Mary Rudenberg, Music Therapist Pioneer

Interviewed by Christine Neugebauer

Mary RudenbergIn 1993, I had the privilege of completing my clinical training as a music therapist under the supervision of Mary Rudenberg. It was a challenging experience and one that truly set the path of how I practice music therapy today. It was during my training when I came to understand and appreciate the knowledge base and experience that Mary Rudenberg has contributed to the field of music therapy. Medical music therapy was still in its infancy and the music therapy internship program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas was one of a few internships in the nation offering music therapy training in a medical setting. This internship had an excellent reputation and during her years as an internship director, Mary trained over 100 interns, many of whom still reside in Texas today. As recognition for her service, she was awarded the Harmony Award by the Southwestern Regional Association for Music Therapy in 1989.

Born in Kansas City, MO, Mary always found herself interested in the expressive arts, particularly, dance and music. She began studying dance at an early age and later went on to study the flute. She studied music education at the University of Kansas (KU) receiving her bachelor’s degree in music education in 1951. In 1953, she completed her master’s degree in music therapy at KU under the instruction of Thayer Gaston and William Sears. Early in her career, Mary chose to integrate her background and interest in dance into her clinical work as a music therapist. For those of you who have met Mary, you can easily recognize the dancer within her by her poise and grace.

Mary Rudenberg is most well known for her experience working with children with cerebral palsy and other orthopedic problems. During the latter part of her career, she spent 27 years working at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX, where she retired in 1995. Prior to that time, she had worked at Topeka State Hospital in Kansas, the VA hospital in Houston, TX, and the Harris County Center for Mentally Retarded Children in Houston, Texas. Among her publications, she contributed a significant chapter on Dance Therapy in the first music therapy text by E. Thayer Gaston titled, Music in Therapy published in 1968. In addition to that chapter, she wrote the section titled, Musical Activities for Geriatric Patients. In 1982, she authored the monograph Music Therapy for Handicapped Children: Orthopedically Handicapped that was one of a series of monographs published by the National Association for Music Therapy. However, it was the 1989 article she co-authored in Music Therapy Perspectives, Promoting Psychosocial Adjustment in Pediatric Burn Patients through Music Therapy and Child Life Therapy that sparked my own personal interest in working with burn survivors. It was this article that motivated me to apply for her internship at UTMB which offered me clinical experience working with young burn survivors at the prestigious Shriners Burns Institute.

Having recently celebrated her 80th birthday, Mary Rudenberg continues to reside in Galveston, Texas. She is an honorary life member of the American Music Therapy Association. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with her and listen to her share memories and stories about her life as a music therapist.

Christine Neugebauer: What brought you to Galveston, Texas and how did you began the music therapy program at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)?

Mary Rudenberg: In 1966 I came to Galveston to work at the Moody State School for children with cerebral palsy. Moody State School was part of UTMB but was off the main campus at a different location. After hurricane Alicia in 1983, Moody State School merged with UTMB’s Child Health Center at the main medical center. The program began to grow from there and we later hired a music therapist to work at the children’s hospital. Within a few years, we were providing services throughout the UTMC campus at the children’s hospital, child-adolescent inpatient psychiatry units, the geriatric day hospital, and at the rehabilitation hospital.

Moody State School - Galveston, Texas.

CN: Tell me the process of how you started to provide music therapy services with the pediatric burn patients at Shriners Burns Institute.

MR: Some of the burn patients from Shriners were sent to Moody State School for rehabilitation. Working with patients within the burn hospital began when we provided music therapy a few hours each week during the evening doing music relaxation. It then grew as we were asked to start working with specific individual patients. Eventually, we collaborated with the child life department and started having music therapy interns from UTMB do a rotation at the burn hospital as part of the internship.

The use of autoharp and chord organ

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CN: What do you see as your most significant accomplishment in your professional career?

MR: I think developing the internship.

CN: It definitely was considered one of the top internships.

MR: Well, it wasn’t easy to develop either.

CN: What were some of the challenges?

