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Lunchtime Conversation

Ruth Bright
Wise Woman : Ruth Bright


Ruth Bright

Ruth Bright is a perfect example of someone who has combined a passion of music and need to help others to build an incredible career that has taken her to the top in her area of expertise.

At the age of 78, she still works, still presents papers at conferences, is devoted life partner to her husband Des and an active grandmother amongst other things. 

Before you read my interview, I would like to share with you some of the details of our 'Wisewoman" who has contributed greatly to music therapy right throughout the world.

In1992 Ruth was awarded:
Membership of the Order of Australia for Services to Community Health 
and in1995 received a
Melbourne University Centenary Award for contributions to Australian Music. 

Ruth was the Founding President of Australian Music Therapy Association.  She also was a member of various working parties, beginning in Paris in 1983 which led to the formation of the World Federation of Music Therapy in 1985.  This included being Convenor of a working party on music therapy education throughout the world from 1985 to 1990 and from 1990 to 1993 she was the President of the World Federation of Music Therapy.  And to top off those achievements she is also a Past President of the NSW Branch of the National Association for Loss and Grief and also the NSW Branch of the Australian Association of Gerontology and was
Chairman of Gerontology Foundation of Australia.

      Ruth Bright and Gigi                 

I couldn’t wait to meet her and find out how her life evolved. I arrived at her home in the leafy North Shore. I am a little early, she is a little late, but I sit on her front veranda listening to her mesmerising wind chimes ringing in the breeze.

She drives into the driveway, all apologies as we enter her living room while Des organises refreshments.

Gigi: Let’s start at the very beginning Ruth, when and where were you born?

Ruth: I was born in London on July 20th, 1929 and arrived in Melbourne, Australia from England in 1948.

Gigi: Was coming to Australia difficult for you?

Ruth: No it wasn’t because I had already left boarding school in 1947, my school friends were scattered round the world, and it wasn’t difficult to make new friends with others at the University in Melbourne.

Gigi: What prompted your parents to come here?

Ruth: It was during the Cold War and my father was offered a research job in Australia. I think they also wondered if being in Europe was going to be all that great during those days and so maybe this would be a good thing for both them and their daughter.

I don’t think it was terribly successful for my parents, I don’t think it lived up to their hopes. But they had arranged for me to start at the University straightaway in the middle of the year and because I changed from Science to Music I spent 6 months doing the work of the 1st year of the Music Diploma, so that I could start the degree in 1948.

We arrived from England on 23 April: the reason I remember the date is that we went to the Anzac Day service at St Paul’s Cathedral and (having been on a ship for so long) I had sea legs and standing still during the ‘last post’ was almost impossible. I went to the University on the Monday and because I had been in a choir in England I was invited to join. It was there I met Des there in the first week, as he was secretary. It wasn’t love at first sight; it was ‘how do you do’. He had done his engineering degree and was finishing a maths degree and had started to do a PHD in engineering. We didn’t start going out together until the end of 1949.

         Ruth and Des

Gigi: What was your relationship with your mother like?

Ruth: If there is something I could change about my life, it would be the relationship I had with my mother. My father said to me “just remember one thing Ruth, your mother is always right”.

Gigi: Do you still retain the same passion about things that you had in your youth?

Ruth: When I was at school I was hoping to do medicine. Music was just a hobby. I know it sounds awfully ‘goody goody’, but helping the community has always been a very big thing for me. Even when I was eleven, I was the chief person in a small committee and we organised a dog gymkhana in aid of the RSPCA in the small English village that I lived – exactly like a horse gymkhana, only for dogs. We raised about seventy pounds and in those days that was a lot of money. So I think I have always been interested in helping others. So my passion, you could say is to help others, and I do still have that.

Gigi: How did you move into a world of music to help others?

Ruth: I became a piano teacher, after I changed my mind not to do science and medicine. I did a music degree and I often helped kids, not to be just good pianists but to help their self esteem. Sometimes it even helped their position in the pecking order in that class. One particularly fat girl was at the bottom of the pecking order. She was only eight and really quite a brilliant pianist so when she started playing for the classes singing lessons and percussion band lessons her position in class changed dramatically.

