ROBBINS (1927-2011)

Founder, Nordoff-Robbins Center, USA

Published Date: 27th July 2011

Open Windows | In Conversation

ROBBINS (1927-2011)
Founder, Nordoff-Robbins Center, USA

July 27th, 2011

Music stirs feelings and transports us to significant moments. It is no wonder then that music therapy unlocks a range of emotions in children and adults. With a harmonious tapestry of trust, respect, and encouragement, children with special needs and emotional challenges, as well as older people suffering from trauma, isolation, and depression are guided by music to cope with their challenges.

Dr. Clive Robbin’s, a pioneer in the field of music therapy, talks about music therapy and its power to transform lives profoundly. I had assumed that instruments created music, but on hearing Dr. Robbin’s voice, I felt the music. The power of kindness and positivity played out with the succinctness of his words, which were drenched with humanity and dignity.

Dr.Robbins, you along with Dr. Paul Nordoff have developed and pioneered techniques in music therapy. What are the effective ingredients of music therapy that bring about positive outcomes for children in the programs?

Well, there are many factors. There is the quality of the music, and I do not mean the aesthetic quality—I mean it is quality as music itself, how enjoyable it is, how effective it is in creating its moods, how moving it is physically, and how capable it is of influencing mood and state of mind. So, broadly speaking the answer lies in the area of practical musicianship. Plus, knowing what you are doing in music, understanding harmony, understanding the effect of certain scales, the effect of intervals. It requires an intimate living in music and the ability to create it on the spot. Now, that is the type of music therapy we do. And all our students are trained to learn to improvise, but again the improvisation has composition stability. There is something about it, if it is carefully made, it is really knowingly crafted.


One associates music therapy with children. How does it help the elderly?

Yes. You know, we use the word music as the verb because music is really an activity. It is not a thing. It is not an artifact. It only exists when making it live in the human activity. So we use this word music, and the verb is “musicing.” And if you get people intently musicing, a lot of problems, a lot of negative—you could say secondary effects or accompanying effects of an illness—are lessened, and people are lifted up into a different state of awareness. And people become creative, and they are living in the now. And that is a very refreshing thing to do.

So we have that result, and you can also have very practical effects. For example, with stroke patients in which the tonal inlay and the rhythmic organization of speech, the suprasegmentals become a very powerful means of stimulating speech production. But also, harmony needs to be there, not just in the melodic lines, but also the force of harmony, the tensions of harmony.


Is one style of music more effective than another?

Well, there are many effective styles. Nowadays there are many styles of music therapy. Originally in America, the approach was for many, many decades highly behavioural. Music was seen as a behavioral science, and the art of music was very much overlooked or neglected. But partly through our work and also, through people evolving in the use of live music as a means of communication and interaction—the art of music has become more popular. There is still a strong contingence of music in the field of people who are behavioural, but it is giving way to the realization that music is such a versatile and powerful means of communication.


Out of the innumerable rewarding experiences, is there a particular one that stands out?

This is a difficult question because the amount of progress a client makes is dependent to some extent on the original condition: the background, the type of pathology. For example, recently, students were presenting the work of an autistic boy of five who discovered he could communicate in music—he had a musical nature. Although he had no speech, he was very intolerant, he was in the autistic spectrum, but something about music just captured him, stimulated him and brought him into forming speech. It completely changed the lives of the boy and his parents.

But under the more dramatic cases, one of Nordoff’s and my earlier cases was a girl of seven who could not socialize with others, who was very forceful and rejecting and controlling, but she too was very musical. And for her, we took the story of Cinderella from the Grimm collection. When she became Cinderella, she changed, she became receptive. Music can give children an emotional education, and with this effect on her, she became more balanced, more thoughtful, and ultimately we arranged to take her to another institution which had a very good speech training program so we could continue her work. This girl went through high school and now lives independently, and everything changed, from not being able to live at home, —she could not share life with her brothers and sisters—suddenly family life is possible.


You must find these remarkable advances incredibly rewarding.

Of course. It is joyous. It is thrilling.


Is it also challenging?

It can be challenging. We developed this concept called the “music child,” that inborn in each human being is this sensitivity to music. At the same time the child, who may have suffered brain injury, may have suffered some trauma early in life and is perhaps in the autistic spectrum, presents you with what is called the “conditioned child,” and that is the condition the child has grown into. From living for four, five, six, seven, however many years with a disability of not understanding life, of never being able to participate in life, being in some ways cut off or with a distorted personality.

So you have this conditioned child, and very often, especially in the case of an autistic child, the child rejects the situation, it rejects anything that is challenging, anything that is new, anything that is not their habitual life.

