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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [2] TRANSCRIPT: Dr Simon Procter, Nordoff Robbins

AH: Hello, it’s Anita here and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Dr Simon Procter, who is Director of Music Services (Education, Research and Public Affairs) for Nordoff Robbins, the national music therapy charity. You may know Nordoff Robbins because of famous supporters like Nile Rodgers, Sting, Ricky from Kaiser Chiefs and many others. As well as fundraising events given by people like the Premier Football League and Music Industry Trust Awards. So welcome Simon and thank you very much for being here today, it’s really lovely to talk to you again.

SP: Thank you for having me.

AH: You’re really welcome. So before I go on to asking you about music therapy and Nordoff  Robbins, I’m always interested to know how people find their passion and motivation. So how did you end up doing what you do today and why is it so important to you?

SP: Well I think I grew up surrounded by music. My dad was an amateur singer and violinist – he would deny being a violinist – in choral societies and there was always music on that he was singing. And I think it’s no coincidence that I’ve turned into a music therapist and my sister’s turned into a music teacher. There was always music around, and I wanted to learn the violin, I think following on from my dad, but he said he’d never quite got the hang of playing the violin because he couldn’t see where the notes were. So he got me to learn piano first and then I learned the violin. So I had music lessons, I enjoyed playing in orchestras and later on in bands at school and things like that. I did a music degree, actually before I went university I remember I used to help run a youth camp in summer and I stumbled across a book in a second-hand bookshop in Arundel by Nordoff Robbins called ‘Therapy music for handicapped children’, which looks terribly old-fashioned now. It’s old black and white pictures from the 1960s and it’s quite off-putting in a way, but once I started reading the stories of how they were engaging these children in the making of music and really treating them as fellow musicians, I was really hooked by it. And that’s what specifically ignited my interest in music therapy. Having done a degree I was then thinking, ‘what on earth do I do after a music degree’. And I thought about music therapy and I went to an open day at the Guildhall in London, and in those days you had to be 26 to train as a music therapist. So they told me to go away lie on a beach, so I didn’t lie on a beach but I did go away. I lived in Poland for a few years and there I came across a very different kind of music therapy from what we have here. I came across a physiotherapist who’d done some training in using recorded music to help children do kind of boring and repetitive exercises over and over again. And I got quite interested in that and I started getting involved doing live music with a band, and in the end thought, ‘Mmm, maybe I could train as a music therapist’. And I came back to Britain to train and I trained at Nordoff Robbins and I’ve had at least one foot in Nordoff Robbins ever since.


AH: What a lovely story that you happened upon music therapy by just finding a book. It wasn’t that you saw anybody do it before. That’s amazing. I know definitions are a really hot potato but could you try to give listeners a simple definition of music therapy – what it is and what it involves.

SP: Um, gosh. There are competing definitions around so, AMTA, which is the American music therapy association, they have a big definition on their website which is to do with planned and strategic use of musical intervention da-da-da-da-dah. And there are other definitions around too but I suppose in the UK everyone gets very kind of cautious when you ask this because it’s regulated and so actually to be a music therapist you have to do loads of training that’s approved by the Health and Care Professions Council. Those trainings have to adhere to their standards of education and training and deliver their standards of proficiency etc etc. So in a sense that’s one kind of definition of it, but I suppose I’d go for a more kind of practical, common sense definition and I think music therapists essentially are  trained to engage other people in music-making in a whole range of ways that in some way or other are intended to make life as good as it can be or to help people realise their potential or to help people live as well as they can in difficult circumstances. I think there’s something kind of strategic and informed about it so people have some idea of why they’re doing what they’re doing and how that is relevant to the person they’re working with. There you are, that’s a really vague definition.


AH: No, I think that’s really great because that something that’s quite straightforward, that people can remember as well, so thank you for that. Nordoff Robbins obviously is quite a major charity in the music therapy sector, how does Nordoff Robbins do music therapy? Is it any different from say a private or independent music therapist?

