12 Things I Learned As A Music Therapy Student



A couple months ago, I completed my first year as a music therapy student. At the end of the day, you can have all the knowledge in the world about music therapy, the science behind it, and how it is executed, but just like any other field position, your knowledge is only useful if you can apply it to clinical settings. There is no set curriculum, no way to teach one how to become an effective music therapist; you just have to do it to learn.

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Here are 12 things I learned this year during my music therapy practicum:

1. Know Your Clients

Of course, it is essential that you know your clients' diagnoses. But you also need to know their personalities, behaviours, boundaries, and interests. Some may have issues with personal space, while others may be sensitive to certain kinds of noises or vocalizations. Each client is an individual with their own needs. You need to know your clients thoroughly if you are to provide them with the best music therapy possible to meet their goals. Be empathetic, and try to understand things from their perspective.


2. Observe Carefully

Really be in tune with the minuscule details - actions and behaviours - that would normally go unnoticed. The simple utterance of a "Hi" from a non-verbal client can be a breakthrough. These small things are great indicators of a client's progress.


3. Play to Support

One of the biggest things about being a music therapist is that you are able to respond to and play together with whatever music the clients make. Allow them space to create. Listen to the motifs - rhythmic or melodic - that they are creating, and play with them; their music and yours should become one. Don't get so caught up in your own music-making that you forget to support your client. 


4. Redirection Is Your Friend

When negative behaviours come up, never punish, add to, or encourage the negativity. Instead, redirect your client's negative energy into something creative and positive, such as channeling aggression into playing the drums. When a client's attention is wavering, it can also help to redirect their focus to an instrument or a repetitive action.


5. Let Positive Surprises Unfold

Sometimes, a client's unexpected behaviour can contribute to their growth and development towards their therapeutic goal, even if it is not necessarily related to music therapy. For example, a client may not be singing, but they are reciting the alphabet; they may be fiddling with a toy, but through that they are identifying numbers and colours. Never hinder any kind of positive development; let them unfold.


6. Flexibility Is Key

More times than never, things don't go according to plan. Unexpected things happen, and that's okay - it's all part of the job. You must learn to adapt to whatever situation is presented to you, calmly and seamlessly, and to tackle them creatively. Being flexible is one of the most vital skills a music therapist must possess, it might as well just be written in the job description.


7. Tone of Voice Matters

Be assertive, yet kind. You don't want your clients to see you as a negative authoritative figure, but you still need to hold your place. Your eyes can also help you in this department.


8. Be Patient

Sometimes change can be observed just after one session. In other cases, it can take years for a client to reach their goal. Don't get discouraged if you are unable to see any immediate results. It can feel like nothing is happening, but chances are, something in your client is changing. Like adding one spoonful of water to a bowl each day, until the water eventually fills the bowl and overflows. Until then, hold your ground, and have faith that change will come in due time.


9. Be Prepared

KNOW YOUR MUSIC. There is nothing worse than facilitating a session while looking at sheet music and/or chords, or rummaging through your head for the right notes. Also, always have more music prepared than you need - start a collection of repertoire and songs you can use in your sessions. Also: PRACTICE YOUR IMPROVISATION SKILLS.


10. Instruments Are Expensive

A guitar, a keyboard, a glockenspiel, an ocean drum, and about a dozen (or more) each of hand drums, bells, shakers... anything you can think of. Add them all up, and the bill can get pretty hefty. On the bright side, you are always ready for impromptu jam sessions. And your friends and family will always know what to get you for your birthday or for Christmas.


11. Practice Self-Care

As the saying goes, "You can't pour from an empty cup." Due to the nature of the job, you may experience emotional burnout. Take some time for yourself to regroup, breathe, and take pleasure in other non-music therapy activities. In order to give your clients the best music therapy they deserve, you must also be at your best in all ways: physically, mentally, and socially. And this applies to all jobs, and to everybody's lives. Self-care is SO important, yet it is often neglected. Start practicing a bit now, every day.


12. Music Is Life-Changing

Last but not least, remember that music - whether used therapeutically in a clinical setting, or casually - is life-changing. And remember that you have the best job in the world because you are making a difference in people's lives through the natural phenomenon that is music. You have such a powerful tool in your hands, so make it count, and enjoy the surprises that life brings you.

12 Things I Learned As A Music Therapy Student

Note: many thanks to my music therapy friends who contributed their ideas to this post