Music Therapy Practitioners and Educators Reimagine Their Profession

By Barbra Weidlein

Covid-19 has led music therapy practitioners and educators, like so many others, to reimagine various aspects of their profession.

Innovative pandemic-related solutions for music therapy training as well as working with clients will continue to be useful as the pandemic fades.

Telehealth for services


Every contributor to this article talked about how music therapy, like any number of health-related services, quickly shifted to telehealth. Although challenging at first, telehealth has made it possible to connect music therapists with clients through private, online video communication wherever internet access is available. It has become a fairly standard method of delivering services. Sound quality, lighting, and other tech issues have come a long way. Services have been offered to clients in real-time (synchronously) as well as through pre-recorded interventions (asynchronously). 

A silver lining of telehealth, according to Daniel Tague, chair of Music Therapy at Southern Methodist University (SMU), is that “Clients have more access to music therapy when face-to-face therapy is not feasible.”

Bassoonist and music therapist Naomi Davis, a recent Colorado State University (CSU) graduate, has found telehealth useful in many ways at Annapolis Music Therapy, the private practice where she works. “Some of my clients receive pre-recorded session videos that I film and edit for them. Their videos have interventions that address their goals and they have the flexibility to watch them as many times as they would like. “I also see some clients via live telehealth using platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and Simple Practice,” she says. “Those sessions look a lot like what they would have in person, just with reasonable accommodations so that the sessions are still accessible from their homes.”

Florida State University (FSU) alumnus Hannah Sellers agrees. She’s employed as a music therapist in the neonatal intensive care unit at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare while working on her master’s degree. According to Sellers, telehealth allows therapists to “work around schedules more easily and accommodate what works best in terms of their plan of care.” 
 

Telehealth for supervision

 
Music therapy majors also shifted to telehealth for supervision. As a result, telehealth training has been added to the college music therapy curriculum at many schools and will likely be a part of what every music therapy major learns for the foreseeable future. 
 
According to Elaine Abbott, director of music therapy at Duquesne University Mary Pappert School of Music, telehealth has also opened up new options for the music therapy practicum component, offering students placements in new geographical areas including out of state.
 
“The online delivery of supervision has also allowed supervisors to spend more time (individually and in groups) with our practicum students,” says Eric Waldon, program director of music therapy at University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. “This has resulted in more mentoring and coaching than had been possible during in-person/face-to-face supervision.”
 

Accessibility issues

 
While invaluable for so many clients, accessibility to telehealth can still be an issue. 
 
Clinical Assistant Professor of Music Therapy at Arizona State University Sarah Hameline points out that “Many music therapists and facilities do not have the access or resources to move to a telehealth model and are waiting for in-person work to continue their practices.” Hameline’s colleague at ASU, Eugenia Hernandez Ruiz, assistant professor of music therapy, adds that “Internet access continues to be an issue, which brings an urgent element of social justice to these conversations.” 
 
Hannah Sellers finds it important to figure out early on what type of device her clients have access to for music therapy as well as whether they have a separate area in their home to receive the services. One of the biggest challenges is Wi-Fi issues,” she says, “and the devices that clients may have for receiving therapy.”
 
The pandemic has also encouraged discussion about diversity within the profession. “We’ve dedicated ourselves to having more discussions about the nature of the therapeutic relationship across gender and racial identity,” says Andrew Knight, assistant professor of music therapy at Colorado State University. “This includes how to look at ways to bring in more diverse students to the field of music therapy, and not exclude potential future music therapists who may not have had the kind of privilege that usually affords the ability to take lessons on standard classical instruments.” 
 

New settings for music therapy

 
According to Knight, “It will be even more important that we understand more about chronic and generational trauma from the pandemic and look at ways music therapy might be an appropriate treatment around those issues.” 
 
Music therapists are already using their creativity in unique ways to meet these and other needs in the community. For example:
 
• Naomi Davis created a songwriting processing group for children. “This group was created to give school-aged children an outlet for processing an excess of grief and anxiety that they have experienced because of the pandemic.”
 
• Eugenia Hernandez Ruiz is exploring the “intentional inclusion of caregivers within telehealth sessions…My research interests had evolved around parent-mediated interventions for young children with autism. With the pandemic, this model only accelerated, and I started a research project with virtual parent coaching.”
 
