When Cal State Northridge’s music therapy program started 25 years ago, it didn’t have an office. And some people on campus weren’t even sure what the program was.
But under the guidance of music professor Ron Borczon, the program and its Music Therapy Wellness Clinic have grown into nationally recognized institutions whose graduates and therapists are making a difference in the lives of children and adults around the world.
“When I was brought here to start the program in 1984, we had three students in the major. Today we have 28 and there’s a waiting list to get in,” Borczon said. “Our graduates are working at facilities across the United States and in such countries as Japan, Isreal and Korea. Our graduates perform very well on the national board exam. We usually have a 95 percent first-time passing rate on the exam, with our students averaging about five percentage points above the national average.
“It’s been a lot of hard work, but I’d say we’ve made a lot of progress in 25 years.”
Music therapy is a field in which therapists use music as a treatment for rehabilitating, maintaining and improving the lives of persons with physical, intellectual or emotional difficulties.
Borczon, his students and the three therapists who work at the clinic work with a variety of clients, from autistic children and children with Down syndrome to the survivors of severe trauma and rape.
The music therapy clinic opened in 1996 to facilitate students’ practical training under the guidance of a professional. The clinic is one of only two in the United States-the other is in New York-to be officially affiliated with the internationally acclaimed Nordhoff-Robbins Music Therapy program in England.
Borczon explained that the therapists use music to help develop a relationship with their clients. “Through that relationship, we help our clients meet the goals they are trying to achieve in life, whether it’s helping a child to talk or an adult getting back into their lives after a severe trauma,” he said.
The therapists and students at CSUN’s Music Therapy Wellness Clinic have used music’s structure to help disabled children being “mainstreamed” into public schools improve their physical coordination as well as their academic skills. They have used music to help elderly people recovering from strokes regain communication skills as well as coordination. Music also has been used to help adolescents and adults with behavioral, emotional or mental problems learn new adaptive skills, explore feelings and regain normal functioning in society.
Over the years, Borczon has been called upon to assist survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, the shootings at Columbine High School, hurricane Katrina and other major traumatic events.
Borczon said that for centuries people have used music to help with healing or to deal with grief. “We are simply rediscovering what they always knew-that music, through its profound effect on mind and body, can be a potent way to help people get well,” he said.
The program had been a dream of Clarence Wiggins, chair of CSUN’s Department of Music, from 1962 to 1984.
“He really felt there was a great need for this type of program in the Valley,” Borczon said. “Once I was hired, he told me ‘My job now is done,’ and he retired. He really deserves all the credit. He’s the one who had the vision.”
Wiggins said he started the music therapy program “because I strongly believed music majors needed another career option. At the same time, I strongly believe in music therapy as a source of rehabilitation. The combination of the two made a perfect pairing.”
Victor Lissabet, 28, couldn’t agree more. Lissabet, who received his bachelor’s degree in music therapy in May, said he found his “calling” in the program.
“I had been teaching yoga for a long time, but I wanted to do something more. I’d already been a musician for a long time,” he said. “The idea of music therapy really appealed to me, and CSUN has the only program in Southern California. I realized that this was the place for me.”
Lissabet now works at CSUN’s Music Therapy Wellness Clinic as a therapist. He specializes in working with special needs children.
“I use music as the main tool to build an expressive relationship between myself and the client,” he said. “It’s kind of hard sometimes to explain what we do. Music is part of everyone’s life, it’s something we’re hardwired to understand and comprehend.
“Music therapists use the same techniques talk therapists would use, only we use musical instruments. We reflect our clients, and contain them if necessary and acknowledge their contributions and let them know we hear them through music. What we have are the skills of giving our clients’ music wings.”