View of Music Therapy with Young People in Schools: After the Black Saturday Fires

Music Therapy with Young People in Schools: After the Black Saturday Fires

By Katrina McFerran and Kate Teggelove

Music Therapy with Young People in Schools: After the Black Saturday Fires

February the 7th, 2009 was the kind of day that causes Australians to worry about fires – a stinking hot 46 degrees Celcius (approx 115 Farenheit), with winds of 100 km/h. It only takes a spark to begin a fire on such days and sadly, a combination of natural and human-made sparks began the most devastating natural disaster recorded in Australian history. Powerful fires were ignited in a number of locations across the state of Victoria, with a combination of professional and volunteer fire-fighters battling to contain fire fronts. Any achievements of the day were destroyed in the late evening however, when a cool change accompanied by gale-force winds of 120 km/h arrived, further fanning the flames of the massive fire fronts that then turned around and returned to wipe out areas that had escaped the first wave of fire. A long week later, the fires had finally completed their trajectory and the country mourned the loss of hundreds of community members who had tried to protect their homes or were simply not able to escape in time (see Black_Saturday for more details).

Some months later, the first swell of support had diminished for the communities devastated by the fires. Some country towns had received plentiful support, others minimal. A Mathematics teacher from one of the effected Secondary Colleges[1] decided that something needed to be done in her school and approached Kate Teggelove to ask if she thought music therapy might be helpful. We responded enthusiastically to this request, and there would have been many Australians who had similarly hoped they might "be able to do something" to support those impacted by the Black Saturday fires. As the third school term began in August 2009, we made the ninety-minute drive through the devastated bush and into the town where this secondary school was situated. It was a cold winter’s day and we arrived with our instruments, a desire to be of service, and no definite idea of how we might proceed.

Considering Theoretical Frameworks

Adopting a trauma perspective seemed the most obvious framework to draw upon when considering music therapy approaches with young people in the aftermath of such an experience. Undoubtedly, many people were traumatized by the experience of watching the fires, losing family and friends, living in the blackened and smoke filled remains, and having their communities devastated. Trauma is therefore both relevant to the context and familiar to music therapists, who have long adopted psychoanalytic models to inform their work with individuals who have experienced personal trauma. Herman (2000) has argued that private trauma such as abuse has a great deal in common with more public and shared experiences of trauma, such as war or natural disaster, with both leading to disempowerment and denial. More contemporary descriptions of trauma in the music therapy literature highlight findings from neurology that propose lasting damage to brain processes as a result of such experiences (Loewy & Frisch, 2002, p. 284; Sutton, 2002). Julie Sutton describes this neurological impact of trauma by saying “what one previously held to be safe is no longer reliably so” (Sutton, 2002), seemingly agreeing with Joanne Loewey’s suggestion that people therefore "regress" in response to trauma because their sense of self is compromised (Loewy, 2007, p. 27). If this theoretical stance is adopted, it becomes a priority to actively re-engage clients with the perceptions of the traumatic experience, and to use music as a way to re-write the neurological pathways on the basis of neural plasticity.

Music therapists have described their focus on trauma in a range of ways within this frame and have sometimes explained the unique capacity of music as being the re-establishment of intra- and inter-personal relationships. Marie Smyth (2002) suggests that musical participation can assist in the rebuilding of new neurological schema, whilst on the other side of the world, Donna Gaffney (2007) adopts a cognitive-behavioural framework to explain this rebuilding, describing the first stage of healing as the comprehension of the event by teenagers, after which they can make decisions about coping with the trauma. An alternative perspective is offered by other authors, with Mercédès Pavlicevic (2002) touchingly describing the way that music making allows the individual to be heard and known as a "whole", rather than as a victim of trauma. Similarly, Matthew Dixon (2002) theorises that the primary agent of change is actually the creative process, in contrast to emphasizing the analytical or cathartic aspects of the music therapy encounter. Benedikte Scheiby (2007) describes this in a group context as using music for community building, but maintains a psychodynamic stance.

