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A decade of changing lives through creative arts therapies

NR Times speaks with Daniel Thomas, founder and managing director of Chroma, about the journey so far

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Since its foundation in 2013, Chroma has been a key name in the popularisation of the creative arts therapies – and particularly music therapy – in rehab settings, with its founder Daniel Thomas seen as one of the early pioneers.

Here, we speak with Daniel as he reflects on Chroma’s tenth anniversary, the highs and lows along the way, and how the team he has built holds the key to Chroma’s future

 

“When I heard about the concept of music therapy, I just knew that’s what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing and pushing forward.”

Despite having no prior experience in either music therapy or in running a business, a visit to the United States in the late 1990s – and a “random conversation” with a girl named Sarah – proved transformational for Daniel Thomas.

At a time when music therapy was known in the US, but just beginning to emerge in the UK, Daniel immediately recognised his desire to become a music therapist.

“I thought it sounded like such a brilliant way of bringing together music and psychology, which were two really important parts of my life and really resonated with who I was. So that’s what I did.”

And from that initial conversation has come Chroma, the UK’s leading creative arts therapies provider which has a team of around 120 therapists working in hundreds of locations across the country, working with key providers in education and healthcare – STEPS Rehabilitation, The Remeo Hospital and the Portland and Wellington Hospitals being among its longstanding clients.

And while music therapy – as well as the art and drama therapy now delivered by Chroma – have become recognised and respected as a highly effective intervention, and a key part of a multi-disciplinary team, Daniel’s role in reaching that point cannot be underestimated.

“It does make me proud to see how the arts therapies have grown in standing and recognition, and to know Chroma has played its part in that,” says Daniel.

“For me, it has always been about enabling the richness of experience, the outcomes and the possibility of lives being made better by the creativity and psychological support offered in therapy.

“Music therapy has become a way to achieve that, and we are delivering that in schools and hospitals across the UK, and to hundreds of clients.”

Chroma has become the UK’s leading provider of arts therapies

Celebrating its tenth anniversary on October 23, the business has grown significantly from starting life in Daniel’s spare bedroom, with him having trained as a music therapist, then launching this venture after some time running a sole trader music therapy business to see where the journey took him.

“We’ve definitely come a long way from the bedroom business – and I often reflect on how random conversations can play such a big role in your future!”

Building the UK’s leading arts therapies provider

Back in 1999, music therapy was in its infancy in the UK.

Having gained HCPC registered status only three years earlier, it was not in widespread use or felt to be in the mainstream of interventions regularly commissioned by healthcare professionals or litigators and case managers.

“It was very much a psychodynamic approach, much more psychotherapy with music. There was very little involving brain injury or neuro-rehab,” he recalls.

“But at that time, I had no knowledge of it myself, so I started my training – and the story began.”

Initially known as “Music@Work”, Daniel secured an EU grant for his logo and website, and started out as a sole trader.

But as word spread about the impact he was making, demand grew.

“Before long, I was working with six schools over five days, so I needed to bring someone in to help. And it started very organically, just delivering music therapy initially,” he says.

“I had some other therapists working alongside me, with me doing therapy as well as the admin, finance and quality assurance. I was just trying to work it out, really.”

Always keen to innovate, Daniel looked at what else the business could offer, to deliver even more to clients who had shown such positive response to date from the delivery of music therapy.

He decided a natural progression would be to deliver the suite of the creative arts therapies – music, art and drama – and the name Chroma was born.

“I wanted to create this amazing therapy brand with a real growth strategy, so we could deliver this range of therapies with easily transferable skills in hospitals, schools and any other settings.

“But what I really wanted to do was to deliver quality at scale. Quality is really easy, as you can just hire somebody brilliant, and scale is really easy, because you can take on hundreds of therapists; but quality and scale together is something totally different.

“It’s like there was a moving target we tried to keep in the centre of, we still do even now, but it was always moving – and that’s why we never stand still.”

Daniel and his father

Delivering music therapy in increasing numbers of settings, and becoming regarded as a central part of the multi-disciplinary team, among its many clients was the Wellington Hospital in London, a commission which held personal significance for Daniel after his mother spent her career working there as a clinical physicist.

One key moment in the development of Chroma was the creation of the Adoption Support Fund, created by then-Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2014, which ringfenced £30million a year to provide therapy services to adopted children.