MR: First, getting music therapy recognized as a profession at UTMB. It was a case of having to explain over and over what music therapy was to the different doctors and nurses and trying to get some research started only to be blocked because we weren’t on faculty. Then we had to convince UTMB that we could have interns from all over the country because that was not the way occupational of physical therapy did it at that time. However, after we started branching out into the different clinical areas, they saw that it worked and was successful. Music therapy was under pediatric nursing for a while and then we spread out more onto the inpatient units while our interns saw pediatric outpatients as well as patients on the rehabilitation unit under the direction of Dr. Sally Robinson. I had met Dr. Robinson when she was a medical student. We continued to maintain a collaborative working relationship when she began working as an attending physician in pediatric rehabilitation at UTMB. She was a strong advocate for music therapy in pediatric rehabilitation.

Mary Rudenberg (second from right) improvising with music therapy interns and music therapist, Margarita Sims (far left).

Mary Rudenberg (second from right) improvising with music therapy interns and music therapist, Margarita Sims (far left).

CN: Describe what it was like to study at the University of Kansas under Gaston and Sears.

MR: Gaston's book Music in TherapyAlthough Gaston was a petite man, you were either in awe of him or fearful. The music therapy students were always in awe of him. You definitely tried to please him. I was both in awe and fearful. After we finished our training with him, we were like his children but while in training, he was tuff. When he asked me to contribute to his book it was quite a compliment and I was rather stunned. I later realized he was getting all of his former students to contribute because he knew they would do it or else he would put the pressure on us. It was his idea to include the chapter on dance therapy. It was also Gaston who suggested I spend time studying with dance therapist, Marian Chace. What I remember most about Sears is that he was a gentle person.

CN: Tell me about your experience with Marian Chace who is considered one of the founder’s of dance therapy.

MR: I spent one summer with Marian Chace when I volunteered at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. working with a psychiatric population. Marian was a plump lady but then when she would start moving, she was very graceful and strong. I recall that she was very bright and was an excellent therapist and teacher. I consider her to be one of my greatest mentors. I learned about creating expressive dances for the patients by observing the natural movements the patients would make. One time she asked me to present with her at the national music therapy conference at Michigan State University. That was an honor for me.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital – Washington, D.C..

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital – Washington, D.C.

CN: How did your experience with dance therapy influence your work as a music therapist?

MR: I think after my work with Marian Chace I could see that dance and movement were helpful by making me more sensitive to the patients’ nonverbal responses. I tried to encourage that sensitivity to lead my patients into being more expressive in playing their instruments and in their verbal responses. It made me a better therapist. And then when I was having interns, it was very helpful getting the interns to be more relaxed and sensitive to their patients.

CN: Looking back on your career, describe a peak experience you had as a music therapist.

MR: Well one of the experiences was at Topeka State Hospital as a staff therapist. An occupational therapist there was also interested in dance and so we choreographed dances to Gordon Jenkins’ “Seven Dreams.” We spent weeks working with the patients in the evenings to prepare for the performance. We choreographed dances for the teenage girls and adults. We even had one girl who was blind and we choreographed a specific section of the music that appealed to her. I was amazed how well she could sense her space from the edge and sides of the stage. I think some of the teenagers also danced with her for some of the program. Unknown to me until after the performance, Dr. Karl Menninger came to see it. When he spoke to me he was very complimentary and thought it was a very good activity for the patients. Dr. Gaston also attended and he was very proud. I got the idea to do this performance after reading about another psychiatric hospital in the east coast where they had given lots of performances.

CN: What are some of the ways you served the music therapy profession?

MR: In addition to my time working on the monograph series, I was active both at the regional and national levels. For the Southwestern region, I was secretary and also served as president. I had also helped at several regional conferences. As vice president of the National Association of Music Therapy, I helped organize the program for the New Orleans conference in the 1970’s and also a conference in New Mexico. For several years I served on the clinical training committee and also on the assembly.

1979, Mary Rudenberg (back row, third from left).

1979, Mary Rudenberg (back row, third from left)

Mary Rudenberg with colleague and friend, Don Michel.

