Saturday, June 20, 2009

Teaching a complete stranger about music therapy...Possibly priceless??

So, I was at the baseball game the other night, crashing the hospitality suite of a major telecommunications company, when two guys from San Francisco started up a conversation. They asked how we were affiliated with the telecommunications company, and we admitted that we were guests of someone who worked there but was unable to be present. That started the conversation about what we actually did for our livings. They thought we were all teachers, but I piped up and stated that I was a therapist.

Eventually, I got into a conversation about music therapy. The gentleman who was most interested in my job made the conversation completely about he used music in his life to do different things.

I started thinking about the conversations that I have had in the past about music therapy. Most of the time, you can connect with someone who has no idea when you use their own experience as examples. The song they learned in 5th grade about the layers of a plant stem, any song from Schoolhouse Rock, the ABC song - all of those are personal experiences of music that are easily accessed and understood.

Isn't that the way it is with music therapy? The full power of the medium must be experienced to be fully understood. Talking about it without experience is not enough. The process has to be engaged in for the medium to become real.

I like to put administrators and others through experiential activities when I am presenting about music therapy. I will do preference surveys, will ask audience members to identify extramusical associations with music, and will play Television Name That Tune to illustrate the general accessibility and ease in remembering music. We have fun, but I guarantee that my presentation is memorable - they tell me, often many years later, about how they remember and appreciate my presentations.

I know that my facility has a long history of music therapy. This is due to the dedication and interest of our founders, and specifically, the Ursaline Sisters who founded our facility. They recognized the importance of music and the way that music can access different responses. When I have a rough day with an administrator who has no clue what I do (beyond singing happy songs with happy children returning to class after group therapy), I remember that music therapy will be in the facility long after the administrator has left the position. I also remember former adminstrators who have emailed me and exclaimed over the lack of music therapy in their subsequent facilities. I have been told that music therapy positions have been started because of my presentations and demonstrations of the power of music in the lives of my clients as well as in the lives of everyday others.

I do not know what will become of the gentleman from San Francisco who spoke with me about music therapy, but I know that a seed has been planted there.

You never know when that seed will sprout.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Back to music therapy

So, the current flap on the listserv has settled into a VERY LONG discussion about updating to a blog or wiki. Because of this, I am returning to my favorite topic for a blog, MUSIC THERAPY!

I find it interesting when I hit creative dry spells. I am currently in one. I am spending lots of time watching interns work with my clients, and I am doing little active therapy. I am, however, making visual aids like mad. Of course, I am not using them yet, but that will come. Everytime I hit this part of the schedule, I start to have therapy withdrawals. I have decided, therefore, to not accept interns for the January 2010 position, so I can give myself a hiatus from teaching and really get back into therapy full-time.

I really enjoy my chosen profession. It is difficult, sometimes, to justify to accountants, why music therapy is an important treatment modality, but once they see a session, they understand the power that music has in our lives. I have to justify my vocation to others alot. I don't think of it as a failing on the part of my association, or as a reflection on me as a person, but I do find that talking to others about my career is an interesting challenge.

I admit, I do make decisions about revealing my profession to total strangers on airplanes based on the amount of interaction that I want to sustain. Sometimes it is just easier to state that I am a special educator rather than start the music therapy conversation. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

But, every time I take the time to talk to a complete stranger about music therapy, I am increasing public awareness of the profession. I am on the frontline of music therapy education and defense. You never know who is sitting next to you, and you may be encouraging that person to think about music therapy as a treatment option for themselves!

I like taking the option of gentle education rather than stern letters when others are using music in a therapeutic manner. I feel that the title, "Music Therapist," should be earned and not adopted by anyone who plays an instrument. However, I feel that we (as therapists) shoot ourselves in the foot when we storm into a facility that is advertising "music therapy" as a treatment and demand to see the credentials of their therapist. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the facility and makes them less likely to hire a therapist.

We cannot own music. We cannot, and we need to face the fact that music is out there and enjoyable by everyone. Let's defend the title of therapist, sure, but...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Airing our Laundry in Public...Sorta

So, the flap on the listserv has gone from NAMT/AAMT to male/female. Interesting how email cannot always convey the intention of the authors. Sarcasm and snark often translates into personal attacks and hurt feelings. A very good reason not to participate, in my opinion.

There are many different ways of viewing the current issues and discussions that are happening on the music therapy listserv right now. I have come to the conclusion that the actual discussion is going on on many different levels. We are arguing apples and oranges. Some of it is a pity party - poor, poor, pitiful me. I am a member of the minority and feel like my opinions are right but ignored. Some of it is a mutual admiration society - poor us. We are the persecuted ones. Let's get together and secede from the Association. Some of it is like North Korea - nobody is actually paying attention to what is going on with us, so we will threaten something drastic so everyone will have to pay attention to us, by golly!