Once you get musicing going, new elements come in, elements of stimulation, of pleasure, of achievement, of self-awareness, and what comes in is trust. The child trusts the music and through the music, trusts itself in music. And through that learns to trust the therapist and by that time you are on a different level. You have a whole new thought process.

And though we do it with music, it is fundamentally not aimed to turn the child into a musician but to use these inherent musical sensitivities. And then you have the growth process in which the music child expands, and the conditioned child begins to break up and fade away.


Can you share a case where a conditioned child broke free?

For example, this child who had a sensory integration disorder. He was very young, he began at four. He hardly used his body and needed to be with his mother all the time. He had no confidence and no motivation. He was so unaware of his environment, for example, he would walk into a wall. But when the therapist sat down with him using his guitar, as long as he was playing, the child was gently rocking and listening, and you could see it was like a lullaby. And instead of a lullaby putting a child to sleep, it was a lullaby waking a child up very gently. And the relationship developed, and he became very active, he became very rhythmically involved with instruments, and he became interactive.

His mother was in the first six sessions, and when she saw the way things were going she said: “I want him to form his own relationship with you.” So she opted out but kept very close observation of what was going on in the sessions. And this boy developed speech, he began to play with the other children. We could put him in a group, and he played with other children; he had confidence. He played with his brother whom he had ignored for years. He liked to have stories read to him. In other words, the whole scope of his life opened up into a more normal direction or typical direction.

So it varies for child or adult, which is the point of what we call “creative music therapy.” The adaptability of music through improvisation. And yet because we record every session and analyze thoroughly, there is consistency from session to session, and growth that one fosters, they make new creative steps and leaps.


In describing your approach to music therapy, you say: “At Nordoff-Robbins, we make music with people, not for them.” Can you elaborate on this statement?

In working with a child, for example, the child comes into the music room, and there is a small drum or tambourine or a piano, and the child can hit the piano keys—something very simple that requires no skilled training to be used. And then, whatever the child does, the therapist would take up and answer, or the therapist will decide the music that triggers a response. And having got the response, the therapist would work with the response to extend and establish it, widen it.

The recorded session is studied in detail, as you need more than the impression of the session. You need the details of what the child has done, the tones he has sung, if he has the rhythm, the rhythmic capacity. And it really goes from there. We have to take in our work, we are moving into the creative. It is more than just physical and skill and rhetoric because we also have to quite seriously take the faculty of intuition that becomes something that you work with and the faculty of musical inspiration.

I will tell you a story. We have a group class that comes in for the first session of the morning, and a boy who is usually very calm and cooperative is crying bitterly. And his teacher, rather elderly, has ten children to get ready for school, and this child has come in dirty because his mother had him take the garbage out to the sidewalk to put it in the can for collection. At the same time, the school bus was coming to pick this boy up, and the boy spilled the garbage on the sidewalk. And his mother made him pick it up with his hands. So he is dirty, he is in trouble, the bus has to wait for him for a moment, and the people are impatient. He gets on the bus, and the matron will not let him sit by anyone else, as he is dirty.

So he is already crying by the time he gets to school. The teacher now has 10 of them to get ready for the first class, which is music, and she has to clean up the boy. So there is a terribly negative mood, and he is crying bitterly, and the teacher is impatient with him. Nordoff sees this from the piano and has an intuition—I can fix this with a song. So he improvises a song, very simple words,

“When you feel like crying, yes, when you feel like crying just cry, just cry.”

How did the boy respond?

It is a very slow, gentle and pentatonic melody. And the boy stops crying, and we have the class sing it, and the teacher sings it, and after 10 minutes the whole bad mood is dissipated, and we are in a good mood to start work. It is so simple, yet the intuition was there, and the melodic inspiration came in. So those are faculties we need, we depend on. We take intuition very seriously; it is a way of insight, a way of perception that we have to foster, and we encourage the development of these faculties in all our students.


You have taught in many countries. Do you find certain cultures embracing music therapy more readily than others?

Yes, of course. We began in England, and then America embraced it immediately. Gradually, as we traveled, Scandinavia also embraced it, Germany embraced it, but Germans have to have a theory, and the theory was too intellectual. So there are some differences in it, some are behavioral, some are theoretical, some are Freudian, and some are quite psychoanalytic. By and large, our work has been extremely widely accepted. It is in Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa; we have an excellent person in Buenos Aires and Argentina.

It is also being embraced by some very, very keen Korean and Japanese students. But one of the things they are faced with, particularly young women, is that they are raised to be very conforming, to only do what is expected and not to be improvisational or interventional or not to put themselves forward. Whereas, in this work you need to be interventional, you need to have courage, and you need to innovate. You sometimes need to go against what is a fondly held illusion or delusion. So this training and creativity also brings its own challenges, but by and large, we get beyond that, and we have excellent students in these countries.