Despite being traumatized, the response of the Australians involved in the Black Saturday Fires was much more focused on coping and survival than analytic comprehension and dissection of the event. This is a hallmark of Australian culture, and perhaps resultantly, music therapy in Australia is not typically a reflective, psycho-analytic process, instead being guided by an eclectic use of theory that is strongly aligned with humanism (May, 1981; Rogers, 1951) and similar in practice to contemporary descriptions of music therapy as resource-oriented (Rolvsjord, 2010). Community music therapy discourse resonates with this cultural identity and in the case of the Black Saturday Fires seemed more relevant than the trauma-oriented perspectives described by music therapists in response to other public disasters. Given the short time frame of our involvement with the school, the possibility of focusing on community building rather than establishing therapeutic relationships with individuals seemed a comfortable fit (Stige, 2003). The professional staff at the school was equally impacted by the fires as the young people we had been engaged to work with and although the adults resisted any suggestion of support, we felt this was an important consideration in developing the program. An intentionally multi-systemic approach, such as that advocated by community music therapy theory (Stige, Ansdell, Elefant, & Pavlicevic, 2010, p. 284), would acknowledge the staff and families that were also intertwined in the drama, without actively involving them at the outset. This kind of "outwards and around" approach contrasts significantly with the "inwards and down" focus (Stige et al, 2010, p.282) described by conventional therapists, and helped us to remain open to opportunities that engaged with the broader community.

The participatory ethos of community music therapy was also appealing since we felt literally unsure about the most appropriate way to proceed. Although we negotiated the structure of our day with the professional team, we decided to collaborate with each group of young people to determine how the content of music therapy time would evolve. Since the young people had not experienced music therapy before, this did not mean placing the responsibility of planning in their hands, but rather, that we would: introduce ourselves and explain why we had been asked to come to the school; initiate a musical encounter that seemed developmentally appropriate; then offer a range of possibilities for action to each group and follow their interest. This felt like a “more radically democratic” process (Stige, et al., 2010, p. 281) than simply offering opportunities for choice making within a pre-planned structure because we were intentionally giving the power to direct the content and focus of each session to the young people. This empowering approach (Rolvsjord, 2006) focused on the musical resources that were present in the groups, since each group could elect to play instruments, share songs, compose, listen or supplement their musical experience with talking, drawing or dancing, depending on their individual interests. Because the process occurred in groups, these preferences had to be negotiated between group members and the inter-personal resources of various group members were quickly drawn upon as we encouraged them to make decisions that were mutually acceptable. Instead of focusing the young people on the trauma they had shared, we emphasized the strengths each individual and group could bring to the process. We did not avoid the trauma, since we enthusiastically explained that we were trained therapists who might have some skills that could be helpful in coping with the repercussions of the bushfires that had devastated their community. We repeated this offer at least once a week and in addition, we intentionally left the possibility open for resonance with the trauma (personal communication, J. DeBacker, 7th May, 2010), however we did not insist that we focus on the experience.

The decision to adopt a community music therapy approach was also reflected in the choice to work in groups rather than providing individual service. This decision was not entirely ours, since the school assumed that group processes would be the most appropriate forum; but we agreed both philosophically and theoretically. Music therapy group work with adolescents in school contexts has only recently begun to receive attention in the music therapy literature (Carr & Wigram, 2009; Derrington, 2005), despite the importance of the peer group during this developmental stage. This emphasis is supported in the goals that music therapists work towards with adolescents across a range of contexts, with both identity formation and interpersonal relationships being established as the focus of many music therapists in an analysis of the literature (McFerran, 2010a). Answering the question of "Who am I?" is a priority for most young people, and will often dominate the therapeutic process even in the face of significant loss such as bereavement or illness (McFerran, Baker, & Sawyer, 2006). This developmental process usually occurs in relationship with others (Erikson, 1965; Vygotsky, 1998), and therapy groups provide a valuable opportunity for experimentation that emulates the real life context more closely than the intimate relationships that form the basis of individual work. Nonetheless, adolescent group work is often chaotic and challenging for a group leader (Malekoff, 1997; McFerran, 2010a), since the world that is being mirrored is more like the school yard than the class room. Banter, noise, and other energetic forms of expression are a necessary part of the encounter and from the perspective of the young people, the ability of the music therapist to allow and understand this process is what distinguishes them from a music teacher who would usually endeavour to remain in control of the group music making experience.

