Two Thoughts on Music Therapy

There are two thoughts that keep reoccurring in my mind when thinking over what I’ve learned so far in school.  They are characteristics of music therapists that seem foundational, but they completely caught me off guard.

1. Music therapists have to know every possible scenario of a less-than-happy or less-than-normally-functioning human being.

This may seem like a no-brainer, and perhaps I knew this in a conceptual way, but the reason I bring it up is because it is mentally and emotionally exhausting to read and hear about all the things that can be wrong with a person. Just like a doctor, we have to know diseases, symptoms, history, research, methods, cures, and strategies for anything that comes our way. For example, in one week of school I learned the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms of schizophrenia and antisocial disorder, the characteristics of Downs syndrome, and the developmental delays caused by cognitive issues in the brain of a child that result in a learning disability.

The scope of disabilities is overwhelming. Sometimes it makes me wonder why it has to be like this. Why so many people can have so many problems, often for reasons they can’t control. Then my thoughts transfer to gratitude for being a “normal” person and then I feel guilty for feeling grateful. But then I imagine a world where everyone is fine mentally, physically…chemicals are balanced, environments are ideal, no wear and tear, no delays, no disorders. I don’t know the reason for all of this imperfection, but I think it makes us grateful for life and each other. Without these challenges we wouldn’t know the meaning of adversity or triumph.

Then I recall why I am becoming a music therapist. How amazing that I will be privileged to be in the presence of these amazing people God made, and make their day a little bit better, get that much closer to their goal, using just a song and a guitar. I ignorantly wrote a post a long time ago about what music therapy is. It’s so much more than I knew then. And it’s probably so much more than I know now.

Music therapy is used with all age groups and is divided into four categories of fields: gerontology (study of aging), developmental disabilities. mental health, and medicine/rehab. I can’t stress enough how absolutely specific the art of music therapy is. It’s tiny tiny tiny things we are improving using tiny tiny tiny aspects of music. Helping someone sit up straight. Getting someone to grasp a drumstick. Doing an entire session of music therapy with the goal of producing one smile. In essence, my job is to know every possible combination of characteristics for the person or group I’m with, and pull out the right tricks from my music therapy bag for the most beneficial treatment I can give.

2. Music therapists must be 100% neutral.

This is the one I never considered. As a music therapist, I cannot push my views, beliefs, attitudes, or emotions on anyone I work with. This may not seem that big of a deal at first. Freedom of Speech allows us to say and believe whatever we want, but most of us don’t go around listing off the things we’re for or against all the time. (Operative word being most, I know the climate of our country right now.)

But this idea keeps creeping back into my head. And I think this is why: the words music and therapy both speak to vulnerability. Therapy is being there to help someone who is vulnerable, someone who is reaching out for help. Music has a way of invading your heart and mind without your permission. Music has a unique way of softening everything. A blur, no sharp edges. When someone is softened the environment is more conducive for change.

p.s. that last paragraph – THAT is the essence of why music therapy works.

That is why it’s so important for music therapists to stay neutral. Soft, vulnerable – also very fragile.  I will only be a catalyst for change, not an influencer, not a persuader, not a crusader. And that will take some getting used to. I honestly think the hardest thing to get used will be other people’s musical preferences. It won’t all be Tin Pan Alley and the Beatles. If he likes country, I will have to sing country. If she wants Justin Bieber…….oh my.


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