I had been married for several years and teaching music and we had actually given up hope of having a family. I thought maybe this was just what God wants me to do. (Living a Christian life has always been an important part of being me.) In Adelaide there was a big psychiatric hospital with a thousand people all in locked up wards with only one social worker. It was awful, as a chaplain friend told me, and I wondered whether there was something I could do with music there. The psychiatrist who interviewed me said he wanted music in the hospital but not as an entertainment – he wanted it to be linked to the treatment of the people I would see. I thought “Help! I shall have to learn a lot!” but the social worker found time to spend time explaining the patients and their illnesses so I was able to put some sort of plan together By working there I began to see myself as a therapist, but I didn’t call myself a therapist.

Gigi: Were there such things as music therapists then?

Ruth: Well there were, but not in Australia, only in England and America. Des was transferred to Sydney and that same psychiatrist came to Sydney to take charge after the Royal Commission into Callan Park, and he asked if I would start music sessions in what were called the male refractory wards. The worst patients were housed there.

Gigi: In those days that would have been quite something for a young woman?

Ruth: That is true but I thought I could help. I have often remember that, in those days ,individual people in these institutions mattered so little. As a patient you didn’t even have a choice if you had milk or sugar in your tea. The milk and sugar was put into the teapot altogether. I know that seems trivial but it tells you how much the individual lost their most basic needs.

Gigi: What did your music therapy offer people?

Ruth: I offered people a choice. You see, most of these patients had no choice at all. So the first choice was whether the men would decide to come to me at all. That was really something because they were actually given a choice. The second choice was what music it was that they would like to hear. That was the beginning of the therapy.

Gigi: So, the music has to be something that stirs the soul?

Ruth: I don’t think I am the person to ask that question. Each person’s music means something unique to them for whatever reason.

Gigi: It’s going to be interesting the sort of music our generation asks for when they are in nursing homes?

Ruth: People ask me that so often, and I really don’t know the answer. There is some music like the Beatles, some from the musicals, that will probably last and I am sure Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” will go on.

Music Therapy can be utilised in many way and one way is by playing improvised music to reflect back someone’s mood.

For example, there was a man who was referred to me at RPA, suicidally depressed and all I saw at first was the top of his head as he sat in the chair. And as he talked and I said ‘I am going to improvise some music to reflect back to you some of the emotions I think you have’. At that time I had a really good electric keyboard and while I played his head gradually came up. As I finished he said ‘you really know what it is like to be me don’t you’. I said ‘no I don’t because you are the only one you knows, but the way you were able to tell me gave me pretty good idea of what life has been like’. That validated his feelings. You see, some of these people think you should never be angry and that no-one understands, so they hide things.

The most dramatic example of that was a woman I treated back in 1975 who for 15 years had mental trauma every year at the same time. I decided that there must be something about this time of the year that switched her on and it took quite a while to establish trust. It turned out it was the anniversary of the forced adoption of her illegitimate baby some 50 years before. She hadn’t been allowed to marry the father because he was of a different religion, was never allowed to see the baby and was never allowed tell anyone she was pregnant. But every year at the same time she grieved. She was never allowed to cry about it and I found myself feeling very angry for her so I improvised some angry music. She was staggered because I was angry on her behalf and that it was ok to be angry.

Then I asked her if she had been allowed to keep the baby, what music would she have sung to it. She said it would have been Brahms lullaby and I used an autoharp, a thing rather like a zither, to play this piece of music. That was the first time she cried. And the amazing postscript to that story is that I was talking about this at a session ten years later and somebody who had been keeping an eye on her was in the group. They said she had been perfectly alright ever since.

Gigi: So the music was the trigger?

Ruth: Yes, by using improvised music for the anger she was able to unlock something within her.

Gigi: What would you play for the anger music?

Ruth: I will play something and you tell me what you hear?

Ruth gets up and moves to her piano and plays. Honestly, I had goosebumps. Her music was loud, transporting, lulling, pushing and pulling, thunderous and gentle.

Ruth: What did you hear in that?

Gigi: Well, I did hear anger but I also felt compassion and whether that comes from you or the music I would say it is probably a combination.

Ruth: It was meant to be indecision from my part because I had no idea what to play for you. I just play and the music does its thing. The most dramatic thing I have ever done was when I working with a particular woman, I played this.

Ruth plays a number of chords and then she abruptly stops.

Ruth: The woman just burst into tears. She cried and cried and cried because it absolutely symbolised her inability to make a decision.

Gigi: Ruth, right from your early days you have always wanted to help others and the gift is you have been able to. I think you have your own unique magic that you deliver to your patients.