SP: Yeah. Organisationally we tend to work so we deliver music therapy in basically three ways. So we have some centres, that’s a small part of our work, but it’s probably the best-known. Where I am now, we’re at the London centre of Nordoff Robbins which is our national headquarters but it’s also a place where people come for music therapy. Some schools bring children here, some parents bring their children, some adults self-refer. You get groups coming from Age Concern and organisations like that. And there are other smaller kind of mirrorings of this, so we have one in Croydon, we rent church hall space in Manchester, we have a small one in south Wales, we have one in Newcastle, and a new dedicated centre thanks to the Graham Wylie Foundation there, and we have centres in Glasgow and Edinburgh as well. So those are places where people can directly access our services for free. And then the bulk of our work however is done in partnership with other organisations so that’s usually us providing music therapy within the context where people already are so they don’t need to come to us. Quite a lot of schools, mostly in special education, quite a lot of care homes so largely people with dementia, neuro-rehab settings for people who’ve had strokes and head injuries, and we’re now in kind of residential care, and hospices are an increasing part of our work as well so it’s quite varied. But usually those places will bring us in so that we’re part of their service. It has a disadvantage of course there we’re only available to the people within their service but it does mean that people within their service have a really ready access to us, and they’re not paying for that personally within the service. The service will buy us in for a subsidised rate. And then finally, there’s a small area we’re doing at the moment, what we call community open access, which is somewhere between the two really where we’re working with organisations and in lieu of  them paying us anything for our service, they open up their premises to allow other people to access our services as well so that’s a win-win on both sides so people increasing their reach and we’re able to access more people.

AH: Brilliant, so it sounds similar to the model of a lot of community music organisations as well.

SP: Yeah, not dissimilar.

AH: A certain level of commissioning, a certain level of working in partnership.

SP: Yeah, we don’t do formal commissioning as such. So what we tend to do is work with individual schools for example and persuade them, mostly through their own experience of our work, that we would contribute something to their school. And what don’t do is sell a package of therapy for a particular child for example. We go in, we provide a service to the school. Thinking with the school about what would be most useful way of using the therapist’s time, and typically that would be working with some individual children, some groups, and then mainly some whole-school things or whatever. It really depends on the setting.

AH: And I guess that’s all dependent on what budget they say they have available for that work and then you work around that in terms of how much time you offer etc etc.

SP: Absolutely. So we normally do a day a week in the place, there are some places that have two or three days a week because that’s something they’ve chosen to prioritise, but we don’t work in less than a day in a place generally.


AH: Oh, right, OK, that makes sense. So, touching on community music, it seems that more musicians from both the community music sector and even sometimes freelance music tutors from the formal music education sector, are being commissioned to work with young people, particularly around wellbeing and mental health benefits that music can bring. So, they’re kind of stepping in to your territory more and more. And I have a question related to that from Alex Lupo who’s both a community musician and a music therapist from Wiltshire, England, who asked on LinkedIn: ‘I’d be interested to know what Simon thinks about the current intersection between music therapy and community music, as the idea of music therapy is becoming broader in some ways, and community music is becoming more robust in terms of its evidencing and the acknowledgement of personal, social and emotional outcomes.’ So basically asking what your thoughts are on this kind of coming together of community music and music therapy. And I know there’s also something in the sector that is actually called community music therapy.

SP: Well I think the division is something of an artificial one to be honest. If you look in other countries like Scandinavian countries for example, they’re often quite puzzled when they look at the UK and they look at very separate community music and music therapy professions and traditions. I can see why it’s in the interests of us as professionals sometimes to build those definitions and those professional walls. I’m not sure that they’re always in the best interests of the people we’re working with. And they’re certainly not in the best interests of sharing experience and insight that could benefit people in the long run.

So my view would tend to be that both community music and music therapy are essentially musicians working with people in the hope that they’re benefiting them in some way, and as Alex says, increasingly trying to evidence that benefit. I can see that they’ve grown in slightly different directions because of settings, so it used to be that music therapists would be more likely to be found in a medical setting for example, and community musicians might be found in a community-labelled environment. But I think even that’s breaking down a bit now, and I think there are different traditions of training, thinking about what skills you need to have, what language you need to talk about the work, what theories you draw on when you’re talking about and doing the work, but I think actually they’re a lot closer than people are comfortable admitting. I’ve probably upset most community musicians and music therapists by saying this.

