybe we sometimes forget that ‘just being satisfied’ is actually what it is all about…

There are ways to work towards that. It’s key to stop and focus. Taking myself as an example, I used to live in Prague where I got sucked into the whirlwind of the city every morning. I was surrounded by various people’s energies, and that was exhausting. Eventually, my wife and I solved that by moving to the country. We relocated to Ruhpolding, a community in Germany, where we have been living happily for 11 years. It’s not that I can’t work in the city – I just have to put much more effort and energy into work than I have to here, in the mountains and natural landscape. Wherever you are, though, you need to focus and realise what matters most to you. Sure, it’s good to have money to pay the rent and living – but you need to have enough, not an abundance. When you decipher internally what you have and what you don’t, what you need and what you don’t, you will achieve balance with the things that used to bother you. There will always be problems, but if you know where you’re going and why, you will start to see them from a different perspective: ‘Something is going on; I need to address it and move on’. Until you start with yourself, property, money, car, and house are just surrogates for happiness. Happiness does not come from outside – it springs from within. 

What makes you happy now?

I have a son who’s almost eight years old, and he loves to build with Lego bricks. First, he’ll build a model following the instructions, and then he builds his own designs. It just fascinates me. His enthusiasm makes me spontaneously happy. My thirteen-year-old daughter is just going through puberty, and that’s a bit difficult, but she also makes me happy, such as when she succeeds at school.

What makes you happy in the professional realm?

I am happy that the Konvergence musical ensemble that I founded along with my Academy colleagues 21 years ago still works. We wanted to do ‘non-sandwich’ concerts, as in doing it differently from most concerts organised at that time where musicians would come without much thought given to programming, played their stuff, and that was it. By the way, this still happens in concerts today. We had a clear programme ever since the beginning; we wanted to play contemporary music and interpret the work of living authors. We have programmed countless concerts; we do 3–4 concerts every year, usually at Vavřinec, or at NoD when we need an alternative venue; we also worked at HAMU Gallery and at Invalidovna. We get to play live in Germany, Austria, France and elsewhere in Europe, usually thanks to a network of contacts that we made with colleagues while still students, and we perform at festivals from the Prague Spring to Expozice in Brno to Music Olomouc to Forfest in Kroměříž. Our programming is always based on a common idea. Even when we bring together composers who had never met before, if their compositions share a common trait, we try to connect it all in our ‘dramaturgical arc’ so that it makes the most sense. We make sure it works and reacts together.  

What positive moments lie ahead for you?

My wife Michaela was asked to write a piece for Vienna’s Ensemble Modern. They will play it at this year’s edition of the Prague Spring, so I’m really looking forward to 27 May.    

Tomáš Pálka graduated from the Brno Conservatory in composing with Pavel Zemek-Novák and from the Music and Dance Faculty of AMU in Prague with Marek Kopelent. He is a co-founder and member of the Konvergence (2002) group of musicians and composers that premieres and performs lesser-known pieces by young authors from around the globe. He is also active in music theatre, multimedia projects and radio broadcasting, seeking the connection between music and art in a broader sense. Since 2012, he has been working as a composer, musician, and therapist in the Bad Reichenhall spa resort. In his compositions, he focuses on expressing his relationship with spiritual values. He believes that, without calming down and being humble, one cannot know the true essence of being, as St Augustine wrote: “O man, you who longed to understand yourself, finally find your own face, get a glimpse of your essence, know your soul and the secret of your identity – if you were seeking with true humility and zeal, you found so much more: the face of God.”

Klára Antošová

23. June 2023