Originally published in the July 2016 edition of Australian Teacher Magazine
The students were just warming up into their first waltz of the afternoon when she got to her feet. A resident at the nursing home in which the Wenona School students were performing, she began dancing around the room, in time to the girls’ music.
Both staff and students watched on amazed, but teacher Dr Dianne Langan knew what to do. She hastily encouraged her students to play another waltz. And then another. It was the debut performance of the school’s music therapy group.
Now in its second year, the program is run by Langan, an experienced music therapist as part of the New South Wales school’s required “service learning” component in Year 9 and 10.
While other students are off lifesaving or coaching netball to fulfill their service hours, Langan leads 15 students into nursing homes and special schools for regular “gigs”.
The sessions are very informal, with students encouraged to interact with their audience. And the girls are fast becoming crowd favourites.
After students performed at a hostel for retired Marist nuns, Chris, a carer at the facility, sent a text message to Langan thanking the school for the visit.
“The sisters loved the music,” Chris writes. “They were all buzzing when you left. One played the piano and another started singing and another started crying.”
Of course, Langan is quick to stress that the students are not performing proper music therapy sessions.
“It’s music therapy in inverted commas,” she says.
But it still has numerous benefits for the young performers and their audiences.
“For the girls, we’re extending them, we’re taking them into the community,” Langan says. “We’re taking music out…and they’re learning in the field. The classroom is now the nursing home.”
One parent was so taken with her daughter’s reaction to the experience that she wrote to thank the school.
“[She] got in the car with me and cried … she told me she wanted to do that kind of thing every day of her life,” the parent writes.
Other students have expressed delight at seeing how music helped audiences “forget their illnesses”.
“It shows how the smallest things in life, such as singing and dancing, can make such a difference,” a student writes.
But Langan, who has worked in prisons, psychiatric wards and nursing homes as a registered music therapist, says it can be confronting too.
“Their little faces might go a bit pale,” she says. “You need to prepare the girls a wee bit because maybe they have a relative that’s unwell that’s in a nursing home themselves and it might be distressing for them.
“I don’t think it’s for everybody … I mean it’s pretty risky, we’ve got people who are [suffering from dementia] and … perhaps with psychiatric overlay in front of them.
“I am confident because I know that I can move the girls out, that I can keep those girls safe.”
Now, with numbers growing, Langan says the group attracts students outside the music elective as well.
“I’ve had a Year 7 student approach me today who’s heard which special school we’re going to [next] and her brother’s there and she’d like to come.”
Langan admits she finds the performances educational herself. “You see students in a very different light…” she says.
“We’ve had things from an Armenian folk song on a viola and a Bach double violin concerto movement…One student who I didn’t think would be brave enough to perform at all just sailed through her violin solo.”