As you say, the community music therapy thing I think arose about 15 years ago, something like that, and it arose largely from music therapists saying: ‘You know what, we’re actually doing a wider range of work than we tend to talk about, because we’re constrained in our talking about it by our professional notions of what we should and shouldn’t be doing. And actually, that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the needs of the people or the communities that we’re working with. So music therapists often do performative things, and I think one of the definitions that often is used to divide community music and music therapists is this idea that music therapy is private and doesn’t get broadcast in any way, or shared with the world, whereas actually lots of music therapists have been working with people to put on plays, or to do band performances or whatever it is, in ways that maybe they felt a bit constrained in talking about it in a music therapy environment. And I suppose another thing is, lots of community musicians are also music therapists and vice versa. So there’s a natural cross-fertilisation and recognition of the common.

I think the early music therapists, people like Nordoff Robbins, and even Mary Priestly, who’s sometimes seen as the most analytic of British music therapists, actually they’re early work was really pragmatic. Mary Priestly talks about turning up to the hospital ward with her basket of instruments and seeing what needs to be done. I mean you don’t get much more practical than that. So I think people have specialised in order to have status over the years, and I think we’re at a really interesting point now, where people are recognising how much they have in common. Some differences as well, and I wouldn’t want that kind of distinctiveness of community music or music therapy necessarily to be lost, but I do think that it’s silly to deny that we have so much in common.


AH: Absolutely, and it would be great to see more sharing of learning and sharing of advocacy which I’ll come on to later in our chat. But yeah, it seems to make sense doesn’t it. So talking about community music becoming more robust and more evidenced, and there’s a lot more pressure on music to prove its worth constantly, how does Nordoff Robbins evaluate the impact you’re making?

SP: So this is a very timely question. We’re going though all this again at the moment. Historically what we’ve done, is at each place where we’ve provided music therapy, we try to capture something of the impact within that place. So within a school for example, we’ll ask people if we can ask the children in the school who are able to tell us then we’ll try to get their feedback about what’s going on, but we’ll also talk to staff and we’ll talk to parents, and we’ll talk to the management at the school. It’s not just about the impact on, you know, seizures or anything like that.

That’s important, so the individual level impact is important, but also the kind of institutional level impact. So what difference does it make that music therapy is going on on a Tuesday? What difference does it make to class 3 that they have a music therapist coming in for half-an-hour on a Thursday morning, those kinds of things are important. Unfortunately, that’s quite complicated, and if you also add to that that we work in many different kinds of places, so a school is a very different environment from a dementia care home or from a neuro-rehab setting or from a hospice, and so we have to really tailor that to each place. But what we have got is a set of key questions that we use between the various partner organisations, that we can then aggregate that data and come up with some numbers, that we can make some justifiable claims to when we’re doing fundraising.

AH: Ah right, because what I was going to say was, it sounds like anecdotal evidence which all of us know is the most powerful really. So obviously you’ve got a set of questions that are relevant to all you different settings and ways of working. Do you use anything statistical that would be recognised by NHS or other commissioners? I’m thinking particularly about for young people there’s a questionnaire called ‘The strengths and difficulties questionnaire, used commonly with mental health settings. There’s also the Warwick Edinburgh mental wellbeing scale. All those kinds of tools. Do you use any of those tools or anything similar that give more quantitative or even comparable results?

SP: We’re in specific settings but we can’t apply those across the board because our range of clients are so great. So we can’t do it across everyone we provide music therapy to, but we will do it within specific settings or if it’s within an NHS Trust we can do it within settings within that trust for example. But we can’t roll it out to everyone we work with. And that means that you can use a measure that’s more suited to a particular setting. And also, we know when we go in, and I’m particularly thinking about neuro-rehab settings for example, they’re often very, very focussed on functional improvements so we would tend to use a scale which they already use. So whatever’s acceptable there. Often they’ve had their own conversations, they have their own teams there, and they speak the language music therapist slightly struggle with these scales sometimes. So we kind of join their conversation about it.

AH: Yeah, it definitely is tricky, and it definitely needs a conversation around the data because often the data doesn’t come back with a straightforward ‘Yes, this works’.

SP: Absolutely, and of course we’re almost always working in situations where people are having multiple inputs. So particularly in medical settings, it’s all very well to do a before, middle and after, but actually people are going through their rehab process at the same time. I can’t honestly claim that any improvement is down to music therapy, uniquely, so you have to be thoughtful about how you couch the claims. I think often it’s about the contribution we make to the multi-disciplinary team, rather than saying, ‘Music therapy is the most amazing thing ever for rehabilitation’.


