Millicent McIvor

Kathryn Stevenson


Millicent McIvorIt is a great pleasure to interview Millicent McIvor. She is an amazing woman who has given so much for the society's members, to both individuals and to the whole body. I believe Millicent has made a very valuable contribution to the society and to Music Therapy in New Zealand.

Millicent has served on both local and national NZSMT committees for over 20 years. She was one of the early pioneering music therapy accreditation graduates. Millicent has made a very nice contribution to cultural aspects encountered in NZ music therapy (as noted in a previous report by Morva Croxson in Voices).

New Zealand music therapists have often endeavoured to break the mould and develop their own eclectic and personalized approach to their work and Millicent is a fine example of this. She not only completed her music therapy training at age 58, but went on and also finished the Bonny method of Guided imagery and Music, as well as a diploma in Psychotherapy.

Waiheke Island

Kathryn Stevenson: So you are a retired music therapist on Waiheke. Do you still think of yourself as a music therapist?

Millicent McIvor: Sometimes. I have worked on Waiheke as a music therapist but not for the last 3 or 4 years.

Kathryn: How is it for you on Waiheke Island? [Note: Waiheke is half an hour ferry ride from Auckland City, in the North Island of New Zealand.]

Millicent: The trouble on Waiheke Island is that the people here don't need therapy, they just go for a walk on the beach or through the bush. Additionally there are a number of therapists in alternative health, so I found that it was quite difficult to get work when I first came. I didn't want a full practice but I did think I'd be able to have some clients. As it turned out I had only one music therapy client for 3 years. She was a blind autistic young woman who attended twice weekly.

Kathryn: I've heard people say it's all the alternative people living on Waiheke. Is that the case?

Millicent: Not really, there is a big variety of population now. It used to be that hippies, artists and crafts people came - there's still that stream but they're not the majority.

Kathryn: What do you think has influenced the lack of individual clients?

Millicent: I think the times have changed and that people come to therapy for different reasons and probably want something more practical, like the 12 step program, or as Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) requires, 10 sessions, known as brief therapy in the psychotherapy world. Something they can take and do I think is more the spirit of the age now. Then too I was surprised when the workshops I took using GIM did not lead to individual client work. Instead they were regarded as complete in themselves, even the 6 week series. It is different here on Waiheke I think.

Kathryn: What type of work did you do with your individual client?

Millicent: I couldn't do verbal therapy, as I would in GIM, because of her limitations in conversational skills but she was very good at picking up the words and tunes of songs very quickly. We did some quite interesting and successful work together until she was taken away from the disability centre. As that was where I'd been given the referral I could no longer work with her.

Becoming a Music Therapist

Kathryn: How did you decide to be a music therapist?

Millicent: I have told this story before. It was quite an interesting experience. I got a job as a part time teacher. I was actually trained as a secondary school teacher, but I'd got interested in working with intellectually handicapped children (as they were called then). I got this job with a work experience class just for one term while the teacher was seconded somewhere else. As he was leaving, he said to me "you could do music therapy with them." I'd never heard of music therapy - I thought, Oh yeah, I'll just take them into the music room and see what happens ... you can imagine what did happen, absolute chaos. I realised then that I needed to learn a bit more about what music therapy is. After that I kept seeing the words music therapy and hearing people talk about it...

Kathryn:'s a bit like learning a new word isn't it, you suddenly notice it in the papers and you notice it when you hear it...

Millicent: ...absolutely, and then I discovered that my niece was working with disabled children and using music, and she knew about music therapy. Later still I met Mary Edwards, who invited me to view her work using music therapy techniques at the then Wilson Home for Crippled Children. I went along and saw what she was doing. She was very kind to me and told me there was a New Zealand Society for Music Therapy (NZSMT). So that's how I got into it.

Kathryn: What did you do then?

Millicent: I applied to become a candidate for the New Zealand accreditation program and was turned down initially because I didn't have any practical experience. That was good advice. I went to observe and assist others at a centre for children with disabilities. I reapplied and was accepted, after which I worked voluntarily at a special education school.

Kathryn: What main influences did you have during your training?

