I'm thinking that it might be helpful to know where I'm coming from in terms of music therapy advocacy as I share this list of thoughts with you. After all, you may be wondering what the heck qualifies me to preach at you about becoming an advocate? Here are some of the things I've done over the past twenty-three or so years:
During my time as a music therapist I have spent a lot of years as an active member of my state organization, the New Jersey Association for Music Therapy (NJAMT). I was originally asked to join the board because I was a member of the former American Association for Music Therapy (yes, back then there used to be two associations, and they merged in 1998). I continued to serve, becoming Secretary, Treasurer, President, Newsletter Editor and ending as Public Relations co-chair. I am no longer active as a board/committee member, but I maintain my connection to NJAMT as the listserv coordinator.
While I was President of NJAMT I also served on the NJCATA board (that would be the New Jersey Coalition of Arts Therapies Associations) as the music therapy representative for a period of time. I've helped to organize Music Therapy Day in New Jersey (which we have been holding in Trenton in the State House), and we organized a celebration of 30 years of music therapy at the facility where I work.
As a performing singer/songwriter, I've talked about music therapy when I've had gigs, and I regularly find myself engaged in conversations about "what is music therapy" when I meet new people. These days I share stories about my work with you, kind readers.
So. Yes. I've spent a good portion of my music therapy life advocating. I feel strongly about the work I do, and I care a great deal about the people I work for, namely my clients. With that in mind, here are my thoughts about what is helpful as we learn to become advocates:
1. Connect with other music therapists. Join a peer supervision group, connect through various social media outlets on the internet, or simply get to know the music therapists in your geographic area. I'm lucky. New Jersey has a lot of music therapists, and we have a fairly strong community, but we work at it, because it's important to us. Doing this type of work with a group of like-minded people standing next to you is a lot easier.
2. Know who you are and what it means to you to be a music therapist. It's very hard to advocate for yourself and for your clients if you don't know who you are professionally and why what you're doing is important. Really work at developing an identity for yourself as a music therapist. And I don't mean branding (although at some point that's important as well). What I mean is figure out your beliefs: about music, therapy, about what works for you and what doesn't, your approach, and hone your skills.
3. Be really good at what you do. By this I mean, find yourself a clinical supervisor. Yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but it's that important and that helpful. If you decide to get peer supervision instead, challenge yourself to go deeper- even if it means getting your own therapy- music therapy if you can. Look at your own issues. Figure out what issues and blocks come up for you when you're providing music therapy services, and work on them. This makes you accountable.
4. Learn everything you can about the population with whom you're working. Try to get as deep an understanding of the group of people you work with every day, and, as much as possible, try to learn from the people who experience the condition/illness/life experience. Learn what the issues are from their perspective, and then make a point of figuring out why music therapy is important for this particular group of people. When you have an idea of what someone's actual lived experience is like, you will be a more respectful and effective music therapist. And, by extension, you'll be a more effective advocate for your services (to people who may want to use your services, to facilities that may hire you, and, eventually, to legislators).
5. Chat with people about music therapy. If you're a performing musician, you have a perfect forum for talking about music therapy (and sometimes a captive audience). Talk about what you do to high school students who are musicians. Tell people what you do when you're getting your hair cut. I mean, really. The possibilities are endless.
6. Answer questions about music therapy. Because I have a website or two, I get a lot of emails from high school and college students who are writing papers about music therapy. Do your best to be helpful. Sometimes people I've met (or relatives of people I've met) are considering the possibility of becoming music therapists. If they live nearby, invite them to come and observe you in your work (get permission from your clients/facility first, of course).
7. If your state has a music therapy organization, join/volunteer. If not, start one. True, it's been a while since I was a very active member of NJAMT, but it was, and continues to be, one of the best decisions I made as a music therapist. It helped me to develop my skills as a leader, as a public speaker, as an organizer. It connected me with a lot of really great people, and it gave me a sense of being a part of something (which can be important, especially if you happen to be the only music therapist at your facility). It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things I didn't think I could ever do. Your state organization keeps you up-to-date on what's happening with regard to legislation and can provide you with training so you know how to go and talk to your elected officials about music therapy. They can be a resource for jobs in your state (or in a state in which you might want to relocate).
8. Don't burn yourself out on advocacy. This may sound like kind of a strange thing to say after a big long pep talk, but it can happen. You can be all gung-ho for a long time, and it's great when you can do that! But you can just as easily burn yourself out without noticing it. And that's no good for anyone. So make sure that you have a life outside of music therapy as well. One of the best pieces of advice I got was when I observed my first music therapist ever. She said to make sure you always have somewhere to play your own music. Cultivate the many other things you love to do- cooking, hiking, reading, kayaking, sky diving...whatever excites you and lets you have your own personal identity as well.
9. Sometimes in spite of your best advocacy efforts, things don't go as you hoped. It's the truth. Being a music therapist can sometimes be very frustrating. One of the most devastating experiences for me was spending twenty years at my job talking about music therapy, doing presentations for administrators, making sure people had information about what a qualified music therapist is, what skills we have, what training we have, and on and on. And one day, one of the other departments decided to hire a person who is not trained as a music therapist to work in a music therapy title and to "do music" with our clients. And there wasn't a blessed thing I could do about it. (Mercifully, the guy is really cool and never calls what he does music therapy, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the staff understands that he's not a music therapist.) It's important for you to know: it happens. It happens a lot. And when it does (because it will), you go back to the support system you've developed. You re-connect with the community of fellow music therapists and allies. Because you will need them.
10. In spite of it all, love what you do. Celebrate when your clients take little and big steps. Theirs are the faces you'll see in your mind as you tell people what it is you do. Feel a passion for getting to be someone who gets to connect with people and who uses and plays music for a living. Because that is living.
And, ultimately, that's what it's all about!