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Reflections from the World Congress of Music Therapy 2020

Simon Procter and Oksana Zharinova-Sanderson give their reflections from #WCMT2020

Every three years, the worldwide music therapy community comes together for a World Congress of Music Therapy. This event moves around: six years ago it was held in Austria, three years ago it was in Japan, and this year it is in South Africa.

Oksana Zharinova-Sanderson, Director of Music Services (Quality Assurance, Chief Practitioner & International Development), writes

The World Congress of Music 2020 – my experience

“It was wonderful to hear South African musicians framing the congress with their magnificent music”

It has been a great privilege to represent Nordoff Robbins UK at this year’s 16th World Congress of Music Therapy taking place online from South Africa.

The programme was been built around 4 “spotlight” plenary seminars focusing on themes of empowerment and access, innovation, ethics, and research. The speakers from over 60 countries presented their practical work or/and research projects. The organisers have done all possible to ensure that there were opportunities for discussion during the congress. It was also wonderful to hear South African musicians framing the congress with their magnificent music and I could not but notice the palpable feeling of wanting to join in with this irresistible music  – alas, it was not possible to make music together due to online sound restrictions.

At the closing ceremony the World Federation of Music Therapy have announced a new president and that the next world congress in 2023 will take place in Australia followed by 2026 in Italy.

What were my top four highlights of the congress?

  1. Seeing the colourful variety of different people and different practices in our profession around the world and feeling a part of a bigger whole of having faith in music as a therapeutic tool making difference in human lives. Recognising in this process a specific and important role Nordoff Robbins tradition and its development contributes to the development of music therapy profession globally.
  2. I was at the edge of my seat watching by the presentation of the German music therapist Constance Boyde who presented her work with a band of young musicians of diverse abilities in a special school/college – the video examples had the young people in the very centre of the music-making with the music therapist clearly supporting from behind – a real sense of ownership of music by the clients and a real example of how music supports the creation of ‘musical communities of practice’
  3. It was inspiring hearing Professor Gary Ansdell talk about “Care for Music’ international research project, which investigates music therapy projects at the end of life care. His challenging questions to music therapy research scene encouraging researchers not to put what happens inside the musical process into the ‘black box’ but to be inquisitive about what happens inside the box and ensure research outcomes flow out of this more detailed understanding. Without this, the relevance of our research is minimised given the intricate nature of the music-making process and it is our responsibility as music therapy researchers to seek what the process taking place in the ‘black box’ is telling us.
  4. The tribute to our dear colleague Mercédès Pavlicevic – there would have not been a world congress in South Africa without the foundations she laid by co-founding the first music therapy training programme on the African continent.

Dr Simon Procter, Director of Music Services (Education, Research and Public Affairs), writes

A Lifetime Achievement to Clive Robbins

The conference opened with the posthumous award of a “Lifetime Achievement” award to Clive Robbins, which was received by our good friend, Managing Director of the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at New York University, Dr Alan Turry. Clive actually died in 2011, but it’s a reminder of the lasting power of his work and of the enduring esteem in which the approach he co-founded continues to be held by music therapists around the world.

“With this privilege comes a responsibility to continue to articulate the radical nature of the approach”

We are very lucky to be heirs to his and Paul Nordoff’s endeavour, along with our Nordoff Robbins colleagues around the world. With this privilege comes a responsibility to continue to articulate the radical nature of the approach – hearing everything as music, responding to everyone as our fellow musicians, imagining and facilitating extended musical possibilities in every situation, and in this way advocating for the dignity, value and contribution of each of our fellow human beings.

One of the reasons for attending any kind of music therapy event is to hear work that is unfamiliar, or from other traditions than our own. I always try to hear a mixture of things that I know will inspire and encourage me, and things that are new to me, or even things that I know I will disagree with. My most memorable highlights from conferences are often things I took a chance on attending.

My highlights from The World Congress of Music 2020

“Madly Musical”

My unexpected highlight of this conference was a presentation on “Provocative Music Therapy” by Albert Berman, a Dutch music therapist who works in a psychiatric institution.

His stance is essentially to be “madly musical” – in a way being a musical clown. His thinking comes partly from the psychotherapy of Frank Farrelly, but he is also clearly truly committed to music and a skilled musician who genuinely seizes every opportunity to work musically with people.

In his work I see the “faith in music” that we regard as a core theme of our own approach. I think our approach is sometimes provocative in a similar way – both musically (because we don’t accept how things are but rather provoke new possibilities, accompanying people on the journeys they choose to take) and personally/professionally (again because we don’t accept how things are but rather provoke new possibilities, accompanying people on the journeys they choose to take).

I often tell students that to be taken seriously as a music therapist you first have to be unafraid of being seen as a musical fool. Likewise, underneath Albert’s musical clowning was evidence of utter seriousness – for me, this was a beautiful example of the way we have to be “poised in the moment” if we are to engage people in extreme situations.

The Panel on Research

The panel on research (mentioned also by Oksana above) was dramatic in the range of research being talked about. Much of it was celebrating the internationally scaled projects that are happening at the moment – RCTs aiming to “prove” the “effectiveness” of music therapy with particular population groups etc, even if this means radically altering normal practice or having to sedate clients in order to get the MRI scans needed. In the midst of this, Gary Ansdell’s gentle reminder of the need for small-scale research focusing on what actually happens when people make music together was like a drink of spring water in the heat of a desert day! I caught myself cheering in front of the laptop – it’s a habit I have to break!

With the kind permission of the congress organisers, we were able to share a stream of some of the sessions with our MMT students. Their comments afterward were really interesting. They noted the non-musical focus in most presentations, as well as being struck by the diversity of what music therapy might mean in various places across the world.

What else I took from the event

I heard some fascinating and original talks about qualitative research methods, about pioneering community-focused projects, about political stances, and about the need to decolonialise music therapy, but on the whole I too missed hearing people making music with people.

I feel very lucky that, although music therapy is tiny compared to other professions, it is nevertheless a global scene full of diversity and cultural difference. I am also privileged that my own community, the worldwide Nordoff Robbins family, is a valued part of this with a distinctive voice. We are all different, but we understand and develop our own identity best via the lens of open-hearted engagement with contrasting heritages, assumptions and approaches.

Because the conference was originally due to be held in South Africa, there was always intended to be a focus on decolonialisation and empowerment. This combined well with the way it eventually happened online, reducing the costs and enabling a wider range of people to participate remotely than would ever have been able to travel to South Africa.

A change to future events?

Although the WFMT has already announced the venues for the next two World Congresses, I wonder whether now might actually be an opportunity to re-imagine these events.

We know how limiting the online restriction has been for music therapy itself, but (apart from the odd glitch) it worked really well for the conference, enabling wider participation without the environment impact of hundreds of people flying around the world.

As music therapists we adapt to situations and settings and seize opportunities. Maybe this is another thing we can learn from our experiences of the CoVid-19 era.