What allows a culture to welcome music therapy?

There is a very broad common thread—that everyone in the world is sensitive to music, that’s for sure. I will tell you another little story here. When Nordoff and I began work, we made up a children’s game called Pif-Paf-Poltrie, and he came up with a very simple song. I thought this is so neat, this is so clean, this is so dynamic and effective. And then my English voice within me said: “It is perfect for American children but not quite right for English children.” But we used this song, and it was perfect for the English children. And when we went to Germany we had exactly the same reaction, some young German said: “This music is perfect for American and English children but not quite right for German children.”

So these cultural biases are imbibed from one’s upbringing. And they need to be ventilated, they need to be taken out and shaken out, and people need to experience how the materials will work without being judged first. But like I said before, it is extremely widely accepted, people study everywhere that I mentioned—England, Scandinavia, Germany. Now Italy and Spain are working themselves up to it.


Have you modified or adapted any of your music therapy techniques based on the cultural influences of a particular country?

Yes, I would think you would have to do it. I am thinking of teaching in Japan, and our work is interventional. It is quite challenging. We want to change things, but on the whole, I would have to say that it is something new for the Japanese, not only the therapist but for children themselves. They are not used to this kind of active intervention, so it requires a certain subtlety. It is the fact that you have a therapist of the same culture who has learned the value of intervention, but because she belongs to that culture, she has more of a natural way of mediating it.


How has the field of music therapy evolved from the days of pioneering it 50 years ago?

I have been in the field of music therapy from the very early days when the associations were being formed in different countries. How has it changed? It has become a profession. It was begun by a number of amateurs, you could say “prima donnas,” people who really had a hunch that music could do that, who wanted to use their music to contact people who needed to be reached. Of course, it was well known in the 18th and 19th centuries that music had a big influence; when a band came in and played in an asylum, for example, the changes in behaviour were noticed. But now as the field has changed, it has become a profession, it is a world profession, there is a World Federation. Every developing country has its Music Therapy Association. And the wonderful thing is that it is broadening all the time, and so is the value and quality of the music.

The idea of music therapy was born in a college, not by musicians but by psychologists. Many of them imposed their own musical tastes and predilections into their work. But now it is much broader—the literature has expanded enormously in English and other languages. A great deal is being published in the way of musical materials for therapy. And now at this moment, neurologists are becoming very interested in music and the brain. The brain is fundamentally musically programmed, and we have all these kinds of neurological effects and responses. So it goes much deeper than behaviour that we are somehow intrinsically related to music.


What were the key elements that made your partnership with Dr. Nordoff successful?

We came from different directions. Nordoff wanted to do more with his music than just compose another symphony—he had written a lot of music for 30 years as a composer. I was a special educator running into problems that affected me and grieved me deeply. I could not get past the barriers of autism or of heavy neurological damage. I was looking for a way of getting past these problems and reaching that individuality—you could say trapped in that condition—and releasing it in some way. So in fact, I was looking for what Nordoff had. And he needed someone like me to do all the practical work with the children, someone who had the knowledge of the children, and yet someone with enough of a musical background to be able to work very smoothly and closely with him.

We trusted each other. We also had the philosophy and anthroposophy behind this that every human life is of value and that the destiny of humanity is a great one. That life is very much worthwhile, and music is a very good example of the worthwhileness of life.

We also greatly influenced or supported by the work of the humanistic psychologists, people like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May. We found out what they were looking for were exactly the same things we were working with. And these psychological theories fit into our approach very beautifully and made it very straightforward to teach.


How would you like your legacy, one that has transformed and enriched lives, to be carried forward?

Livingly, in the work of people I have trained. Philosophically, in the way people will read my writings. My mission in life has been to open people to the possibilities of music and to the importance of the quality of music. And really, I do not talk a great deal about spirit, the human spirit, but it is there in everything I do. It is in my attitude toward life, people, work, growth, and hope. I think I would just like to see the work carried on as a living tradition. That will be the best legacy, that what I have done through writing or composing is there as a resource for others.


On a parting note, tell me about your spirit and twinkle.

We have to deal very often with children with very little language or comprehension. So one’s face, one’s tone of voice, one’s body movement immediately expresses your attitude, and you have to be flexible enough to do that.

Joy is very important, it is more than fun; it is more than a good time. The real joy of really touching the essence of what it is to be a human being, to exist. To have the gift of life, to have the gift of music, it is so fantastic. It is so utterly big and wonderful that it is hard to believe that we take it all for granted.

There is a colossal amount of substance, of human substance, in music. And if I want to use that word, it is the substance of the human spirit, the human soul. I am not being religious, but you have to have a reverence for life and an enthusiasm for life to do this work.



To learn more about the late Dr. Clive Robbins visit this website.