When music therapist and educator

Ebony & ivory, perfect harmony
A Darwin choir born from a music therapy program unites black and white,
health worker and patient – gloriously
Tina Broad
When music therapist and educator
“Pat’s brief was for me to provide
Anja Tait first touched down in the Top
an opportunity for people to express
End just over a decade ago, she received
their stories in sound, movement and
some earthy advice which set the tone
voice. She wanted both staff and clients
for her new life in the tropics. Advice
to be able to experience some relief
that struck a chord then and resounds
from the kind of personal distress
even now.
which often impacts upon family and
This was 1994 but Anja remembers it
community relationships.
like yesterday. Her reception committee
“Pat’s observation was that Indigenous
of one that day was Renate Marek, the
families rarely seek emotional support
colleague who had lured her north. “She The Saltwater Singers (Anja Tait is third from the right)
from professionals and she thought that
met me at the airport, handed over the
expressive arts therapies such as music
keys to her Toyota Hi-Ace and said: ‘I’m off to the Kimberley. might be an effective conduit for a community of people for
Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Just be yourself. People will see whom arts is life. Pat surmised that if people had a positive expestraight through anything else. They’ll let you know soon rience, then they would be more inclined to seek out or recomenough if you’ve made a mistake. And don’t forget, people vote mend that family members accept professional support.”
with their feet. If you still have someone with you at the end of
For the next two years, Anja worked part-time with the DDHS
your session, then you’re doing okay’.”
Social and Emotional Wellbeing Centre to provide music therapy
Anja started the ignition, turned out of the carpark and to urban Aborigines. Music therapy was offered on an individual
towards whatever fate awaited her.
and group basis as a creative alternative to mainstream coun“I drove down the red dusty track, past the sign that said seling approaches.
‘Adelaide 3000km south’, to a residential care centre to work with
One of Anja’s group music therapy programs spawned
a group of older Indigenous men with dementia. Together we Saltwater Singers, a community singing group initiated and
played and sang, laughed and reminisced our way through a controlled by Aborigines which welcomed participation from
repertoire of country and western songs and many of the people of any colour – the only prerequisite was a willingness
favourite hymns that had sustained these men back in harsh days to sing. Most of them were members of Darwin’s Indigenous
as young children in the mission.”
community working as health professionals, managers, policy
Fast-forward to 2000 and Anja is flight-hopping in light planes officers and educators. The group met on a weekly basis and, with
throughout the Northern Territory, dropping in on urban, rural Anja’s guidance, was introduced to voice care, vocal technique,
and remote school communities, traveling with little more than music reading, unison and part singing, songwriting, ensemble
a can-do attitude. She works with families, schools, visiting health skills, rehearsal and performance strategies. She describes it as “an
professionals and community members. Her goal, she says, is explicit music therapy process, using community participation as
“to enable participation in music experiences that help people a strategy for addressing the identified physical and emotional
optimise learning, health and wellbeing”.
needs of employees in a highly stressful workplace”.
In September that year Anja received a call from Pat Anderson,
In the audience at an early Saltwater Singers performance was
then head of Danila Dilba Health Service (DDHS), inviting her to DDHS medical officer Dr Jessie Johnston.
work with staff and clients at this busy Darwin medical centre.
“It was entrancing,” Jessie remembers. “I had known that Anja
Today Anderson is the executive officer of the Aboriginal Medical was providing music therapy within the service and that many
Services Alliance NT and chairs the board of management for the staff members had joined the singing group for their own
Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, a consortium recreation, but I was unprepared for how moved I was at that
of universities and research centres whose charter is to address the performance. I was so taken with how Anja had managed to lead
chronic health problems of Australia’s Aborigines.
this bunch of people, many of whom had little or no musical
Singing together every
week was a beautiful
way to wind down
and relax together.
It allowed us all to
connect with each
other … as friends
and colleagues
experience, and teach them to play and sing and follow her so
precisely. She had picked a simple but really effective repertoire.
There were people from the wider community, some clinic
patients and many of our staff – some white fellas but mainly our
Indigenous colleagues. It was wonderful. I knew the group was
looking for more members. ”
Saltwater Singers had themselves a new member. “How could
they hold me back?” laughs Jessie. “I’ve always loved singing, I’m
learning the cello. I guess I was reticent because I was already so
very busy. But the thing I appreciated most over the life of the
project was the chance to do something with the staff where
I wasn’t ‘Jessie the Doctor’.
“Working in a professional, medical role you can seem rather
closed off and anxious. It was so enjoyable for me that people could
see me in a totally different way. I think that was really valuable.
“There were about 15 of us. Singing together every week was
a beautiful way to wind down and relax together. It allowed us all
to connect with each other, away from the stresses and pressures
of always thinking about the patients first – and gave us something for ourselves, as friends and colleagues.”
The crowning achievement was Saltwater Singers’ invitation
to the Bendigo Gospel Music Festival, where they presented their
The Saltwater Singers in concert
own songs and joined 500 choristers from throughout Australia
for a large-scale performance under the direction of acapella
guru Tony Backhouse.
Anja says the trip to regional Victoria left a lasting impression
on all of them.
Local elder and lay preacher, Ralph Day, agrees that the experience had a profound effect on participants.
“Because we fit into the [Top End] culture so easily, [in
Victoria] we were sensitive to the fact that eyes were on us because
we’re Aboriginal. For us to come away and for the people in the
south to see us representing an Aboriginal people was an inspiration. So many times you see the negative side of Aboriginal people
but this brought out a positive and something that was going to
be a help to our people.” ■
Music. Play for Life is the Music Council of Australia’s national
campaign to encourage more Australians to make music. In
each issue, arts + medicine profiles a music therapy case study
which demonstrates the link between music and wellbeing.
Further reading
www.musicplayforlife.org and www.austmta.org.au
Urban Aboriginal Artist Co-operative est. 1987
55 – 59 Flood Street LEICHHARDT (opp. Leichhardt Marketplace)
Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday or by appointment
Phone: 02 95602541 Email: [email protected]
Jeffrey Samuels (Boomalli Chairperson) Dancin’ up rain