My journey into music therapy: Van Gogh with school students

Music for health and wellbeing


During the month of June, the National Gallery of Victoria education department partnered with the University of Melbourne music therapy department to host a two-day interactive program for high school students. As a collaboration with the Van Gogh: The Seasons exhibition, two selected paintings of the famous artist were the centrepieces from which participating students were encouraged to express their interpretations using various methods in music-making. Natasha Lin was one of 15 music therapy students who volunteered to assist on the day.

There were 90 students participating on the day I helped out at the National Gallery of Victoria, and our group of budding music therapists was comparatively small. But – with the ability to be flexible, and adapt our various strengths and skills in response to different settings and requirements – we proved a small but mighty group!

We further subdivided into smaller groups so that we could work as a team, and help support each other on the day. Each group focused on a particular music-making method: radio-play, lyric substitution, or visual-soundscape scoring. My group focused on lyric substitution, which is substituting lyrics of a pre-existing song with one’s own lyrics.

For the day, our goals were to lead our school groups into performance, with only 50 minutes of preparation. Considering we didn’t know how large the group would be, what personalities the students may bring, and what the overall group dynamic might be like on the day, there were a lot of unknown factors at play. To do this with a very strict and limited duration was a huge task!

However, we were well prepared. After our group meetings, we had a plan. Given that lyric-substitution required a pre-existing song to work from, we selected approximately six songs from the top charts that teenagers were most familiar with, and established our individual roles in the group. In my group of three, we had a main facilitator, co-facilitator, and general support. I volunteered to be the general support, one of the reasons being that I have had experience in facilitating groups and wanted to step aside for others in my team. So, my main role was to oversee the entire process for our group, to ensure progress and general time-keeping for the day.

The day arrived. With our plans, and instruments wheeled across the road from the Victorian College of the Arts to the National Gallery of Victoria, we were ready.

The high school students were as eager as we were, anticipating what was to come. After a warm-up with a musical ice-breaker, our teams finally met the students randomly assigned to us. My team had 10 students; a manageable figure between the three of us.

Our team’s main facilitator started off by introducing us and our task ahead. We were responding to Van Gogh’s Spring artwork, and using sheets of butcher’s paper and textas, the students were encouraged to brainstorm a few thoughts, feelings, and ideas that the painting inspired in them.

No matter who you are, it is so important to be heard, acknowledged, and respected – actions that are sometimes so easily taken for granted

Scanning our group, I noticed a young boy who was seated slightly further away from the others, and was silently drawing in his notebook. I sat next to him, gently introduced myself. I gently explained to him the goals for the group, and whether he might have some ideas as to how the painting makes him feel. At first, he was silent, but afterwards, he responded – and his responses were incredibly raw, deep, and insightful. I asked whether he’d like his words to be added and shared with the group on the butcher’s paper. He hesitated, then said yes, but only if I write for him. Gradually, the boy sat closer to the group and started to speak and interact with others, and I assisted in supporting him by ensuring he was heard. This process further confirmed my belief in that no matter who you are, it is so important to be heard, acknowledged, and respected – actions that are sometimes so easily taken for granted.

After our brainstorm, my team proposed a few songs as pre-selected for the day, and the group was more inclined to lyric-substitute Ed Sheeran’s Photograph. Done. We then had a look at our brainstorm, and cut up the phrases and words that stood out most, and for the next 20 minutes we entered the meaty stage of the preparation: writing the lyrics. Sometimes, there was a lull in the process, and I would step in to encourage the students – probing them with thoughts and structure so that progress, and most importantly, decisions, were made. Our facilitators also had the difficult task to keep the momentum going, but with the natural drive of the song and the sound of the guitar, the group had a product in the end.

Finally, each group performed their musical products to one another, and I felt that the camaraderie, support, and encouragement from their peers and onlookers at the NGV further boosted the confidence for these students. An ability to be able to show a product at the end of a very intense preparation process, and further as a first-time experience, was an incredible feat. Their laughter, hugs, and the work they all put into this program only went to show its positivity, and the limitless potential music can have on the collaborative nature of human interaction.

I experienced a proud moment when I saw the boy I supported – who was initially reluctant to participate – initiated further participation by speaking to the crowd and being part of the final group performance.

Now that’s music to the ears!

About Natasha Lin

Natasha Lin is a Melbourne concert pianist who is training in a Master in Music Therapy. This is the second story in her series about music and health. Natasha has spent professional placements in a Special Development School, working with young people with disabilities; at a major hospital in Geriatric and Rehabilitation Departments; and in a hospital’s Palliative Care and Oncology Unit. Her supervisor is an internationally respected Registered Music Therapist.


CutCommon is a proud member of the Arts Wellbeing Collective, where you can find out more about health and wellbeing in the Australian arts industry. For youth mental health support, visit headspace.

You can also find out more about this program on the University of Melbourne website.


National Gallery of Victoria image credit: Travis via Flickr CC2.0. Featured painting by Van Gogh.

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