Alexia Quin

Music as therapy – how one alumna founded a charity at Exeter

Recently graduated and keen to make a difference in the charity sector? Read the experiences of alumna Alexia Quin (Music, 1996), a music therapist who set up the charity Music as Therapy International in 1995. The organisation operates around the world, providing training to local teachers, care staff and other practitioners who work with vulnerable children and adults - often those with disabilities, mental health difficulties, serious illness or survivors of trauma. The training focuses on the ways in which these people can use music to enhance the care or teaching they provide. 

She says:

“From a young age I knew I wanted to be a music therapist. Before starting my music degree at Exeter, I was encouraged to use my year off as an opportunity to travel and broaden my experiences to date. This led me to volunteer in a Romanian orphanage in 1992 (three years after the fall of communism). 

“My vision was naïve: I wanted to experience a completely new country. And I wanted to work with children. I knew there were a lot of orphans and I assumed there was a shortage of people to look after them. What I encountered, determined the rest of my life in ways I could never have imagined.

  • It turned out there were a lot of local staff in the orphanage where I was volunteering. Our presence left them with little to do and they weren’t always impressed by what we had to offer.
  • International volunteers were a mixed bag: Many had personal reasons for being away from home, some were martyrs to their mission, some were serial aid workers experienced beyond their qualifications from tough placements in challenging places and unable to settle back into humdrum, lower status life at home. Many were seduced by local trust of Western superiority and would claim skills or knowledge they didn’t have.
  • There was a sense of quid pro quo: The presence and activities of hapless young volunteers like me, was tolerated in exchange for material assistance, like new industrial washing machines or much needed furniture.
  • International aid brought problems as well as solutions: Western goods were coveted and led to petty theft. Importing goods meant investment wasn’t made in what was beginning to be available locally. Relying on imported materials for children’s activities – such as coloured paper, glue and glitter – was not sustainable. These precious resources were soon used up.
  • The children were vulnerable to the volunteers’ attention and would quickly form strong relationships with people who then left when their overseas stint came to an end. This repeated cycle of abandonment did not bode well for these children’s future relationships and their behaviour demonstrated incredibly disturbed attachment patterns.
  • My Romanian friends were ashamed of their recent past. They sometimes seemed to think they had been complicit or foolish to be so duped by Ceausescu’s propaganda. At other times their stories of deprivation, frustration and lack of autonomy were heart breaking. Listening to them talking, their patience in attempting to answer my endless questions, played a massive part in me feeling I understood Romania better than I would have done had I limited by socialising to my fellow international volunteers.

“I returned to England and started at Exeter, but my Romanian experiences stayed with me. In the second year of my degree, I had an idea which I hoped might help me reconcile some of the more uncomfortable aspects of these. Could a training project for care staff fulfil my wish to do more, help assuage the unfairness I felt keenly in relation to my own privilege, whilst avoiding some of the pitfalls I’d discovered during my initial months as a volunteer? Could I find music therapist who would be willing to train local staff to work with the most disabled children also languishing in orphanages in Romania and would this be useful locally?

“My idea was mostly met with enthusiastic support and within three months I was in Romania with two intrepid and trusting music therapists. I was able to develop a pilot project and Exeter were happy for me to use this as the research basis for my final year dissertation. Additionally, I was awarded a small Discretionary Grant from the Vice Chancellor which helped to meet some of the costs involved. I recently reflected back to this first project: ‘I saw that carefully chosen musical activities and opportunities for musical interaction did have an immediate impact. The children’s deadened blank stares and self-stimulating behaviour would transform to focus on the music therapist and the musical instruments as immediately as if a light was switched on. A group that started as a tangle of bodies, all uniform in their untidily cropped hair or shaven heads and bizarre behaviours, would unfurl into a group of individuals able to express their preferences and their personalities through music-making. This immediacy of impact was important not only to me, but to the local staff we were working with.’

“We completed this pilot project believing it to be a standalone piece of work. However, I was soon contacted by another UK charity working in a comparable orphanage and plans were put in place to provide another project to their local staff the following year.

“The second project proved our training model, but we spent a lot of time wondering how the people we’d worked with the previous year were getting on. This speculation led to us returning to the local team involved in the second project 12 months’ later. We saw the staff had continued using music in the ways we had demonstrated, and that our visit served to motivate this for some, but also as an opportunity to address some difficulties or flag up some things which could change and strengthen their work. Based on my experience of imposed or tolerated, yet perhaps not wholly wanted international aid initiatives, I was keen to speak to local people to ascertain if Music as Therapy was offering something that was truly relevant and wanted locally. I visited over 20 different institutions around Romania and spoke to numerous local and international organisations to ascertain there was demand for the sort of training we were offering.

“Having fully tested my concept and assessed the level of demand for it, I was confident to register Music as Therapy International as a charity in 1998, the same year I finally qualified as a music therapist.

“For the first 10 years, Music as Therapy International worked solely in Romania. However, as our reputation was established we began to receive enquiries from people working in other countries. This led us to gradually extend our reach beyond the borders of Romania, to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, Georgia, Peru, India and even the UK. We have developed our approach beyond simply providing introductory training. We now consider it to be a 3-step approach: we use introductory training to get people started, we then offer support activities to keep them going and, when they are ready, we work with them to explore Capacity Building - how they can take things forward themselves. We have reached the Capacity Building stage in our work in Romania, which aligns with my original vision, when I wrote in the conclusion of my university dissertation: ‘It is hoped that by repeating this project we will slowly establish a network for all the staff who have been involved. By collaborating with similar projects and informing our work by other research in relevant areas, a therapeutic use of the arts might eventually be recognised in Romania.’

“I LOVED my course and my studies most definitely helped me in my career. The Music Department was located in Knightley, so we had a small, characterful building to ourselves and my year group was pretty small too (there were less than 30 of us doing the course, as I remember). The music curriculum offered was exceptional and stood me in very good stead for everything I wanted to do, whilst providing real opportunities to explore areas of particular interest to me.”

Alexia’s advice if you want to make a difference in the charity sector is to take all opportunities you can to ‘do some work’. When recruiting she prioritises experience and proven/demonstrable skills over postgraduate qualifications. While at Exeter there are numerous societies (Guild / FXU) to gain experience as well as external organisations and alumni networks post-graduation.

Date: 3 August 2018

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