Monday, May 2, 2016

Senior Reflection: A Musical Journey

    Truth be told, I have not looked forward to writing this reflection because it means my time of being on the SMWC campus is coming to a close. I was also worried I would not be able to fully articulate how much my time here has meant to me in writing.  Until last week, I had a very different reflection I was going to share. As often is the case with wonderful Providential timing, I witnessed something recently that allowed me to more effectively process what I wanted to say.

Nathan Mensah in first year of cello lessons
    As part of the Spring Choral Concert, the Madrigals performed the seven movement work “Magnificat”by Norwegian composer Kim AndrĂ© Arnesen. For the past few months I had heard this piece being rehearsed and was really excited to hear it all the way through. During the 40 minutes of music, I was taken on a very powerful emotional journey. My eyes teared up nearly the entire time. I was moved by the beautiful music and could not help but close my eyes and bathe in the auditory ambience. This music spoke to me (and the audience) and it pervaded me. The experience was extremely cathartic and I did not need to understand the text to have it speak to me. How could a (very talented) choir of twelve, a soprano soloist, and an organist move me in such ways? The answer should have been more obvious for someone who is in school learning about how music affects each of us in different ways.

    Music is the way I often process, communicate, and share with others. Music is the vessel through which I can express things I cannot put into words. When I hear a piece of music, I can often be seen bopping my head shamelessly or just flat out dancing. When I am learning and performing songs on guitar and piano, how can I not groove if the music is telling me to do so? With our beating hearts, our lungs expanding and collapsing, and the circadian rhythms on which we operate, our bodies are rhythmic entities, so when I’m fully engaged in the music it is impossible for the music not to be in my body regardless of whether I’m listening to something, playing a new instrument, or conducting.
    I discovered one of the most difficult parts about the Music Therapy program at SMWC was to simply let my authentic self come through in sessions with clients. I had always felt that “trumpet Nate”, “music therapy student Nate”, “composer Nate”, etc. were all different identities. On the contrary, all of these boxes were part of the fuller whole. My musical identity is comprised of many elements, and it was only when I felt comfortable enough to bring all of those elements into my core that I was able to start being fully authentic in sessions. As a music therapy student, it was my job to use clinical and evidence-based music interventions to help my clients accomplish their goals and work toward healthy change. Normally this took place in the form of using familiar songs while challenging clients to accomplish tasks such as playing instruments, responding in certain ways, or to engage in a verbal discourse afterwards.  I was most challenged to be fully authentic in sessions where improvisation was the primary method of communication. 

    Last semester, I worked alongside a board certified music therapist (MT-BC) with an adult client with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities.  One of our goals for this client was to help increase his level of initiating interaction, so we were challenged to play piano music and other percussive instruments to assist him with staying engaged in the music. Unlike my other sessions, pre-composed songs were not used and we created piano and vocal music for the client during the session using clinical improvisation techniques. Clinical improvisation allows a client and music therapist to create spontaneous music in the moment, often resulting in unique epiphanies, growth, and authentic connection within the therapeutic relationship.  As our mind, body, and spirit are all connected, music can often bring about a transformation for a client. I felt like my identity took a shift after working with this particular client. Initially when working with this client, I noticed I was having trouble building a connection with him. This has been a struggle for me in my past. That semester I also felt like I had become musically stagnant: I was in a decent place, but I knew I was not growing. Through a musical improvisation with my on-site music therapy supervisor, and a discussion about “being in the moment” with my faculty music therapy supervisor, I was challenged to improvise on my own time to try to work through these issues. When I played music on the piano alone, I started to realize I did not need to separate my “musical selves”. Why couldn’t a piece of music reflect all of my tastes? Improvisation has no rules, and it is a place where we can be free to express ourselves fully. This does not mean the result is always pretty or beautiful, but this makes sense: we all have days when we feel down, and we all have days when we feel like a million bucks; so, then, our created music can also change day by day. 
     When I started to accept these ideas, I started to trust my musical intuition, and when my client vocalized and made high and low noises with his voice, I started to imitate him. This was a pivotal moment- over the rest of the semester, the client and I connected through vocalizing with each other, responding to each other, and harmonizing. I believe he became more aware of his own role in the music, and he started to do new things like hold notes for over 20 seconds (a very long time to try to sing along!) and explore his lower and upper registers. We took a new and risky journey together and the result was a fun, beautiful, authentic connection. As a musical being (as we all are), I feel most connected when I can rely on music to do the talking for me. The easiest music connections can occur when we become our uninhibited selves. If we can’t bring our fully real selves to clients, how can we expect our clients to do the same?
    How a client engages with music (their body language, their dynamics, tempo, frequency of notes, facial expressions) reflects the inner being, and by assessing a client’s needs in the moment we can adapt to whatever they are communicating.  For example, while I was placed at ResCare (a day facility for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities) I worked with a client who seemed to be in a bad mood one day. He was crossing his arms and his eyes remained close with his head turned down. I played “Let it Be” by the Beatles and encouraged the clients in the group to close their eyes so they could just focus on listening to the music and relaxing. When I looked to the client who was previously in a bad mood, his demeanor had changed throughout the song: tension was released from his shoulders, he stopped frowning, and he smiled. I played quieter near the end and played a lighter accompaniment pattern and the client opened his eyes and afterwards said the music helped him relax and feel good.