Millicent: The main influences were the visiting music therapists who came over to give us block courses from a number of countries; USA, Denmark, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and Australia. Denise Erdomnez (now Grocke) came several times, as did Clive and Carol Robbins. These, together with Maggie Pickett had probably the most influence on my work, especially in improvisation. Later I also became interested in GIM and in psychotherapy. These modalities broadened my understanding of music therapy, I feel they're both very much a part of music therapy, a view not shared by everybody, but for me that became my real interest and passion. This training resulted from a project I was invited to undertake to work with intellectually handicapped people who'd been put into an institution with patients with psychiatric disorders, as they used to do. They were in Kingseat Mental Hospital. I was meant to work with these people to prepare them for living in the community. It was a one year project. However they were pushed out so quickly (without adequate training I felt, or adequate money for rehabilitation) that for the remainder of the project year, I drifted into working with the psychiatric clients, both acute and long term. After I was left alone with a patient who suddenly grabbed my hair and tired to pull it out, I decided then that I didn't know enough to do this work, at which time I learned of the psychotherapy diploma, so I decided to do that.

Kathryn: Did you notice a difference after this training, working with psychiatric clients?

Millicent: Oh yes, because then I knew what I was doing and I had also completed the GIM training. I thought the guided imagery and music was particularly well suited to use in conjunction with psychotherapy, although improvisation works equally well.

Kathryn: You realised you needed that additional training. Do you think some people from other professions think oh yes I can use music, I know what to do with the music, and yet they don't.

Millicent: That's true, some of them really don't know what they're doing and can get into difficulties because music stirs up all sorts of emotions as music therapists know. I have actually been to sessions like that where the person facilitating couldn't cope and left people quite distraught, or in a bad place, so yes, there's a big safety issue about using modalities without appropriate training.

Kathryn: Do you think your involvement with music therapy has influenced your life?

Millicent: Music therapy gave me a sense of purpose in my life which was very fulfilling. I hadn't found this during my brief time of teaching. Even more influential was the psychotherapy training because the accreditation program was experimental and didn't cover personal work. We did start doing some group dynamics but in psychotherapy we had to deal much more with personal problems.

Using Different Forms of Music Therapy

Kathryn: Do you feel your thoughts about music therapy changed over the years?

Millicent: I'm sure they did. When I first started I guess I was just feeling my way for and working with groups of people with severe multiple disabilities. I used more of an activity based program whereas when I began working with adults and children in smaller groups and in individual situations, I felt improvisation had a much bigger part. Also once I became a fellow of the Association of Music and Imagery (AMI), I used GIM as a valid form of music therapy because it combines music and psychotherapy which became my passion. I found GIM more suitable for personal therapy with my clients.

Kathryn: Do some therapists find improvisation works more effectively while others choose GIM?

Millicent: The advantage of improvisation is that people are actually using the music themselves. In GIM clients are passive receivers, although actually they are actively involved in processing everything that happens during the musical experience. This is more of a psychotherapy approach suitable for personal work such as childhood trauma, abuse, severe personality problems, and addiction. Sometimes improvisation is more suitable for a particular client when the music would be too powerful for them.

Kathryn: Would you use both modalities at different times with the same client?

Millicent: Yes, but only with some clients. I would not to use GIM with those who are unable to verbalise their thoughts. With others, the music used in GIM may be too powerful (as mentioned earlier) at certain stages in their treatment which would suggest using improvisation.

Cultural Aspects

Kathryn: Do you think New Zealand and its culture influenced you in the music therapy profession?

Millicent: It did in my training. I had lived for 10 years with Maori people and I felt very close to their culture, which meant more to me than my Scottish ancestry. We lived in Whakatane, where my husband worked as a minister and had occasion to visit very remote areas, where the people followed traditional Maori lifestyles. We heard the old original chants which were composed specifically for certain areas and certain occasions. I found these very very moving, I thought maybe I can do something with this knowledge that I have when I do my treatise.

Kathryn: I understand you are a pioneer regarding your understanding of Maori music and its place in music therapy?

Millicent: I wouldn't make that claim for myself. That's a misconception I may have given - that Maori chant had a place in music therapy. What I was saying, is that Maori chant in traditional Maori life was music therapy to them. It had the same powerful influence, because music was a part of every aspect of their lives in the original culture. There were chants for healing, and chants from the time you were born right through life. For example there was a special chant before the baby was born, when the baby was born, and when the baby was named. Then there were chants for all sorts of illnesses, wounds, chants for rites of passage, including death (during the Tangihanga ceremonies). Chants covered every part of life.

Kathryn: And it still does today in some aspects doesn't it?

Millicent: Music is still a part of life but not in the same way for young or modern Maori. However with the revival of traditional healing in Maori culture, many of the old chants are used again. Tribal elders realised that the chants would die out if they were confined to their earlier specific use. They therefore gave permission for chants to be taught and shared.

Kathryn: What was your hypothesis regarding these chants?