The pre-existing relationship between teenagers and music often forms the basis of music therapy encounters, since many young people consider music to be an important part of their lives (Gold, Saarikallio, & McFerran, in-press). Although some teenagers may be interested in using the opportunity of music therapy to learn to play an instrument, most also understand the expressive and mood regulating capacities of preferred music (Saarikallio & Erkkila, 2007; Skanland, 2009). Sharing recorded songs can be an important method for this reason, whether it involves listening to recorded versions of favourite songs on mobile phones or iPods, or live singing and playing of songs with guitar and keyboard (McFerran, 2010a, p. 87). This may lead to verbal processing and analysis of the song for meaning (Grocke & Wigram, 2007), or alternately it may assert a young person’s identity within the group through their selection or affiliation with a particular genre, requiring a less analytic process. The use of song writing emerges naturally from song sharing, and many young people are enthusiastic about expressing themselves through lyric creation, as well as through musical decisions about genre, instrumentation, and song structure (Derrington, 2005; Krout, 2005). Within a group context, the song writing process naturally reflects the dynamics of the group, since decisions must be negotiated and a range of roles are available for members (Baker & Wigram, 2005).

Although the concept of songs as a vestibule for personal expression is familiar to young people, the unfamiliar opportunity of group improvisation can also be a powerful force for expression and connectedness within the music therapy group (Skewes, 2003). The use of structured improvisations can provide young people with the experience of being together with others and the uniquely musical experience of having their voice heard at the same time as others (Nöcker-Ribaupierre & Wölfl, 2010). This contrasts with a psychodynamic model of free improvisations where the meaningfulness of the musical encounter is often established through verbal interpretation and analytic reflection on what has been expressed (such as is required in Analytical Music Therapy (Priestley, 1994)). Each of these music therapy methods were made available to the young people who attended the music therapy groups, with each group making different choices as the weeks went by.

The Young People Involved in the Project

A total of 26 young people participated in the music therapy project that lasted for 10 weeks during the winter term of 2009. Most were referred to the program by teachers who were aware of the impact the fires had on their lives and were concerned about their behaviour, or alternately, their lack of response. As a result, many group members lived in the same area and travelled to school on the same bus, despite the fact that the secondary school catered for students living in a number of small towns within an approximately 75 km diameter. Bushfires do not move in straight lines as they roar across the countryside and some towns in the area were unscathed while others were devastated. One of the young people described how the back of their house was completely destroyed by the fire racing past, however the front of the house was untouched.

The existing structure of the school day was divided into three sections consisting of two classes each, with approximately 90 minutes of classes followed by a break for recess, lunch and then the end of school. We negotiated to see a group in each of these time slots, rather than agreeing to see six groups for shorter periods of time, which the school staff assumed we would do. As a result, we had long sessions with each group that allowed for processes to emerge naturally and although this was more than we needed in some weeks, during more significant times it was important to have the extra minutes. The schedule for each group rotated on a weekly basis so that students missed a particular pair of classes every three weeks, rather than missing the same class for a whole school term. This idea was suggested by the teaching staff who believed that support was as important for the education of these young people as curriculum, but who nonetheless did not wish the program to impact negatively on any one student’s progress. The students also agreed that this was important.

