Music as therapy: Ryan Herbert

Music is storytelling, passion, an apology, it is uplifting and heart-breaking and life-changing. Music is cathartic and therapeutic to people all around the world – regardless of race, gender, class or capability. We spoke to two people, involved with our partner charities, who understand this better than some.

Julie Herbert's grandson Ryan is a 14 (nearly 15) year-old boy whose playlist ranges from Mozart through to Coldplay and, to Julie’s satisfaction, a bit of Neil Diamond. Ryan is your typical pubescent teenage boy; loud, doesn’t always listen in school and loves spending time with his mates. But there is something a little different about Ryan. 

When he was just five months old Ryan was shaken, resulting in a lifelong diagnosis of growth and developmental disabilities. With a vocabulary of around 100 words, the brain age of a two or three year old, speech problems and cortical blindness, a day in the life of Ryan Herbert can be challenging. 

Ever since taking on Ryan’s care at eight months old, Julie and her family have gone through a huge adjustment. Some days are simple: Ryan’s grandfather will drop Ryan at his school, Albany Junior High, and pick him up at 1:30 pm – he can’t really handle being there any longer than that before he gets tired and his brain and vision shut down completely. And others are not so simple: one afternoon Julie spent 95 minutes in the carpark at Greenlane Clinical Centre trying to coax Ryan out of the car for his appointment, but Ryan refused to budge. Every day is different, minute to minute.

As a baby, Ryan had an ear for music. He would perk up when a tune was played and beat his tiny hands or feet in time. The doctors told Julie that this was just a coincidence, a symptom of his condition – nonetheless Julie was convinced that Ryan was aware, that he knew what music was and how it was making him feel. Music runs in the family after all. Julie is a singer and so were both of her parents and Ryan is the most musical of all her grandchildren; a fact that Julie simultaneously rejoices and mourns, because Ryan won’t be able to make a life from his talents. 

One day Julie was in the hospital for Ryan and saw a brochure for Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre and for the past eight years Julie has been taking Ryan to Raukatauri every week. For 40 minutes in the day Ryan is at peace. The things that he struggles with at school – doing as he’s told, joining in with the class – come so easily to Ryan when he is at Raukatauri. 

Music is a huge part of Ryan’s life and it’s a part that he loves. The therapy sessions are always different and Ryan is constantly learning; skills that he takes home and keeps practising. He’ll set up in his music room at the piano or drum kit, sit his Bob the Builder toy down next to him and teach Bob the music that he has learnt at Raukatauri that day. In therapy, Ryan is the student joyfully absorbing, at home he is the therapist passing on his skills to others. It is a cycle of wellbeing that Ryan thrives in.  

Going to Raukatauri has helped Ryan immeasurably. Sure, there are days when the whole family is exhausted because Ryan couldn’t sleep the night before or when Ryan is angry and the best thing to do is stay out of his way. But on the days when music seeps into Ryan’s life there is no substitute for the relief that it brings to the Herbert family. They love music and music loves them.

Photography by RMTC. Words by Jd Nodder

Spread more musical support at www.rmtc.org.nz


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