Remembering Jean Eisler

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Fri, 21/7/2017

Jean Eisler: 14 April 1916 – 8 July 2017

It’s with great sadness that we report the death of Jean Eisler, at the age of 101.

Jean was a key figure in the early establishment of Nordoff Robbins and the emergent music therapy profession. She became a music therapist in 1974 when she trained on the very first Nordoff Robbins training programme in London, a six-month course based at Goldie Leigh Hospital in south London. A person of extraordinary youthful vigour, she was coming up for sixty then. At a time when most people might be thinking towards retirement, Jean embarked on a second career that was to see her working into her nineties.

She had already had a colourful life: coming from a very musical family, she was a pupil of Gustav Holst at St Paul’s Girls’ School, studied in Vienna and at the Royal College of Music and then embarked on a career as a professional violinist. She played with the Jacques Orchestra and the Ebsworth String Quartet during the 1930s and 1940s and during the war travelled around England entertaining the troops. In 1944 her life changed dramatically when she married Paul, a Czech economist, and lived for the next 25 years in Prague in political exile, scraping a living as a translator and raising her children.

Following her husband’s untimely death in 1966, Jean returned to England. In 1972, by chance, she picked up a copy of Nordoff and Robbins’ first book in a music shop. She had never heard of music therapy, but was captivated and made contact with Sybil Beresford-Peirse who, of a similar age to Jean, had developed great enthusiasm for the work of Nordoff and Robbins, and was attempting to establish a foundation for their work in the UK.

At the first meeting of those two indefatigable ladies, Jean was keen to learn what she could do to become a music therapist. Sybil, however, had different priorities and knowing that she had nobody to take minutes at her fundraising committee meeting the following day, her first question to Jean was not about her musical credentials, but rather, in typical pragmatic style, “Can you type?”

So Jean began doing voluntary work supporting the embryonic Nordoff Robbins Fundraising Committee. This led in time to her enrolment on the Nordoff Robbins training programme, organised by Sybil, and taught by Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins, the

first of only two courses taught by Paul Nordoff before his death in 1977. Jean was a member of that first generation of music therapists who acted as a bridge between Nordoff and future music therapists and kept alive his teachings. As she later said, “It was such a new vision of music, and what you could do with it… I saw what was possible, when I saw Paul and Clive’s work.”

When the training programme migrated to Roehampton in 1978, Jean became head of the music therapy department at Goldie Leigh Hospital. Many newly-qualified music therapists went to work with her to gain apprenticeship experience. Here, and at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Surrey where she established a pioneering music therapy department in 1984, Jean led many creative developments in the Nordoff Robbins approach. It was also in 1984 that Jean established a Saturday clinic at the Nordoff Robbins London Centre (by now in Kentish Town), and she became an outstanding inspiration to generations of music therapists through her role as a therapist, student supervisor and lecturer.

Pauline Etkin, music therapist and tutor at Nordoff Robbins from 1984 to 1990, became Director and then CEO of the UK Nordoff Robbins charity from 1991 to 2013 and is now President Emeritus of Nordoff Robbins International. She says:

“I remember clearly how inspirational Jean was and how overwhelmed I was by Jean’s musical giftedness, her freedom, openness, passion and commitment to the children with whom she worked.  I felt privileged to work with Jean for many years as co-therapist and in particular with Susan, a delightful girl with Rett Syndrome. Jean’s determination, creative and musical skill and sensitivity as a music therapist enabled Susan to find expression and communication – I was honoured to be part of this process.

“Additionally, one of my lasting memories will be of Jean well into her eighties being a ‘bunny’ jumping around the room with John, a young boy she worked with. What energy and what commitment to being WITH this child and enabling him to feel that he was 100% heard and accepted – to me, this was a perfect reflection of Jean’s simply wonderful personality.”

Jean remained active in supporting the charity in whatever way she could. She was on the Board of Governors for many years, and supported and advised Pauline Etkin in her role as Director and then CEO. Jean inspired fundraisers and supporters with presentations of her work with children facilitating the dissemination of the work and encouraging donations for ongoing therapy services. She was much appreciated by the Nordoff Robbins fundraisers and Board of Governors and in 2001 she was awarded the 'Woman of the Year Award' for Outstanding Contribution to Nordoff Robbins and Music Therapy.

The extraordinary youthfulness that Jean maintained into her eighties and nineties, as well as her warmth, compassion and humour, brought endless admiration from her colleagues and friends, and she continued to practise music therapy for decades beyond normal retirement age.

In her hundredth year, the European Music Therapy Confederation conferred on Jean the prestigious EMTC Award, awarded every three years to a person who has contributed in a unique and outstanding way to the development of European music therapy.

Closer to home, Jean was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Nordoff Robbins only two months ago in May at the opening of the newly refurbished London Centre - marking her contribution to the charity as a therapist and teacher and after her retirement, through her annual bursary programme (the Jean Eisler Bursary Fund) supporting trainee music therapists, for which she drew donations from influential contributors.

Jean is remembered with affection and gratitude by so many, and her spirit lives on in the work of the countless lives she changed and inspired.

We offer our condolences to her brother, Christopher, her two sons, Ivan and John, her daughters- in- law, Zuzana and Eva, her four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The family have asked that, in lieu of flowers, people make a contribution in memory of Jean, to continue her legacy of supporting music therapy. A page has been set up in her memory online here.

Thank you for so much Jean: we will miss you.

Jean's family have asked us to pass on the invitation to a service of celebration in honour of Jean at 3pm on Monday 31st July at the Horniman Museum Conservatory in London. If you are interested in attending, please email Jean's son, Ivan Eisler OBE, so that they have an idea of how many people to expect.

You can read Jean's obituary in the Guardian here