The three groups created by the school teachers were:

  1. 12 males: aged 12 - 15 years, drawn from the three youngest year levels in the school
  2. 8 females: aged 13 - 15 years, drawn from the three youngest year levels in the school
  3. 6 young men and women: aged 15-16 years from one year level in the school[2].

There was a great diversity of losses within these groups and we received an oral description of group members’ family situations from the teaching staff before commencement. Some young people had lost multiple family members, but all had family remaining. More than half the group had not experienced the loss of family members, but many had lost houses and properties and were living in temporary accommodation. As the first weeks of the group passed, we also allowed three persistent teenagers to participate who did not seem to have been directly impacted by the fires. These young people were musicians, and literally pleaded with school staff to be allowed to join the groups. Teachers explained, with our input, that the group was targeted to those suffering from the fires, but the young people argued voraciously for their respect for the therapeutic focus of the group but their continuing desire to join and ultimately, we let them. Many of the young people in each of the groups were musical and the number of young people who were proficient on drum-kit, guitar, voice, or another instrument, was impressive. We had a strong impression that music was an important resource in the community, with both young people and staff members describing different types of musical involvement in bands and choirs, and a plethora of concerts being hosted during our time in this fairly remote country town.

The Music Therapy Groups

The collaborative stance we adopted towards the structure and content of the groups was reflected in the different ways that each group proceeded over the ten week project. Each group of young people took a different focus within the sessions, both at the level of musical engagement and also the degree of verbal discussion about the fires. A brief synopsis of each group follows.

The Young Men

The group of young men in Years 7 – 9 was the largest group with at least 9 members being present each week. They were the first group we met and in the moments before they arrived, we received a swift description of them from the Maths teacher who had made the initial contact. She described a group of young men who were acting out in class, finding it difficult to settle to activities and struggling to reintegrate into school life in the wake of the fires. Based on our previous experience in working with adolescents, we decided to begin the session with improvisation and set up the room in a containing circle with a range of hand percussion instruments in the middle, including melodic percussion. As the young men entered, we greeted them warmly and directed them to chairs in the circle. Within minutes we began a structured improvisation, where one of us played a rhythm and then asked the group to copy it back to us – in call and response fashion. After a moment of hesitation, the young men joined in with enthusiasm and the game lasted for nearly fifteen minutes. Memorably, the oldest boy then suggested another game, where the idea was to see a pattern in a series of hand movements that were passed around the room. This response asserted an immediate mutuality and playful engagement that filled the first 30 minutes of every session of the project. After a few weeks, we included thematic improvisations into this time, particularly emotion-based improvisations titled "happy", "sad", "angry" and "scared" so that it became not only a time for listening and interaction, but also for overtly referencing their emotional experiences in response to the fires.

The second part of the session would usually last for approximately 45 minutes and consisted of "jamming" on the larger instruments including electric guitars, bass, drum kit, keyboard, acoustic guitar and singing into the microphones. The music room we were working in was set up for a large number of people to participate, and required little additional equipment to make this possible. Energetic group discussions were used by the young men to select mutually preferred songs to "learn" and we would facilitate this by providing lyric and chord sheets in simple keys and working with individuals to learn chords, bass lines, riffs and rhythms. The young men learned to play two songs over this time and we also composed an original song in the rock genre .


When we conducted focus group interviews with these young men some weeks after the group, one of the prominent themes that emerged from their contributions was the importance of being "a part of something bigger." One young man described how valuable it was to "put all our own little parts in the lyrics and what you played" on the instruments. The fact that "everyone got to do something" was important to another group member - a comment which solicited a range of nods and uttered agreement from the other young men being interviewed. "Yeah, even if they weren’t that good" responded another, with further agreement. This acceptance was important at both a musical and a personal level and when we asked about the relevance of the bushfires, a young man explained that "being with people who understand" was important, with another group member expanding with the comment "I’m pretty sure we all understood that we had had the same experience." Being in an environment where these experiences were understood and it was safe to "blurt it all out" was also noted, with one young man saying they wanted to "release our emotions" and another describing that it was a "relief if you were able to express it." This participation resulted in an increased sense of confidence for some, who described personal changes: "I’m normally hesitant, and now I don’t care what people think." Despite the minimal verbal processing that occurred within the weekly group sessions, some of these men were able to articulate their experiences clearly in the focus group interviews and there was a high level of accord when these ideas were offered.