AH: Yes, we have to be so careful about what we claim for music, don’t we. I think we have that conversation continually in the music education sector and the community music sector. It’s a tricky one, and I don’t think we’ll answer it in this conversation, but thank you for that. And moving on from evaluation, you mentioned to me that you’re particularly focussed on the craft of musical work with people and how this doesn’t get thought about or taught because of all the desperation at the moment for us to prove our effectiveness, grow our reach etc etc. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

SP: Yeah, there’s such a focus, for perfectly understandable reasons, because people need to prove that what they do is effective and that they’re worth paying for of course. And therefore we focus very much on saying we have this kind of impact, we can make this kind of claim, we’re value for money etc. And sometimes I think we miss out the first step, which is, this is what we can do, this is how we can work with people, this is what we offer. Nordoff Robbins is unusual as a provider of music therapy services in that we also do train music therapists, and that’s why my work has to do with the overseeing of the training and education side. So we have a Masters training programme, which is one of those I mentioned earlier, approved by the HCPC [Health Care and Professions Council – ] for training musicians to be music therapists, and we have a PhD programme as well which is intended to help practitioners, not just music therapists, but anyone working musically with people to kind of think in a bit more critical way, and a systemic way about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And especially in the Masters course, we’re taking people in who are good musicians. They’re skilled, they’ve done different kinds of training. It used to be very classical, but it’s not at all anymore, but we’re bringing them in and spending two years getting them to really focus on thinking about what they’re doing and learning practical skills for doing it.

And it’s those practical skills and their interface with theory that I think sometimes gets neglected. So people talk very, very readily, but it doesn’t mean they quite know what to do when they’re in a room with someone. And that’s true of all musical work, I’m not just talking about music therapy, but it’s all well saying music’s amazing and when we make music with people amazing things happen, but how do you know what to do next, how do you know if someone’s singing, how do you know whether to double the line they’re singing in your accompaniment, or how do you know where to sing with them, how do you know whether to stop playing altogether and just listen to them? How are those decisions being made and how do you know that your intentions translate into clients experiences of what’s going on? So that’s what I mean by craft. Craft, I would say, also is shared, so that it’s not just the expert therapist, or musician and the naive client. It’s absolutely that the client brings craft as well. So you can look at an improvisation going on between a community musician and a music therapist and someone they’re working with, and actually some of the, there’s kind of, how can I put it, they’re kind of the sassy things people do to make the improvisation work. Some of them work, some come from the so-called ‘trained professional’, and some of them come from the person they’re working with. And in a sense that’s really important because that’s how we draw out people’s innate resourcefulness and creativity, musicality and wellness ultimately. And I think the drawing out of that is at the core of what we all do. But the thinking about how we do that tends to get a bit lost in all the need to demonstrate effectiveness.


AH: That’s fantastic and so interesting, and we could probably spend the whole rest of our interview talking about that. Because that’s covered so many things that I want to pick up on. But that’s another area that’s so common across music therapy and community music is that empowerment of the individual. And it’s the same as in good education is about drawing out and not pushing in and not having specialists imposing the creativity, I guess as community musicians and music therapist are facilitators first aren’t they? Yeah, that’s really fascinating and that’s why it would be so great to see more conversations between community musicians and music therapists to drill down into that craft that you were talking about. OK, so moving on, I talked to Dr Anita Collins the Australian music researcher and educator last month about the need to be more intelligent about the way we use the information that we have to advocate for music and music education, and just thinking about what we’ve been talking about maybe there’s a necessity for us to talk in more depth about the work so that our funders and audiences understand a little bit more about that. But I sort of wondered if there was a similar debate in music therapy about being more intelligent about the way we communicate and advocate for music. Are there any fundamental criteria that need to be in place for music therapy to have an impact that you feel that we really need to be focussing on?

SP: Well I think we’re quite lucky in music therapy in some ways because there is a range, internationally of music therapy research going on so there are some real powerhouses of quantitative RCT-type (Randomised Control Testing) work. So there’s GAMUT which is the Grieg Academy of Music in Bergen and they have a research unit dedicated to music therapy there and they are led by people like Christian Gold, and they churn out Cochrane reviews and RCT reviews and they do a real service for music therapy the world over publishing their stuff which is very useful as evidence. So particularly in medical settings, to go in with a Cochrane review and RCTs looks very convincing. However, if you dig down into what those reviews are looking at it might be that music therapy looks very different to local practice. And so my experience is that not every setting needs the same kind of evidence or the same level of evidence.

