Woza Africa! UP School of Arts hosts World Congress of Music Therapy

Posted on July 10, 2020


The School of Arts at the University of Pretoria (UP) recently hosted the 16th World Congress of Music Therapy (WCMT) in collaboration with the South African Music Therapy Association (SAMTA) and the World Federation of Music Therapy (WFMT).

UP playing host to this international congress is befitting considering that the University’s Master’s in Music Therapy programme celebrated its 21st anniversary in February this year. This year’s WCMT congress, which took place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the first event of its kind to be hosted in Africa, and brought together music therapy and community art practitioners, art therapists, health professionals and educators.

Held every three years, the congress is hosted by a member of the WFMT, which was formally established in 1985 in Genoa, Italy during the second WCMT. The first congress was hosted in Paris, France in 1974.

The theme of this year’s congress was “Polyrhythms of Music Therapy”, and invited dialogue and debate, reflection on resources and resilience, and contextual sensitivity. According to event coordinator Dr Carol Lotter, the congress was sold out, with about 1 000 delegates from 59 countries participating and other eager attendees placed on a waiting list. “The congress intended to honour diversity; promote decolonisation; value debate and difference; recognise and strengthen resources and resilience; hear silenced voices and invite new voices; grow music therapy with consideration for context; and champion relevant social issues,” Dr Lotter said.

“From the beginning of time, Africa has moved to the rhythms and sounds that gave birth to civilisation,” it reads on the WFMT’s website. “The cradle of humankind pulsates with the music of life, and life on the continent is inextricably tied to music. From marking life events such as birth and death and the celebration of marriage, to teaching our little ones to count and competing against each other in sports events, music is the golden thread of continuity in our lives. The polyrhythms of Africa hold a diversity of music, expression, and possibility.”

The programme included 227 diverse presentations from the local and global music therapy community, as well as two daily spotlight sessions and a student seminar.

“This event solidifies the role that South Africa plays in the field of music therapy and opens new possibilities for global collaborations,” said Professor Alexander Johnson, Head of the School of the Arts, in a press statement. “The congress richly advances our understanding of the contribution of therapeutic musical relationships towards personal and social wellbeing.” 

Dr Andeline dos Santos of UP’s School of the Arts was one of the spotlight speakers, and delivered a presentation about ethical empathies in music therapy training. Music therapy training necessarily involves grappling with issues of ethics, and empathy is a key factor in the ethical decision-making process. Empathy, however, is not always a pro-social phenomenon, and a nuanced understanding of the relationship between empathy and ethics is necessary. Dr dos Santos drew from a study she had conducted with a group of Music Therapy master’s students. More ethical and more violent forms of self-empathy, resonant empathy, reflective empathy, translational empathy and relational empathy were observed in participants’ expressions and engagements. A map of empathies was then developed that can serve various purposes. It can invite music therapy students (and practising music therapists) to ask themselves what form(s) of empathies might be most appropriate in a given context and when empathy could be taking on a violent form. It also offers possibilities for reflection on how a certain type of empathy could serve the needs of a client; and how a particular path may or may not align with one’s value system and theoretical orientation.

The four spotlight sessions comprised of the following themes: “Access and Empowerment”, presented by Marisol Norris (USA), Hiroko Miyake (Japan), Rene Nassen (SA) and Daphne Rickson (New Zealand); “Advances in Music Therapy Research”, presented by Indra Selvarajah (Malaysia), Felicity Baker (Australia), Gary Ansdell (UK), Michael Viega (US) and Jinah Kim (Korea); Ethical Challenges in Music Therapy, presented by Werdie van Staden (SA), Debbie Bates (US), Amy Clements-Cortes (Canada) and Andeline dos Santos (SA); and Innovation in Music Therapy Practice, presented by Andrew Knight (US), Viggo Kruger (Norway), Anette Whitehead-Pleaux (US) and Joanne Loewy (US).

Given the unprecedented interest, organisers have archived the presentations and will make them available for public viewing until the end of August.

The student sessions were another highlight of the congress. A total of 225 students – from SA, Nigeria, India and China to the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and several European and South American countries – participated in these sessions, which included the presentation of student posters, engaging in seminars, and opportunities for students to meet on the online platform.  

“While we were disappointed that we could not meet in person, the online platform still provided the experience of an in-person event by virtue of the fact that we had 203 presentations scheduled in 12 parallel sessions,” said Dr Lotter. “Each presentation was followed by a live discussion where delegates could pose questions and the presenters could offer further insights. The papers presented at this congress took hold of the theme in fresh, innovative and intentional ways.”

Despite the global pandemic, the congress went off without a hitch and served as a valuable event through which music therapists and participants could connect and share ideas. The next congress will be held in Melbourne, Australia in July 2023. 

- Author Dominique Niemand

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