Van Gogh gets some music therapy

The Music Therapy team at the University of Melbourne was invited to collaborate with the National Gallery of Victoria to provide an experiential music activity for high-school students in response to the NGV’s Van Gogh exhibition. Here’s what happened. 

By Dr Lucy Bolger and Dr Grace Thompson, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

It’s a Friday lunchtime. The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, is filled with visitors coming to see the spectacular works of Van Gogh. The exhibition Van Gogh and the Seasons: The Art of Emotions has been extraordinarily successful and people have travelled and queued for the chance to see the collection. In the Grand Hall, two beautiful, contrasting pieces of Van Gogh’s artwork are projected onto the walls. One is a sparse, muted winter scene, with a dark figure and his dog walking a solitary path through the snow. The second is a lush, vibrant painting of a woodland grove in the spring, dotted with flowers.

Recently, the Music Therapy team at the University of Melbourne was invited to collaborate with the NGV to provide an experiential music activity in response to the NGV’s winter masterpiece exhibition of the work of Van Gogh. The program was intended to support high-school students engage creatively with the exhibition. As music therapists, we recognise that music is a powerful tool for exploring emotions, particularly in adolescence, and we leapt at this opportunity to explore the theme of the exhibition – “the art of emotion” – through music.

Photo: Sav Schulman

Scattered around the Great Hall are small groups of students, buzzing quietly with conversation, surrounded by paper, pens and musical instruments. From around the room we hear sporadic clangs and chimes; an occasional burst of laughter; brief musical phrases that swell and subside. Every now and then, the groups look up at the artwork with a new flurry of activity or a questioning eye.

Two or three music therapy masters students sit among each small group of high-school students, asking questions and giving suggestions, gently drawing out ideas and sounds from the young people. As a group, they draw together a musical response to the artwork they see on the walls.

This project was also an engagement opportunity for our Melbourne University Masters students, a chance for them to apply their developing skills in facilitation, songwriting and improvisation. In pairs, each student facilitated one of three different activities designed to explore Van Gogh’s work through music and narrative.

Two groups used song-writing, allowing the structure of familiar songs to scaffold an exploratory process of lyric writing. Two groups developed a radio-play based on the work, using music and sound to give voice to the emotions of their story based on the artwork. And two groups created a soundscape, allowing freely improvised music and a visual score to directly represent their responses to the art.

Photo: Sav Schulman

The high-school students responded impressively to the tasks at hand, offering creative ideas and exploring various ways to represent emotion through music. Their teachers expressed amazement at their students’ engagement and enthusiasm in response to such “new” tasks, and commented on how much was achieved in such a short period of time.

Suddenly there is an increase in intensity and activity. Groups start to arrange themselves and the sounds become more organised. The students are practising. After only an hour, the groups come together and form an audience for each other, sharing their music and creative responses to the cheers and applause of their teachers and peers.

They have produced diverse music – creative, thoughtful, funny, reserved – exploring Van Gogh from many angles, placing themselves inside of the paintings and using music and sound to express the emotions of the art.

Main image: The Music Therapy team assembles at the NGV. Photo: Sav Schulman