A long time ago here at Nordoff Robbins we made a publication about: ‘How high do you need to jump?’ in terms of evidence. So if you’re going to a local services manager in a community mental health system they’re probably not that worried about academic evidence about the effectiveness. They’re more concerned whether people will actually turn up to this, and whether they will sustain their engagement with it. So there are different kinds of evidence for different situations.

And the other side of it is that the RCT stuff is necessarily quite individualistic. It tends to focus on improvements or lack of improvements in individual people in relation to specified symptoms for example. And that’s why we’ve got quite, quite solid pieces of evidence now around music therapy for people with autism, or people with schizophrenia and things like that, or depression.

What I think a lot of the people who want to use music therapy in their services are interested in, is not just music therapy as a kind of medical, clinical intervention, they’re more interested in what we call the ‘ripple effects’ of music therapy. So you may spend a day working in a school with five individual children or a couple of groups or something, and it’s kind of the ‘ripple effect’ beyond the session that people are often quite excited about. So for example, there’s quite a well known video on our website, it’s been on social media a lot, of a young girl in a school in Yorkshire making music with her music therapist, and they’re both sort of sat at the keyboard. And this girl is really directing the music therapist, really taking charge, and for her that’s unquestionably a really positive experience because she’s someone who doesn’t get to take control of other people very much at all because of her situation in life. However, the benefits go beyond her, because the benefits are for the staff of the school, who get to see her in a very different context, so this is not a child who simply needs care and lots of physical attention. This is a child who can be creative and imaginative and surprising. It’s important for her parents as well to be able to see that their child is really thriving given the right conditions. So it’s that kind of rippling out, and hopefully it changes the way staff work with that child.

This has been part of the articulation of community music therapy – the recognition that music therapy doesn’t stay in its private box down the end of the corridor, preferably in a soundproofed room. But actually there are real benefits to the fact that music leaks out, it goes through walls. And of course music is also to do with people’s sense of identity and community. I know that having worked a lot in a community mental health environment, that people take the music and do something with it for themselves. So people start conversations around the music they love. People start making compilation CD’s for each other and things like that. So we need to be careful, I think, not to fall too deeply into the music therapy as an individual intervention hole, because the reality is even if we talk about it in that way, that’s not what actually happens. I think I’ve gone some way from your question now.


AH: No, no it’s really important and really interesting, and I’d kind of like to ask you more about your training – although we hadn’t intended to – but I suppose it’s just asking for a reasonably quick answer to what could be a complex question. In your training, do you split up the training into areas of need or challenge, so you mentioned autism, would you have a strand of training that says this is what works for someone on the autistic spectrum, and this is what you would do in that moment with that person?

SP: I know what you mean. It’s a really good question. I suppose there are two answers to it. The first is, because it’s regulated by the HCPC they have a list of things that all the approved courses must contain. And specific teaching around things like autism is on that list. So yes, there are seminars which are specifically about music therapy for people with autism. And within those we would get music therapists to share their experiences of working with people with autism. Hopefully we’d be able to show some recordings of music therapy with autism. There’s a lot of kind of classic, historical work of people with autism as well, and we’d also bring in perspectives of people with autism on music therapy so there’s various people with autism who’ve written and spoken about their experiences with music therapy, and those are very useful too. However, it’s not: ‘OK, so you’ve got a person with autism in front of you, and this is what you do’. I would say that the course as a whole is an attitude towards working musically with people so, How do you make music with another person? And how might that be useful or not for them? What is it about being human that makes us need musical companionship from another person? And we all do. Someone with autism is no less a complex, all-round person than anyone else. It’s simply that when you work with someone who autism you need to have some awareness of what their particular challenges might be, what their particular difficulties might be in terms of participating in music making but also taking the, sort of grasping the potential offerings of music. So why might it be more difficult to join in a group improvisation for someone who’s autistic? Why might it be more difficult for someone to write a song with you? But equally, why might it be really useful for someone to do that? So those are questions you’d ask in terms of everyone you ever work with, including people who don’t come with ready-made labels. So it’s kind of their awareness, and their sensitivities, and their knowledge in relation to their conditions, but also teaching them that this extraordinary thing of making music with someone is a huge privilege and you have to work with each person as they come.