    I can’t begin to put into words how much I have enjoyed and felt blessed by the past few years. Many tangible milestones have taken place of which I am proud: my Ska band finished recording their first album, I got to be in my first professional theater production, I learned how to play guitar and fell in love with it, I attended two schools at once for over a year and survived a year working the third shift at a hospital. But none of them feel as accomplished as getting to share countless musical moments with others. I feel nothing is as important as knowing I witnessed, and engaged with, each client who chose to share their music with me. I was placed in sessions to help clients determine new ways of thinking about things, but in reality, they taught me more than I could ever hope to learn.

    People sometimes say I am a relatively closed off person, despite my outgoing nature. This is not because of them, but because I often only share what I consider worth sharing.  I only find it worthwhile to open up to someone when I know they can truly listen and when I know I can trust them. Over the course of this final semester, I realized I needed to open up more, not just for others, but for myself so I could grow. One friend of mine challenged me to tell them a new fact about myself every few days. Another friend promised to always be there to listen and keep personal matters private. This opening of my personality, while cumbersome, has made me feel more connected to others. We all have flaws and problems we go through- no one is an island- and we are not meant to go through life alone. In music therapy, we are hoping to help our clients realize thoughts like these; but, if they can’t achieve growth by themselves, we can help. While I was placed on the Behavioral Health Care Unit of Regional Hospital, my co-music therapy student and I often played songs (such as “I Can See Clearly Now”) with clients and then discussed the lyrics and meaning of the song. This was done to see if clients could draw conclusions from the meanings of songs to apply to their own lives. One of my on-site practicum supervisors told me the music is an identity in sessions, just as important as the persons in the room. It is only through true connectedness when we can help to reach beyond ourselves in music and in life.

Mensah and fellow SMWC music therapy students
    I will say my time at the Woods has been some of the most challenging and rewarding times of my life. I am beyond thankful for my professors who pushed me, challenged me to think in new ways, made me a stronger musician, and provided the support to help me make it through. I can’t ever look at music in the same way after my three years here. Whether we believe music is a universal language or not, I believe it is something accessible to all. I believe we are all musical beings, and we sound aspects of ourselves when participating in musical creation. In the end, there is no way for me to put into words how much my time at The Woods has meant to me, and how much the community has changed me. Perhaps if you find me some time while in the Conservatory, I can try to play for you what I feel instead of not doing it justice with words. After all, I am a musical being, and you are too.

*Author Nathan Mensah, SMWC senior music therapy student, completes his coursework May 2016 and will begin his 6-month clinical music therapy internship at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in July 2016.
Editor: Sharon R. Boyle

For more information about the Undergraduate (Bachelor of Science in Music Therapy) or the Music Therapy Equivalency Campus Programs, contact Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC, Associate Professor of Music Therapy:
phone: (812) 535-5145;

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Graduate Study in Music Therapy at SMWC: An Interview With Beth Deyermond, MA, MT-BC

Beth Deyermond, MA, MT-BC has been a practicing music therapist for over 14 years.  She is the Music Therapy Department Chair and Internship Director at The Center for Discovery (TCFD) in Harris, NY.  TCFD is a residential school for children and adults with significant multiple disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Beth is married and has two children, Sophia (10) and James (7).  She graduated with her Masters of Arts in Music Therapy degree from SMWC in December 2015.
Deyermond at December 2015 Commencement
Receiving her MA in Music Therapy
"What drew you to SMWC for the MAMT Program?"

