Interview: Dr. Margaret Lobo, Otakar Kraus Music Trust
This week we sat down with Dr. Margaret Lobo, founder of the Otakar Kraus Music Trust (OKMT) and learnt about how losing her singing voice through illness and learning to find it again, inspired her to work with others to find theirs. She told us about her journey, her greatest influences, and what’s next for the OKMT.
Dr Margaret Lobo was born in 1941 in a large family of seven siblings in Vancouver. She grew up in a Canada still experiencing the effects of the depression after the First World War. From the age of three Margaret’s family took notice of her singing voice. She began singing in school at the age of eleven. Once she finished high-school she went on to win music competitions. Margaret’s early success as a singer enabled her to tour around the east coast of Canada and she was described as ‘the golden voice of Canada’. But tragedy struck when she contracted polio on a journey to Seattle for an audition. Overnight, aged 19, Margaret lost her voice and the promise of a singing career.
Following this, she went to England to visit her great aunt and found work in London. One fateful day, Margaret was walking down Piccadilly where she was recognised by a man who was conducting the Canadian Opera. He told her that he was performing at Sadler’s Wells and asked her to come and sing for him. Despite not using her singing voice at all in the seven years since her illness, Margaret went to Sadler’s Wells that evening. After hearing the condition of Margaret’s voice, the conductor said “there is only one man I know of who can help you”. That man was Otakar Kraus, the namesake behind Margaret’s work as a music therapist.
Otakar Kraus was singing in Covent Garden at the time and was renowned for his ability to help people with vocal difficulties. Margaret waited six months before summoning the courage to call him. She was 25 years old at the time. Otakar agreed to help her. It took Margaret four years of weekly lessons with Otakar Kraus, but she finally regained her singing voice.
Thank you for meeting with us Margaret, would you tell us a bit about who was your greatest influence?
Otakar Kraus was my greatest influence. Without his help I would never have sung again. He was the first person to look at the whole physiology of the body and the breath. It took four years, twice a week, and lots of tears to get the voice back but I think once I could finally sing again it was the real voice. I spent the last 12 years of Otakar’s life living with him and music was our whole life. When he died, I thought I didn’t want music in my life anymore. But when I met my husband, Walter, a few years after, he encouraged me to pursue music and it was around that time I heard about music therapy.
Could you tell us a bit more about that shift from ‘music’ to ‘music therapy?’
I think it really happened because Otakar took such care measuring every sound and balancing every sound with the breath and the body. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was actually training me to be a teacher. Therefore, there was something opening up in my heart. Because when you’ve lost something, when you live in a situation where you are trapped in your life, you look for anything to help you find a better way of life or you just give in. And when my voice was given back to me I didn’t want it for myself anymore. I didn’t want it as a career. What I had found was something true in myself that was bigger than getting out there and singing.
When I met Walter I was encouraged to get back to singing. But I just wanted to help. So I worked with a small group of children as a volunteer. They didn’t have a disability in any way but I just helped out. I saw how these children took to the teaching I’d been given and how they began to love music and singing. I thought more than anything now I want to do this in my life. The day I rang the Guildhall school of music they told me a space on their music therapy course had just become available. So, I left my job and went on the course.
What encouraged you to start OKMT?
As with a lot of music therapists, unless you work for a school, hospital, NHS or charity it is difficult to find a place to work. Walter and I had moved to our home and I started teaching in my dining room 30 years ago. But it was difficult because of the neighbours and autistic children can be very loud. We decided to build a studio at the back of our garden. I started with just two children and I remember coming in at night and saying to Walter ‘we’ve only got two children and we’ve put our life savings into this studio!’ He just said ‘it will all come, just carry on’. I really felt that having been given my voice back and having seen that it was such a gift to be given that knowledge. I was so grateful. I just knew that I had to follow a life of meaning, that had service, that was truthful.
What would you say is the best achievement of OKMT?
I think we have been able to supply a premise and because we have given free service. We were able to support parents with many financial struggles. We helped find them a place to bring their children. I think serving the community and offering this work and never turning one person away in 30 years; that is one of the greatest things we’ve done.
What would you say was the biggest or best mistake you’ve made?
The best mistake was probably coming to England. I knew the moment I stepped on English soil I’d come home. And then meeting Walter.
Had anything surprised you during the project of OKMT?
The thing that surprised me was the trust the parents bestowed on us. It is like having the world as your family. It has been an amazing journey.
Well it’s interesting, because Walter unfortunately recently passed away. When he passed away he asked me to keep the music therapy work in India going. This year if I can raise the funds, I will start our sixth training program and train fifteen more students in Delhi.
Could you tell us more about your work in India?
Ten years ago I was invited to speak in India about my music therapy work. We had over 300 people coming to the talk. What impressed me so much about India was that the parents brought their children along and didn’t exclude them.
When we came back we decided that we should offer something in India that it already has: a great history of music and healing. What we could do was to give them training as a clinical profession in music therapy. We set up a Postgraduate Diploma under the umbrella of OKMT but as a charity in India called The Music Therapy Trust. We have so far trained twenty musicians, sixteen from India and four from Nepal. We’re also working with Continua Kids in India which is a new partnership of ours. We’ve worked with over 5,000 children in India over 10 years and we’re also beginning work with the elderly there.
And to finish, can you tell us your favourite quote?
I think one of the quotes which touched my heart so much was from a mother. She said ‘I saw my child smile for the first time when he came to his first Music Therapy session with OKMT’.
Photo by Finn Gross Maurer