Musician Julia Usher awarded honorary doctorate

Julia Usher, Project Director at Colchester New Music, CoMA East Firewire and Arts Action East, has been recognised for her contribution to music, both locally in Colchester and regionally in the East of England, with an Honorary Doctorate from University Centre Colchester this October. Julia trained as a Nordoff Robbins music therapist, leading her to become an advisor for music therapists across East Anglia. She has worked extensively with Women in Music, is a professional composer, and alongside Welsh composer, Enid Luff, has just celebrated 30 years of publishing for their company Primavera Music UK. Here Julia discusses what being awarded the honorary doctorate means to her, and the impact of music therapy on her life. 

At the heart of my experience is improvisation, which I first learned to explore in York University and then at Nordoff Robbins. I was drawn into Nordoff Robbins training when I discovered how music, and musical improvisation, could offer worlds of communication and improved physical and emotional well-being through music therapy. I realised that this thread in my life is a thirst for life-long learning.

I came into music therapy training after some years of teaching and training student teachers. I worked in a school for children with physical disabilities in south London for three years, without any training. I found that music had an immense effect on these children, but I didn’t have any theory or expertise. I learned a great deal during those years, but I realised it was time I had music therapy training, and so applied to Nordoff Robbins.

The Nordoff Robbins training remade my whole perception of the world; how everyone, not just those with challenges, communicates, expresses their personalities, and copes with emotions and relationships. We learned all this in a musical context, and I became very interested in people’s rhythm, natural speed of movement, speech, and reactions, as well as in personal vocal development.

It was an immense and life-changing privilege to be at the Nordoff Robbins centre in the time of Sybil Beresford-Pierce as Director, and with Clive Robbins arriving to lecture, and Alan Turry coming over to teach us jazz chords. 

As a music therapist, I am very tuned in to the particular sound and character of each person I meet, or play music with. Improvisation, if led by experienced musicians and therapists, allows instant invention, responsiveness, and an equal relationship with fellow players. 

I love creating musical groups and projects which encourage people of all abilities. I facilitate and lead several groups in Colchester – Colchester New Music, CoMA East Firewire, and Arts Action East – which foster both the creation of music and explore experimental improvisation, spontaneously creating music and musical relationships with others, and discovering new sounds and structures together. I do not practice formal music therapy with clients now, but I regularly supervise music therapists working in East Anglia.

Undoubtedly, my experience at Nordoff Robbins, both as a student of music therapy, and later leading group improvisation training, is one of the most memorable and rewarding periods of my life. I am very thankful to have lived music, not as an art, but as an evolving relationship between people of all abilities; and I continue to be inspired by all that I learned. I wish all present students and graduates – and their teachers – every fulfilment.


Image credit: Colchester Institute