‘The Lost Boys’ – a music therapist’s story

Bronwyn Tosh, one of our Nordoff Robbins music therapists based in South London, wrote this story about her experience working in a school for boys with special educational needs. Thanks to the generous support from the Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation, we were able to introduce music therapy to ten new schools in Greater London.  Here, she offers an insight into how music therapy can have a huge and often unexpected impact on children and young people.

“For the past nine months, I have been working at a small school in outer London, filled with boys from various complex and / or vulnerable backgrounds. All have experienced issues within mainstream settings and either have a statement of special educational needs or an education and health care plan.

When I began working here, I mingled with boys who kept their heads down and avoided all eye contact … until they were challenged. It quickly became apparent that their hard exteriors were just a front for the vulnerable adolescents that they were, each with hopes and dreams buried deep and uncertain futures as they deal with daily realities of disaffected communities. These are children that haven’t been given a chance to find their own strength and voice, and are being influenced by their surroundings and by negative role models.

I quickly found the teachers and mentors have a heart for the vulnerable and want to see these children succeed despite their circumstances. They will try and provide them with as many opportunities as possible. It is with this attitude that the Head Teacher was very eager to have music therapy begin in their school, which the support from The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation so generously made possible. Meeting with the Head Teacher, she was quite wary as to how the students would react. The idea of therapy to this client group is often interpreted as ‘therapy means I’m weak, flawed, or crazy’. That, or their experience has been of ‘scary adults’ coming into their lives giving them a label and diagnosis that is often never explained and more often than not impacts their lives negatively. But the excitement of having music in the school overruled any concerns over therapy. With this in mind I began inviting the boys to music sessions.

As excited as the boys were at having the opportunity to discover if they could become aspiring pop stars, they quickly realised that learning an instrument could be quite hard. Others realised that this music space was theirs to listen to music, to talk about what excites them or is making them anxious, which included everything from manga cartoons to their upcoming work experience. Others tried their hand at music technology, creating their own backing tracks. And still others were keen to show off their musical abilities, drumming along to Bob Marley tunes, rapping along with their favourite grime artists, or writing their very own songs and enjoying the experience of music-making.

For the first time music could be heard permeating the corridors of the school. For the first time I had to deal with boys breaking into the music room in their desperation to spend 35 minutes with a music therapist! As these boys were beginning to find their musical identity, they identified with the fact that there was someone willing to give them a safe space in which to play and explore, a space where they could be themselves free of judgement and demands.

Teachers would often ask what I was teaching the boys and the whole term I really struggled with this question, as I felt the more applicable question was, ‘what were the boys teaching me!’.

Teachers and students would often walk past glancing curiously through the window to spot who was making that sound or playing that instrument. Students would eagerly await their sessions and sometimes even boast to their peers that it was their ‘turn’. In the end music therapy had been given a platform from which to help and a nod of approval by teachers, mentors and students:

“You’ll do, you’ll do…” was what I got from one student, accompanied with a tap on the shoulder, which may seem like a small offering, but one which carried a loud and clear message”