As someone who eat, sleeps, and breathes music, I am well aware that it has the ability to bring you back to life when you most need it. As music journalists, we turn to our favourite albums or attend concerts during which we are able to lose ourselves in the confines of the venue. Musicians write a song or even an album, and continue to perform the tracks for years as a cathartic outlet for their woes. What I hadn’t really ever considered, though, is all of the other ways music can be used to help people. Not just in a way that lifts your mood, but in a physical way, too.
This week marks the country’s second annual Music Therapy Week, and throughout the country there are events, workshops, and career days going on that are all raising awareness of the incredible things that music therapy can achieve. This year’s theme is Finding Your Voice – a theme that is meant both figuratively and literally, as music therapy can be used to help those who have physically lost their voice, particularly when this loss occurred because of neurological conditions such as aphasia, Parkinson’s disease or dementia.
There are currently only 73 registered music therapists in New Zealand, but with the help of dedicated annual weeks such as this, which focus on raising the awareness of its effectiveness across a huge range of areas, that number will hopefully grow in the same way that it has in places such as the United States and the UK, where there are multiple music therapy courses across the country.
At present, there is just one course in New Zealand that students can complete through New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University in Wellington. The course is a 2-year Master’s degree which combines practical and theoretical learning, and while they do accept graduates of most Bachelor degrees, a background in music and/or psychology is preferred.
Music therapist Olly Lowery, who has now been working at Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre in Grey Lynn for 2 years, decided that music therapy was the path for him after volunteering at the centre once a week while completing his Bachelor of Music. As part of Music Therapy Week, he recently worked with a small group of students at the centre in order to show them what embarking on a career in music therapy might be like. According to Olly, being a musical genius isn’t essential, instead it’s all about being able to adapt and being able to read your client – taking every interaction as a method of communication as opposed to viewing it as that person challenging you.
“It’s about being flexible and adaptable, um and also being musically sensitive, so noticing small changes and being able to adapt your changes, your music to suit that of the person you’re working with.”
The activities that the students took part in during the day reflected this, as the general aim was for them to learn that instruments may be used by clients in a different way than we might expect, and that as a music therapist, you must be receptive to this rather than being rigid in your approach. For example, a guitar might be picked up and used as a percussion instrument as opposed to one that you strum to make a melody as you would normally expect, and it must be acknowledged that this is a perfectly valid way for the clients to communicate with the therapist. Regardless of its intended use, instruments can be used in a multitude of ways to create a song, and so regardless of the route taken to get there, the end result is essentially the same.
“One of the most important things about music therapy is creating a strong client/therapist relationship and building that trust between ourselves and the people we’re working with. And then from there we can work towards the goals that are important for them.”
In terms of what music therapy covers, while it might simply sound like your regular kind of therapy with a bit of singing thrown in, it delves so much deeper than that, and focuses on issues that you wouldn’t ever find being addressed in your run-of-the-mill therapy session. The work done at Raukatauri primarily focuses on children with special needs such as cerebral palsy, autism, developmental delays, and speech delays, but they do work with people of all ages who find themselves with similar developmental and physical needs, as well as providing emotional support for those recovering from strokes, and those with dementia. There truly seems to be no limit to who music therapy can provide help for, and my heart felt warm as I discovered more about this side of music as a way of making a difference in people’s lives.
This line of work is not to be romanticised, though, and just like any counsellor, music therapists face frequent challenges, and they deserve recognition for the work they do in this profession. It can be frustrating, and you definitely have to be patient, but as Olly said, the rewards outweigh that frustration. It seems that as long as this line of work is something you are truly passionate about, it will most certainly pay off.
“It’s not easy, I mean, it’s all worth it for those little moment where you really connect with someone.”