Featured Career: Music Therapist

In case you missed it this weekend:

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I was getting this post ready to publish and I realized I’ve featured 26 careers on the blog now. How exciting! I love how there are SO MANY diverse and interesting careers out there.

Here are the last five careers I’ve featured and you can find ALL my career features HERE!

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I was introduced to Michelle through Twitter by That Pink Girl and I’m so glad. What a cool and interesting career she has! I had never heard of someone doing music therapy before.

Michelle photo 3

1. What is your official job title and what exactly does your job entail?

I am a Music Therapist and my official job title is Music Therapist.  I work within the Special Education Department of a large suburban school district in the Dallas area.  I use music to help students who have special needs work on goals that are typically non-musical in nature.  We use music to help students with speech and communication skills, to work on fine and gross motor skills, to learn how to function in a group with appropriate social skills, and with general academic skills.

I serve these students in conjunction with speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, counselors, behavior specialists, and teachers.  A big part of my job is teaching the teachers how to use music in their classrooms so that they can continue to utilize my strategies continuously in their learning environments.  I work with students ranging in age from 3 years old to 22 years old.  Many of my students have Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Auditory/Visual Impairments, Speech Impairments, Emotional/Behavior Disturbances, and Physical Disabilities.

Music therapy is a wonderfully diverse field and can cover many areas—I have colleagues that work with individuals who are elderly, are recovering from strokes, who are in psychiatric facilities, who are receiving hospice care, and who are recovering from traumatic brain injuries (US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and her music therapist have made the news very recently).  There is a lot of growth in the area of wellness lately as the Baby Boomers are getting older but are working to maintain their cognitive fitness.

2. How did you get into this field?

I started playing the clarinet in middle school and immediately fell in love with band and music, but I knew that I did not want to teach music or be a band director.  I had a strong interest in psychology and human anatomy and considered studying physical therapy—but I didn’t like the idea of “giving up” music in order to study those other fields.  While attending a college night at my high school I noticed a check box on an information card…it said “music therapy.”  I was pretty certain that I had found the perfect career for me and set out to find more information.  I attended Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas where I received my Bachelor’s of Music in Music Therapy, then I completed a six month clinical internship at a state psychiatric facility, sat for my Board Certification exam and the rest is history!  My first job was in a nursing home and I worked there for two years before coming to the school system.

Michelle photo 4 Michelle photo 2

3. What is the most challenging thing about your job?

One of the hardest things about my job is being responsible for approximately 20 campuses every school year.  Traveling between schools has a lot of advantages (not getting wrapped up in school politics, listening to the radio, getting outside in beautiful weather) but it can also be difficult.  My job includes a lot of “stuff” that I have to carry from place-to-place: a guitar, books/visual aides, instruments (small drums or other Latin percussion instruments), a laptop computer, notebooks for documentation, etc.  Moving between 2-3 campuses a day can be physically demanding!  The ever extreme Texas weather can also make things interesting—I have been traveling between schools in 105 degree weather this school year, but I have seen everything: sleet, pouring rain, fog, freezing cold, etc.  I have to be very creative in making workspaces on my campuses and can often be found working in a teacher’s lounge or in the lobby of a school.  I call my car my ca-ffice as it serves as my office on wheels.  I could see where it might be easier to work in one facility and have the clients come to you, as is the case with some music therapists.

4. Describe a typical day in your work life?

My schedule varies from day to day as I am working on different campuses and with different groups each day.  I will give you a basic example of what a day might look like.  Mornings are usually busy because that is a good time to catch the students with their special ed classes before they go out into inclusion for the day.  I also work with preschoolers who are only in school from 8:00-11:00 or 12:00-3:00.

So a typical day might go something like this:

8:00 Arrive at my first campus, gather my guitar and materials from the car, and sign-in.

8:10-8:40 Music Therapy group with morning PPCD (Public Preschool for Children with Disabilities) Class

8:45-9:00 Pack up and drive to next campus

9:00-9:30 Individual Music Therapy session with 4th grade student who has visual impairments and cognitive delays

9:30-11:30 Office time—emails, documentation, planning for upcoming sessions, scheduling, consultation with teachers, etc.  Sometimes I have to attend meetings for students to help determine their Individual Education Plan for the year.  These are annual meetings that every student who is receiving special education has.  I do not have to go to all of them as I am not included in every student’s plan, but I do attend the ones that have music therapy as a related service.

11:30-12:00 Lunch

12:00-12:30 Pack up and travel back to my original campus for that day

12:30-1:00 Music Therapy group with afternoon PPCD Class

1:00-1:30 Music Therapy group for Functional Life Skills Class (these students are more medically fragile and have more physical needs)

1:30-2:15 Office time as needed—consultations, documentation, planning, etc

2:15-3:00 Pack up and travel to middle school

3:00-3:30 Music Therapy group for middle school Life Skills Class

3:30-4:00 Pack up for the day, finish documentation, make sure I am set for tomorrow

4:00 Home!

Michelle photo 1

5. What’s your favourite thing about your job? Least favourite thing?

I am so lucky because I have been working with students when they have uttered their first word or sound.  Music is such a motivating thing for most kids so their faces usually light up when they see me come in the room with my guitar.  Sometimes music is the only thing that will work for a student and the teachers and other therapists will come to me when they have tried everything that they can think of.  One of the physical therapists calls us “magic therapists”.  I get to sing and play with kids all day…who can beat that?  There are very few drawbacks to my job and that is another reason that I am lucky.

