Intercultural Music Therapy Consultation in Belarus

"Weaving Threads of Curiosity into a Secure Framework of Warp and Weft"

Cover photo: Anna Roth

31st October 2023

The EMTC brings together music therapists from over 30 European countries and we love to hear about innovative collaboration between different cultures. In this article, we share how Dr Lisa Margetts, a member of the British Association for Music Therapy,  collaborated with staff in a special school in Minsk, Belarus between June 2014 and March 2018 to enhance their interactions with children through music.

A metaphor of weaving

As a Brit who has lived for twenty-five years in Latvia, a country that was also occupied by the Soviet Union, I found myself resonating with a lot that Lisa shared about her PhD research. I was struck by how her wealth of life experience, wisdom and humility became woven together in a beautiful project that was sadly interrupted by the current political situation. Indeed, Lisa uses the metaphor of weaving in the book that resulted from her research – Intercultural Music Therapy Consultation Research: Shared Humanity in Collaborative Theory and Practice – in which she describes how, “The threads of curiosity that fuel … work in a different sociocultural context are gradually woven into a unique pattern upon a secure framework of warp and weft.” (p. 29)

Lisa presents her book at the BAMT Conference "Open Ground: Music Therapy in Collaboration and Exchange", 3-5 April 2020, Queens University Belfast

Life experience prepared Lisa for the work in Belarus

Lisa’s life history prepared her for the work she did in Belarus. Her Dad was an oil worker posted to pre-revolution Iran, where she attended an international school, making friends from Poland, France, Belgium and India. Here she gained experience as an outsider in a very different culture from her own, which stood her in good stead when approaching the work in Belarus.

She caught the ‘music therapy bug’ during a final-year module of her music degree at the Royal Northern College of Music. Based in a special school, the module provided her first experience of work with children with disabilities.  This inspired her to pursue a two-year part-time course in music therapy at the University of the West of England from which she graduated in 1993.

Her first music therapy job was in a residential care home for adults with complex needs, where she began to engage with the challenge of finding ways to communicate with people accessing predominantly non-verbal means of communication. Six years later she became the lead music therapist in a team at a big charity providing services for adults in residential care with a wide range of disabilities. She spent eighteen years here and it was through the charity’s outreach branch that she first visited Belarus in 2009.

Setting up the project in Minsk

The beginnings of the work in Minsk illustrate the first piece of advice Lisa shared with me for others interested in setting up similar intercultural projects, namely that such work must come in response to a local request and must be sustainable. After a visit to an orphanage in Minsk by the CEO of the UK charity where Lisa worked, a three-way collaboration was created with one international and one Belarusian charity. This resulted in a new development centre being set up for children with complex needs. The staff asked for support in learning how to build better relationships with hard to reach children as they were struggling to connect with these children and to manage their challenging behaviour. The staff had experienced a lot of stress and sickness as a result of such emotionally demanding work. Lisa knew how well music could help and so she made a case for music therapy-based ideas to support the work of practitioners at the Centre which led to her first two trips to Minsk in 2009.

Learning about cultural expectations

The second piece of advice Lisa gave was about understanding cultural expectations. She devotes the first two chapters of her book to in-depth exploration of sociocultural issues including the legacy of collective trauma from experiences under communism, perceptions of power, use of language and the role of music, to name but a few. I made notes as we talked and particularly emphasised what she shared about the choice of words in creating an accessible title for the training workshops:

The initial workshops were entitled “Sound as Communication” and were very well received. So much so that staff requested further input to support relationships with the children. In order to do this, Lisa chose an ambitious research project as she had always loved academic work and highly valued creating a strong evidence base.

Training in playful, music-based interaction

Lisa’s research used a mixed methods pre-post test design in which eight staff participants made an initial video of themselves interacting musically with a child as they usually would. They then participated in the training programme designed and delivered by Lisa which developed both a theroretical understanding and practical application of Winnicott’s holding theory through musical interaction. Following this, they filmed a further ten music sessions with the same child.

