Somewhere a dog barked.
Aaaand, we're back.
Okay. So you want to become a music therapist. Fabulous! And you want to know what it will take, what kind of advice I can offer, whether you'll ever have an actual salary, what to write for that research paper that's due in 13 hours...and so forth.
(Stand back. I'm about to jump into list-making land.) (Actually, even though my blog posts aren't usually in list form, I have a deep and abiding love of lists.) (But I digress.)
1. It helps to be a fairly good musician.That said, it also helps if you learn to play guitar and piano.
Different schools that offer music therapy as a major have different requirements. I think, ultimately, the more skill you have as a musician, the more you have to offer your clients. If you're busy focusing on yourself trying to play a song or a particular instrument, you're no longer focusing on your client, and that sort of defeats the whole purpose of therapy. You know? You don't have to know how to play guitar and piano before you go to school, because that is part of the music therapy curriculum. Those are, however, two instruments that are used an awful lot in the course of a music therapist's day/week/life, so it's worth getting to a point where you're relatively comfortable with them.
2. And, while you're at it, get comfortable with using your voice.
When I first started out as a music therapist I was really shy, and I found it difficult to sing in front of anyone. Mercifully, I managed to move beyond that. We don't have to be brilliant singers, but it's important to carry a tune and be comfortable improvising and playing around with vocal sounds. I still remember a client I worked with who tore up an entire room and threw my entire music cart on the floor. For a good solid year I had to go and do his sessions with nothing but me and my voice.
3. Be careful of your "helpful" intentions.
When you're trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, it's not unusual to think, "you know, I really want to do something that helps people." We all have our reasons for wanting to somehow be useful in this world, and they're all valid and important. When we come to a profession like music therapy, though, I think it's important to be mindful of the various implications of being "helpful" (in terms of power, control, what it means to be "the helped", etc.). Because Norman Kunc and Emma van der Klift said it a lot better already, I highly recommend reading their article, "Hell-Bent on Helping: Benevolence, Friendship, and the Politics of Help". It will, I hope, give you a whole new perspective on being "helpful".
4. Learn to pay close attention. Notice stuff.
So much of my job is about paying attention. Whenever I have students come to do their practicum experiences with me, I have them fill out an observation form that I developed. It's an insanely complicated form, because in a music therapy session there is so much going on at any given moment and on so many levels. You have to be aware of your client (s), the music, yourself, the environment, the history...there's a lot of stuff happening. This is what makes music therapy so completely fascinating! You can practice at an activity level and be quite effective, and you can also decide that you want to go deeper and explore the therapy relationship, the dynamics within it, and how it's all expressed within the music, and that's really nifty as well!
5. Expect that this will be a life-long learning experience.
Music therapy is a growing and evolving field. Because there's so much to know (and you can't cram it all in at school!), so much to pay attention to, and because you can work at a lot of different levels, there's always something new you can be learning. For that reason, getting professional clinical supervision in music therapy after you've graduated is extremely helpful to your growth as a new clinician. Moreover, there are lots of trainings that music therapists can take to deepen their knowledge/skill in specific areas (GIM, Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy, Neurologic Music Therapy, NICU Music Therapy, Hospice Music Therapy, Vocal Psychotherapy, and I'm sure there'll be more sooner or later).
6. Get used to advocating for yourself.
Music therapy isn't the huge mystery it once was. These days when I say I'm a music therapist, people are way less likely to say "a what?!" than they were back when I first started out. Now I'm usually greeted with something along the lines of "oh, how cool!" As nice as that is, people often think they know what we do, but they really don't. Co-workers who've known us for years may still not have a clear idea of what happens in a session. I'l be straight with you: It can be quite frustrating when you see that someone who hasn't gone through the years of training you have is calling him/herself a music therapist (or being called one by the media). It can be even more challenging when supervisors, colleagues, and various other people/organizations who fund our services (who aren't music therapists) feel compelled to tell us how we should do our job. Having said that, I would still maintain (and I think my music therapy colleagues would agree) that being a music therapist still far outweighs the difficult stuff.
7. You'll need to figure out a semi-quick way to explain what it is you do for a living.
Given that you'll have to spend some time advocating for yourself and showing people what music therapy is, it's important to have your "elevator speech" prepared shortly after you graduate from your program. The ladies of the Music Therapy Roundtable (Kimberly Sena Moore, Michelle Erfurt, and Rachel Rambach) address this very topic here.
8. It's not likely you'll be rich beyond your wildest dreams, but you can definitely make a living as a music therapist.
A few months ago, our Rabbi at work asked me, as nicely as he could, on behalf of one of his congregants, "can music therapists make a living doing this work?" I assured him that we could. We can find jobs (we've been doing a lot of advocating- trust me), we can get health benefits, and we can make enough money to live peacefully. We'll never get the kind of money that, say, a computer programmer or a financial analyst would make, but most of us aren't starving. And if this is truly what you want to do, then you should do it.
9. Get used to not knowing what's going on and sometimes being uncomfortable or awkward. Or at least come to terms with it.
I would have to say that it's rarely dull being a music therapist. Sometimes your clients will do unexpected sorts of things, or you'll find yourself dealing with really uncomfortable feelings. And sometimes you can go for a really long time and not be at all sure you're on the right track with a client/group. Again, this is what makes this work so fascinating and so completely worthwhile! It's difficult when your own issues are triggered, but, heck! Your issues will be triggered no matter what you do. You may as well have an interesting job within which to notice them.
10. Consider getting your own therapy (or your own music therapy, if you can).
Being a therapist is hard work. Being a client is also hard work. If you've never gone through your own therapy, and if you've never struggled in a big way with your own problems and emotional baggage, it will be hard for you to have a real understanding of what it's like to see yourself in a new way (which is not always a pleasant experience at first). Making changes in our lives is something most of us resist mightily. Looking at our resistance- ugh! It's not always fun. It's a long, bumpy road. And we ask our clients every day to allow us to stumble along that bumpy road with them. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to at least bring along the map we saved from our own journey (even if they decide to take a different route). (Okay, I'm getting a bit nuts with the metaphors here, but you get the idea, yes?)
So there you have it. That's the list I have going in my head when people ask me for advice on becoming a music therapist, and now here it is! In blog-land! And if any of you music therapists out there in the world have other advice to offer, bring it on!
The good news (well, to me anyway) is this: I've been a music therapist for 24 years. Even on the worst of days, I have never regretted my decision to do this work! Much good luck to you as you go forth and consider whether or not the life of a music therapist is one you'd like as your own.