I had been a practicing music therapist for twelve years before deciding to go back to school.  During that time, I had experience with a number of different programs and came to the conclusion it was important for me to be a part of a program that worked with my familial and professional responsibilities, and also one that resonated with my personal philosophy of Music Therapy.  The MAMT program at the Woods fit that bill 100%. Even though it was very far away, and I knew it would be difficult to be away from my family and from my job during the residencies, the residency format allowed me a level of choice so that I could live my life in the way I preferred and I needed (Besides, I am now an expert at air travel!).  

In addition to the residency format, I would be remiss without saying I was particularly drawn to the diversity of coursework and the caliber of professors teaching the different courses.  After finishing the program, I can honestly say that my hopes and expectations in this area were surpassed by far.

"How did you balance your family life and work life while completing this degree?"

Is it bad that I laughed out loud when I read this question?  There were times during the program when I honestly didn’t know how I was going to get it all done.  Life happens to all of us and it is constantly stretching us beyond our perceived capabilities. 

When I started this program, I made a decision: family always came first.  I did not want my kids to miss out on quality time with their mother.  I did not want to miss a soccer game or a dance recital because of schoolwork.  Because I made that a priority, I really had to plan my time and use it in a focused way.

I said the word “plan”.  I will admit that I absolutely love to plan.  I love to make lists.  I love to cross things off my lists.  This very much came in handy during the program.  At the start of every semester, I made a list of all of the assignments and when they were due.  At the start of every week, I made a plan and a timeline for what needed to get done each night and tried my hardest to stick to that plan.   
Family comes first!
 Even with all of the planning, there came a point in time when I realized I needed to allow myself some grace.  My house was not always as clean as usual.  I wasn’t always able to make dinner completely from scratch.  I had to learn to say “no” when I had too much on my plate.  I also had to learn to ask for help (Luckily I am blessed with a wonderful and supportive husband and a wonderful and supportive supervisor). It was difficult to admit that I couldn’t do it all, but when I did, the balancing act became much easier and so much less stressful.

It was not always easy.  It was not always pretty.  It was not always “balanced”, but I still made it through, and my kids were so proud of me.  Knowing that is even better than the pride I have in myself.
 "What have your experiences been like as an Internship Supervisor?"

People have often asked me why I supervise interns.  Isn’t it difficult? Doesn’t that take up a lot of time? Why do you accept so many at once? (We currently have eight MT interns and four staff music therapists). The answer to that is yes, it is difficult and yes, it takes up a lot of time, but, with each intern, I learn as well.  I learn about myself.  I learn new clinical techniques.  I learn how to be a good and effective supervisor. I learn about being an ineffective and bad supervisor. I learn about new music and new technologies. 

It is for all of these reasons I feel it is worth it. At The Center for Discovery, we work using primarily clinical improvisation.  I love challenging interns to think of their session work in a music-centered manner.  I love the moment when an intern connects with an individual and you can feel the electricity pulsing through the music. I love when an intern conquers their fear of the piano. And, I love when an intern develops confidence in their clinical abilities and in areas that may have been a struggle in the past.

So, the answer is “yes”.  Training interns is a lot of work.  But it has absolutely made me a better therapist and a better supervisor overall.  I hope to have the opportunity to do it for many more years.

"What did you like the most about the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Master of Arts in Music Therapy Program?"

There are so many positive experiences it is hard for me to pick just one!  My immediate answer to this question is the relationships that formed during this experience.  With each incoming cohort, there is an opportunity to create a bond that is uniquely special and strong. I was blessed to enter and finish the program with eight of the most amazing, brilliant, talented, and passionate women I have ever known.
A student's cohort provides needed support throughout the program.
Pictured: Beth's cohort and fellow December 2015 graduates
I also loved the fact that the program reignited my love of learning.  I will freely admit that I was not one to get the Journal of Music Therapy or Music Therapy Perspectives journal and sit down to read them cover-to-cover.  The program at SMWC helped inspire me to get back into reading current literature and looking into a broader range of topics I knew would only enhance my clinical and supervisory work.

"What things did you learn at SMWC to help you further your clinical skills as a music therapist?"