During the training, staff members engaged in a number of structured, playful games in pairs, with an emphasis on “experimenting and having fun with sounds”. These included “Bubbles” in which one partner “blows a stream of bubbles while their partner uses non-verbal vocal phrases to mirror the speed and shape of the bubbles’ trajectory.” (p. 153).

Photo by Anna Roth.

Another playful activity involved one partner using a finger puppet whilst the other mirrored the movement of the puppet using a kazoo.

Photo by Anna Roth.

“There was a tidal wave of emotion from the staff.”

During the training, Lisa experienced what she describes as a “tidal wave of emotion” from the staff. There was a lot of anxiety that arose from the huge challenge the training presented to their usual way of working with children. Lisa said that in the UK, staff expect to form a relationship with each child, but there was no such expectation in Belarus. However, they had become aware that this expectation limited capacity for connection with the children. Practitioners demonstrated a great deal of courage in overcoming the degree of anxiety which arose from their experiential learning. Lisa needed to take on the role of supportive supervisor, holding the staff in such a way that they were able to do the work with the children. She also found that drinking tea together was a crucial part of the process, although the tea-drinking ceremony that helped so much in alleviating stress meant the programme usually started an hour late!

Evaluating the programme

Lisa developed an evaluation instrument based around four core elements:

  • setting up and structuring an individualised physical space
  • waiting, watching and listening
  • matching and adapting
  • play

Each of the staff participants used the evaluation instrument to self-rate their initial session with a child and one of the ten sessions filmed after the intervention of the training programme. They also participated in reflective interviews about their experiences with the child.

The data was triangulated by sixteen UK music therapists who used the evaluation instrument to rate the same sixteen video extracts the staff participants had self-rated. The rigour of the research was especially important to Lisa due to the newness of what she was doing in Belarus. She wanted to provide solid statistical evidence aimed at convincing other development centres in the country to adopt the training.

Findings and results

Lisa’s research findings showed that Winnicott’s theory based on natural mother-infant processes is very accessible to a staff team working with children who have complex needs and is not culture-specific. We all do it in our communication with babies! This finding also appears in data from research in a UK school.

Another important finding was about the support the staff group needed. First, they needed support in the process of change regarding how to relate to children in terms of thinking, understanding and feeling. Second, the realisation that musical interaction can be integrated organically into everyday relationships needed to be nurtured and developed over the course of the research and beyond.

Perhaps the most exciting result of Lisa’s work in Belarus was that over the following two to three years, the way of working she had shared with staff at the Development Centre in Minsk became part of the Music National Curriculum, formulated into lesson plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities. This result was bigger than Lisa had ever imagined!

Future plans on hold indefinitely

Before Covid, and before the 2020 Belarusian election, Lisa had plans to collaborate with a charity in Minsk to develop the program with those in the first training group acting as mentors for new groups. A tentative outline for the project had been developed and the charity was looking for funding. However, following the election it would not have been wise for Lisa to travel to Belarus. She said the programme really cannot be delivered online and so plans are shelved for now. She still keeps in touch but it isn’t easy. There is always hope, however, and the National Curriculum for Music in special schools still includes the methods used in the training program.

Lisa is sad that she can’t even send printed copies of her book to the participants whose voices she has faithfully reproduced in the chapters that tell individual stories. This is a shame. Lisa has achieved a rare combination of depth, beauty, clarity and engaging style in her writing.

The book is available at Routledge and on Amazon.

20% discount available for members of EMTC affiliated associations. Enter the code FLE22 at checkout.

Offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer or discount and only applies to books purchased directly via the Routledge website. 

Download PDF with full details of discount offer.

Lisa Margetts is an Honorary Research Fellow and former Senior lecturer in Music Therapy at the University of Roehampton, London. Her research focuses on music therapy-based consultation with special education staff teams overseas and in the UK. Lisa is an author and has presented at both national and international conferences throughout her career. She has been a clinical music therapist for twenty-five years, specialising in work with adults and children with complex needs and autism.