Alpha Woodward in Bosnia in 2007.


In a small room where children’s toys were stacked in shelves against the wall, and a dollhouse sat in the corner, Alpha Woodward played guitar for a young Bosnian girl who was born with a defect that had left her blind.

It was 2003 and the Bosnian war had ended several years before. But the country was still piecing itself together; dealing with the trauma that armed conflict leaves behind.

Alpha Woodward was recruited to the war-torn country to work as a music therapist in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, at the Pavarotti Music Centre. Initially planning on staying for six months, she ended up staying for four years. The problems in the now Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) were too pervasive: the prevalence of birth defects in Bosnia had risen dramatically since the war had ended and the presence of mass trauma had overwhelmed the healthcare system and its professional resources.

“Many children were born with congenital birth defects because of the circumstances of war,” said Alpha in a phone interview. Reasons for these defects varied, from poor nutrition, limited access to healthcare for pregnant mothers, and very high levels of stress during the pregnancy. But many of the children were also exhibiting secondary trauma from living in dysfunctional family systems—where parents had been traumatized by their war experiences.

Those who founded the Pavarotti Music Centre believed the power of music therapy could help aid the psychological and spiritual recovery of children affected.

From silence to “hello”

The girl in the room could sing whole songs that she had heard on the radio, but was socially withdrawn, having grown up in an isolated, rural area, and having had limited contact with others. She would cling to her mother’s side, afraid and unable to interact with others.

Alpha started playing the guitar beside the girl, who would pluck the guitar and echo Alpha’s musical phrases. In her last session, she had progressed enough to be with Alpha on her own—but then clung to the guitar with a fierce grip. By the end of the session, she rewarded Alpha by singing ‘Zdravo’ (Hello), after releasing her tight grip on the guitar—string by string. She continued to make social steps and not long afterwards was enrolled into a school for the blind.

“Music really allows people to move into a new space, to grow and to trust,” says Alpha, reflecting on that moment.

In 2007, and while still in Bosnia, Alpha was honoured by Capilano University with a Distinguished Alumni Award for her work overseas and her professional contribution to the field of music therapy. It was at Capilano where she discovered her passion for her current vocation, and where she was inspired by the professors and the ideas around her.

Music to therapy

Already having a music background, it was at Capilano University that Alpha discovered how her passion could function within the realm of therapy.

Countless studies have shown how music can rehabilitate those with autism, depression, those affected by stroke, and a large list of other issues. Especially in the case of autism, music therapy allows for non-verbal communication that creates spaces for those who have difficulty with verbal interaction.

“It was really important to further understand my relationship with music and to see how that could be an agent of change for others,” said Alpha, describing her time at school. “It was a transformative experience for me to find the work I was meant to do.”

Capilano University’s Bachelor of Music Therapy program has the largest number of music therapists on faculty of any program in Canada. Students enter the program in their third and fourth years.

“In the remaining two years, we hone musicians into therapists,” says Stephen Williams, a professor of Music Therapy at Capilano.

Stephen sees Alpha’s work overseas as a natural extension of who she is. “She is deeply kind and compassionate and bright—and she wants to make a difference in the world,” he said.

“When wartime chaos came to an end in Bosnia, the rest of the world moved on—yet the people of that region continued to suffer with trauma. Alpha and her team were there to help people move on from that trauma,” Stephen adds.

Documenting a personal journey

Alpha has brought together her experiences from Bosnia and Herzegovina in her recently published doctoral dissertation, titled Tapestry of Tears: An Autoethnography of Leadership, Personal Transformation, Music Therapy and Humanitarian Aid in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In her dissertation, she studies her role as a leader within a team in BiH, and what the implications are for art-based fieldwork in other post-conflict areas. Her dissertation was completed at Antioch University.

Alpha describes her time in BiH, and her subsequent dissertation, as a “journey of transformation, an exploration of the self and an uncovering at a personal level the experience of being a humanitarian in a difficult environment.”

She will be presenting parts of her book at Capilano University on July 27th at 6:30 pm. More information can be found here.

Submitted by Marketing & Communications

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