Music therapists are a strange lot. We spend lots of time trying to justify the importance of our form of therapy to administrators and consumers. We feel passionate about the power of music as a therapeutic agent and want others to recognize and feel the power for themselves. We have spent our entire professional history fighting for a place in different treatment modalities. Often considered frivolous, music therapy is generally the first form of therapy to be deleted from treatment. As a result, we have to constantly prove ourselves to the bean counters and the decision-makers.

As music therapists, our job is often defined by the persons we treat. My job as a pediatric therapist for clients with psychiatric and developmental concerns is much different from the job my friend has working with children in an acute care setting. The common ground that we have is music. That is really all. We may not use music the same way, may not view the effect of music on the brain of our clients the same, or even agree which musical forms are the "best" for our clients, but we agree that music is a powerful treatment modality.

There are just as many ways to practice music therapy as there are music therapy practitioners. There are about as many philosophical foundations for music therapy. Why do we need to have "one unifying theory" to unite us? I think it is good to have different ideas, different philosophies, and different songs to sing. The basic thing that we, as therapists, should agree upon is that music can be used as a tool to change people. There are ways to see what happens in the brain. This is a fact rather than a supposition. Does the power of music therapy decrease when we are unable to know exactly how the brain is reacting to the process? I don't think so, but there are some who do. I cannot feel that the power of music therapy is decreased because I am unable to see inside the brains of the children I work with, but I do find that knowledge of brain interaction increases my marketability with administrators. In addition, knowledge of improvisation techniques and psychodynamic interpretations of music production increase my repertoire when working with clients.

I guess, in all of this, I'm asking, what does it matter if I am a behavioral therapist or a psychodynamic therapist? I am a music therapist. This means that I use music to affect change for my clients. I am dedicated to the idea of using music to affect this change. I respect the ways that others use music to affect change.

I have always felt that dissatisfaction with the status quo indicates several things for me. If you are miserable in a particular situation, either leave the situation or stand up and fight for a change. Life is too short to feel disgruntled. Be the force of change if you are not happy. Establish a journal that offers information that you are interested in reading. Present at conference on the topics that interest you. If you are interested, others will be as well. You will rarely accomplish anything by bad-mouthing people who hold different ideas than you. You will only cause them to build up their arguments and entrench in their positions, insisting that you are wrong. So, be the force for positive change. Find a way that you can be the source of change. If you are complaining, then do something productive instead of wallowing in your self-pity party.

Here is my challenge for change - Find your passion and follow it. Be active. Stop wallowing and make a difference.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Forever Young

A good friend of mine just made a comment that she was starting to like songs by Hannah Montana (AKA Miley Cyrus) and the Jonas Brothers. While the comment made me laugh, it reminded me of a pivotal A-HA moment in my own development as a music therapist.

I was in a session at a National Conference - can't remember the year or the location - where the primary topic was not centered around geriatric music therapy, buy was led by a person who worked primarily in geriatric settings. The leader wanted us to practice some vocal techniques so he/she asked us to sing "In My Merry Oldsmobile, the song that everybody knows." I started off singing with the rest of them, belting out the first line of the chorus, and then realized that I did not know the rest of the song.

In utter humiliation, I stopped singing and attempted to look busy taking notes. I also started my usual self-defeating inner talk.

"I SHOULD know this song. I'm a failure as a music therapist. Why didn't I learn songs for this population? I NEED to go home and memorize all the songs that therapists use in sessions for folks in geriatric settings."

The self-talk went on for a while as I scanned the therapists in the crowd.

I started to feel pretty down on myself. All of a sudden, I realized that while I was not primed towards music from the turn of the twentieth century, most of the folks singing "In My Merry Oldsmobile" were CERTAINLY not familiar with songs by popular music artists, - it was Britney Spears and N Sync at that time - and I was! I was EXTREMELY familiar with those songs - heard them in my sleep - played them and sang them daily.

I took a deep breath and settled down for the rest of the session.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The latest listserve flap is that there is a difference between old AAMT and NAMT. Shocker! You mean, there are different ways to be a music therapist???!??? What a shocker! Seriously, the time has come to bury the hatchet, so to speak, in the old crap that has taken place.

There is a mystery that folks do not want to talk about, but the hurt still exists. I find that I can be carrying on a wonderful conversation with a person, centered around competency-based training, experiential learning, qualitative research - all things that I am passionate about - when the person asks me where I live. I state that I live in Kansas, and the other person states, "oh." They then walk away from me. I actually had one person say that she was glad that she talked to me before knowing that I live in the bastion of "those people," because she would not have spoken to me otherwise.

What a mess.

There were certainly disagreements in the sixties and seventies about training, curriculum, and competence, but half of the folks involved in the original dispute (this is what I have gleaned from conversations and some research, so it is not definite or fact, so consider the source and interpret as you feel you need to...) are now dead. The argument should also be dead.