Ruth: Somebody said most of the world’s best counsellors have had a difficult relationship from their early childhood. That you come from a place where you had to be very alert to how someone was reacting and be terribly aware of the meaning of movement or the changes of voices. Because of that, I should be thankful to my mother. Everything was fine unless she was angry about something. I find I am terribly observant picking up signals such as posture, knuckles clenched etc. I understand people’s emotions.

Gigi: I think apart from Music Therapy, maybe you are able to convey a special something as well.

Ruth: Improvisation can also be done together though. I was treating a girl who had severe bipolar disorder and she was mentally at her most fragile state. Her psychologist and I were both in the room and so we were able to improvise together. I was at the bottom and she was at the top and I could feel her anger beginning to build. The playing was actually stimulating her anger so I used some very heavy holding chords at the bottom and gradually she calmed down. She said “I thought my anger was going to get away from me then.” A couple of weeks later she said “I want to sing a song.” You see, song writing is part of music therapy and people use it by using a tune they know and put their own words to it or actually doing the lot. Anyhow she sang:

Make my mountain a mole hill so it is easy to climb

It’s not that I am tired of walking I don’t want to waste time

Gigi: Is it the sound or the music itself that causes the reactions?

Ruth: It is the association with the music that causes the connection. Sometimes you play a song or piece that is wonderfully happy but to someone else it reminds them of a marriage that went wrong, of a child who died, and it can let out a flood of emotions. This is often the one thing where the grief and loss comes into it.

Gigi: So did you ever think of composing?

Ruth: I have done bits of composing. Mostly things for the church choir actually.

When I was at the university I worked with the Children’s Theatre in Melbourne, composing music for their plays. They worked in mime so each character had their own theme and it was all about how they were interacting with the music. Of course, in music therapy you use improvisation quite a lot, so my improvising skills started there I suppose.

Gigi: Goal setting is such a big thing these days, did you?

Ruth: I didn’t have goals. When we married I suppose having children was an unspoken goal. We did eventually have two children, daughter and son, after I had some surgery. We also have two grandchildren, 9 and 12 who come for breakfast four mornings a week and then we take them to school. It’s a fun thing to do. But I would say I had no specific goals regarding my career.

Gigi: Do you think you have achieved as much as you could have?

Ruth: Actually, when I think of what I have done I think I am somewhat staggered. You know, in 1966 when I had written my first paper I gave a presentation to the College of Physiatrists’ on Music Matters, the Health Department published it as a booklet. My first outside publication though was in 1972. I wanted to be able to demonstrate whether music is useful in other populations apart from psychiatry, as they were just starting a geriatric unit around here in Hornsby. I volunteered because music therapy wasn’t a profession then. I was working in stroke rehabilitation and doing a lot of study and reading and I did some research in multiple sclerosis. In 1971 I decided I was going to write a book – Music in Geriatric Care. My children were still quite little so I had to do it at night while they were asleep, and on a typewriter (laughs). No mod cons in those days.

I sent it to Angus and Robertson who were publishers and they decided to publish it.. Actually, Bob Debus, who is now a politician, was the Editor and he was terribly encouraging. So maybe I have achieved more than I thought I would!

Gigi: Did the book sell well?

Ruth: It did, actually the whole first edition sold out. It is still referred to in America, as the Bright “Orange” Book because it had an orange cover. It’s funny when I look back, and when I read it because I am quite staggered as to how ‘Ok’ it is and still is!!!

Gigi: Could it go out of date?

Ruth: Not really. Maybe few minor words changes would do it such as the terms used for certain diseases and dementias.

Gigi: If you could choose a sentence or something to sum up your life’s journey what would it be?

Ruth: I could say ‘it’s been bloody hard work’ (laughs) but that isn’t true actually!!! It has been tremendously rewarding, a lot of effort but a lot of fun too. Des and I have just had our golden wedding and our picture was put in the local newspaper and we said in that article that 'we still laugh a lot’ which is true. And I think it has been very much a shared journey because if it hadn’t been for his support, I doubt whether I probably would have done any of it. I do think it was dim witted not to have goals though now I think of it!!

Gigi: But you didn’t need to as you achieved anyhow. Because you were busy living it!

Ruth: I think one of the things I find very gratifying is that I am not seen as ‘out of date’. It is probably is because I still do a lot of reading and so on and keep up with the latest and that is how I have kept up-to-date.

Gigi: What makes you really happy?

