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Striking the right note

Striking the right note

Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine, was worshipped for his ability to use music as a healing power. Plato and Aristotle, as well as Hippocrates, all espoused music as a tool for treating those in need. The idea is nothing new.

For Janet Halton, executive director of Nordoff Robbins, a charity working in schools and hospitals with people with learning difficulties, autism and dementia, the basic premise behind music therapy is still the same as ever.

“I think it is a very old idea. It is not always called music therapy but music is something that is inherently human. Hundreds of years ago, people would have been using music as a healing tool – certainly during World War One and World War Two music was played to injured soldiers and in situations like that. It may have changed – it has certainly evolved over the years – but I think that music has always been a kind of integral thing in people’s lives and in culture. It has always been associated with wellbeing, so as a profession, it is not new but Nordoff Robbins are pioneers in this approach. But as a kind of tool, or an adjunct to health, it is not new.”

The charity’s roots go back to the late fifties, when Paul Nordoff, an American composer and pianist, began to collaborate with Clive Robbins, special education teacher, to develop a new form of collaborative music-making in an effort to engage isolated children. The charity moved into Scotland in 1996, branching out to work in schools, hospitals and in specialist therapy centres.

Over half of the work Nordoff Robbins does in Scotland is based within school settings, based in 26 different partnerships with schools in a range of local authorities – mainly across the central belt.

Halton says: “Music therapy is usually not based in the classroom, though it can be. It is either one-to-one or in a group setting, sometimes with other staff involved as well. But we really see it as a chance to get pupils out of the classroom and to have the opportunity to explore music very creatively and flexibly. So we are working very much on the individual needs of pupils, by using music creatively to develop communication skills, social skills and encourage them to increase their motivation and engagement. A lot of the people we work with are quite hard to reach. The children we work with have a range of special needs but probably two-thirds of them are on the autistic spectrum. So these areas around social skills and communication are really key for them, and music is a great way to engage them and motivate them to express themselves in a way that they might find difficult otherwise.”

The idea is that the benefits from communicating through music carry over into the rest of the curriculum. It is not really anything to do with teaching music – though that can sometimes be a by-product – instead it is about giving a child a way to come out of themselves.

“If a child is well equipped in areas like self-esteem and confidence then they are more likely to engage positively in the rest of their education. So music therapy does not necessarily teach them musical skills, but it can contribute to their broader learning in terms of being able to concentrate and listen and be creative and express themselves more generally.”

And although the work can be challenging, it is also hugely rewarding. Halton has seen the benefits that music therapy can bring to a child’s life first hand.

“I worked with a boy over a number of years at a special school – he was on the autistic spectrum. He started music therapy when he was quite young and I worked with him up until he was a teenager so we got to know each other quite well. Teenage years can be difficult at the best of times but for somebody who doesn’t have any verbal communication it is much more difficult. So at school he was becoming more withdrawn and more isolated. He had almost exclusively been taken out of any group situations in his class because he tended to become very agitated or sometimes aggressive to other pupils or to the staff if there were small changes to his routine. So in the classroom, he tended to sit in a corner of the room, in a cordoned-off area where he could be alone. But we worked together one-to-one for half an hour at the same time every week and despite the difficulties that he had in the classroom he would come to music therapy very willingly, he recognised me instantly and seemed motivated to come out of his space. I think in the music he could just be himself and express himself freely – he absolutely loved drumming. So we worked with that in the sessions.”

She continues: “He came to understand over time that what he was doing and what he was communicating – both intentionally and perhaps unintentionally – had an impact on me and my responses, and that was reflected in his movements and in his general way of being. Towards the end, as he was leaving school, he seemed to be much happier and calmer, both in the music therapy but also in his classroom. So I think that just giving this young man some time and space to express himself and to explore a different way of communicating, through the sound, gave him a different understanding of himself and his relationships with other people. Essentially, music therapy helped to give him some coping strategies so he was more able to deal with challenging situations in his day-to-day life, which was really important for him.”

With an ageing population, it is likely that these sorts of services will expand more in future to cope with the rise in the numbers of people with dementia and problems with memory.

“Absolutely – and that is an area that we are really keen to develop more, though we already do some work in care homes and with older people with dementia. Obviously, it is an area that is growing, with an ageing population and people living longer, and music can be just as effective with old people as with young people. With people with dementia, it is really important for them, when they might be losing independence and not being able to remember things in the short term, still to have that kind of healthy bit of themselves that they are able to tap into through music. It can tap into their sense of self and wellbeing through their musical memories and their abilities to take part in a range of musical settings, whether it is one-to-one or in a choir.

“It is a fulfilling job – sometimes it is challenging and frustrating as well but ultimately, it is wonderful when you see progress. Sometimes it is small progress and sometimes it is bigger but it is really wonderful to see.”

But with education budgets under strain, like most other areas of government, the danger is that the children who benefit from music therapy could lose out. Has the charity seen local authorities increasingly reluctant to fund this sort of work?

“It really varies from one local authority to the next about whether they have money for [it] and also wish to invest in music therapy. So there are some we work closely with, and others where there is absolutely none on offer at all. Obviously with the current financial climate, it’s been more difficult and schools have had to make some really tough choices – unfortunately, music services generally, including music therapy, have suffered generally because of that. Music therapy can be seen as a nice thing to have, as an extra, but I think for some people, particularly the sorts of clients that we are working with on a day-to-day basis – kids who can’t really express themselves in other ways, who don’t have the means to engage in other types of intervention, music therapy can really be an essential thing for them. We would like to see it more readily available across the country, whether it is Nordoff Robbins or other music therapy providers that do it.”

She adds: “I think whether it is music therapy or music more generally, that should be part and parcel of children’s education, because it is a vital part of our sense of identity – personal, social and cultural. It should be there all the time.”     

In this context, making connections with policy-makers is more important than ever. Patricia Ferguson recently worked to bring Nordoff Robbins into parliament to further awareness of its work amongst MSPs.

Unfortunately though, Halton says there was no music involved: “I don’t think we were allowed to make any noise because we were adjacent to the debating chamber!”

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