Muriel’s Story

Extract from The Daily Advertiser Dec 6, 2000 by Louise Shuter.

Being a mother of six sons was enough of an initiation for Muriel Ann Gulliford to learn the soothing qualities of music.  When it was the children’s bed time, she would sit at the piano and play The March of the Dwarfs by Grieg.  The boys would march up and down the hall with their pillows doubling as sacks slung over their shoulders.  Just before the quiet part of the piece, Muriel would call out “are you at the top of the mountain now” then “you need a rest, are you resting?”  “During the peaceful part in the middle they would all go to sleep,” she said.  “To this day they remember that.  I could see the power of music even then.”

She applied her soothing musical talents to begin a career as Wagga’s creative music Therapist.  She uses music to work with people with emotional, physical, and mental disorders as well as people who are stressed.  While the soothing power and healing of music have been known since we ever first sang and danced for each other, music therapy is a relatively new career.  Its newness means Muriel sometimes comes up against a perception that clients passively sit down and listen to dolphin music.  The truth is quite the opposite, with clients totally involved in making improvised music by playing percussion instruments, singing and dancing with coloured scarves.

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Forest E. Witcraft (1894-1967); Teacher, Scholar

The therapy begins with their participation and through the relationship established between therapist and client.  A simple explanation is that some of the discordant sounds, different music styles and tensions create a harmony within for many people with intellectual and emotional disorders.  Muriel’s job satisfaction comes not only from creating music that connects with clients that many others are unable to reach, but also sending them out of the session much happier with more inner harmony.

To the uninitiated her sessions can sometimes be like a cacophony of percussion sounds with Muriel accompanying her clients on the piano, guitar or clarinet.  Her clients dictate the style and pace and she falls in creating order and structure.  They seem like a kind of chaotic jam session yet her clients, many with intellectual disabilities, emerge calmer having let off steam and worked through emotions.

As one listener observed “it sounds horrible, but the children responded better than “Jumping up and down in the little red wagon”.

Musical therapists take on clients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism, in a coma, with chronic illness, dementia, Downs Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, and psychiatric illnesses.  Muriel said many people were under the misapprehension music therapy was only for people with intellectual disabilities, but it could even help a concert pianist because it relieved stress, anxiety and depression.

Her personal experience of healing and soothing through music came when her husband died suddenly of a rare form of hepatitis C leaving her to raise their six boys alone, which meant Muriel was quickly thrown into the enormous responsibility of being the sole parent.

“I couldn’t go back to teaching because I was New Zealand trained and at that stage New Zealand training was not accepted.  It has since changed.  “I did all sorts of casual jobs to bring money in. I had a cleaning job at Caloola Court and this started me off playing the piano for the old people there when my work was finished.  The supervisor asked me if I would like to do some diversional therapy work, which included music.”

Muriel also got to know a musical therapist at Caloola Court who encouraged her to train in her profession and told her about Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Australia in  Sydney where she eventually trained in 1997.

At the same time as she was formulating an idea for a career change, she ad also been through an intense period of grieving for her husband.  When my husband died I was too emotional to play the piano,” Muriel said.  “Two years after he died, I was back to learning music as a therapy for myself.  I discovered what an amazing therapy it is.  I would go to a piano lesson and my head would be exploding with traumas and problems.  After half an hour at the piano lesson my head was totally clear and I would think what was I worried about.”

Music can communicate with people who can’t express their innermost feelings.  These moods and feelings can be met with the music.  Where words fail, music takes over

Music helped her get through the loneliness of having no-one to discuss the boys with, nor help with decision making.  It filled that dreaded gap when couples spend time together in the evenings.

“People go on to tranquilisers and anti-depressants.  I never had to do that.  I started to teach music with private piano lessons at home.  I could see the benefit of music as a healing quality .

Another turning point came in 1990 when Muriel went o a school reunion in New Zealand and met an old friend who had been to the United States to study music therapy.  It was the beginning of her plan to study the same, which grew even stronger when Melbourne University introduced a music therapy course the following year.

To qualify Muriel upgraded her piano standard to diploma level and won a scholarship from Nordoff-Robbins to study.  After a hectic year juggling work, parenting six boys and studying she emerged with the qualifications to do what she had been unofficially doing for so long – intuitively communicating with people through music.