The Young Women

The group of young women in Years 7 – 9 approached the music therapy process in a different way, immediately utilising the opportunities to discuss the bushfires and using the musical processes to support this. This seemed more aligned with Bruscia’s concept of music in therapy, rather than music as therapy in the young men’s group (Bruscia, 1989). Although we again used a structured improvisation to begin the session, it was the discussion after music making that engaged the group. Individual women immediately began to describe their problems with sleeping and resultant difficulties staying awake and attentive in class. After the introductory music making on the instruments, they took turns to play preferred songs from their iPods and mobile phones and easily moved into discussion afterwards, sharing historical and current information about themselves in relation to one another. They were excited to play their favourite songs as a part of this process, and the selection and listening process was clearly an opportunity to express their individual identity and to establish affiliations with others in the group.

Within two weeks, we introduced the concept of song writing and this became a central focus for the group. A love song was created and we spent two weeks developing this "practice" song, deciding who would play different instruments and then playing through the song a number of times in the session. The second group song was more challenging to write, as the young women grappled with expressing their experience of loss and hope . They used drawing, poetry writing and picture card selection to help generate a long list of ideas for inclusion that were drawn together by the music therapist between groups because sessions were filled with discussions, listening and some playing. Following the creation of the group song, the young women decided that they would write individual and small group songs, and the remainder of the group process consisted of them doing this within the sessions, with group discussions being used to begin and end each week.


The young women described the group as "chillax" (chilled and relaxing at once) and "fun" when they were asked to comment, despite the intensity of the material that was verbally articulated during the process, as well as the complex group dynamics that shaped the group. The two youngest group members had initially been intimidated by the older girls, but in the interviews described how "my confidence expanded in the group", and extended to include their experience of school in general: "At the start of the year I was really impacted by people’s opinions of me, and now I don’t give a rats." The older girls were less concerned with how they were perceived by others, but also described a "sense of achievement" after doing things they "didn’t think we could do." They thought it had been important to be in a group with "other people who knew" and "had the same issues", but also felt it had been important not to only "put it back on the fires – it wasn’t the only issue." The opportunity to "express it differently" was valued, and having "something to show for it" (in the form of the CD) was also considered "helpful" as a way of "telling people how you’re feeling".

The Mixed Group of Senior Students

The group of young women and men aged 15 or 16 years were the seniors in the music therapy program because of the curriculum demands of older students in the school. The group members were initially less expressive, both at the musical level of the first group, and the verbal level immediately utilized by the second group. The favourite activity of this group was initially the selection of pictorial "strengths cards" ("Strengths Cards for Teens," 2004) that they chose to either express something about their own identity and feelings, or to give to other group members to express something about them. The group began with this process each week, followed by the selection of songs for us to sing and play together, with some of the young people electing to learn instruments, while others drew on existing skills on instruments or vocally. In Week 5 the group showed some interest in the concept of song writing and we were enthusiastic about incorporating a method that potentially promoted some level of engagement with the experience of the fires. The first song did not address this topic but was a humorous commentary on school life. Then in Week 6 one of the young men separated himself from the group and sat in the corner of the room to write down lyrics to a Rap song he had been composing that described his struggles in the face of the loss of his best friend in the fires as well as another best friend who had died in the month prior . This sharing had a dramatic impact on the group and for the next two weeks there was a flow of creativity as group members worked on song writing in small groups and some bought completed lyrics / poems to sessions. When we asked if they had any vision for the life of their songs (Aasgaard, 2000) these young people proposed the idea of creating a CD. This decision was popular with the other music therapy groups and over the final three weeks of sessions we engaged a local community musician to work with us to record the songs using high quality, multi-track technology.