Millicent: The question I was proposing is Are chants and music therapy parallels? Is the influence chants had in traditional culture similar to that of music therapy treatment today? I looked at music therapy and chants as parallels. Through investigation of many different types of chants from the Tuhoe area, I hoped to gain clues about how music therapy works today.

Kathryn: Do different Maori tribes have different chants?

Millicent: Yes. Since my experience is only with the Tuhoe people, I limited my study to their chants. I wouldn't make any claims that it's the same with other tribes. The elders that worked with me and approved what I was doing were Tuhoe. It would be dangerous to apply my findings to Maori people as a whole.

Kathryn: Why did you feel it is important to include the elders of the Tuhoe people when you carried out this study?

Millicent: It is important because it is not appropriate for Pakeha (white/European people) to be writing on Maori topics without Maori participation. Some people feel that Pakeha shouldn't do it at all, so I made it clear that this was a Pakeha point of view done with the permission and help of Tuhoe elders.

Kathryn: Did they influence your writing?

Millicent: I was the one that wanted it all to be approved. Sometimes I've got the wrong end of the stick, and they would say well no it's not quite like that it's like this. Many of the chants are very difficult to translate; in fact some of them can't be translated because the words have been lost and nobody knows what they mean. Sometimes an attempt at translation has been made but I followed my mentors' advice on whether to use it. I worked out the plan that I wanted to use.

The Future of Music Therapy

Kathryn: Where do you think music therapy in NZ is headed today?

Millicent: That's a very difficult question because I don't really know. I know I'd like to see the profile of music therapy raised and this is happening to some extent with students from the music therapy post-graduate training course, filling a variety of positions around the country. However I don't' think there have been great advances in opening up the multidisciplinary teams for instance. Music therapy is still not accepted in the way occupational, speech and physiotherapies are. Music therapists are still not understood by other professionals, I think you would agree that music therapists are still the ones who have to initiate being on the team?

Kathryn: Yes you come across a professional who tells you they see the value in what you are doing, but not to the point where they might actually go to an administrator and say this person should be on our team do you agree?

Millicent: Yes, we should have music therapists to be much more an accepted part of our educational and health systems. I'd like to see parents get a subsidy towards it so that their children could have music therapy. As we know, it's really valuable, especially for young children to start off with music therapy because it's such an easy and natural thing for a child. And to have the doctors recommend and understand it more, as a healing process in conjunction with drug therapy. There's a lot of research that shows it can reduce the need for drugs, it can reduce pain and anxiety. Research which started years and years ago and there's plenty of evidence to show that this is correct, that it does do all those things, but the practical application hasn't really happened I don't think - that's really what I'd like to see happen.

Kathryn: What would you like to impart to other music therapists in NZ?

Millicent: I'd like them to know that they have a good case to make for the value and power of music therapy in health and education which includes treatment of trauma and childhood issues. Music is very powerful and often verbal therapy is not appropriate because the hurt is too deep for words or it's happened before the person has got to the verbal developmental stage. I'd also like to say how important it is to keep up their own music; to practise and to get into small groups using music for their own development and to have fun for themselves, as well as using their music to heal others. It's so easy to give up practising and find you're not a pianist anymore. It's important to have some balance in the work. Therapy is very demanding, self-renewal is important for any therapist, whether from a spiritual source or using music.

Kathryn: What would you like to impart to music therapists globally?

Millicent: I get very depressed when I watch the news and I read my Christian World Service news sheets, to find that in the 21st century there is still starvation, and people who don't have clean water. We still supposedly keep peace by sending in armies and dropping bombs on each other; we haven't learned much and surely music therapists can offer something in these situations. I believe that Ellie Salcin-Watts, a NZ music therapist, has worked with war trauma in camps and in refugee settings in both Bosnia and Croatia and also with institutionalized and traumatized children in these countries and Romania. This is a good example of music therapy support for victims. Another NZ music therapist, May Clulee visited China and worked with children with disabilities.

GIM has been used effectively in reconciliation work with Jewish and German people. I think there's such a wide field where music therapy could be a really healing force along with the practical help given. Where children have seen such horror, art, music, and dance can be really healing.

Kathryn: You've shared about music therapy in New Zealand and influences on your life, and offered a global perspective. What would be the main thing you wish people to take away from this interview?

Millicent: When disharmony arises, music therapy can promote wellbeing. There is no limit to the number of situations where music therapy can be effective in such a troubled world. Music can assist healing and rehabilitation in unique ways. We need to seize these moments and proffered opportunities.

Kathryn: Well thank you very much Millicent, I've really enjoyed talking to you, it's been so interesting!