Q&A with Music Therapist, Luke Wilson 

One of our music therapists, Luke Wilson, delivers regular music therapy sessions at a specialist centre for people with an acquired brain injury.  We spoke to him about his experience of delivering music therapy in a neuro-rehab setting:

How does Nordoff Robbins music therapy help in neuro-rehab settings? 

Nordoff Robbins music therapy can help in a variety of different ways. Beneficiaries with severe impairments due to brain injury often struggle to communicate, but through closely focusing in on what sounds they are able to make, be it singing or through instruments, amazing things can happen. People’s sounds or playing can become more intentional, and someone who is normally withdrawn and non-communicative can become suddenly engaged and fully present, expressing themselves through music.  

Group music making opportunities can also provide the space for people to come together and engage with eachother. This can enable staff and beneficiaries to see one another differently and appreciate and support each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Sometimes music therapy can be about helping someone to cope with their circumstances, and at other times it is to explore and celebrate strengths and a sense of identity, rather than working to a pre-determined goal. Through music therapy I try to meet a person on a given day and support, challenge and develop strengths in whatever way is most useful in that moment.  

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? 

The craft of music therapy is a lifetime pursuit – trying to constantly provide original improvised music that changes key, timing and feeling based on everything a beneficiary does can be a challenge. At points I will be able to hear the music that I think would be perfect to support someone’s drumming, but it might take a few more months of practice in that style before I can actually play it! We are always at the very limits of our abilities as musicians in this job, which is both daunting and exhilarating.  

What do you enjoy the most? 

I am constantly amazed by what music can mean to people. I remember starting my role and thinking, “Oh wow, how lucky I am that I have such a musical bunch of people here!” and as time has gone on and new beneficiaries continue to have incredibly strong relationships with music, I’ve started to feel that it’s less of a fluke and more of a common human experience.  

The aspect I enjoy the most is seeing what music therapy can bring to people living with brain injuries and the staff and families who support them. From tiny moments of connection to supporting people to perform, the moments where I see music truly helping are the times when I feel both proud and privileged to do the job I do.    

Can you tell us about music and identity in Neurobehavioral rehab?

When I began working as a music therapist in neuro-rehabilitative settings, one of the things that struck me the most was that questions about beneficiaries were often phrased in the past tense. Questions like “What job did you do?” and “Where did you live?” often highlighted the loss of identity that people can experience with a brain injury. In starting music therapy with people, I would often find the question “What music did you like?” forming before I quickly correcting myself to “What music do you like?”  

Our musical preferences are not arbitrary choices, but often represent deep rooted parts of our sense of self. Living with the consequences of a brain injury can sometimes be characterised by a sense of loss – of independence, cognitive abilities, or of a parental or professional role. However, I’ve found that musical identity can remain healthy, intact and hugely personal. Being able to explore someone’s musical identity with them is one of the ways that music therapy can support people in reaffirming and reconstructing their sense of self, while living with the consequences of a brain injury.  

I am constantly astonished at the depth and variety of musical identities that I encounter in my work. From improvising gospel songs and church music with someone to singing each word of an old Irish ballad with a person who struggles to engage in meaningful conversation. Through the use of music we can explore strengths and reaffirm people’s identities.  

Music therapy can at times have a privileged position within the larger scheme of rehab – that of exploring strengths and celebrating the positive aspects of someone’s personhood. These moments can be important not only for the person themselves, but also for staff, family and other beneficiaries, to see moments where a person shows their character, identity or hidden abilities through music.  

Read more about >> music therapy and neurological disorders