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

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