Music therapy from woe to go to AO

Emeritus Professor Denise Grocke initiated Music Therapy as a discipline in Australia in the face of stern opposition. Now she’s been honoured with an Order of Australia.

I’m in awe at being awarded the Order of Australia (AO). I looked it up and they’re usually for brain surgeons and politicians, not people like me. I believe, at the ceremony later this year, I’ll be given a medal to wear on official occasions, but I think there’s also a lapel badge you can wear at any time.

My two older sisters and I learnt the piano, my mother was a singer, my father was a pianist and an organist. We’d joke that we didn’t have a lot of family conversation because there was always music playing. I grew up knowing all the symphonies, piano and violin concertos. I came to the University of Melbourne in 1964 to do a Bachelor of Music, and thought I would end up being a school teacher.

I grew up in a fairly staunch Methodist family, with values of being concerned for other people.

In my third year at Melbourne I read a journal article about using music with children who were deaf. I thought: “That’s ridiculous, they can’t hear.” But that idea just took my imagination. Funnily, it’s about the only area of music therapy I didn’t end up practising.

The only place I could train as a music therapist was in America. I went to Michigan State University in 1968 to do a second Bachelor of Music degree, majoring in music therapy. I completed a six-month internship at Detroit’s Northville Psychiatric Hospital, a facility for 1,500 people, the majority of whom were black Americans. That was a huge culture shock – the only songs I knew were the English folk songs from my upbringing.

I came back to Melbourne armed with all this knowledge, but few people had heard of music therapy. One of the University professors, Dr Percy Jones, put me in touch with Dr Kahans, who had been trialling psychoaesthetics at Larundel psychiatric hospital in Bundoora, using various creative arts.

I worked at Larundel for ten years. Initially, I tried practising on all of the wards and coined the term “conveyor belt music therapy”. But then I started to work more specifically with adolescents with drug and alcohol addictions. I had a strong connection with people with schizophrenia. They were often in some other world. Through music, I tried to offer something that would draw them out, just for a bit.

I initiated Australia’s first music therapy course at the University of Melbourne in 1978, again with the encouragement of Dr Percy Jones. There was quite a bit of antagonism – some argued it shouldn’t be at a university because there wasn’t much research. Now, in 2016, the music therapy team brings in millions of dollars a year in research funding.

I narrowed my focus, taught my students, got jobs for them, set up a professional association. In a funny way the derogatory comments kept me going. It was a mother-hen kind of thing. I had to keep my chicks together, protect them.

Master of Music Therapy graduate (2011) Priscilla Pek discusses how Music Therapy helps sick children through creativity to make choices, have control of their environment again and socialise with other children.

My main area of practice is Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), a form of music psychotherapy. Periodically, throughout our lives, we ask ourselves: what is my identity now? Who am I? GIM provides a way for people to determine the coherence of what their values are and how they’re living, and what, if anything, needs to change.

In 1990  I introduced a graduate diploma in music therapy at the University of Melbourne, and then, in 2006, we converted the training to a course-work Masters degree. Last year they took in 33 students, which is the largest group to date.

Some music therapists have written about working in palliative care wards, playing music as a person lies there, their family surrounding them, taking their last breaths. That’s extraordinary, spine-tingling, privileged work – the person drifts away as the music is playing.

I derive more pleasure from music now, and it’s certainly my closest friend. Since retiring in 2012 I’ve been a lot more involved in the community, playing for community choirs. For years, the only keyboard I touched was the computer keyboard, so it’s been nice to get back to that.

Other than music, my great loves are my children and grandchildren. My daughter and her husband have twin boys, my son and his wife have two girls. I’m coming up to a very significant birthday and am taking everyone to Hawaii.

When people are admitted to hospital these days they can tick a box to say they’d like to receive music therapy. I have a sense now that the field is rock-solid, whereas in the 1980s it was more a question of: “My god, will this survive?” It’s really gratifying to see how things have developed.

– As told to Paul Dalgarno