I graduated from ARU in 2011 as the first MA Music Therapist in the world using the steelpan - the national musical instrument of my country Trinidad and Tobago - as primary instrument.
I originally applied to study a Master's in Music Therapy at another British university, but they only offered part-time courses, and could not take international students. Then I heard ARU mentioned on a local radio programme. It was on the list of nine UK universities offering an MA in Music Therapy, so I contacted them and the next day Professor Helen Odell-Miller called me back personally. I was really surprised by this quick response. We arranged an interview by video conferencing, and I was able to join the course in 2009.
Cambridge was very different to anywhere else I have been. I was able to take my steelpan instruments onto the street and busk. I didn't need a license as they encourage students to perform on the streets. This was useful for me as a learning process, a release, and to see people responding to my musicality in a way that contrasted with my clinical placements.
In the second year I had to move house, and that was hard. I had my steelpan instruments to move, so it was difficult to find somewhere suitable! Nevertheless, I found a room by the river, where I fed the swans for the first time in my life. In the Caribbean you only see swans in movies or pictures. During my final year I saw a black swan with a red and white beak - the same colours as The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago national flag. I took this as a positive sign as I fed this particular swan!
I went to three very useful clinical placements on the course: at Granta Special Needs School, St. Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham and Fulbourn Hospital. For the second, the whole semester I had to travel at 5am once weekly in order to arrive there before 8am. Nonetheless, I also got to perform at a Christmas function on my country's national instrument for her Majesty Princess Alexandra, who is a patron of St. Christopher's Hospice. I ran workshops and made oral presentations to a couple primary schools around the Cambridgeshire area as well.
As part of the course we also had drama therapy, art therapy and dance and movement therapy master classes. I remember a dance therapist gave us the most amazing session. We all paired up, so the moves were synchronized. It was supportive to have first-hand experience with another creative modality and, as I was paired with the therapist, I gained insights into the possibilities of the client / therapist relationship.
We also had professionals in music therapy giving us talks, and realised how music can be a foundation for other therapies. Coming from a competitive background, I found the pressure at ARU was not about passing your course but in using the training to the full to assist in your own particular personal and professional development.
The mentorship was one of the best things about the course. We had the opportunity to talk face to face with every lecturer, discover our strengths and weaknesses, and work over time with their support and guidance. So many professors gave me good advice and led by example. Notably, the late Professor Tony Wigram once said to me: “Jamal! Work hard, no stress and be happy.” I learnt to channel my anxieties through busking, supervision and personal therapy, and to appreciate all that is around me. Working with clients, seeing how they change in subtle ways, how they benefit in the room and within their personal lives was a significant part for me. As Tony would have said, I couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling professional development.
Watch this video about Jamal's work:
After graduating, I returned home to Trinidad, and within three weeks was working with the Ministry of Health. I also received a Developmental Need's Award scholarship from the Trinidad and Tobago Government. Assigned to the Psychology Department at St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital Port of Spain, I mostly work at outreach clinics in the community and inpatient wards. I've also worked over six years on a forensic ward, with long-term patients with no previous experience of music therapy intervention.
Our time together gives them a sense of structure, orientation and autonomy. We engage in free and structured improvisations using their voices, play musical instruments, use video sessions, choose songs to listen to on Youtube. This enables them to access their memories, and take part in insightful conversations. Sometimes the verbal aspect is hard for them, as this can bring up difficult memories, so the sessions are intense, but also interactive and rewarding.
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