I think one of the biggest things I learned from the MAMT program is a deeper understanding of myself.  Each class was challenging in its own way and either taught me a new skill, or reminded me of a trait that is not always in my personal forefront.  Each skill learned is something to translate into my clinical work...perseverance, trust, patience, empathy, and confidence.

"What is it like supervising interns (undergraduates) who come from the same school as you?"

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this question!  I’ve supervised interns who went to the same undergraduate program as me, but I was there long before they were, and the program has definitely evolved and changed since then.  That being said, I actually did supervise a Woods student while I was in the MAMT program.   It was nice because it gave us something to talk about at the beginning of our supervisory relationship. It also provided an instant connection both of us took pride in.

"What would you like to let someone else know about your experience in the SMWC MAMT program and its impact on your life?
Beth and her husband

This experience was one of the best decisions I have made. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something about the campus that pulls you in.  From the moment you step on campus, you become a part of something greater.  There is a history there that you become part of.  There is pride in all aspects of the campus and in all aspects of the program. The professors are not only brilliant, but are also supportive and relatable. When you are done with the program, you experience a sense of accomplishment that is absolutely incredible. I am so very grateful for my experience at The Woods and all of the individuals who helped me along the way!

Written by: Nathan Mensah, senior music therapy major

Edited by: Sharon R. Boyle, Associate Professor of Music Therapy
For information about the SMWC Master of Arts in Music Therapy program, contact:
Dr. Tracy Richardson, MT-BC
Director of Master of Arts in Music Therapy Program
Chair of the Music and Theatre Department

For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:
Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC
Coordinator of Undergraduate and Campus Music Therapy Programs

For more information about the SMWC Music Therapy Equivalency-Distance (MTED) program, contact: 
Larisa McHugh, MA, MT-BC
Coordinator of the Music Therapy Equivalency Distance Program

Friday, January 29, 2016

Music Therapy Education = Advocacy Through Connection

  “Advocacy of music therapy is vital because there so many people who are unaware of what music therapy is and the benefits it provides!” 
- Emily Corbitt, SMWC MTED student

While the benefits of music therapy are obvious to those of us already in the profession, many people are still discovering it every day. It is crucial to bring about more awareness to music therapy in whatever ways we can in order to provide more access to needed services, to encourage new students to pursue study of music therapy, and to keep music therapy viable in a changing world. In her blog post for Social Media Advocacy Month, Dena Register, PhD, MT-BC briefly outlined three roles that music therapy advocates typically fall under: 
  • Connectors (building bridges to bring others together)
  • Reflectors (reflecting back important points and see multiple perspectives) 
  • Directors (seeing the big picture beyond the current situation)

While many of us may move in and out of these different roles, as a college serving a range of music therapy students from undergraduate to equivalency to graduate level, it is fair to say that most academic programs serve as a "Connector". It is fair to say that they also serve as "Reflectors" and "Directors" as well, but faculty often bring students and alums together, as well as students from various programs together. In doing so, a larger network of music therapy from which to draw insights, support, and new ways to advocate is created. 

Once students graduate, they move into the work force and make new connections with those outside of music therapy, as well as other music therapists. The university/college programs within which we all developed our understanding and skills in music therapy truly helped build bridges for us as we moved into the professional world. Students all better learn to stand on their own two feet through the support of faculty and internship supervisors, allowing them to grow into more self-awareness and learning more about their individual skill sets. These unique skills can then be transferred into new ways to connect with others and further bring awareness to music therapy. 

Register also mentioned different ways that we can advocate in our field, no matter whether we are students, interns, new professionals, or seasoned professionals. This may be done through public lectures, word of mouth, or media, so we can all do our part to let others know why we believe music therapy is essential. By doing so, we can help those who need our services to gain access. In addition, by growing our field through music therapy education, we ultimately advocate for music therapy.
Music Therapy = Connection

“We spend years developing skills, techniques, and knowledge in order to be the best music therapist we can be and after all that work we need to advocate for ourselves, our profession, and our identity so everyone understands the power and benefits of music and music therapy for all ages and populations...we need to promote that idea and understanding.” 
- Mallory Tanis, SMWC music therapy senior.

As a special way to honor Social Media Advocacy Month, a few SMWC undergraduate music therapy students (as part of the SMWC Music Therapy Club) decided to put together a video about why they think advocacy is so important: View video here!


