In December, I had the privilege to speak with some high school students from Franklin, Wisconsin about music therapy. I was contacted by a teacher who had seen my TEDx talk and was showcasing music therapy to his students as a career path. He asked if I would be willing to video conference call with them in order to allow them to ask me more questions about my career.What I found to be amazing about the student Q&A was their thoughtful consideration of music therapy. What they had observed and learned about music therapy from my TEDx talk was much deeper than I could have ever imagined. Although I can’t recall every question asked, I was able to remember some of the ones that stuck with me.
Here’s a glimpse into what we discussed:
What does music therapy look like in other countries? For the most part, I was unable to answer this question, only having been a music therapist in the U.S., but it left me considering what music therapy does look like in other countries. When you consider music therapy in other countries, you have to consider what music is like in their culture, and how the music can be used as a tool. Generally, the idea of music therapy remains the same, while other factors will vary, including healthcare, cultural music and instruments, family roles, sense of community, etc.) If you’re interested in reading more about separate countries, the European Music Therapy Confederation has a nice overview of music therapy in many European countries here, or you can read more about other country’s music therapy associations found on AMTA’s around the world section.
What happens if I play another instrument, other than voice, guitar, or piano? Can I still be a music therapist? Music therapy is about using music as a tool. Although you must be proficient in voice, guitar, and piano, you can absolutely use another instrument as part of your tool belt. Studying music therapy allows you to learn how another instrument can be used safely and effectively. I know music therapists who’ve used their violin, clarinet, flute, cello, and other instruments within the context of music therapy. Often, music therapists are also called upon to use their instruments for music performance reasons, including funeral services, marketing events, or to lead staff morale-boosters. Other times, music therapists often continue participating in community ensembles in order to keep their chops up on their main instruments.
Did your family inspire you to become a music therapist? Did you know any music therapists before you became one? My family has always been musical, and they certainly helped inspire me to become a music therapist, but I never knew any music therapists until I went to college. There were many musicians with whom I grew up who inspired me to use music in a different way than music performance, which I can now see how it lead me towards music therapy, but there were not any music therapists employed in my hometown. I was unable to observe any until I was already in the degree program. Although for some people this might be a terrifying thought, going into a college program without any shadowing experience, it is totally doable. You will learn so much in your first semester that you will easily be able to determine if it’s the right path for you. I also know many people who started out as music therapy majors who quickly decided that was not what they wanted to do, and that’s okay too!
Are there particular songs or music that you use to help people feel better? First and foremost, therapy is about the individual. During a music therapy assessment, you learn about the person and their needs and work to identify an appropriate and effective plan for them. For some people, hip hop makes them feel completely relaxed. For others, hip hop is irritating and grating. What makes someone feel better is totally dependent on their music preference, and there’s research behind why music preference is different for everyone. Part of a being a music therapist is knowing how to manipulate the music in ways that will be effective for the moment. There are certainly many songs that many people like, but there is no prescription for specific songs for a specific need.
What is your favorite age to work with? All! I find value in working with all age ranges and it’s fun to have a variety. Working with kids often allows for high creativity and excitement because kids are naturally curious about the world. It is fun to engage with kids, challenging them to work on their developmental goals within the music, and exploring their needs. Kids expect you to be the expert in everything, and you should definitely present yourself with confidence and a willingness to improvise, both musically and professionally. On the other hand, adults are also awesome to work with because they offer a very different kind of therapeutic experience. You are able to engage deeply with them in insightful conversation and on a level not generally experienced with kids. Adults also expect you to be the expert, but there’s more of a give and take in the therapeutic relationship. Adults require a different kind of creativity, and certainly still call for great flexibility as the therapist. All in all, it keeps things fresh being able to alternate between the two.
What is the best and worst thing about being a music therapist? One of the worst things about being a music therapist is working with tough cases. It is hard to be a part of someone’s support system who has been sick for a long time, without a lot of relief or improvement. I saw this a lot in hospice care, but I see it more in mental health. It is very difficult working with people who simply do not have all their needs covered. As much as you take care of yourself, leaving your work at work, the tough cases still creep into your home life and often catch you unaware. It can be very challenging to not take things personally, or to not continue to worry about someone long after they’ve left your care. But on the other side, it is incredibly rewarding to offer peace and relief for someone who has been dealing with such difficulties. Each day offers at least one element of joy experienced through the music in connection with someone else.
You said in your TED talk that music can be harmful. What kind of music is harmful and why? This was such an excellent question, I feel I need to answer it with more consideration. Stayed tuned til next time with a much more descriptive answer!
I’d love to hear if anyone else has thought of other questions either from my TEDx talk or from some previous posts here. Comment below with any additional questions and I’ll answer them to the best of my abilities. Thank you to the students in Franklin, WI for their thoughtful questions and being willing to engage in such a great conversation!