So You Want To Be A … Music Therapist

I’m a big fan of therapy. And as someone who survived her teen years with The Cure playing non-stop on her Walkman, I can attest to the therapeutic powers of music. But I’ve never really understood how a music therapist works with her clients until my friend Jessica explained her job to me. Whereas I used to think music could help you express your feelings of joy in the shower or sadness into your sofa cushions, I’d never thought about how a therapist could use music to help you work through such a wide range of physical, emotional or social issues. Jessica has her own business and some great advice on getting started in Music Therapy.

What is music therapy and how does it work?

In layman’s terms, Music Therapy is the use of music by a Board Certified Music Therapist to address non-musical goals. We can work with all types of people, from premature infants to individuals in end of life care.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, the qualified music therapist provides the indicated treatment including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Through musical involvement in the therapeutic context, clients’ abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of their lives. Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words. Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas such as: overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings.”

Music Therapist

How does it differ from other forms of therapy?

Music Therapy involves more of an holistic approach. We care for the individual in a multitude of ways. For example, physical therapists’ goals are to physically rehabilitate the client. The Music Therapists’ goal would also be to physically rehabilitate the client, as well as attend to his or her emotional and psychological needs by using music.

What’s a typical session like, if there is such a thing?

This really depends on the clientele and if it is a group or individual session. So, no, there’s really not a “typical session,” per say. However, you learn to expect the unexpected and how to roll with it!

What led you to choose a career as a music therapist?

I was a piano performance major in college, but always had an interest in psychology and the medical field. I contemplated becoming a doctor. Honestly, though, I did not want to dedicate all the years to medical school while essentially throwing away my music degree. A friend actually suggested that I look into Music Therapy. I did, and the rest is history!

What instruments do you play and is playing an instrument or singing a requirement for this career?

I sing, play piano, and play guitar. All Music Therapists must play guitar and sing – but they don’t necessarily have to sing well. That really just depends on the population you work with. All Music Therapists must have a general understanding of the piano and be able to play a few simple chord progressions. If you can’t play piano now, no worries, they train you to do that in college.

Music Therapist

Tell us about your career path. What did you study in school and what jobs led you to your current one?

My Bachelor’s degree is from Samford University and is in piano performance. For my Music Therapy certification, I attended the University of Alabama. Currently, I own my own business and combine my Music Therapy contracts with piano teaching. Most of the Music Therapy contracts that I have either have been passed along to me by retiring Music Therapists or I have contacted the facility and “sold” Music Therapy. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of “ready made” Music Therapy jobs.

How do you find clients?

Most of my clients are in group settings. Once I had a couple of contracts at Nursing Homes, Assisted Living Facilities, and Adult Day Care Facilities, the word spread about Music Therapy and other facilities have contacted me.

How do you grow or advance in this field? What further training will you need to deepen your skills?

Every 5 years, Music Therapists are required to accrue 100 credit hours in continuing education. This enables you to maintain your board certification status, which you need in order to work as a Music Therapist. These hours are not necessarily difficult to earn, considering there are numerous ways to earn them. You can accrue them through on-line classes, attending conferences and classes, and participating in research, just to name a few of the options.

Can you tell us what a typical day is like?

Well, because I teach piano and am a Music Therapist, my days are a bit hectic and crazy. Because I have to drive to my various contracts, my car looks like a music store. I have to travel with a bunch of different instruments, music, CD’s, and my guitar.   It’s a bit messy, but at least I have everything that I need!   Every day is different and every Music Therapy session is different, depending on the clients. You have to stay on your toes and be flexible. It’s important to meet the clients where they are emotionally on that day. That might be a very different place than what you had planned, so you adapt your session planning to their needs. There’s no such thing as “a typical day” for Music Therapists, but each day is fun!

Is there something you wish someone had told you before you became a music therapist?

If you are unwilling to move around the country, you will have to work hard to create your own Music Therapy job. The field is growing, but full time Music Therapy jobs tend to be hard to find, unless you are willing to relocate. The work itself is worth the effort though. I love what I do!

What is the best thing about your job?

I get to be a blessing to people everyday. Even in a hospital setting where patients are not feeling well, they are always happy to see the music therapist coming.  You know you are bringing people joy and happiness.

Music Therapist

What’s the suckiest part of your job?

Unfortunately, you do become attached to your clients. Especially if you’re working in a geriatric or hospice setting, your clients will pass away. That can be very emotionally draining and difficult.

What stresses you out about your job and how do you deal with it?

As silly as this is, I sometimes get stressed out about how “messy” the job is. I try my best to be organized, but I have music, instruments, CD’s, and things for various Music Therapy activities everywhere. Sometimes, I simply don’t know where to put everything! Occasionally, there will be a stubborn client who makes your session difficult by refusing to participate. Those clients will typically come around with a bit of time and encouragement. Music is hard to resist!

Any advice for young women interested becoming a music therapist?

If you are interested, please shadow a Music Therapist and get more information about Music Therapy. It’s a wonderful field, but it certainly requires a certain kind of person in order to handle everything. You really have to love it in order to be successful. If you don’t love it, it can be extremely draining.

How about you? Every tried music therapy or considered a career as a music therapist?

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One Comment on “So You Want To Be A … Music Therapist”

  1. I love love love this.
    13 years ago, my step mother, who is awesome, had a massive stroke that left her with permanent aphasia. Once she recovered enough to begin speech and occupational therapies I often took her to her appointments. Her speech therapist showed us a trick. While she couldn’t speak, she found that she was able to sing songs she knew before the stroke almost perfectly. Music therapy was not available back then, but I wonder if she has access to it now where she and my dad live in Houston.

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