AH: And that absolutely breaks down those silos between any type of music work with people doesn’t it, what you’ve just said, because if you’re a music educator, if you’re a community musician, if you’re a music therapist, wouldn’t that be what you’d be curious about, and want to learn about?

SP: I’m sure, I’m sure. Can I just say that the other thing that people often assume in music therapy training is that you learn to do music and you learn to do therapy, but that’s another thing that we try not to separate out, certainly for us. If you’re thinking about autism, and what it is to be autistic, then why would you not think about it musically because we’re going to working with people musically. So I think, yes of course you need to know the stuff in the textbooks about it, and you need to learn from the lived experience of people with autism, but you also need to think: ‘How does this impact on making music with people?’. We don’t learn about therapy, and then learn about music, and then send people out to try and put them together. We think the therapy is in the making of music, you know the kind of transformational experiences that people have happen when they’re musicing together. Whether that’s improvising or writing songs together or planning a musical event together. That’s where the therapy lies.


AH: That’s really interesting. That’s kind of busted a few myths in a few short sentences. So I have some more questions from listeners via LinkedIn. The first two are from Simon Glennister of Noise Solution, they’re a social enterprise in Bury St Edmunds, England, and they deliver one-to-one music mentoring programmes with people facing challenging circumstances. So they’re kind of a, they don’t describe themselves as a community music organisation, but I kind of think they are, and they are working very definitely in the sector where music therapists are traditionally working, and he asks: ‘How do we better bridge mentoring and therapy communications and encourage cross-referral and retain quality, so that’s his first question.

SP: Well, I think it’s important that we do. I think, certainly for us at Nordoff Robbins, we’re always trying to link people up. We can’t work with people unendingly. We know that for a lot of the people we work with, and I’m thinking particularly about my own work in mental health services, people often tell me that, you know: ‘I loved music as a teenager. I learned to play the guitar but when I got ill I stopped all of that. And not only did I stop it, but I lost contact with all the people who I used to do it with’. So people have kind of lost contact with music as part of becoming mentally ill and part of what we can do is reignite that recognition that music has something to offer me. And that I can get something out of making music or listening to music or singing songs or being in a band or joining a choir, whatever it is. And therefore part of our responsibility, and it’s a very formal one in patient services because you have to do discharge planning.

The other responsibility outside of that I think is to help people think about how they can sustain this so they rediscover music. And it’s fine if they’re coming to you to do the music or you’re facilitating something on their ward, but then what after that? So very often we know, in mental health services, people get discharged and they suddenly lack the support, they lack the motivation to keep taking the medication. They stop taking the medication, they become socially isolated and they get readmitted to hospital. So part of what we can do is to help people sustain their musical being and it has to be done in a way that makes sense to them. So for everyone it’ll be something different. For some people it might be going on a course that teaches you how to be a DJ for example? For other people, it might be joining a choir or learning to play the guitar. I can think of one person where it was actually being encouraged to teach guitar to other people for example. So he was a guitarist, quite an able guitarist, but lacked the conviction that he would have anything to offer anyone else, and it was highly motivating for him, but he was supported in teaching guitar through a community project by other people who also themselves benefit from that.

So I think we’re always on the lookout for what we call ‘musical pathways’. So doctors talk about ‘clinical pathways’ in and out of services, but we need musical pathways for people to go down when they’re not in music therapy and when they’re not in a high-input, intense provision situation like a hospital ward. So yeah, I think people are up to lots of things. And at the moment we’re actually trying to keep building, and it’s always a real challenge to keep doing this, but trying to build a directory of things that we can refer people on to because as I say we can’t work with people forever. And the more sustainable, community-based things there are for people out there, the better.

AH: That’s really useful. So I guess the kind of take-away from that is that if you’re a community music organisation try to look out for those music therapists or music therapy organisations in your local area and make sure that they’re aware that you’re around because they could potentially refer. And the same with music education organisations, and I guess one obvious contact point is through a music education hub [in England], and the takeaway from a music education hub is, you know you might not think that music therapists are working in the same sector as you, but they could create some links for the benefit of those young people that you’re working with and that music therapists are working with.

SP: Yes, absolutely, music hubs are great for that. And also if people are aware of local BAMT groups, so BAMT is the music therapy association in the UK, they can put people in touch with music therapists doing things in their area and likewise, Nordoff Robbins, our heads of regions are always really happy to find out what’s going on locally if they’re not aware already.


