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Fran Herman – Music Therapy Pioneer, Colleague, Friend, Mentor

For over 50 years, Fran Herman has used her special talents as a music therapist, advocate, artist and leader to change the lives of many people. From early on Fran has worked tirelessly to promote music therapy, making it available to everyone regardless of age, ability or affluence.

I have had the privilege of getting to know Fran over many years — We have discussed music therapy at her dining room table, while sitting quietly on her back porch overlooking her flower gardens, at conferences and my favourite place the “Burger Shack” at the corner of her street.

Fran Herman has become more like family to me than a colleague however that should not distract from the fact that Fran single handedly continues to keep me focused on what is most important in this work – the people I am honoured to work with, and the relationships I have developed.   I am a better music therapist, speaker and business owner in large part to her influence.  Here is her story:

Fran has served as president of the Ontario and Canadian Music Therapy Associations and has worked with severely affected children, both emotionally and physically, for over 42 years in children’s rehabilitation hospitals. She is internationally known for her work with children who have muscular dystrophy, non speaking children seriously involved with cerebral palsy and others who have severe disabling conditions.

Fran is well known for her innovative clinical style and her books and films are used as teaching tools worldwide. For many years she has given workshops and lectures on the use of music for those with special needs. Fran stated early on in her career that, “music is a tremendously powerful tool that we can use for change. The effect music can have on those who are in need of its spirit and magic can be staggering.”

For the past decade Fran’s focus has been the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund (CMTTF), a charity that has raised well over 4 million dollars to support music therapy projects across Canada from coast to coast.

It is a pleasure to present the interview that I had with Fran Herman this past November.

JB: Fran, let’s start at the beginning of your career. How did it all happen?

FH: In 1955, I was approached by a doctor whose son had muscular dystrophy. He was the Vice President of the Canadian Muscular Dystrophy Association. Having heard of my work with special needs children, he implored, ”Please try and work with these children. They are not accepted at school, nor does anyone feel able to program for them. The prevailing attitude is that, because they have a progressive condition which is fatal at an early age, there is no point in trying to educate them, most of them sit and look at the four walls every day.”

I was incensed by this impoverished attitude, even more so after having visited and worked with a group of these youngsters in a chronic care institution. As I rose to leave, they requested me to return.

Once at home, an incubation period began. What could children with multiple handicaps do that would create a feeling of success and self-esteem? Shortly after that day, I was hired to work with all 42 children at that facility and had the possibility of helping then find answers to that question. A program involving music, art, poetry, writing, drama and wheelchair dancing took place year round over a period of 8 years. This is where the Wheelchair Players evolved.

JB: Fran, tell me a little more about the Wheelchair Players.

FH: The Wheelchair Players (1956-1964) was the first group music therapy project in Canada. Designed as a vehicle for exploration in the expressive arts, the youngsters living in The Home for Incurable Children (later known as Bloorview Hospital) became advocates, seeking access to the arts as their basic human rights.

These youngsters, who because of their obstacles were perceived as receivers and consumers, wanted to be viewed as contributors and sharers. They understood that through the sharing and development of creative activities, they could move beyond the confines of their disabilities. We decided a musical show would help in this regard.

Initially it was difficult to convince these kids that they could indeed mount a musical show. They needed time to participate and experiment, and they needed these experiences to deepen and stabilize into understanding. Eventually they went on to produce dozens of shows for themselves and each year a production for the public.

A documentary film was made of the Emperor’s Nightingale, a dance drama written and directed by Fran Herman with the youngsters participating as a production company. 

JB: You have inspired MTs from around the world, including me – who has inspired you?

FH: The young kids that I have worked with – they continue to inspire me. And always people, who are creative in their style of living and working.

JB: What else was going on during these early days of music therapy development in Canada?

FH: It was a pretty empty time. In the 50s there were only three pioneer music therapists here – and in the following 10 – 15 years, just a sprinkling of practitioners throughout the country who had been trained elsewhere. The development of MT in Canada has been challenging because of the geography, the distances often leaving MTs isolated from their peers. At the same time this isolation produced innovative and resourceful clinicians as well as an identifiable national approach – one which is inclusive, a combination of many music therapy styles. I believe this is why music therapy has survived and flourishes in Canada.

JB: Fran, as a pioneer in Canada, did you feel you had a greater responsibility to the music therapy community beyond your own clinical work?

FH: ABSOLUTELY! No question. The idea for everyone here was to make people aware that music could be a healing force and could make a difference. People had to be educated, and at the same time, those who were trained had to be up to the stuff to be good therapists. I think we were lucky in Canada for having some very strong clinicians who have been leaders in various parts of the country. Being such a large country presented many difficulties. We lacked funds, but we didn’t lack purpose. If we published a journal one year then we would be in the red. If we were on the Board our dues had to be paid ahead of time so we could print the journal and get it out. If we wanted to get anything more out there – such as promotional materials– we had to really work hard to accomplish that. That is one of the reasons the CMTTF was founded years later.

JB: So Fran, you were educating the community and you were collaborating with other music therapists. From what I understand and have experienced myself, you also have a knack for putting on a great conference – you have done a few of those…

FH: …I have done five altogether including the Joint Conference in Toronto in 1993, when the two American Associations (NAMT and AAMT) joined forces with CAMT. It was the largest conference we had ever had in North America and was extremely successful from all points of view, including financial. It featured Dr. Oliver Sacks as keynote speaker and highlighted wonderful creative energy that went into the collaborative effort.