Ruth: I am very happy when we go for bushwalks – it isn’t all serious stuff you know. I could say that I feel happy if something I do is going to benefit someone ‘it would sound too good to be true” even though it is true. (laughs) I am happy when I am relaxing, and I don’t feel guilty about it. Similarly, I don’t feel guilty about sitting reading a detective story. I feel I am happiest if I have a balance in life of worthwhile things I am doing and I often wonder you know how I am going to be when I eventually retire. I will be thinking ‘what will I do next!’

Gigi: What do you think is your most gratifying achievement or accomplishment? Where do you think you starred?

Ruth: I suppose (and I have never thought of this before) it is linked with a man called Berkeley, who was head of psychiatric services was able to get music therapy established. That wouldn’t have happened if I had been hopeless. The work I am currently doing in grief and loss is something too. I’d like to think some of the work I have done on that and the books I have published have had an affect.

Gigi: What qualities do you find inspiring in others?

Ruth: Determination for the right cause coupled with sensitivity to human need.

Gigi: Do you think that also describes you?

Ruth: I hope so.

Gigi: What is your favourite saying?

Ruth: Off the top of my hat it would have to be 'It’s never to late to learn'.  And then there’s the other one 'you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’.  I probably don’t say them, but I would often think it!!

Gigi: What would you recommend as your secret for getting older?

Ruth: The right ancestors. I had two aunts, one died at 96 and the other 97, and my GP said she thinks I am taking after them. And I come from a family who do the most extraordinary things and I am quite sure there is a gene for being willing to do something that is different. I had one ancestor who ballooned out of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and another was an explorer in the Amazon. Be willing to do something that is different.

Ruth disappears and arrives back in the loungeroom with a stack of books. She hands me the first one.

Gigi: Did you make a lot of money with the first one?

Ruth: Well, I made enough to go back to England for a trip on it. (Laughs)

Gigi: Have you travelled a lot.

Ruth: That was my first trip back to England after 26 years and I went to the village where I grew up. I met the post mistress who lived then when I was a young girl. I said “I don’t suppose you would remember me – I used to live here”. She said “Of course I do, you were Ruth Ockenden and you were the only one of your generation who stood up straight

Travel! Where haven’t I been!! In 1974, I did some lecturing for Professor Brocklehurst at Manchester for his medical students about geriatrics. And I went to visit various hospitals so see what was happening in music therapy. Because we were planning the music therapy association at that stage and I met up with three other people and I wrote a constitution. I have lectured at Conferences in Japan, France, England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, America, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Gigi: What is the best advice you could give to anybody?

Ruth: To try and bring out the best in others.

With those words ringing in my ears, I say goodbye to Wisewoman Ruth and thank
her for sharing her story and showing us all how, with enthusiasm and passion you can truly live a very wise and wonderful life. That it doesn’t matter how it starts or where you are headed a great life can and will unfold.

Ruth, with the support of her husband, has created for herself

a truly rewarding life

an interesting life

and a life still capable of so much more.

Some of Ruth’s publications:

     1. 1967 Music & Mental Health Associations

     2. 1972 Music in Geriatric Care “Bright Orange Book”

3. 1977 Music Therapy in Australia

4. 1981 Practical Planning in Music Therapy of the Aged

5. 1985 Grieving – A Handbook for those who Care

6. Music in Geriatric Care – a Second Look - 1991 1996

7. Why does that Happen?

8. 1996 Grief and Powerlessness – Help people regain control of their Lives

9   Wholeness in Later Life

10. 2002 Supportive Eclectic Music Therapy and Grief & Loss

                 A practical handbook for professionals

11. 1999 Article for Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic

12. Spiritual Aspects of Suffering Booklet and Tape

13. 1986 A paper - The Elderly Uncooperative Patient, Music Therapy and Staff Stress

14. 1992 Care giving in Dementia – Research & Applications

15. 1994 Functional Psychiatric Disorder of the Elders – Music Therapy

16. 1997 Booklet – Music Therapy and Dementia – Improving the Quality of Life

17. 1998 Music Medicine 3 – Improving Quality of Life for Profoundly Brain Impaired the role of Music therapy – Ruth Bright & Rosemary Signorelli

18. 1995 The Art and Science of Music Therapy – a Handbook

                         Music Therapy as a Facilitator in Grief Counselling

19. Cultural aspects of Music in Therapy - Music Therapy in Health and Education