The worst thing (again, in my humble opinion) is that we are still rehashing this topic. I am sorry that there are hard feelings, but is it fair for future generations for us to continue the argument? After 10 years as a united organization, we really do need to compromise in a way that allows for folks from each tradition to heal. How will that happen?

I have no clue.

I really want the bickering to stop. I am tired of being discounted and pooh-poohed because of my geographical location and educational background. I am blissfully unaware of the educational backgrounds of the folks that I speak to at conference, but I still want to hear the opinions of all therapists.

Whoo - I am really taking advantage of this personal type of communication to organize my thoughts on this topic. I love blogging. If you don't like my viewpoint, please let me know. I would appreciate it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


I guess everyone feels anxious about some things. I admit that I get anxious when I have to send things into my academic advisor - not that she's mean, but I cannot seem to feel comfortable sending her my work. I don't know why. On the other hand, I know a woman who is so anxious about getting anything wrong that she ties herself up in knots throughout her sessions. This worries me.

I guess I have a pretty realistic viewpoint about myself as a therapist.

I am human.

Therefore, I am not going to be perfect. I will make mistakes. I will solve some issues and create others. There will be days when I am not able to sing or communicate with someone else. I also know that these failings are part of the human condition, and I embrace my humanity.

I have a very good friend who is a perfectionist. He stresses himself out with the thought that he MIGHT make a mistake that he cannot function in his job. He is an extraordinary organist and accompanist. His anxiety was taking over his life. He was compensating with alcohol and was unable to function appropriately. He finally started purposefully making one mistake during each performance - nothing serious, just a missed note or trill - and he was able to relax about the possibility of making mistakes. He knew he was going to make a mistake, so he was able to relax about the possibility of other mistakes.

Mistakes happen. There are times when I will not be therapeutic. There are times when the decisions I make will lead to inappropriate responses from my clients. There are times when I will try something new, and it will bomb! If I spend all of my time stressing about these situations, I will never get out of bed in the morning. So, I choose to be human, embrace my humanity, and wallow in my imperfections. There are so many.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Time to get back to work...

It is almost time for my return to the music therapy clinic. I have enjoyed my time off and would, naturally, take more time off if offered. On the other hand, I think I am about ready to get back to my work routine. I enjoy the daily grind - seeing lots of clients everyday, supervising interns during their sessions, talking to co-workers, and trying to keep up with e-mail.

There are lots of things that I enjoy in my job. I love making music - that should be a given for someone in music therapy. I especially enjoy watching my clients make their own music. I love the days that we focus on performances, talent shows, holiday programs, and the like. My clients are not shy. The inhibitions displayed by many folks when performing are simpy not present for my clients.

I also enjoy developing innovative therapeutic music experiences for my clients. They appear to enjoy new songs. I like thinking up ways to teach them new concepts through music. It keeps the job fresh and keeps me in the music therapy clinic year after year.

There are some things that I do not currently enjoy about my job. The "team" that was prevalent during previous years is shattering into pieces. Long-term staff members are trying to decide whether they should stay until they can retire or cut their losses and move somewhere new. As a therapist, I am often the person who knows about things that I do not need to know - a hazard of being a listening-type person, I guess. The frustrations are splintering the staff at my job. This makes for a tense situation that has nothing to do with therapy or the challenges present with my clients. Folks feel ignored, under-valued, put-down, and isolated. Most of these feelings are, rightly or wrongly, focused on our new administration. We have gone from being a 'team' to being a group of folks who work with the same students in the same building. This has been a change for us. We used to be in the loop - we talked to one another, the principal let us know what plans were being developed, and we made decisions as a group. This does not happen anymore.

My strategies for dealing with the current work situation include remaining in my beautiful room (see picture above for one view) and enjoying the fact that my administrators have never taken me up on my invitations to come down and play with us. While I feel like I am not an important part of the team since no one seems to care, I also really enjoy the independence of being ignored. In addition, I stay as far away from the negative members of the team. I spend more time in my room now rather than going to the staff lounge. I have much more time to compose songs, develop TMEs, and talk to my interns. It is easy to escape into my job responsibilities. These are some of the good things that have come out of my work situation.

As my summer break concludes, I find that I am looking forward to the return to running therapy sessions. I am not looking forward to the disconnected staff that I will be working with upon my return.

Running the risk of sounding petulant, I want things to change at work. I want my 'team' back. I miss knowing what is going on with future planning. I want to be in the know when it comes to things like structural changes, members of the staff, changes in classroom assignments, job expectation changes, and other things that I once knew. I really want the new administrators to see what music therapy is and what it means. I want to fix the situation so everyone is happy again.

Aaah. The therapist in me wants to fix things for others.

The pragmatist in me knows that I cannot fix things for others. It is not my job to fix everything in my world. I would explode if I tried.

Deep thoughts for the end of vacation.

Something that all therapists face at some point, I think.