AH: That’s really useful, thanks for that. Simon’s second question is: ‘How do we encourage  the take-up of music technology in music therapy settings? There still appears to be a heavy focus on western classical players progressing in to therapeutic roles.’

SP: Oh. That’s interesting. I think we actually have a piece of work going on at the moment about the use of technology in music therapy. Some of our therapists are very adept in the use of music technology, some aren’t. It seems to me that music technology can be extremely useful in many situations, so I’ve already mentioned people in neuro-rehab situations who often find themselves kind of paralysed in particular ways. So depending on the nature of the brain injury they may not be able to speak, they may not be able to use one side of their body, they might be more globally affected than that. But things like adaptive technology, iPad apps, various kind of stuff that’s moving quite quickly at the moment, can be extremely useful in helping people to overcome physical barriers to participation.

The other way which I found technology to be very useful, as I’ve said before, is often out ability to engage people and to sustain that engagement which is what we’re really valued for. And I think for some groups of people technology can be really useful. I’m going to sound really old now, but I remember about 15-20 years ago when ‘Fruity Loops’ was a new thing. I remember buying computer magazines to get the discs for Fruity Loops and we’d use them at the community mental health centre to engage people who otherwise would say: ‘Ah, I’m not going to do therapy’. But if it was organised, collaborative work using computers to make music and in a way that doesn’t need any knowledge of music notation or anything like that, actually that was highly engaging. And I would say that the process was just as challenging and as aesthetically rewarding as any improvisation using drums and clarinet or whatever. So that taught me from very early on that technology is extremely useful for engaging people in that way.

The only caveat I’d have about technology is that somehow, as a musician, I know that at the heart of what I do is the extraordinary meeting of one person with another in music. So rather than just jamming along, when you have those moments of extreme kind of intimacy in music therapy I really don’t want anything to get in the way, and very often those are done vocally or just working with people’s breathing or something like that. So there’s a real place in music therapy for the very simple, and very personal, and the very kind of relational, and I am nervous slightly of technology getting in the way of that. But in almost every other way it has a huge amount to offer.


AH: Ah right. That’s really interesting. I’d love to get you and Simon both on the podcast and perhaps someone from The Music Works who use technology really effectively with young people and particularly mentoring young people. Maybe we should do that as another podcast in a little while. So I know we’re running short of time, and I’ve got a couple of questions from another person on LinkedIn who is Scott Monks, the chief executive at Rocksteady Music School. He’s posted a couple of questions, so I’m going to ask them both and ask you to choose one of them. The first question is: ‘Your Nordoff Robbins research work has contributed a lot to the greater understanding we have about the positive impact that music can have on wellbeing. What research projects are you currently working on, and what theories are they aiming to prove or disprove?’, and then the second question is: ‘We see first hand the transformation impact that music can have on children in challenging circumstances. This really brings alive the importance of making sure that no child should be left behind. What individual impact stories can you share with us?’.

SP: So the second question, there are lots of case studies on the Nordoff Robbins website and on other websites, and I think they can probably say more with the reality of it than I can in words. In terms of research projects we’re doing here at the moment, the big one we’re engaged with which is heading towards completion at the moment is an ethnographic study of how music therapy contributes to life in schools. So rather than measuring the impact of anything, we’re sending researchers in to spend a day in a school when there’s a music therapist there, and they visit repeatedly they don’t just go once. And the idea is to not assess the work as such but to observe the interactions that go in in music therapy but also around music therapy and how people respond. Not necessarily people in sessions but people around the children who go to sessions, how they respond to the presence of music therapy and how it impacts on the days of the other people in the schools. So Nordoff Robbins’ approach to music therapy is a very holistic one.