Blog post authors: Nathan Mensah, senior, and Sharon R. Boyle, Coordinator of Undergraduate Music Therapy.

For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:

Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC

For information about the SMWC Master of Arts in Music Therapy program, contact:
Dr. Tracy Richardson, MT-BC

For more information about the SMWC Music Therpay Equivalency-Distance (MTED) program, contact: 
Larisa McHugh, MA, MT-BC

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Snapshot of Some New Music Therapy Students for the SMWC 2015-16 Academic Year

The first part of the fall semester has flown by at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. As midterm approaches, the leaves are starting to change colors, the weather is starting to cool down from the summer heat, and new music therapy students have had an opportunity to become acclimated to SMWC. The music therapy undergraduate programdistance equivalency (MTED), and graduate (MAMT) programs are all blossoming.

Dana Kim, MAMT student
Dana Kim, from Noblesville, IN, just completed the MTED program this past year and is now a new graduate student in the MAMT program. Before coming to SMWC, she had received a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. When asked why she chose to study music therapy, Dana replied “I had several volunteer opportunities in which I saw how music could be a healing tool. This inspired me to learn more about music therapy and how I could use my passion for music to help others. I had a great experience in the SMWC MTED program, so that certainly influenced my decision. I also did a great deal of research on online masters programs before deciding to return to the Woods.  I wanted to learn about the unique philosophies of the different programs and see what they had to offer.  Ultimately, I felt that the Woods offered a wide variety of courses that I was interested in (Medical Music Therapy, Bonnie Method of Guided Imagery, Nordoff Robbins Improvisation).  The Woods also focuses on developing the individual which I feel will help me best serve my clients and aid me in continuing to learn and grow even after I complete my education.” Like many before her, she was drawn to the program’s faculty consisting of many experts in the field.  “SMWC does a wonderful job recruiting professionals from across the country who specialize in different areas of music therapy. It provides the students with a unique opportunity to learn many different perspectives from some of the best music therapists in the field”.

Shea Davis, music therapy major
As Dana is settling into her new program, freshman music therapy major Shea Davis, from Clinton, Indiana, is settling into college life. “I like the community because I can go to a music student and ask them to explain things I don’t understand. I can talk to my professors too, and because my classes are small, they can help explain things to you.” Though she is a singer and flute player, she also plays the piano by ear for fun. “I’ve wanted to learn how to really play for a long time, but right now I learn by watching YouTube videos… I learn by ear. I hear it, I see them playing a certain way, and I learn it.” She enjoys listening to and playing popular music and country, but hopes to learn how to play classical music while at The Woods. Shea developed a high interest in music therapy after doing a research project her junior year. “I actually didn’t want to be a music therapist at all; I wanted to be a veterinarian. A few girls at my high school wanted to be music therapists, and I wanted to do something different. But my sophomore year I went to Olivet Nazarene for a visit on the weekend and came back and thought ‘I don’t know what to do with my life anymore’. I decided to look into music therapy just a little more and decided it was a bigger possibility for me!” After researching, she learned that music therapy was the very different field she was looking for, and does not regret attending. “It is a challenge. In high school, I wasn’t actually challenged. I did the work and it was done, but here I have to think about what I’m doing and I like it because I’m challenged in a good way. I’m actually learning and thinking!” In the future, she hopes to work with children in a hospital setting, but for now is enjoying connecting with students. “I’m very glad that everybody is very welcoming. I listen to film scores in my free time, and I connect with people over that here”.

Kristin Foster, music therapy major
Kristin Foster is one of the new students joining SMWC this semester. She hails from Metropolis, Illinois, and is a freshman music therapy major. For her, music has been a huge part of her life before arriving at the college. “My parents tell me that I sang before I actually spoke words. As a one year old I was vocalizing and making pitches and melodies and just singing. My dad said I’d just make things up. I was very musically inclined even as a child.” As for why she decided to study music, Kristin replied “my parents told me to chase whatever I thought would be best for my life, until I find what I want to do. And I’ve always loved music, so I thought that would be a great place to start!”  Kristin’s primary musical talent is in voice, but she has taken piano for 2 years, playing guitar for several years, and participated in high school band as a percussionist on mallets. She was drawn to The Woods for multiple reasons. “I think one of the reasons I chose this particular school (I fell in love with many aspects) is because of the music department and the faculty, specifically. I have been very solid in the teaching I’ve had so far ( I started with my voice teacher in the children’s choir from 2nd grade up to 12th grade, and did private lessons from 6th grade to 12th grade) which was a very long lasting learning experience. I knew by coming to the Woods I would get that experience. I’m really excited to just learn from the teachers here because they have a lot to offer. When I first arrived here, I had only planned on studying music. But, once I started the MU 282 Music as Therapy class, I knew I needed to switch my major. The idea of being able to work with people to improve their lives through music is wonderful! I feel a strong calling and connection to what Music Therapists do, and I'm thrilled to be able to study music therapy here."

