The 3 Facets of a Music Therapist

by Kimberly on June 9, 2009 · 7 comments

If you visit my company website, you will notice the pictures up top labeled “science,” “music,” “therapy.” I was introduced to this concept in graduate school, the idea that a music therapist encompasses being trained as a musician, a scientist, and a therapist.

A true story for you:Helpless little girl

Yesterday, I was scheduled to facilitate some music therapy groups with trauma-influenced children living at a residential treatment facility. Two of the younger kiddos (each are 4 years old) were in the “quiet area.” The quiet area is a place of minimal stimulation where the children are sent if they need time away from the group to calm down and get regulated again.

These kiddos (let’s call them “Bobby” and “Janie”) were not regulated. They had been yelling and kicking for at least ten minutes. The one staff counselor with them was trying to keep them safe and (unsuccessfully) calm them down.

Janie, unlike Bobby, has historically responded well to music and she seemed to trust me. I went to the door of her room. Janie ran to the opposite corner and huddled in the fetal position, sobbing. I sat on the floor right outside her room and started humming a song we sang during group that I knew she liked. After a minute, the sobbing stopped. I moved next to Janie. I continued to sing the song and began to rub her back rhythmically. Janie was not crying anymore, but was facing away from me and still in the fetal position. After a few minutes of humming and rubbing, Janie turned to me and said:

“I miss my mommy”

When a person is mad, it’s hard for that person to think straight. When a trauma-influenced child is mad, it’s impossible for her to think and process verbally; there is NO cognitive involvement. So her words indicated that Janie is now calm enough to process her true feelings. I validated her feelings. I asked if she wanted to draw a picture for her mom. Janie said yes. We spent 5 minutes drawing her mom a picture, then Janie calmly re-joined her group.

I share this story with you as an example of how I used my training as a musician, a scientist, and a therapist to help Janie.

  • The Scientist. In many ways, this is the foundation. The “scientist” part informs all other aspects of being a music therapist. The “scientist” in me knew the following: 1) Janie’s body was in “fight, flight or freeze” overdrive and she needed to get regulated; 2) Janie’s body would entrain to the music; 3) familiar music would be the most relaxing; 4) I should not use words in the song, since they would be processed in a different brain area than I was trying to reach; 5) that I should hum the song in a similar way that a mother hums to her crying baby to calm him down. The scientist in me knew how to best apply the music to most effectively calm Janie down.
  • The Musician. The music I used was in a calming triple meter. It was a familiar song for Janie, yet I hummed it to remove the effect of processing verbal words. The music, and how this song was presented, had a profound impact as an external regulator for Janie, helping her calm down her body and her brain.
  • The Therapist. None of this would have been possible if Janie and I had not already established a working therapeutic relationship. I chose to work with Janie instead of Bobby because I knew that, given our relationship and given Janie’s response during our music therapy sessions, versus Bobby’s response, Janie would respond more effectively than Bobby.

So there you go. Scientist. Musician. Therapist. The 3 facets of a music therapist.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Roia June 9, 2009 at 11:43 am

Very nicely put, Kimberly. I’ve always said that being a music therapist, more than anything else (except moving furniture and instruments), is about paying attention. So aside from the three facts of being a music therapist you also demonstrated how much attention we need to pay so we can respond appropriately to a situation with a client.

Kimberly June 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm

I one-hundred percent agree. The ability to pay attention, to now be focused on what YOU have to do, but instead be focused on the client, is a vital skill for ANY therapist. And hard to teach in school. Thank you for noting that, Roia.

TheCrazyMusicLady June 15, 2009 at 6:15 am

I really like how you worded this. Being relatively new still in the area I work, I’m still having to deal with staff perceptions of what exactly I do. I might have to borrow this format for an inservice 🙂

Kimberly June 16, 2009 at 8:15 pm

I hope it helps you! I am finding that the education piece never ends…but I think it’s okay. It’s a good thing people are interested in our field and curious about what we do. Good luck!

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