We call it ‘music-centred’ or sometimes ‘person-centred with a music focus’ but there’s a real concern for what’s actually happening, not slapping theory on to it and fantasising about what’s happening, but really attending to what’s happening here and now. And our research tradition is very like that. So people like Gary Ansdell, Mercedes Pavlicevic particularly, those are the two big names in this country who’ve already contributed to this. And further afield people like Ken Aigen and Colin Lee I think, have really contributed to this idea that, in research, yes OK we do need to do something of responding to the demand for evidence etc., but really, at the heart of things, there needs to be what they call a ‘gentle empiricism’. So the idea comes from Goethe really, no don’t mess with the things you want to learn about, just go and observe and learn and feel and be part of it. And in terms of contemporary research that links up very much with ethnography and the kind of practices that are common within social anthropology and sociology. So actually my own background academically is in the sociology of music. Both I and the head of research here bring a kind of convincedness about the importance of attending to little things that are going on around. The other project I’d mention is Owen Coggins who’s one of our researchers here, a very established researcher in metal music. He’s doing a very interesting project on the interactions between metal and music therapy, which a lot of people are surprised by because they assume that music therapy would be all terribly tuneful and lovely, which it often isn’t. So he’s thinking about how therapists and clients are influenced by metal and what aspects of metal are observable in music therapy. I think it’s quite an exciting project.

AH: Those both sound really fascinating, and equally fascinating in different ways, and that ethnographic approach to research is so refreshing because we don’t get to do that in music education or community music. That whole thing about unintended outcomes and just looking at what’s happening. Would that be published on your website?

SP: It will be. I hope we’ll have peer reviewed journal articles  coming out of it, but we’ll certainly put links on the website to those things.


AH: We’ll keep a look out for that. So finally, can you give us three practical pieces of advice for people wanting to learn more from music therapy and form closer advocacy links with the sector? How do we basically avoid working in silos? We’ve covered a lot of this already to be honest, but how do you work on the power of collective advocacy and learning?

SP: OK, again I’m going to sound really old-fashioned. I think there’s value in reading stuff. There’s a great website called ‘Voices’ [] from Norway, and it’s a geniunely international journal around music therapy but it prioritises issues around social justice and in my experience it’s the most geniunely open in its view about what music therapy is of any journal. And it’s totally free to access and they welcome contributions from people in all sorts of situations doing all sorts of musical work with people and I think it’s a real beacon. So I find it very exciting reading that, and it opens my eyes to some of the cross-fertilisation that’s already going on in different parts of the world. So I’d really recommend Voices.

In terms of books, I’d recommend ‘Music for Life’ by Gary Ansdell, it’s about 20 years old now but it’s lovely stories of various people’s work with audio recordings which you can download from the internet to go with it as well. And then that book ‘Community Music Therapy’, which we mentioned the idea of community music therapy was kind of distilled into a book of chapters by various people and edited by Gary Ansdell and Mercedes Pavlicevic. So reading is one.

I’d encourage any musician working with people, whether they call it community music or music and health work or whatever, I’d really encourage them to go and talk to music therapists, meet music therapist, get in touch with the local BAMT association. Most music therapists record their work and if they have the relevant consent from the people they work with then they can usually share some of those recordings and really explain the work they’re doing. I think you get much more out of seeing work, hearing about it, than just from hearing someone talking about it. And I think, from my experience, as I said at the beginning, about all these rock stars who get involved with Nordoff Robbins, the reason they get involved is because when they see the work happening in front of them they get it, because it’s musicianly work. And sometimes all the dressing up of things in complicated jargon and theory from other disciplines gets in the way. And I would recommend any musician to go and see music therapy if they can, or talk to music therapists at least.

I suppose the third thing would be, there are lots of opportunities. Nordoff Robbins runs some and other organisations to, to go on a little introductory course about music therapy. We certainly run them in London and in Wales and in Manchester and in Newcastle, and in Scotland as well. They’re six week courses where it’s just one evening a week where people will do some improvising and they’ll get to see music therapists present recordings of their work, and talk them through it, and think about how music therapists are relevant to different client groups. Some people do those as a kind of way of deciding whether they want to train as a music therapist, but they’re really there for anyone who wants to get some kind of understanding of music therapy which goes beyond what you could read in a book. So you can find out details of those on the Nordoff Robbins website. Most of the other trainings in the UK also offer some kind of short courses like that.


AH: I didn’t realise that, that’s absolutely brilliant. That’s really, really helpful advice. We have to finish here unfortunately. I could talk to you all day, it’s been absolutely fascinating, a real, real pleasure to talk to you Simon, so thank you so much for coming on the show.

SP: Thank you very much.

AH: If you as a listener want to read more about Nordoff Robbins and Simon’s blogs about music therapy I’ll share the link to those in the show notes and also all the various tips and links that Simon’s mentioned through the show, they’ll be in the show notes. Thank you ever so much for listening and have a really great week.

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