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So you want to be a Music Therapist?

Let me introduce you to a remarkable world

Welcome to the world of one of the most remarkable fields you could possibly enter.

We all enter it for reasons that are as different as the individuals that we are.

First I’m going to tell you a story, and then I’m going to put it into context.

I’ve been a music therapist since 1985. It wasn’t something that I chose. It chose me.

When I finished a degree in music in 1983, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. All I wanted was to make some money, and to do it close to home after 4 years of daily commutes on the bus. The closest available job was 2 blocks away at the Canadian Mental Health Association in a sheltered workshop, working with people who had chronic psychiatric difficulties and who were finding a life for themselves working with others who had similar problems.

I was a workshop assistant, helping the participants negotiate tasks that were filling their day. I remember those people so well, as they were the first people I experienced with special needs. I was in wonder of them and the way they functioned in the world. There I was, fresh out of music school, working in a sheltered workshop to make money, and finding out that I loved the people there. There was John, who was so shy that you couldn’t hear what he was saying when he spoke. There was Lucille, who experienced anxiety and couldn’t put together an unjittery sentence. There was Ralph who tended toward aggressive behavior. There was Peter who was a chronic leader and who wouldn’t take direction. There was Franklin who was deeply depressed. There was Patricia who always managed to disappear into the woodwork. There was Corrine who was bipolar and overwhelmed by the world around her. Then there was me – a naive music graduate, looking for an outlet for my skill.
Out they came to sing – I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that singing together could be fun. I knew that singing the songs we loved was special. I asked them to tell me what they would like to sing, they told me, I found the music and we sang. I added rounds and partners songs and songs with simple harmonies. Not knowing about professional boundaries, I used to walk them to my house at lunchtime where there was a piano, to practice our songs. We developed a special comradery and I even came to feel that there was a friendship there. I felt a dissolution of our differences and began to develop a compassion that I never before realized in myself. They were my first teachers.

There was something else that I noticed. During our rehearsals, John sang loud and clear, Lucille was calm, Ralph was gentle, Peter was a part of the group, Franklin was full of joy, Patricia began taking leadership, and Corrine was even-keeled.

What was this magical thing? I knew that I needed to explore it further.

Nowhere in my training as a musician did anyone ever mention that there was a field known as music therapy – and perhaps for good reason. This was 1983 and the first training program only started in Canada in 1978 spearheaded by Nancy McMaster and Carolyn Kenny at Capilano College in North Vancouver. I discovered it through conversations with colleagues at my job, and through the realm of the CMHA. I joined the board of directors of CMHA so that I could learn more and understand the rights of people with mental health issues. I continued working and learning until I was able to take the plunge and become a student again.

This story is one of discovery, and it’s the kind of experience that drives many of us to explore this fascinating field. The hitch is, that this kind of story often drives people to think that perhaps they are already doing something called music therapy before having been trained, because they have noticed that music works.

I was discovering the power of music—I was not being a music therapist

To illustrate that this, we’ll take another look at the scenario above.

    1.  I did this choir with absolutely no resources whatsoever—other than a musical skill and compassion. I was very lucky, but if anything had happened with this vulnerable clientele I could have been in serious trouble. If anyone had acted out, had a psychotic episode due to the music we were singing, or if anyone had had emotional issues emerge, I would have had no idea how to help. As a Music Therapist, I am trained to help people with the outcomes of their musical experience.
    2. I had no professional boundaries. I did not understand about liability issues with regard to taking them to my home. As a Certified Music Therapist, I am now bound by my professional practice, and by the code of ethics laid out for me through the Canadian Association of Music Therapists.
    3. To consider that they might somehow be my friends was a result of something I needed – not what my clients needed. We learn as music therapists to always be client-centred, and to make their needs first and foremost. We have knowledge of transference and countertransference, how to understand its effects on our relationship with clients, and how to use it to further therapy in an ethical and safe way.
    4. As a young workshop assistant, I had very little understanding of the conditions of the individuals I was working with. I was learning but had nothing to back up my work in music. I had no idea of the depths to which music could take them, and no idea of what to do if anyone had gone to those depths.

    Being a Therapist

    Therapists—be they pet therapists, recreation therapists, art therapists, dance therapists, drama therapists, or music therapists — have gone to great lengths to earn those titles. The title ‘therapist’ is not to be taken lightly and is not to be used unless the training and appropriate certification has been achieved. This is a very troublesome and prevalent problem for our field. Often when someone discovers that magical connection between their self and another person through music, it is mistakenly called music therapy.

    When someone discovers that magical connection between themselves and another person through music, it does not mean that it’s called music therapy.

    The difference between a musician-entertainer and a music therapist is that a musician is a musician first, who may indeed see a therapeutic effect on the people that they are making music for, but making music for someone the first objective.

    A music therapist is a therapist first, who uses music with intent as their primary medium, in order to have a therapeutic effect on the individuals with whom they are working. Developing a relationship and learning how music will best help that person, is the first objective. Using music to work with that individual in ways that are important to them is the primary goal.

    As stated by the Canadian Association of Music Therapists

    ‘Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.’

    If you have any questions, please ask. Contact me


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