In focus group interviews, these young people described how the group had promoted their friendships. One young man described how this process occurred at a musical level because "people that could play helped other people learn" and another suggested they "bonded more through working together." The encouragement of others helped one of the young men to "feel good about what I was doing", while another group member also valued that it provided a "fun way of letting out emotions." This was considered important at an inter-personal level also, with one young woman explaining that they got "to know a little more about one another" which led to an increase in confidence for some. Having initiated the idea of recording the tracks, many of the young people agreed how important it was to "hear one another", both within their group, and also to hear the work of the other groups. Whereas the members of the other groups seemed satisfied with their process, some of these young people wanted more – more "fun" and also at an emotional level, one young woman felt they had "more steps to take yet." Although the music therapy project came to an end, this group of young people did seem to continue the process independently, with two of the young women performing a song written in the group at a "Relief Concert" in the city .

Bringing It All Together

The focus group interviews that were conducted a month after the conclusion of the project provided an opportunity for closure and reflection on the groups, as well as preparation for the upcoming performance. We asked for honest feedback on the groups and probed each response with follow up questions until that train of thought had been exhausted. Our planned questions were "What did you think of the group?", "Was it helpful?", "What would you do differently." The young people were aware that they were being recorded, and took the questions seriously. The young men were just as articulate in the interviews as the senior students and although brief (usually about 10 minutes per interview), all the young people made a verbal contribution and shared a perspective on the group process.

Once all the focus group interviews had been completed, we undertook an inductive qualitative analysis of the reports. In listening to the young people, there had seemed to be a great deal of overlap between the various perspectives offered across the groups. For this reason, we focused on identifying what seemed to be the core elements of the experience as reported by them, and interpreted by us in context of our knowledge or the literature and our own experience of being in the groups. This has been described as identifying common and individual themes in the data leading to the development of an "essence" when approaching data analysis from within a phenomenological framework (McFerran & Grocke, 2007). The following essence highlights the four common themes that were identified through this process and these are then explained in greater detail.

For these young people, group cohesion underpinned the personal and interpersonal achievements of the groups. They felt that when everybody was doing things together the group provided something positive in the form of fun and freedom. Musicing opened a door to new experiences both musically and personally. These experiences provided a space for the young people to express themselves and over time they felt more confident about their abilities and less concerned about other people’s opinions, both within and beyond the group. Being able "to be me" was liberating in context of the group.

Group cohesion

Within the focus group interviews, the young people described beliefs and experiences related to "group cohesion" more than any other topic. Many of them emphasised the importance of "everybody" having a role in the group and doing things "all together." They were particularly concerned with inclusiveness in relation to musical skills and appreciated that peers with existing skills supported others to participate in some way in musical creations. It was fascinating to hear that the young people’s descriptions were focused on one another and they did not describe the music therapists as facilitating this process, but rather focused on the fact that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

Our use of the term "group cohesion" to draw these ideas together from the data reveals an intentional focus on the psychodynamic aspects of the group, located within an eclectic, client-centred approach. Although some verbal processing did occur in relation to the young people’s experiences with the bushfires, the most powerful dynamic processes were related to their experiences of one another. Irvin Yalom (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005) claims that successful group therapy processes rely more on the achievement of group cohesion than in tackling individual issues, and that the group’s liking for itself, or individual members for one another, can be understood as an indication of positive outcomes. This is particularly true for adolescent group work, since young people are developmentally timetabled to focus on "how they appear in the eyes of others" (Erikson, 1965) in order to experiment with, and ultimately form a sense of personal identity.

