In 1959, Clive Robbins, a special needs teacher from England, teamed up with American composer, Paul Nordoff to pioneer an extraordinary new way of reaching and engaging disabled children through musical improvisation. Music therapy was almost unheard of at this time and today it represents a force in contemporary music which has established roots all over the globe.
Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy, is both a philosophy and a practical craft, based on a deep insight into the transformative power of music in human experience. The improvisational approach to music therapy which Robbins pioneered with Nordoff has influenced the entire professional field, extending well beyond the range of those who were trained specifically in the Nordoff Robbins approach.
Today Nordoff Robbins is a major music industry charity comprising two separate organisations in the UK – one in Scotland and one covering England and Wales. Nordoff Robbins is also recognised around the world for training and educating students in music therapy, for evaluating the impact of its services and for carrying out research in the field.
Born into a baker’s family on 23 July 1927 in Handsworth, Birmingham, Clive Robbins grew up in a confusion of family relationships caused by the social strategies adopted to hide the shame of illegitimacy in England at that time. It was not until Clive was seventeen that he discovered that the woman he had always been told was his older sister was actually his mother. The lack of a normal maternal relationship created a profound disorientation that left him in search of meaning and purpose.
The unhappiness of his childhood was compounded by the disruption of the second world war, when he was sent away to foster parents. It was during this time he developed his lifelong passion for music, listening to classical music and taking piano lessons.
A serious injury in the RAF at the age of 18 nearly killed Clive and he survived with partial paralysis of his left hand and arm, which spelled the end of his days as a pianist. His creative talents led him to photography and painting but this was not where his real passion lay.
In 1954 Clive became a teacher at Sunfield Children’s Homes, a Rudolf Steiner ‘curative educational community’ for mentally disabled children in the Midlands. He described it as “the first profoundly fulfilling experience of my life”. By now married to Mildred and with two children, Tobias and Jennifer, the family lived in the grounds of the school in a small trailer.
It was in 1958 at Sunfield that Clive met Paul Nordoff, who was an eminent American composer and pianist. Paul Nordoff was always fascinated by Steiner’s philosophy, known as anthroposophy, and was so impressed by what he found at Sunfield that he returned the following year to explore his growing interest in the therapeutic potential of music.
The nine months that Paul Nordoff spent at Sunfield in 1959-60 working with Clive Robbins were life-changing. The two men quickly formed a close relationship and together they carried out experimental musical work with many of the most disabled and unreachable children who bore tragic lives of distress and self-injury. With the help of carefully chosen harmonies, appealing melodies and rhythms, the children were drawn into musical participation and began to develop increased social and self awareness, as well as discipline and concentration. Placed in front of a snare drum and cymbal, they revealed their sensitivities and their expressive, receptive and relational abilities in their musical responses. It was a profound discovery of how music could be used for human benefit and Paul and Clive documented their observations and techniques in painstaking detail, making and transcribing recordings of their sessions.
When Paul left Sunfield in June 1960 Clive accompanied him, gripped by the urge to continue the important work they had started. They set off across Europe, visiting 26 curative homes and giving illustrated presentations and live demonstrations of their work, before arriving in the USA where they spent the next six years in Philadelphia exploring and establishing the work which they called therapy in music. A major five year research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health supported them in this. This was followed by seven years in Europe where Paul and Clive worked as Lecturing Fellows of the American-Scandinavian Foundation from 1967 to 1974. This period saw the fruition of their work together with teaching engagements across Europe, the evolution of music therapy training for musicians, publications and television documentaries about their work.
In 1974 Paul and Clive’s partnership ended, largely for personal reasons following a period of strained relations. In the UK a foothold for the work had by then been established by a dedicated follower, Sybil Beresford-Peirse, a remarkable lady already in her sixties who, with the involvement and mentoring of Paul and Clive, set up a centre for the work at Goldie Leigh Hospital in South London. This comprised a clinical practice for disabled children and in 1974 the first full-time Nordoff Robbins training programme began. In succeeding years the generous support of the UK music industry enabled Sybil’s establishment to grow and flourish, with the charity being formally established in 1980.
In 1975, Clive returned to the US where he married his second wife Carol, also a music therapist. His huge energy, previously devoted to his life and work with Paul, transferred to his new partnership. Together Clive and Carol worked at the New York Sate School for the Deaf (1975-81), and then as Meadows Distinguished Visiting Professors of Music Therapy at Southern Methodist University, Dallas (1981-82). They gave many courses and lectures and maintained ties in Europe with annual teaching engagements. From 1982 until 1989 they lived in Australia where they established a Music Therapy Centre at Warrah, and a Nordoff Robbins Association in Australia.
In 1989 a dream was fulfilled with the establishment of the Nordoff Robbins Center for Music Therapy at New York University, of which Clive and Carol became Co-Directors. Financed by the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Foundation in America (founded in 1988) and supported by Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy in the UK, the new Centre served both as a music therapy clinic and a training venue for music therapists in the Nordoff Robbins approach. Here Clive stayed active until his death in 2011, becoming Founding Director in 1998.
Throughout his latter years Clive remained dynamic – practising, teaching, writing and lecturing. After Carol’s untimely death in 1996, Clive married another music therapist, Kaoru, with whom he worked and lectured. In recent years Clive was particularly active in the Far East, lecturing in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. It was on this particular continent where he gained international recognition for his teaching of clinical resources, his research into processes of music therapy, and for his commitment to higher standards of clinical practice, creativity and musicianship in music therapy.
Clive’s gift was to help Paul Nordoff harness his musicianship, set a direction, documenting the work and finding a language for communicating their ideas. By the end of his life, beloved around the world across a variety of cultures, Clive had inspired thousands with his love, emotion and sensitivity, his embracing personality and humanistic values. His often rapturous descriptions of the power of music and its impact on the emotional states of human experience were profoundly moving to the many who heard and shared his passion for music and people.
Clive saw the establishment in 1996 of the International Trust for Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy which came into being to preserve the name and reputation of Nordoff Robbins and to hold the worldwide intellectual property assets arising from the work of Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins. He held honorary doctorates from Combs College of Music, Philadelphia, the University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany, and the State University of New York.
Clive co-authored many publications including Music Therapy for Handicapped Children, Therapy in Music for Handicapped Children, Music Therapy in Special Education, Music for the Hearing Impaired and Other Special Groups, as well as songs and musical plays for children.
Clive is survived by Kaoru his third wife, two children from his first marriage, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and by the global community of Nordoff Robbins music therapists – all heirs to his knowledge and life’s work.
Clive Robbins, born Birmingham, 23 July 1927, died New York, 7 December 2011.