Later I was involved on the committee for the joining of the American Associations.

JB: I understand that part of your role was in quilt making.

FH: Yes, I headed up a quilt committee. It all began when we were debating the theme of the conference. I suggested “MUSIC THERAPY….A TAPESTRY of CARING!” This was adopted as the theme, as well as the further suggestion of making quilted tapestries to celebrate the occasion. I then asked anyone who wanted to quilt a square to do so. Two tapestries were made in the US and were finished in Canada. They were hanging as backdrops at the conference with a Canadian quilt as well.

JB: I have seen a picture of the Queen Mom holding a scarf that I have been told you made. How did that come about?

FH: Well I used to make wall hangings, silk scarves and clothing, both in batik and marbling. This was my recreational outlet for over 40 years. My efforts were sold in the Canadian Guild of Crafts, art stores in the US and Canada, hospital gift shops and in one person shows in some very selective galleries. And so, one day I was commissioned by the government to create a scarf for the visit of HRH Queen Elizabeth. I designed it in her favourite shades of blue.

JB: You have never been afraid to incorporate all the expressive arts in your work.

FH: I believe that all the expressive arts can enhance what you do with music. Certainly my experience has been with young children and teenagers and I was able to use drama, puppetry and movement at all times with success. The more I explored, the more convinced I became that not only was self-expression necessary for their self-concept but also for their sense of well-being. For surely, if artistic pursuits are of fundamental importance to all persons, they are critical for those with special needs.

JB: You also demonstrated that in the books you have written.

FH: The books were written because parents, teachers, and therapists would call from around the world to get information. Some called from England, Ireland, Yugoslavia, the US, South Africa and Australia. It was very obvious there needed to be resources parents and therapists could use that were written in a simple, non-academic way. James Smith, my artist colleague, and I were able to present a broad statement of ideas that people could use and which we had tested on numerous children.

JB: You have many highlights in your career including the Wheelchair Players, conferences, literary works and now the work you have done for the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund. Would you mind discussing your role with the CMTTF over the past decade?

FH: I began as chairperson of the Fund, a role that I held for over a decade at which time I stepped sideways and carried on with fundraising and promotion. My goals were: to find funding to support MT in this country because of the overwhelming problem of distances and to create a Music Therapy Centre which would provide profile for the profession.

The CMTTF was created to support development, research and promote the use of MT in hospitals, special schools, and facilities. Fundraising was therefore essential. In order to do that Carl (Fran’s husband) and I together got the recording industry involved in fundraising with us. The Fund has pulled in resources from different agencies, individuals, and receives funding from events in different parts of the country throughout the year.

JB: how did you do that?

FH: Well, 15 years before this all started, Much Music a TV station here in Canada put together a promotional video about music therapy. John Marshall was the producer and went down to the Nordoff and Robbins Centre in NY to do some filming. Clive Robbins recommended that John should contact me and I was able to connect him to therapists here. The film was very successful.

When we created the Trust Fund, Carl asked John to be one of the directors of the Board. John agreed and helped us gain access to all the major record labels which in turn have been tremendous supporters throughout the years.

JB: Fran, it deeply saddened all of us when Carl passed away September 2007. He was a good friend of music therapy and was missed by many.

FH: From the time Carl was exposed to MT shortly after we met in1958, he became an ardent advocate and supporter. At his death, there was a tremendous outpouring of affection for him, for his big heart, his dry humour, his perceptive comments and his loyalty to me and my various visions and.projects. We collaborated throughout the years and he could be seen in every one of the hundreds of productions I put on with kids and staff.

Carl received a LIFETIME membership award from CAMT and the MIA (Music Industry Award) from CMTTF.

JB: Would you tell the readers a little more about the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund

FH: Well we are a non-profit charity that supports and boldly promotes music therapy in this country. What we try to do is make it possible, particularly for students, to apply for bursaries, scholarships and fellowships for those who are moving farther along. Because the country is so spread out it is important for us to get music therapy into areas where nobody has gone before. We have seen the CMTTF support projects in such places. This is what we have been doing in Canada – giving music therapists an opportunity to dream about a project and then attempt to make that project happen. That is the reason we have raised over 4.25 million dollars in the past 12 years and funded over 375 projects from coast to coast including the most northerly regions of Canada.

JB: Your long career just doesn’t stop. You certainly have never retired. From the time you ceased your clinical work you moved right into other music therapy work including fundraising for the CMTTF and being Chair of that charity for a number of years. This past year you were recognized by the Music Industries Association of Canada with their inaugural MIAC award for Advocacy for music for children. They paid tribute to your many years of efforts on behalf of young people with special needs. I am sure this has meant a lot to you, but I trust it should also mean something to music therapists. What do you feel that is?

FH: Well, all I can say is that I hope it makes music therapists learn that little by little people are getting to know this term (music therapy) and perhaps it will open some doors for them. I think that every little step we achieve helps make people realize how empowering music therapy can be. Every time we have success with a client, every time we touch someone and there is a response that is positive, it helps to widen the awareness of how music has been a part of the lives of every group of people on every continent from the days of the first beating drum.

JB: Thank you Fran – your efforts, your work and your life have certainly enhanced those of the people around you.

To cite this page:
Buchanan, Jennifer (2009). Fran Herman, Music Therapist in Canada for over 50 years. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved September 20, 2010, from

FRAN AND I would love to hear your comments.  I will pass them on to her.