MusicWorks changes children’s lives through music

MusicECD600MusicWorks runs an Early Childhood Development Programme. (Images: MusicWorks)

It was over a decade ago that children in the impoverished Heideveld community were so desperate to join in the Music Therapy Community Clinic’s programme being held at their school that they were knocking on the doors and windows, pleading to be let in.

This story is recounted by Sunelle Fouché, who, along with Kerryn Torrance, founded non-governmental organisation (NGO) MusicWorks, which aims to heal children traumatised by violence, poverty and neglect through music therapy. Provide a feeling of belonging, an avenue for creativity and instilling a positive sense of self, music therapy offers a powerful and versatile intervention for children in impoverished communities afflicted by substance abuse and crime.

The Safe Schools committee in Heideveld (an education department initiative) approached Torrance in 2002 to do music therapy groups with children who had been exposed to violence. Later that year Fouché joined Torrance, and it became clear that music therapy could be a valuable intervention for children growing up in violent communities.

Soon they were receiving positive feedback from teachers so when the funding from the Education Department ended, the two decided to continue with their work and to source funding elsewhere. This lead to the formation of the Music Therapy Community Clinic, which in 2014 became MusicWorks.

Fouché and Torrance continued to offer group and individual music therapy sessions to children referred to them by teachers in the Heideveld community.

“Soon children at the school were knocking on the doors and windows of the therapy room as the music was happening, pleading to be allowed to join in. Contrary to the stigma that often surrounds ‘therapy’, these children were desperate to be allowed to be part of the music-making,” she says.

“This lead to the development of the Music for Life programme which started off with a choir and drumming circles. Today, this programme continues to offer after-school music activities where children not only learn a musical skill, but where they can also access a safe space, experience a sense of belonging, and explore an identity that is linked to enjoyment, co-creating, and cohesion.

“As the work developed we started receiving invitations from other community-based organisations to implement our programmes with the children in their care. The organisation grew from a need within communities and we started employing music therapists, community musicians and administrative staff in order to develop and implement the programmes.

“Rather than having a fixed premises, programmes are run on the premises of community-based organisations (schools, places of safety, day-care centres, hospitals, palliative-care centres, child and youth care facilities) who have invited us. We adjust our programmes to serve the specific needs of the children in each of our partner organisations.”



The Music Therapy Programme offers small group and individual music therapy sessions to children who have experienced trauma that affects their social and emotional development. This includes exposure to violence at home or in the community, and neglect or abandonment and the effects of illness such as HIV and Aids. It affects their ability to regulate and control their emotions as well as how they relate to others.

Fouché says, “Many of the referrals that come our way are children acting out and being aggressive. Children imitate the behaviour they see around them and so the cycle of violence is perpetuated. When making music together, group members listen to each other’s musical contributions, they have to wait their turn, and they take turns in being the leader and at other times, follow. Within a safe and trusting space, and while making music and being creative, children have the opportunity to explore different ways of relating to their peers – both musically and socially.

“Furthermore, making music allows for opportunities to express a range of emotions in a non-verbal way. This … allows for children to express the emotion in a space and musical structure that is safely contained by the music therapist. More importantly, as sessions progress, conversations about difficult emotions allow children to develop a vocabulary which could enable them to express themselves more clearly as well as begin to assert a sense of control over their emotional life.”

Children are referred by teachers, nurses, doctors, and social workers from schools, hospitals, paediatric palliative care settings, places of safety, and child and youth care facilities.

Music therapists run weekly group or individual music therapy sessions with the children for between 10 and 20 weeks (sometimes even longer). The therapeutic goals are determined by the needs of each child.

For the children in palliative care, music therapy serves a very different purpose. Many of the children referred for music therapy have a range of disabilities. The effects of illness and neglect have rendered them unable to communicate and engage with the world around them. Here music is used as a way of non-verbal communication.

Fouché talks about six-year-old Elijah* who suffers from acute and debilitating cerebral palsy, and who was also severely neglected and malnourished. The music therapist saw he was always lying in his bed, quiet and isolated from the world. As music therapy sessions progressed Elijah started making vocal sounds related to what the therapist was singing and they began to interact musically. In one of the sessions, Elijah sang in a deeply connected manner, to the surprise and delight of staff members. Music allowed others to engage with Elijah, as nurses started using singing and vocal games as a way of communicating with him.


