Working together to lay the groundwork for music therapy in Ukraine

Improvisation and commitment in Lviv

It all began in such a casual manner, as is so often the case in Vienna: In 2018, the husband of a colleague called me and said that in Lviv they were looking for music therapists who would be willing to oversee the foundation of a training programme for music therapy there, for the time being unaffiliated with any university institution. The sole contact person was the director of the Lviv office of the OeAD, Mr Wenninger. Today, this has evolved into an approved Erasmus+ project; the follow-up project is currently being applied for, and now the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv (UCU) is participating in the endeavour, as is a private music therapy training programme created with our help, along with the AMU (Association for Music Therapy in Ukraine), a professional association that we initiated, and which was constituted and works in accordance with the international quality criteria of the EMTC (European Music Therapy Confederation). My long-time colleague from the music therapy team at the mdw, Dorothee Storz, volunteered to join me as co-project manager.

Where would we be today if all the planned and financed travel had not had to be cancelled due to Corona? Ukraine was and continues to be particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 virus, and formerly precarious infrastructures have become even more fragile. The aspiring music therapists attending the private training programme must travel to the course location from many parts of Ukraine and require financial support to cover their travel expenses. Ukraine is a large and very poor country and severely impacted by the Crimean conflict, which has been ongoing since 2014. But our Lviv colleagues are very proud people and do not give up when they set a goal for themselves.

And: the people in Lviv can improvise—as a matter of necessity. As experienced teachers of music therapy, my colleague and I knew, of course, that music therapy requires instruments, because how else can one work? At our first session there were three instruments, one of which was a kind of chime bar, made from many old keys hung on a metal rod. What were we to do? We started a collection campaign among our colleagues from the mdw’s Department of Music Therapy and with the Austrian professional organisation, and in February 2019 a bus from the OeAD was able to pick up a remarkable number of instruments from the mdw collection point and transport them to Lviv. By the next seminar a few weeks later, we were able to conduct our work almost as we do in Vienna. There was only one small difference: the instruments were completely unfamiliar to the students—they had no experience with non-classical instruments and took a while to familiarise themselves with them and to work up the courage to improvise with them.

And in what language did we communicate? Well, in Ukraine, pupils learn very little English in school, and if they want to learn more, their parents have to pay for it themselves. And who can afford that?! So, interpreters always had to be on hand (funded by the OeAD), and we joked that due to their continuous work with us, the two women who support us linguistically will also receive an education in music therapy.

We unfortunately did not learn much about daily life in our host country because we worked very hard. Since we became an Erasmus+ programme, there have been clear guidelines for both sides. Previously, daily workshops from the morning to the evening were a matter of course, and in the evenings there were meetings and briefings with the Lviv teaching staff. However—and this was very important to our colleagues there—they were always held in wonderful restaurants with outstanding meals. We generally celebrated the conclusion of each day in a huge beer hall in downtown Lviv with beer and live big-band jazz—an atmosphere that one could become addicted to. A special feature: for the final number, empty plastic bottles are passed out with which patrons can pound out the rhythm of the closing tune on the table. At some point, we became accustomed to needing to shout at each other to communicate.

The core team in Lviv

The few moments that my colleague and I were able to spend strolling through the beautifully restored historic city centre were balm for our soul. Who knew that the Lviv Opera and the Vienna State Opera were designed by the same architect? And overall, the city somehow resembles Vienna, which is no surprise, as Lviv was part of the Habsburg Empire until 1918!

Thanks to Erasmus+, the project has now been elevated to a new level. This spring, the teachers from the UCU’s Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy and from the private training association will for the first time come to our new institute on Metternichgasse for a week, and we are currently working with our guests to develop a meaningful programme. A joint research project with the WZMF (Music Therapy Research Centre Vienna, director: Thomas Stegemann) is also in the planning stage.

Incidentally: Ukraine now has its first music therapy textbook: with the assistance of the OeAd, we were able to have our Ringvorlesungsbuch, Vol. 1, edited by Thomas Stegemann and myself, translated into Ukrainian.

This is what can happen in Vienna when someone asks someone else if they know someone who …….!

The translated textbook

Elena Fitzthum

Department of Music Therapy

Wiener Institut für Musiktherapie


Ukrainian Catholic University

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