Mary Rudenberg with colleague and friend, Don Michel

CN: How would you say that being a music therapist has impacted your life?

MR: Monograph seriesWell, I think I’ve met some wonderful people by serving on different committees and projects. The monograph series came out of a project where for a few weeks over two summers several music therapists from all over the country met at Texas Women’s University to discuss different clinical issues. It was a lot of fun and I got to meet people from different regions with different theories and ideas. Being a music therapist has also influenced my children and grandchildren a lot more than I realized. With some of my children I knew they were influenced by music early on but for some of my children, I thought they didn’t even care to turn on the radio. Now they reminisce with me about different groups I made them help out with or share memories of certain music that we played in the home. And they’ll use music on each other to influence the behavior of their own children…if someone’s too excited they’ll use music to calm them down or use music to help them go to sleep.

CN: How do you see the field differently today from when you started?

MR: Back when I began, most of the universities had no respect for guitar to the point that you couldn’t use it at all in therapy. It was only the traditional instruments like piano that we could use. Because patients would be hospitalized for a long time, you could have bands, orchestras, and choral groups. Today, not only is guitar used a great deal, but a wide variety of other instruments are used like drums such as in drum circles. To me, it seemed like vocal music gradually became more respected. For the music therapists who played in dance bands they helped branch out the field of music therapy and gradually that style of music became included. Back then, most of the musical instruments and collection of recorded music we used in the hospitals we received from donations. I remember one room in the state hospital where the room was covered from the floor to the ceiling with 78 records. I remember breaking a lot of them by accident. It’s funny because today those records would probably be worth something. Technology has certainly influenced the field also with iPods and computers.

CN: Where would you like to see the field of music therapy in the next 10-20 years?

MR: Since the population continues to have a lot of “senior citizens” I’d like to see more music therapy in nursing homes and geriatric units which is revolving back to where music therapy was in the beginning. I would also like to see more attention given to working with troubled kids in the public schools.

CN: What advice do you have for new music therapy professionals?

MR: Just try to broaden your knowledge of music today. Also, I think it’s important to know something about the other creative arts. You will see that there is an opportunity for you to use the other arts as therapy for yourself. I’m trying to do more yoga these days because I cannot do other kinds of dancing because of my problem with balance. I find it fascinating how the different countries who developed yoga utilize the meditative and mind-body connection. Yoga is currently the most consistent therapy I’ve been getting these days.

CN: Is there anything else you would like for people to know about you or add to this interview?

MR: I didn’t start out being open to different theoretical perspectives. Back in my era, whatever your professors taught, you thought that was the only way to practice music therapy. With Gaston, it was behavior modification and you needed to have data for everything. So, we knew nothing about the Nordoff-Robbins approach. In fact, I think Gaston had clashed with one of them years before and so I didn’t get to know more about that model of therapy until I served on national committees. Also, when I was on staff at Parson’s State School in Kansas, one of the graduate students there later became the pioneer in guided imagery. Helen Bonny and I had done square dancing with the clients at the state school and so I was very surprised when I crossed paths with her years later and she had started her work in GIM. I then took the level 1 and 2 GIM training. That’s not something I would have learned or been exposed to years earlier. Although I could never see how I could use GIM with the patients at UTMB, GIM certainly influenced my own self awareness and personal growth.

Also, I’ve always tried to balance family life with professional life and of course it didn’t always work out. I had a large number of children that I was trying to help raise and then I had my favorites of my patients which seemed like they were family. I greatly enjoyed doing the clinical training because it was so fascinating to me meeting different young people and appreciating their talents and helping to guide them in different directions. It was a challenge but the payoff was so great to me. I found that being involved in the structure of music therapy by serving on different committees at the regional and national scale were so important in keeping me somewhat abreast to what was going on in the field and meeting different people which I never would have the opportunity to do otherwise.

CN: Thank you, Mary, for your time and most importantly, for the commitment and dedication you have shown to your clients and students throughout the years.

Christine Neugebauer and Mary Rudenberg, 2009.

Christine Neugebauer and Mary Rudenberg, 2009