Following my introduction to music therapy, I wanted a bit more detail, about what goes on in a typical session. I also wanted to figure out how people found their way to a music therapist – not literally, of course, although my embarrassingly poor sense of direction did make finding the Nordoff Robbins music therapy centre in north London somewhat challenging.
I asked Neta, our music therapy researcher in the spotlight, what sort of work music therapists did. As far as I was concerned, it was purely on a one-to-one basis… She swiftly countered my assumption: ‘Music therapy takes many forms these days. With regard to Nordoff Robbins, some clients come to the centres and have group or individual sessions with one or two music therapists. For other clients, therapists go, for example, to schools, hospitals, hospices, prisons and care homes. In these cases, they may have timetabled group or individual sessions. They may also run choirs, or have drop-in, optional sessions, or therapists may create ad-hoc music making opportunities that may last only a few minutes.’
Another common question I took the chance to ask was ‘So, how long do people actually have music therapy for?’ Neta replied, ‘While for some clients there will be a client-specific plan of a number of sessions, for others they may only meet once or twice. Some clients have had music therapy for years, and other clients have only been seen once.’
In addition to how often clients are seen, I was wondering about the actual ages of people that walk through the doors of a music therapy centre. Given the large range of activities music therapists undertake, it came as no surprise that ‘Music therapists work with a huge range of clients. At Nordoff Robbins, in particular, therapists work with clients who are ‘hard to reach’. They may, for example, have cognitive or mental health difficulties that lead to difficulties in expression or communication. This means that Nordoff Robbins therapists see clients almost of any age: from new borns to palliative care.’
On one hand, all of this information seems vague and confusing, but on the other, it just demonstrates how flexible you have to be as a music therapist. Even something as simple as a difference in age can change hugely how you work with a client. Maja, the music therapist I interviewed, said, ‘Children often need more activities than adults to move through throughout the session. In an adult session it’s not uncommon to focus on one long improvisation, or something more abstract,’ showing again the flexibility of approaches needed for this kind of work.
I was fortunate enough to observe some recorded sessions that Maja conducted in the music therapy centre, one with an older man, one with a child. The first session focused on a man with both physical and mental handicaps. At first, he showed little flexibility, appearing unwilling to engage in any kind of communication. After six months, however, he was more active, interacting with Maja in a much more visible way.
The child was engaged using a familiar song, and Maja used repetition to encourage motor movement (by tapping a drum along to the song). Over time, the child became more emotionally playful, demonstrating the ‘non-musical’ aims of music therapy, of how music can be used as a therapy in itself, rather than just being one of many parts of a different therapeutic method.
During this whole process, I realised how broad a topic music therapy is, and how it can’t really be done justice in such a short space! It’s a field of research that’s very much on the up; Neta commented that ‘even the drawbacks of music therapy’s ‘youth’ are an opportunity – there’s so much to do and to learn about, in terms of theory and methods, that it’s a very exciting field to be working in at the moment. And it seems that researchers in other fields are increasingly intrigued by what’s going on in music therapy research and are keen to collaborate with us.’ It’s something that will hopefully continue to thrive, enriching peoples’ lives in a totally unique way, and I feel very lucky to have been able to discover more about this amazing form of therapy.
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