The collaborative elements of the young people’s experience were more strongly represented in this project than in previous investigations of adolescents struggling with loss in group music therapy. Group cohesion was more than the "creation of a safe and trusting environment within which personal material could be shared" (Skewes, 2001). It also seemed more democratic than the "reduction of isolation through feeling understood by others" (McFerran, 2010b). The young people owned the group and experienced negotiating with one another much more strongly than if the process had been more strongly facilitated by the music therapists. Although the professional leaders were conscious of stages of group development (McFerran, 2005) and worked actively to ensure that all group members were included, our decision to intentionally and collaboratively negotiate the form of the group with each group (in keeping with Community Music Therapy theory) resulted in three diverse processes, but with conspicuously similar outcomes being described.

Something positive

"Fun" was consistently reinforced by the young people as a critical element in their experience of group music therapy. In this project, as previously, it was the first response to questions about the group, and typically adolescent vernacular was used - fun, awesome, chillax, not boring, happy, good, sucks that we’ve finished, really liked it, enjoyable, looked forward to it every Wednesday. The pleasure of participation seemed linked to the inherent freedom in this style of adolescent group music therapy, with an emphasis on client-centred creative experiences (see below for more discussion). In a previous analysis of adolescents’ descriptions of "fun" in music therapy, data was used to support the theory that a combination of fun and creative experiences can lead to feeling better as a result of participation in music therapy (McFerran, 2010b). The precise nature of feeling better has proven difficult to demarcate however, with practically significant results being found in psychometric data measuring "coping" in response to a specific experience (Frydenberg, 2008), but no significant results from more global changes such as "self-perception" or "self-esteem" (McFerran, Roberts, & O'Grady, 2010).

Although the first author has argued previously that the use of music therapy for pleasure is part of a typically adolescent desire to want to "be happy" (McFerran, 2010b), Positive Psychology theory suggests that this is not limited to young people. Randi Rolvsjord (2010) draws on these ideas (and many others) in articulating a resource-oriented approach to music therapy in mental health care. In this way of thinking about music therapy, emotional expression is not relegated only to angst, instead embracing the whole continuum of affective experiences, from joy to sorrow. The positive experiences that the young people have described in relation to music therapy can be understood as both the creation of psychological capital (Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) and a part of relationship building (Rolvsjord, 2010, p. 77). Rolvsjord is describing dyadic collaborative relationships between therapist and client in her text, however the theory translates easily to the relationships between young people in groups that can be furthered through shared musical encounters. We argue that the inherent benefits of shared positive experiences are a good enough reason to foster "fun" in the group, and that these can also provide a foundation for emotional resonance with less pleasurable foci, such as expression of loss in response to the bushfires and other life experiences.

Opened a Door

Active participation in music making led to joy, but it also "opened a door" to new experiences within the group. An element of discovery was articulated by some of the young people as they described both musical and inter-personal experiences that were unexpected – from learning how to play without notes, to participating in something that was "different to counselling." The feeling of "going beyond your comfort zone" has been expressed previously by adolescents in group music therapy (McFerran, in-press), and a mixture of surprise and achievement seems to be critical in this aspect of the therapeutic process. Most of the descriptions of discovery in this project were related to what Christopher Small calls "musicking" (1998), the verb created to emphasise social participation in the act of music. Kenneth Aigen (2005) theorises that "musicing" is the fundamental process in a music-centred music therapy, and that verbal processing is not necessary to consolidate musical experiences as is proposed by psychotherapists (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). The interest of the young people in "making", "playing", "learning", "performing" and "doing" music was the driving therapeutic force behind each of the sessions. Where Aigen describes the primary focus as being "enhancing the client’s involvement in music" (p. 94), adopting a community music therapy approach meant that the young people demanded this focus rather than the therapists, who were open to any of the possibilities for using music towards therapeutic benefit. Nonetheless, it was clear from the descriptions that it was "music as therapy" (Bruscia, 1989) that appealed to many of the young people, not music-making as an impetus for therapeutic change.

