By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian
This is one of several posts leading up to our day-long Performing Medicine Festival on April 5, 2014, which will explore the interrelationships of medicine, health, and the performing arts. Register for the festival here.
In the 1920s, Willem van de Wall, a Dutch-born professional harpist and choral director, began promoting the therapeutic use of music in prisons, hospitals, and other institutions.1
In the pamphlet “Music as a Means of Discipline,” van de Wall discussed his successes in prisons, along with this caution:
Never forget that the use of music as an energy awakener call of earnest deliberation, besides psychological and musical insight. If applied indiscriminately it might cause the boiling over of seething temperaments and create havoc through conjuring individual and social crises. If utilized sagaciously, however, it will soothe and transform the lower emotional trends into currents of loftier endeavor and expression.3
Van de Wall carefully chose well-known folk and traditional tunes (including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Stars of the Summer Night,” “A Perfect Day,” and “The Missouri Waltz”), sang them with groups of prisoners, and discussed the texts “for teachings about socially ethical principles.” And he clearly laid out the limitations of his work: “Can music do it all? No. Can it do a part? Yes. What part? That of inspiring, starting and supporting.”3
As described by van de Wall, the results were often astonishing. In terms of individual inmates, “Many a detained soul confessed to me that our weekly choral group was the first constructive affair in which he had participated since school days.”3 And at the institutional level:
I go to a penal institution where it would be absolute folly to bring the entire population together for any other group expression than community singing. One song of thirty-two bars of music lasting one minute and a half accomplishes more than all the keepers and matrons and disciplinarians and all the other ‘arians’ together.3
Later in his career, van de Wall shifted his focus to music therapy with a broader audience, including those without special behavioral or physical needs.1 As he wrote:
“Music is a great unseen friend accompanying us from our cradle to our grave, always expressing for us, caressing us with, our dearest emotions of life.”3
1. Clair, A. A., & Heller, G. N. (1989). Willem van de Wall: Organizer and innovator in music education and music therapy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 37(3), 165–178. doi:10.2307/3344667
2. Van de Wall, W. (1924). The utilization of music in prisons and mental hospitals, its application in the treatment and care of the morally and mentally afflicted. New York: Published for the Committee for the Study of Music in Institutions by the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music.
3. Van de Wall, W. (192?). Music as a means of discipline. Reprinted from the Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Congress of the American Prison Association.