The healing power of music

30 June 2016

UTS alumnus Matt Ralph has loved creating music all his life. This passion has been nurtured since his childhood led him on a path to become a music therapist, inspiring and comforting sick children of all ages through the healing power of music.

Matt grew up in a musical family and remembers himself being a “rice shaker guy” - putting on beats with an improvised percussion instrument in music sessions with his three siblings.

When he turned 10, his mum suggested piano lessons which he declined, opting to learn to play guitar instead. Mastering guitar came in handy as he joined a high school rock band which became a major creative outlet throughout his teenage years and “band-focussed” university life. 

"Music can step in at very critical times for patients ... It reduces the feeling of loneliness and facilitates communication."

“To keep mum and dad off my back, I enrolled into an undergraduate course in Commerce so I could continue playing in my rock band”.  Matt attended to his jamming sessions with great dedication and discipline. “We had a real schedule; I treated it like a job,” he reflects on this unforgettably fun stage of his life.

And with all the juggling of band duties and studies, Matt did manage to successfully finish his degree.

What came next was another professional detour that later influenced his current career choice. While working at a theatre restaurant in Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), his friend invited Matt to audition for a role. Matt got into the academy and over the following year immersed himself into drama and music theatre.

After moving to Sydney with so much drama and musical experience under his belt, Matt worked as an entertainer at kids’ parties at Fox Studios. He enjoyed this job but yearned for being involved in more meaningful projects. This was when he applied for the role of “Captain Starlight” with Starlight Children’s Foundation, bringing joy to sick children via jokes, magic, music and technology.

This position heralded the beginning Matt’s twelve-year long productive association with Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick where he moved from roles with Starlight Children’s Foundation and Livewire in-hospital program to currently being employed as a music therapist.

Captain Starlight and the Starlight kids

Captain Starlight and a few Starlight kids show off their moves in this music video they made to Justin Timberlake's hit Can't Stop The Feeling!

With thanks to the Starlight Children's Foundation.

Having witnessed the work of a music therapist while on his assignments as a super hero “Captain Starlight”, Matt decided to study a Master of Arts in Music Therapy at UTS – a degree he finished in 2013.

Matt loves his job and has seen the evidence of the transforming effects of music therapy among his young patients. He tells the story of a 12 year-old country boy who was admitted to the hospital in a bad shape after suffering severe injuries after a motorbike accident. It was a very isolating painful experience for the lad.

But Matt, after tapping into the boy’s passion for sport and keen interest in technology, helped the boy create soundtracks to his own video footage of him riding a bike. The clips were broadcast across the whole hospital which made the young patient feel empowered and very proud.  This important experience also sparked the boy’s interest in music and opened possibilities for alterative ways of self-expression.     

“Music can step in at very critical times for patients” as all other distracting mechanisms fail. “It reduces the feeling of loneliness and facilitates communication,” says Matt. Citing the medical evidence of music therapy’s results, Matt refers to the term “courageous copping”. He explains that it refers to music that helps patients to cope with pain courageously, to adopt defensive strategies and to increase their resilience.

He is presently fascinated with the work of Brian Schreck, music therapist Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Centre in the US, who put a microphone into a stethoscope to record a terminally ill patient’s heartbeat and later incorporated it into the patient’s favourite music to preserve the piece as a living memory.

He would like to work on a similar project but admits that it needs to be approached with great sensitivity.

For now, he loves bringing joy into young kids’ hearts. And it does not matter how many times he will hear children’s requests to play Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” and “Let it Go” from the Frozen animated film, as long as it makes their hospital experience a bit more comfortable and in some cases fulfilling, nothing beats that beautiful feeling for Matt!