(1/2) For the past 20 years Geelong’s Peter Roberts has been the only Music Thanatologist in Australia. He plays the harp, one to one, to people at the end of their lives. He also plays for babies and the ill. ‘I was a furniture retailer and I’d worked in the retail business for 31 years. Feeling dissatisfied and close to 50, I decided that if I was going to make a change in my life, it had to be soon. That was 20 years ago.
‘An incident took me over the edge. I went to an interior design exhibition where I was invited onto a stand by a chatty salesman. I noticed his striking turquoise eyes, then I noticed he was wearing a suit to match. He’d obviously put in coloured contacts just to get this effect. Such shallowness was all too much for me and I hurriedly left as I couldn’t bare it anymore. I feel this was the turning point. Jeannette, my wife, told me, “If you keep doing this you will become unwell.”
‘Not long after that I went to Macedon to visit a customer of ours and on the way home stopped in at my friend Andy Rigby’s. Andy was a harpist and multi-instrumentalist and had instruments everywhere in his home. He had read an article in a harp magazine on spirituality and music and had kept it aside to lend to me. The article talked of a two-year training program in Montana to become a Music Thanatologist.
‘So, I found myself visiting the school based in a hospital in Missoula, Montana, USA. Missoula was a University town full of very interesting people and was situated on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The school taught a different way of offering music. One phrase that appealed greatly to me was they were “anointing people with sound”. I was invited to sit in on a class, then to sing with them. I was in tears because their singing was so beautiful, I had a sense of feeling that I had arrived home.
‘Three months later I was accepted and faced a huge decision. How would I make this move with a wife, teenage daughters and a business to run? But we did it, we took the risk. We left our jobs, the girls left school and we rented out our house. When we left, we didn’t even have the correct visas. Visas arrived while we were in Hawaii but through a serious mistake I was given only a Student Visa, so while there we couldn’t work as planned and had to live off our own resources for the two years. I played the didgeridoo in those days and when the town’s people found out about this I was invited to play and give talks about the instrument. I ended up sourcing digeridoos for eager Americans.
‘The study was so hard I had trouble keeping up. The school brought experts in from across America- academics, a rabbi, priests, Buddhist monks, doctors etc. There was an underlying sacredness about the training, without religious overtones, more a spirituality. I learnt the harp. My teacher was young and elegant with long fingers and I felt like an oaf. The reality of playing for someone at the end of their life wasn’t in my mind to begin with. It was the music that had drawn me.
‘Gradually through commitment and hard work I completed the course becoming Australia’s only Music Thanatologist. When I arrived home I thought the hospitals would welcome what I was offering, but nobody seemed to understand. So, that led me to found the charity ‘The Institute of Music in Medicine’ to support my work in hospital situations where it wasn’t funded. www.facebook.com/InstituteOfMusicInMedicine I dreamed of setting up a training program here in Australia but I have realised we’d need a very wealthy patron to do so as it would take so much money. Deakin University in conjunction with St John of God Hospital undertook research on the work I was doing with my music and clearly found the benefits. Twenty years later I feel I have accomplished what I was meant to do.’
Thanks to Peter, whenever a baby is born at St John of God, his music is now played over the speakers so all patients in the hospital can appreciate the good news. Read about the uplifting documentary, ‘From Music into Silence’ that is being made about Peter in Part 2.