Why It Matters: exploring the phenomenal power of music at Nordoff Robbins

Music therapist Phil Evans on a hidden corner of NW5 that is also a global hub for people from all walks of life

Photograph: John Mashall
Phil Evans: “Our weekly sessions provide a space to find your voice”. Photograph: John Mashall

Whilst I’d often trekked up the Highgate Road from Kentish Town to my home in Highgate, I’d never noticed the unassuming Georgian house partially hidden by trees on the green between Lissenden Gardens and Glenhurst Avenue. That was until one spring morning I found myself inside, sax in hand, auditioning for a masters degree in music therapy at Nordoff Robbins.

The UK’s leading music therapy charity, Nordoff Robbins was founded by American composer Paul Nordoff and English special education teacher Clive Robbins fifty years ago, who both shared an innate belief in the power of music to be able to transform the lives of anyone, however ill or vulnerable.

The house – and the large power station behind it – was transformed into the charity’s UK’s headquarters over twenty years ago, funded largely from the proceeds of a history-making 1990 Knebworth concert that included Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and Elton John.

89_CroploAs well as being a working centre, the Kentish Town HQ is a global hub of music therapy research and home to a vibrant education department, training nearly thirty Masters and PhD music therapy students at any one time. The course is incredibly competitive. However at the audition my life experience seemed to go in my favour and after two years’ training and two more as a fully-fledged therapist, I’m glad to say the centre has become a home from home.


So what actually goes on there? Well – sing, play, shout, clap, laugh, cry; we all respond to music. It can connect us, move us, remind us who we are and change the way we think and feel.

My job as a music therapist is therefore to harness that universal response – using the power music has to communicate – and in doing so, change us. If you look through the wrought iron gates at the inconspicuous entrance to the centre off Lissenden Gardens, you may spy a commissioned sculpture on the front wall of the building of a child reaching up to play a drum. This is the essence of what music can do – it motivates, activates, liberates.

Day to day, I work with a huge range of clients at the centre, from adults and children with learning disabilities or mental health issues, to children who have suffered abuse, who are on the autistic spectrum or who might find their ability to interact with the world around them impaired by any number of other challenges.

We don’t use a one-size-fits-all musical formula: just as each person is unique, so is the music we play with each client or group. So, for example, with one client, an adult in his 60s with learning difficulties, our weekly sessions provide a space where he has found “his voice” – singing the songs of his youth with huge expressivity and confidence. Music therapy draws him out of isolation; his carer has described our sessions as a lifeline as they’re sometimes the only time he ventures out of his Camden-funded supported accommodation each week.

In another session for two children with profound disabilities from a Kentish Town school, our music will be largely improvised in order for me to help make whatever they are able to sing or play communicative and meaningful: where there are no words, the language of music is understood.

Many of these clients are local and the centre has very strong links with its surrounding area, including local mainstream schools which bring many children to centre each week for both group and individual therapy.

Photograph: Dean Fardelllo
“Sing, play, shout, clap, laugh, cry; we all respond to music”. Photograph: Dean Fardelllo
We also have partnerships with local mental health services and provide drop-in groups at the centre, for example for mothers with post natal depression, using music to help them bond with their babies. We even have a flourishing community choir, attended and enjoyed by about 30 local residents each week.

Ever-increasing demand means the centre attracts clients from all over London and further afield. In-fact, the charity funds music therapists and units across the UK, delivering over 50,000 music therapy sessions every year.

Since it made its home in Kentish Town two decades ago, the centre has expanded around the corner to Spectrum House in Gordon House Road, housing a fundraising and admin team tasked with continuing to raise the considerable funds needed to keep the charity going each year. Among many facets of their work, they help to maintain Nordoff Robbins’ long association with the music industry, and have brought many famous faces – from Tim Jones to Emeli Sande – to the Kentish Town HQ to watch sessions and see first-hand just how music therapy in this hidden corner of NW5 continues to transform countless lives.

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  • Show Comments

  • Gilo

    fascinating – I’d never heard of this

  • Harriet Powell

    Just to add to Phil’s excellent description of the work of Nordoff Robbins and its work in Camden. One of the strong links with the local area is the music therapy that Nordoff Robbins offers in Kentish Town and other parts of Camden with older people, many with dementia, in residential care-homes and day centres. Over the last 10 years I have met an extraordinary range of Camden residents whose musical life stories teach me new songs every week and they surprise themselves with new musical experiences.

  • Norma Gallagher

    The Nordoff Robbins music therapy annual fundraiser O2 Silver Clef Awards will be held on June 28th 2013 at the London Hilton, Park Lane.