We wish all our new and returning students, faculty and staff from all programs a successful and enriching academic year!
SMWC Chorale while rehearsing for recent 2015 Homecoming Concert

Davis and Foster improvising on piano

Interview completed by Nathan Mensah, senior music therapy major

Edited by Sharon R. Boyle, Associate Professor of Music Therapy
SMWC Chorale warming up with solfeggio

For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:
Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC ( 

For more information about the SMWC Master of Arts in Music Therapy (MAMT) program, contact:
Dr. Tracy Richardson, MT-BC (                                                 

For more information about the SMWC Music Therapy Equivalency-Distance (MTED) program, contact: 

Larisa McHugh, MA, MT-BC (

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Three Ways to Approach Learning Music Therapy Improvisation

There are many different definitions and descriptions of clinical music improvisation. In a nutshell, it refers to the process of the music therapist and client(s) relating to each other through spontaneous music-making with a clinical intention. According to Bruscia (1998), there are four primary methods of music therapy: 1) Composition, 2) Re-creative, 3) Receptive (Listening), and 4) Improvisation. Some music therapists may use improvisation in their work, but it may not be central to their work in the same way it may be for a music therapist trained in the Nordoff-Robbins music therapy approach.

At Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the Master of Arts in Music Therapy program features an Advanced Improvisation and Composition course (taught by Dr. Alan Turry) and the undergraduate and equivalency music therapy programs also include clinical improvisation within the curriculum taught by music therapy faculty who have taken classes with Dr. Turry. The premise is that at the foundation of being a music therapist, we are musicians first. And, in order to utilize this wonderful modality effectively in a clinical setting, we need to be well-versed in how to improvise to be able to adapt music to the emotional environment of the individual or group (in addition to using music in other ways, per our  Professional Competencies). That being said, improvising can create unwelcome stress and anxiety among students (and professionals!) because it feels like venturing into the unknown, especially when learning. So, here are three ways to help music therapy students and professionals approach the process of learning how to improvise in a clinical setting.

SMWC music therapy students in improvisation class
Photo Credit: Sharon Boyle
1. Stay connected to your own music.
This seems so basic, but it is essential. Many times, music therapists (and students) lose touch with the very essence of why they pursued music as a career in the first place. We play music every day with clients (sometimes the same songs repeatedly) and soon music is something we only do as part of our job, disconnecting from it in our personal lives. When was the last time you sat down to learn a song you loved just to learn it--not just a song that can be used in a session? Learn a song that you enjoy and sing/play just for your own enjoyment.

2. Stop worrying about perfect, and start working to be authentic.
While we are taught about "striving for perfection" as musicians, it is important to understand that music therapy is about being real. Yes, we want to bring our best music offering to the table as a music therapist, but the most important aspect is being true to the moment, to the feeling, to what the client needs. We need to be genuine and our true selves, and sometimes that means that the music will not be "perfect". But, the music can still be meaningful. Judgment can stop us from even beginning the music process, and this also means keeping it from the client. If we worry so much about getting the music "perfect" in a session, then we may miss the opportunity to connect with a client through the music.

Photo Credit: Jillian Storm
3. Listen, listen, listen!
In order to be able to play in different styles of music, we must have heard it! It is so important to listen to all kinds of music and different artists as music therapists. First, it allows us to expand our awareness of different music which then expands what we can offer to our clients. Second, learning to listen to music helps us remember that music is meaningful to us...we can gain something from it as well as bringing it to our clients! Finally, the art of listening to music doesn't stay outside the session. We need to learn to intently listen to each client's music. When we listen, we can better respond and help engage with the client in a meaningful way within the music itself. We also can listen to be witness to their creative process, not just listen to respond.

So, put the fear aside and allow yourself the joy of creating music spontaneously! Work with music in this way on your own and then connect with others in group music improvisation. When you are able to experience the wonder of improvising musically, you can then carry this to others.