• Daniel Tague sees everyone as potentially benefitting from music therapy “for mental health, isolation, and trauma recovery.” He adds that “Music therapists are particularly being called on to work with students in schools and those recovering from COVID. In hospitals, music therapists have been especially in demand in helping patients cope with isolation through virtual music therapy sessions.” 
 
• Sangeeta Swamy, director of music therapy at Valparaiso University says that “One community especially in need of services right now is Asian Americans who have been experiencing anti-Asian racism and hate crimes in response to the rhetoric and misinformation about the origins of COVID-19. In particular, music therapists have been offering guided imagery and music to private clients and support groups to address the anxiety and trauma and fears that the Asian community is experiencing right now. Our music therapy curriculum is currently addressing this in our discussions about the historical context of justice and its interface with music.”
 
• Hannah Sellers has expanded music therapy into the Antenatal Care Unit at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare for those needing services before the birth of their babies. “This is a population that has greatly benefited and will continue to benefit from services due to high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation,” she shares. “Many of the mothers who come onto this unit may stay for days, weeks, or even months until the birth of their child or until they are medically cleared to go home. 
 
“Some of these moms have families at home and jobs that they had to leave due to medical complications,” she says, “and may not have someone to come stay with them each day. So the only interaction they have is with their nurses, doctors, and myself. I can use music to address different areas of need and provide an environment for these moms to process their emotions and develop coping strategies that they can use outside of sessions. Some days may include more educational-based discussions around their plan of care or expectations for after the birth, but I am always adjusting to the needs of my patients.” 
 
• Eric Waldon and his students at University of the Pacific have designed telehealth wellness programs for hospital staff and hospice providers. “These programs, led by our board-certified graduate students and faculty, have also developed into new practicum sites for our pre-internship students,” he says.
 
• Kate Richards Geller is a singer/songwriter and music therapist. In addition to teaching workshops and classes, she works with Urban Voices Project (UVP), whose mission is “bringing the healing power of music directly to individuals marginalized by homelessness, mental health issues, and unemployment in the Greater Los Angeles area.” 
 
When the pandemic hit, UVP switched over from in-person to virtual programming. Despite the odds, Geller says that engagement on Zoom and Facebook Live has been strong. With lots of support from UVP, members of the community have found ways to overcome obstacles to attend virtually the classes and workshops they depended on before Covid. In fact, some who weren’t able or willing to show up in person are more comfortable meeting virtually. 
 

Tips for prospective music therapists

 
In view of the upheaval caused by the pandemic, we asked some of the newer music therapists for their thoughts on what prospective music therapists should anticipate as they move into their profession.
 
Hannah Sellers, FSU grad: I would encourage a new student music therapist to have an open mind to what music therapy may look like and understand that creativity is more than half of the job. Being able to think on your feet and adjust to new situations and expectations will greatly benefit you. 
 
I would also encourage you to be honest and accountable in everything you do. Figure out what works and doesn’t work for you and find ways to take care of yourself every day. Don’t procrastinate. 
 
Be ready for the change to never end! That’s the amazing and challenging part of being a music therapist. You will constantly be learning and absorbing information, but the trick is putting that new knowledge into practice. And listen to your teachers and listen to your peers and never be afraid to ask a question. 
 
One thing I wish I had figured out a little sooner is how to do music for myself outside of practicing or preparing repertoire. Music is one of the main parts of our job, but music isn’t always *just* our job. Remind yourself why you fell in love with music and why you fell in love with music therapy. 
 
Esther Craven, SMU grad: In 2020, I learned how to be more comfortable with stressful, scary unknowns, to see them as adventure and possibility, and to have goals, but be less attached to outcomes. This mindset has served me well moving forward. 
 
Music therapy is a profession that many pursue for the love of music, and a passion for helping others. However, as with many helping professions, being a music therapist is challenging work, and one that requires not only your time, but also social and emotional energy. Prioritize your health, look for employment opportunities with supportive managers, and always negotiate your salary. 

Naomi Davis, CSU grad: One thing that has really been driven home to me, especially in this last year, is the huge amount of flexibility that is needed in this field. Music therapy is an ever-evolving field and this pandemic has just solidified how true that is. In order to best serve the people that you may work with, flexibility is the most valuable trait to have and to hone. 
 
Barbra Weidlein is director and a co-founder of MajoringInMusic.com.
 

 
Click on these participating schools that offer music therapy to learn more about their programs.
 
 
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Photo credit: Sami Kathryn
Caption: Music therapist Esther Craven works with teens and young adults struggling with mental health issues.