The Music for Life programme provides various after-school music activities, such as drumming and marimba bands, gumboot dancing and choirs to young people living in Heideveld, Lavender Hill and Nyanga in the Western Cape. Weekly rehearsals are led by community musicians and songs from various cultures are incorporated. The children’s input is encouraged and valued, and community music events and annual concerts are staged. The music groups provide safe spaces where children are able to experience a sense of belonging and connection.

The programme also focuses on training young people from the communities to run music groups with younger children. Young people with both musical ability and leadership potential are identified, mentored and taught how to facilitate music groups that not only transfer musical skills, but also enhance the children’s self-esteem.

“We have been inspired by the enthusiasm with which the young leaders have taken on this task,” Fouché says. “They have grown up in the communities and understand the challenges that the children face, and they are dedicated to their goal of having a positive impact on the social fabric of their communities.

“Through the staging of music events and annual concerts, parents and other community members are able to witness and celebrate their children. It is through the sharing of music that the community draws together and creates a powerful alternative to the hopelessness that often permeates under-resourced communities.

“The programme allows children who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument and helps them to develop socially and emotionally, while using music as a vehicle to bring about social change.”


The Early Childhood Development Programme offers training to teachers and childcare workers on how to use music in their classroom based on the VIP principle. Using this principle, the children (aged between two and six) are valued as Very Important People (VIPs) who need to be seen, heard and acknowledged.

The programme also offers Creative Music Facilitation training to teachers, carers, social workers, community workers or musicians, and equips them with the tools to conduct creative music-making sessions with children in their care. “Empowering carers with creative resources and music-making facilitates the critical early development of the child, enhancing and enriching the child’s emotional and social development,” she says.

“From a health perspective, science – specifically the field of neurobiology – is telling us that the experience of a traumatic event (and in the communities we work, ongoing trauma) changes the structures of the brain which in turn effects how children are able to function in the world on an emotional, social, psychological level.

“From a psycho-social perspective research… children growing up in violent communities are more likely to become perpetrators of violence or remain victims later in life. Families and schools in these communities are under pressure and are not able to provide the psycho-social support the children so desperately need.

MWforlifeMusic therapy is used to heal traumatised children“A recent study done by University of Western Cape (An Exploration into the Impact of Exposure to Community Violence and Hope on Children’s Perceptions of Well-Being: A South African Perspective) found hope to be a stronger predictor of child wellbeing than exposure to community violence.

“Our aim is for our music interventions to have a direct impact on the choices that children make for their own lives; to create opportunities for them to access internal and external resources; and to have an impact on their general sense of well-being. We believe that this will lead to a stronger, more resourceful generation of young people who will become contributing members of society. “

In South Africa, music therapy is a recognised healthcare profession and music therapists are registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. Music therapists must have a masters degree in music therapy. Currently the only training that leads to registration with the HPCSA is through the University of Pretoria’s Music Therapy Unit.

“MusicWorks’s intervention is based on music therapy theory and principles and over the past decade we have developed a practice that is adaptable to the various contexts in which we work and sensitive to the specific needs of the beneficiaries in our target communities,” Fouche says.

MusicWorks’s innovative programmes have been recognised locally and internationally and in 2010 the organisation received a silver award from the Impumelelo Innovations Trust, as well as the Innovations Award from Mentor International, an organisation founded by the Queen of Sweden. Its programmes have also been featured in several international academic journals and textbooks in the field of music therapy and community music as good-practice examples of community music therapy work.


•Sponsor a child to receive music therapy sessions or to participate in Music for Life groups.

•Donate to MusicWorks: regular monthly contributions enable the organisation to budget and plan the logistics necessary to create safe spaces.

•Play it Forward concerts are inspired by the film Pay it Forward. A music concert is “passed on” in a chain reaction of goodwill, raising funds and increasing exposure for MusicWorks. Concert formats are diverse – from home concerts to school halls, amateur musicians to professionals, chamber concerts, orchestras and choirs. So if you are a musician, event organiser, interested community member or simply someone who loves music, we invite you to Play it Forward and organise the next concert.

•Volunteer: MusicWorks is currently recruiting volunteers for 2015. Check the website for details , or email, or phone (021) 671 5196(021) 671 5196.

* Name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.

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