Bruscia, K. (1998). Defining music therapy, 2nd edition. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona.
Blog Author (Sharon R. Boyle)
For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:
Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC ( 

For more information about the SMWC Master of Arts in Music Therapy program, contact:
Dr. Tracy Richardson, MT-BC (                                                 
For more information about the SMWC Music Therapy Equivalency-Distance (MTED) program, contact: 
Larisa McHugh, MA, MT-BC (

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trust the Process

slow down.
calm down.
Don’t worry.
don’t hurry.
trust the process.
-alexandra stoddard

This quote encapsulates what I often tell students as they move through the undergraduate music therapy program. So much of what occurs in today's world revolves around rushing, meeting timelines, the end product, hearing the results, and more. But, developing into a music therapy clinician takes a great deal of time and methodical process. Students may become frustrated when they struggle with a specific skill, wanting to be able to do it before they even begin trying. They want results immediately, but their mind and body just aren't ready yet. I want to encourage them to "slow down".

These frustrations are so evident in any musician's journey. Learning how to play an instrument or how to develop one's singing voice takes time. "Don't hurry", a music teacher may need to remind a student who races through a musical passage to get to the end. In order to have a nice "end product", musicians must live with the music before the music truly shines. Years of practice and effort, one skill building upon another...this is how a musician exists day to day. And it never ends. A musician moves through life working on another piece of music, refining another skill, preparing for another performance, and absorbing yet more understanding about a composer's intention. This is a way of life for a musician. 
Photo Credit: Sharon Boyle
And so it goes for music therapists. In addition to our musician journey, we are on a journey toward 'becoming' every day. Years of developing one skill to build on another, practicing so many different instruments and music, facing new issues which arise with our clients, learning new ways of documenting, learning again and again from the people we serve...this is how a music therapist exists from one day to the next. 

Again and again I tell my students to "trust the process" and to "trust the music", as well as the importance of trusting their own intuition and judgment. I have discussed the role and importance of silence in the music and within a session....the importance of just "being present" without always having to "do" something. And sometimes they just do not believe me. They struggle with the "not knowing" and sometimes the "not doing". I understand this because I was once a student who could not sit in silence and be okay with it. I struggled as they now struggle. So many students (not just in music therapy) worry about doing the right thing, or rather, not doing the wrong thing. "Calm down", I want to say, "trust the process". We can't just know how to do things which are new to us. This is not always a "right or wrong" issue. Working therapeutically with others, especially in music, is not "black or white" thinking. We live in the gray. We have to gain experience, and yes, even make mistakes along the way in order to learn, grow, and develop. In nature, the beauty around us emerges over time and often overcomes great adversity.

Yet, this "process" is an ambiguous unknown entity which escapes us when we are starting out as young music therapists. Even as a seasoned professional I can lose sight of it and get caught up in "doing", "accomplishing tasks", "rushing", and "stressing". That is when I, too, need to be reminded to:

SLOW DOWN. Take time.
CALM DOWN. Breathe.
DON’T HURRY. Just be in the moment. Be mindful.

In the weeks leading up to my students' final days of their final semester, I always take time to reflect on their journey, and my own journey with them. I have to smile at all the times I spoke some of the words above and they looked at me like I just don't understand. But, in those final days of the semester I might see them take a breath to calm themselves, be mindful and open in the moment, and trust the process during a session. In those moments I feel so much pride and I know they are ready to move forward into internship and their career. I then tell myself "Don't worry" as they will hopefully always continue learning and "becoming".
Blog post author Sharon R. Boyle has been on faculty at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) since 2002.

Sharon R. Boyle

For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:

Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC

For information about the SMWC Master of Arts in Music Therapy program, contact:
Dr. Tracy Richardson, MT-BC

For more information about the SMWC Music Therpay Equivalency-Distance (MTED) program, contact: 
Larisa McHugh, MA, MT-BC

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What Are the Most Important Skills for a Music Therapist?

If you have heard of music therapy, but aren't sure exactly what it entails, then you are not alone. While the use of music in healing and health has been around for thousands of years in various cultures, it only began to develop into an organized profession in the United States during the mid-20th century. Typically, a prospective student may become interested in majoring in music therapy if they "love music" and "love to help people". These are important components of being a music therapist, but there are so many more aspects to music therapy work.