Having been part of the pilot project in Gloucestershire, Chroma was then ideally placed to scale nationally and deliver art, music and dramatherapy to young people in locations across the country.

“This opportunity gave us the chance we had wanted to really increase things and to start investing behind the scenes. We were incredibly lucky in some ways, and it was very much ‘right place, right time’, but that was a massive moment for us,” says Daniel.

“Suddenly we were flooded by referrals for adopted children so we were able to embark on a big therapist and office staff recruitment push too.”

But alongside the major breakthroughs have come the truly difficult periods – and like for many other organisations, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a very trying time for Daniel and his team.

“On March 23, the first day of lockdown when Boris Johnson was on television telling us all we must stay at home, the whole of what we did at Chroma was hosted in hospitals and schools. So as I watched that announcement, I realised that our entire turnover had effectively stopped,” recalls Daniel.

“We had a few months’ reserves in the bank, and I’ve got to say that was a terrifying moment, because no-one knew what lay ahead. Would we have a business anymore? At that point, we had maybe one client who we worked with online, but that was all. We knew we had to act fast, but it was such a difficult few weeks.”

True to the innovative nature of Chroma, Daniel and his directors sprang into action, preparing online sessions, putting together safeguarding protocols, and totally redefining the business.

“Within a month, we were delivering between 60 and 70 per cent of our work online. It was quite a turnaround, and has paved the way for where we are now with our use of technology, and where are looking at into the future.”

Looking to the future – the next ten years and beyond

Having achieved so much in its first decade, and not least being widely recognised as one of the main reasons why music therapy has the respect and reputation it now does in the UK, Chroma is now looking to the future with confidence.

Its client group continues to grow, and the outcomes and progress it has delivered for clients since 2013 are too numerous to name; yet everyone remains deeply valued by Daniel and his team.

Differentiating itself from competitors as a business – not a charity or a not-for-profit organisation – Chroma is able to be agile and take decisions quickly; something Daniel believes is fundamental to its ongoing success, and will continue to be important into the future.

“We’re the only registered limited company in the field of the creative arts therapies, we’re a profit making business and we aren’t shy about saying that,” says Daniel.

“We want our clients to be independent, to live without us and our therapy, and we also want to be independent ourselves.

“We are financially independent and not reliant on a board of trustees to make a decision, or the next successful grant application, so we can be quick to react.

“That isn’t common in this area of work, and there do seem to be some people who struggle with the fact that we are commercial, but I’m proud of the fact our profits are going back into making the business deliver even more for our clients.”

Sarah, whose “random conversation” helped to pave the way for the creation of Chroma

Its willingness to embrace technology during the pandemic has given rise to a whole new dimension to Chroma, with the team now exploring a range of new mediums to support clients.

“Part of the legacy of that time is the opportunities we now have,” says Daniel.

“We have a lot of younger clients, so we’re looking at the delivery of therapy via WhatsApp. Younger people in particular respond very well to that as it’s something they’re familiar with, but we’re looking into the safety protocols around that.

“We’re also pursuing our ambitions for the use of music-for-health apps to support our work, and we’re already underway with a pilot project.

“There is a lot of interesting work happening there, and as a business only too keen to innovate and keep moving forward, there is a lot of opportunity here for us.”

Having recently held a celebration event for the ten-year anniversary, bringing together members of the Chroma team from across the country, Daniel said it confirmed what a positive organisation the team has created – one placed ideally for the future.

“There are around 120 people in the team now, from very experienced therapists through to those who are newly qualified, and that event brought home to me the sense of belonging, and a culture where people feel able to be themselves,” he says.

“That is one of the most amazing things about what we have done at Chroma, and the ethos we have. That does make me feel quite emotional to reflect on that.

“But I think also one of the things I’m most proud of is that if I disappeared tomorrow, everything would go onwards and upwards without me.

“While I am a figurehead for the business, we have the most brilliant team who could take things forward. I’ve always looked for the things I’m really bad at doing, and found someone who is really good at it, so that we are a true team.

“That approach has worked so well, and it does make me really proud to have got to this point.

“I’m excited about what the future holds, and it has actually been really nice to reflect on how far we have come. It has been a journey and it’s great to be on it with such fantastic people.”

To find out more about Chroma and its services, click here.

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