Able to Be Me

A systematic review of the music therapy literature describing practice with adolescents revealed that identity formation was the most common focus of music therapy from the therapists’ perspectives (McFerran, 2010a). This idea is supported in the current project, with young people describing the value of "being able to be myself" as central, referring both to how they expressed themselves in music and their confidence as a result of therapy. Some individuals explained that music therapy was "helpful" in expressing how they were feeling, and that they felt relieved as a result. John Pelliteri (2009) contends that spontaneous music making can literally release emotional tension (p.158) because of the similar structures inherent in music and emotions. This claim has also been made by other young people describing their experiences in group music therapy, who also noted that they "felt better" after the creative opportunities for expression (McFerran, 2010b). Pelliteri also proposes an explanation for how the isomorphic relationship between music and emotions links personal and emotional expression in therapy as a form of self-expression by externalising internal processes (p.159). This is particularly pertinent for adolescents for whom the dual processes of identity formation (at the psychological level) and puberty (at the physiological level) also reflect an emotionally charged grappling with personal expression.

The experience of "being me" was also related to a lessening concern with other people’s opinions that was described by a number of the younger members of the groups. The decision by group members to not only create a CD of their songs but also to organise a launch that involved some live and recorded performances may be a reflection of this increased self confidence. In addition, the CD launch facilitated an extension of the process to incorporate family members and even local politicians and community musicians. Contemporary theorists suggest that adopting a community music therapy orientation involves “carefully cultivating the interplay of bonding and bridging” (Stige, et al., 2010, p. 286), and in this project we were enthusiastic about the idea of sharing the musical material beyond the group once it was suggested by the young people. Katrina McFerran (2010a, p.244) describes the importance of carefully considering appropriate audiences for the materials created as part of the therapeutic process, and we actively encouraged the young people to consider the most suitable forums for performance, taking into account both the emotional strength of the material and the very real time limitations that we faced. The result was an invitation-only performance in a venue that symbolised survival - a local pub[3] owned by one of the parents and centrally located to families who had been affected. Despite the therapists interest in safe performances, the young people also independently created other opportunities to perform, with two young women making a YouTube clip of themselves performing a cover song with voice and keyboard (see below), and another two performing one of the songs written in music therapy as part of a "Thankyou Melbourne" concert six months later, as noted above.

Audio clips:

01ICouldBe by Voices-mt

05For2others by Voices-mt

08ForeverLonging by Voices-mt


Adopting a community music therapy approach to working with a group of young people impacted by the Black Saturday Fires proved particularly successful. The goodness of fit between a collaborative, resource-oriented stance and the strengths and abilities of these young people was high, as seen by the different ways that each group responded to the music therapy space but with comparable perceptions of the project. Within the overall approach, the music therapists drew eclectically upon both humanistic and psychodynamic theories, responding to needs and desires as they presented within each group. This approach is common in Australian practice (Bright, 2002; Edwards, 2002; McFerran, 2010a), where subscribing to a particular therapeutic approach is less likely to be acceptable to those involved in music therapy. It is our perception that Australians often expect to direct their own therapeutic process, and are likely to be more comfortable with an emphasis on musical rather than therapeutic encounters. Actively embracing such a culturally rooted inclination is usually satisfying to both therapists and participants, producing an empowering dynamic that suits many clinical contexts.

The importance of group cohesion, fun, identity formation and discovery through music was highlighted in the interviews with these young people and although outcomes were not measured, the positive experiences accrued through participation should theoretically lead to personal growth – an assumption that was endorsed in a simple and authentic way by some of the young people as seen in the following quote.

“ it made a lot of difference”


[1]Schools for 13 – 17 year olds.

[2]The two senior year levels were not invited to join the project because of the high academic demands during this period of time within the Australian school system.

[3]A hotel where alcohol is served, similar to a bar.


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