Here are a couple of things that I wish someone had told me when I first pursued music therapy as a profession:

1) Not only do you need to love music, you need to be a diversified musician. What I mean by this is that you need to be open to all kinds of music, be able to learn a lot of music styles, be knowledgeable in various genres in terms of era, culture, and more. Being a strong musician is key, but in ways that may be less familiar. For example, if a music therapist is working with an older adult and is playing a familiar "old standard" on guitar and the person is not responding, the music therapist may recall from the assessment process that this person responds best to piano. The music therapist then needs to be able to switch gears, sit down at the piano, and work from there. The music therapist may also need to adjust or vary the way the song is being played in order to better engage the client, such as accenting certain words, slowing down the tempo, changing the accompaniment, etc. 

How does a music therapist develop these skills, you may ask? Well, in addition to piano, guitar, voice, and percussion study, the music therapist needs to learn how to be adaptable in music. If you learn a song one way on one instrument that is great, but in music therapy work, it is important to be able to play the song numerous ways on different instruments. This may involve improvisation skills, composition or arranging skills, a foundation in repertoire, and a willingness to move outside conventional norms in music if needed. 

One of my favorite skills to practice is singing and playing from lead sheets and creating accompaniments, or just using chords/lyrics of current songs. I use websites like or  (this site also has a wonderful app that many music therapists use to catalog songs frequently used in sessions) and play songs on both guitar and piano, after also listening to an original recording of the song several times. When learning a song, it is important to listen to the bass line as well as the overall rhythmic structure to determine the meter and also the best accompaniment pattern which fits your abilities and skill, while still staying true to the song.

2) Loving to help people is essential as part of a "helping profession", but an essential skill set for music therapists related to this area includes: a) being self-aware, b) being emotionally stable and mature, and c) having strong interpersonal skills. I would add that being genuine and empathetic are essential as well, but if a, b, and c are not present, then neither will genuineness and true empathy.

How does a music therapist become self-aware? Music therapists can become more self-aware through their own personal work which may include therapy/counseling, clinical supervision, or both. If we are to work with other people to address issues which are impacting their overall health, it is essential that we become aware of our own issues which may "muddy the waters" of that work. Have you ever walked into a room after a really rough night of sleep, looked at everyone in the room and thought, "Wow. They look exhausted." Well, maybe they do, but it is possible that you just projected your own feeling of exhaustion on to everyone else. This can happen in therapy sessions on  many levels. This self-awareness and personal work will help to develop and maintain our emotional stability and maturity, allowing us to be more effective in working with those who need to tap into our resources for their own health and well-being. Interpersonal skills require us to be aware of how we are impacting those around us, our environment, and adjusting accordingly. It goes far beyond knowing how to greet someone and shake their hand upon an initial meeting. Interpersonal skills also include the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in various situations, as well as being present and listening effectively. These are often referred to as "people" skills. 

One of the most effective ways I have been able to develop my self-awareness is through receiving my own GIM sessions, working with a Fellow of the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery. The use of music combined with the imagery work was something I responded to very well and allowed me to really explore my patterns of behavior throughout my life which may not be serving me well as an adult. There are many other types of therapy, but if you are interested, you can find a qualified professional through the Association for Music and Imagery. 

What is clinical supervision? Clinical supervision is another way a music therapist can develop self-awareness, and a range of other skills. This is not "supervision" in the manner of your boss evaluating you for a raise, but rather involves working with a professional who is not directly tied to your own clinical work who can provide you with objective perspective on your clinical experiences. For example, you might mention in clinical supervision that you feel very disconnected when working with a particular individual in sessions. The professional you are receiving clinical supervision from may help you explore those feelings and if feasible, might use music to help you understand what is happening clinically to cause your disconnected feeling. It is also important to be open to feedback and be willing to admit that you need to make some changes to be a better therapist.

The work of a music therapist is rich with human connectivity and experiences. As you can see, music therapists need to always work toward developing the musician side and the clinician side of themselves. Receiving education and training through a solid academic music therapy program is essential to developing the foundation a student needs upon which to grow and develop into an effective music therapist.

Blog post author Sharon R. Boyle has been on faculty at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) since 2002.

For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:

Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC
Associate Professor of Music Therapy
Coordinator of Undergraduate Music Therapy
(phone) 812-535-5145