Thursday, January 17, 2013

An Educator’s Perspective on Advocacy: My Music Therapy Journey

This month is Social Media Advocacy month for Music Therapy! It was kicked off on Twitter by a high profile celebrity, musician Ben Folds, when he created a thread (#followMTweek) and stated he would follow as many music therapists as he could that week. It is now mid-January and this thread is still going strong, connecting non-music therapists as well as music therapists to one another through facts and statements about music therapy. He is even following me on Twitter now!

Musician Ben Folds' Twitter Advocacy of Music Therapy
At the American Music Therapy Association national conference in 2011, Ben showed up and sat in on sessions being offered, causing a great deal of excitement among the music therapists. How did he come to be at the AMTA conference? An individual in the music therapy world “tweeted”, encouraging him to come and learn about music therapy and he showed up!  

Musician Ben Folds showing his support of Music Therapy
 One Music Therapist’s Journey

When I think back to my start in music therapy, I realize I was not entirely clear on what I was about to study. I had a “sense” of what I thought it might be, but growing up I did not have access to music therapists in my Montana hometown. I had never actually SEEN music therapy in process, nor experienced it myself, and all I knew was that I (say it with me!) “loved music and wanted to help people”. I hear this often when I meet with prospective students and am pretty certain my colleagues do too. When I prod further by asking the question, “What role does music play in your own life?”. I tend to hear a meaningful story from the prospective student about how music was great solace during a difficult time, how helping a child with Down Syndrome play the piano sparked a desire to pursue this profession, or that music was the only way the student could connect with a grandparent who was in middle stage Alzheimer’s Disease. This does not surprise me, because I also felt this connection to music as a young girl. I used to sit on my back porch singing for hours to alleviate loneliness and to feel “connected”; I felt part of something bigger in my high school choir room. When I think back to the mid-1980’s, I wish that a music therapist had been part of my own brother’s treatment when he was diagnosed with leukemia. When I talked to him later about how music therapy is effective in addressing pain, physical discomfort, fatigue, and psycho-social goals for oncology patients, my brother told me that he would have liked to have had access to music therapy. So, as I searched for this magical combination of “helping” and “music”, I headed to college to pursue music education, then vocal performance, and I even considered special education. These are all wonderful professions, but when I found music therapy it just “clicked”.

Sharon R. Boyle, Associate Professor of Music Therapy,
at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College since 2002
 As I moved through my 6-month internship and into professional clinical practice, I was so honored to witness truly extraordinary moments and the best of humanity through music therapy. We have all had therapeutic moments…when we just feel better as a result of doing something, or talking to someone, or listening to a great song. We can find entire threads on Twitter where a person writes “music is my therapy”. We can find increasing numbers of studies about the benefits of music for individuals and groups and how our brain processes music. This is all wonderful and so important to continue. But music therapy is more than these things. It is, on one hand, easy for the general public to consider and, on the other hand, difficult for people to grasp without personal experience. This is understandable and why consistent advocacy is so important. Advocacy is not about jobs. It is about ACCESS to services which make a tremendous difference.

When I speak about music therapy to my students and the people they may serve in the future, I hold within my mind and my heart all those individuals I have had the honor of serving throughout my career. I recall walking into a man’s room as his body began to shut down after years of coping with Parkinson’s Disease and late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease. I had worked with this man for years on the long term memory care unit, singing with him in his more lucid moments. I sang the last song he would hear as he took his final breaths (which had relaxed with the first few chords) and was present with his wife as she held his hand and wept. I remember seeing the light shine in a child's eyes when he created a sound on an instrument for the first time. I remember writing songs with one man who had been a farmer and who was angry at his loss of independence. Throughout his anger and sadness, he still spoke of hope and the support of his family and our final song was shared with his wife as she held his hand. I remember hearing one woman with Cerebral Palsy vocalize with me as I sang and the pride on her face as I strummed the last chord. There are too many people to name over my 15+ year career. But I remember them all as I teach the next generation of music therapists.

Music Therapy on a Memory Care Unit
 It can be frustrating to be a music therapist. Music therapy was established as a formalized profession in 1950 in the United States, but the concepts of music in healing have existed for thousands of years. Music was once revered and deemed both mystical and scientific, but in today’s society, it can be a challenge to educate the public about the depth and breadth of music’s potential when shows like American Idol and The Voice promote the idea that creating music is only for a limited number of people. This is why it has such impact to have artists such as Ben Folds support and advocate for music therapy. Music therapists work to be represented as the well-educated and highly trained professionals that we are within the medical and psychiatric communities. We try to educate other professionals about our very specific skill set that goes beyond a counselor using music in a session (although this can certainly be beneficial). We use the music process itself to transform, change, and connect with others. The music process is a microcosm of the relationships and processes a client experiences outside of the session. It is difficult to articulate what happens between people as they create music together, beyond just listening to a recording. It is difficult because we have stopped creating music together in our communities, so when clients come to music therapy, they are often stunned by the range of emotions and physical benefit from the experience. Yes, it is frustrating to be a music therapist at times. Some music therapists even choose to leave music therapy to move on to other professions which are seemingly more respected, or simply to have more income. I do not begrudge these former music therapists, for those thoughts have passed through my mind from time to time over the years. Sometimes it is just difficult to be in a smaller profession which can be misunderstood. But, I can’t imagine leaving music therapy. Music therapy is not just a job I do, but it is a way of being and experiencing the world. I believe in music therapy so strongly because I now understand how important it is, and will be, in the healthcare landscape of today. In a society where technology allows us to watch events unfold in real time around the world, we somehow seem more isolated from one another and need to lean on our communities now more than ever. I feel that music therapy has a very relevant and central role in helping each of us to reconnect to our own humanity and to the world around us.

-Written by Sharon R. Boyle, Associate Professor of Music Therapy and Coordinator of the Undergraduate Music Therapy Program at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

For more information about Music Therapy Advocacy, visit and read more about the SROP below:

What is the State Recognition Operational Plan and why is it important to music therapy?

Since 2005, the American Music Therapy Association and the Certification Board for Music Therapists have collaborated on the State Recognition Operational Plan. The primary purpose of this plan is to get music therapy and our MT-BC credential recognized by individual states so that citizens can more easily access our services. The State Recognition Operational Plan is a national initiative being implemented jointly by CBMT and AMTA to obtain state recognition of music therapy and the MT-BC credential. This collaborative effort between AMTA Government Relations staff and CBMT Regulatory Affairs staff provides guidance and technical support to state task forces throughout the country as groups of music therapists work toward recognition as defined by their particular state. To date, their work has resulted in over 35 active state task forces, 2 licensure bills passed in 2011, 1 licensure bill passed in 2012, and an estimated 7 bills being filed in 2013 that seek to create either title protection or a licensure for music therapy.

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