"Food for the soul" is a description Libby Johns gives for music.
"It just speaks to my soul, it resonates with me," says the 25-year-old who plays piano, flute, saxophone, guitar, writes music and sings.
She was visiting her family in Blenheim this week before moving to Auckland to start a new job at the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre. She did many of the 750 clinical placement hours required to complete a Masters degree in music therapy there and says the whole place is "buzzing" with music.
"When it's time for a meeting, we sing first before talking," she laughs.
The use of music therapy in New Zealand is 20 to 30 years behind that in the United States or the United Kingdom and Raukatauri receives no government funding for its work. Instead, money must be raised to cover the $4000 annual fee for each child it helps.
Under supervision, Libby worked with 11 children last year. Aged between 2 and 12 years old, their conditions included autism, cerebral palsy and dyspraxia. She also worked with adults with neurological conditions like Huntington's Disease, and adolescents with psychosis or intellectual disabilities.
Sessions are one on one and Libby might play the piano or flute for a child, then encourage them to create sounds too, using drums, percussion instruments, horns and whistles. Singing words can be easier for some children than speaking them and finger puppets break down confidence barriers.
"Music therapy works on the premise that everyone has an inborn musicality. It's the first thing we learn . . . and a baby brings out this completely musical self that most people don't recognise any more.
"Most of us grow out of it . . . we are talked out of being creative, of being in the moment and freely expressing ourselves through other mediums apart from speech."
Others are lucky enough to grow up in settings where music is embraced. Libby was one of those.
She had her first piano lesson when she was 5 years old and, as she worked her way up the music grades, started learning the flute, the saxophone and guitar. At Marlborough Girls' College she joined the senior choir, played in its jazz band and performed in musical stage productions. It was a natural progression to enrol at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington when she finished school and in 2008 she completed a Bachelor of Music, majoring in performance jazz.
Originally, she had planned a career as a full-time musician. Live music feels new every time it is played, she says. "It's a great way to release the emotion of where you are. In a band, it's a shared experience; by yourself you can just dare to be free."
As her studies progressed and lessons became more intense, however, she started to wonder if a performance career would be a happy one for her. "It's all about you and about upskilling yourself to become a better player.
"Music therapy [seems] a way to give back and to share music with others."
She returns to Blenheim in May for a concert with jazz trio Tony and Coral Thiel and her former college music teacher, Robin Randall.
- The Marlborough Express