If I had to pick a least favorite thing it would be doing paperwork and documentation.  I would rather be with the students than working at my desk.

6. What is something about your job that surprises people?

I think that people are surprised at the level of musicianship a music therapist must possess.  In order to be an effective therapist you have to be completely in the moment with your client.  That means that you can’t be thinking about what lyric comes next or how to play a chord on the guitar.  The music must flow so naturally from you that it is like second nature. You must have a lot of skills in your “bag of tricks.” The more instruments you can play with ease the more tools you will have when working with a client and thus more opportunities to reach them.

My coworkers and I call it the “Iceberg Theory”—a casual observer might simply see singing, music games, instruments, and fun but there is a lot going on under the surface—communication skills, motor skills, social skills, academic skills….the list is infinite!  Music therapy really requires a wonderful mix of skills—psychology, education, human interactions, and musicianship.

7. If you could describe your career in one word, what would that word be?

Innovative

8. Anything else you’d like to add?

Sorry if I have gone on and on….you can see that this is a topic very near and dear to my heart!  I am lucky to have found a career that is fulfilling and that teaches me so much everyday.

19 Responses

  1. Kelly says:

    Wow- so interesting to read, here I am a teacher and I’ve never really even heard of a music therapist, at least not in a school setting! Very awesome and I can only imagine how well it works since I have NO talent whatsoever in music and I still see that when I use it, it helps my students so much. Obviously you must have a much bigger impact! That’s so great that your school district has that available.

    I can relate to a lot of what you said in this post- about it looking like you are just “playing” from the outside, but a lot is happening- and I also have a ca-office because I tutor at students houses after school and there is a lot of STUFF involved. I also HATE paperwork and would much rather be with my students! I feel like the paperwork gets more absurd every year. I am torn between wishing I had a bit more time during the day to do it (at the most a 30 minute prep) but then I think that would be less time withe kids so that would be annoying too!

    That’s for sharing about your job… I’m going to go on a hunt for a music therapist near me now!

  2. App State was just starting a music therapy program when I was a student there. It’s an incredibly interesting field (I was a Music Industry Studies – Recording and Production major at the time). It’s an incredibly involved and interesting field!

  3. suzy pepper says:

    This is amazing. I actually had no idea that a music therapy program was typically housed in the Music department of a university and not the Psychology department. Did Michelle complete a fair amount of psychology/counselling coursework, as well?

    • Ginny Driscoll says:

      Hi, Suzy. Great question! Yes, yes, yes. There is a lot of psychology and anatomy as well as movement studies. We have to take intro psychology, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology as a minimum. Many schools require enough classes to equate to a minor in psychology. :) Counseling coursework usually comes from continuing education (we are required to have 100 credits every 5 years) or an advanced degree. Music therapists have a scope of clinical practice and code of ethics to make sure we do what we are trained and capable of doing well.

      • suzy pepper says:

        Thanks Ginny! That’s great – I’m a therapist as well and am thus naturally curious about different types of therapists. It sounds like a fantastic program!

  4. Holly says:

    My bro-in-law was seriously considering a Masters program in music therapy (he has his BA in psychology) but changed his mind when he found out exactly how musical you have to be! He’s an amazing drummer, a great guitar player – but they wanted him to be a Grade 8 Royal Conservatory pianist as well and even though he took lessons – he just wasn’t going to get there! Sounds like an interesting – and very rewarding! – career!

  5. What an awesome job. I’ve never heard of music therapy before, but I can definitely see how beneficial it would be. It would also be SO rewarding. Being able to help people by doing something you love – thats pretty amazing.

  6. This career is so interesting, it makes me think of that book by Jodi Picoult called Sing You Home. The main character is a music therapist too!

  7. Vicki Martinez says:

    Michelle is Awesome! Nothing beats seeing a shy hearing impaired 3 year old start talking when Michelle comes into the room with her guitar!

  8. Nicole says:

    Awesome career! I first heard of this in a book- Sing Me Home and thought it was a great idea. Sounds very rewarding!

  9. Stephany says:

    What an awesome, rewarding, fulfilling, HARD job. I can imagine this is a needed resource in many schools!

  10. Wow, this is so interesting. I love all the photos – you look so happy! I have actually heard of music therapy – I think at one point my sister thought about going into it? Or I had a brochure? The details are foggy… Anyways, as a lover of music, I can see how this is a beneficial therapy technique!

  11. Katrina says:

    I first heard about this a few years ago with some of our children on the autism spectrum. I’m a teacher as well and we use music to help our Hispanic children speak and read in English. Music is such a strong component in education. I saw a music therapist in the 20/20 special on Gabby Giffords. It was very eye opening. :)

  12. eemusings says:

    Sounds like an awesome way to combine multiple passions!

    It’s funny how as you get older, you learn about all these jobs you would never have imagined as a child. It’s a little sad, really – I wish there was more information available to us in our younger days at school to help with career guidance.

  13. Michelle? I KNOW HER! (said like Buddy the Elf) She has the coolest job ever and it SO perfect for it! So patient, so creative and so nurturing!

  14. Thanks everyone for your positive feedback on my career feature! I am so lucky to have found a career that speaks to my mind, my heart, and my creative side. My job is made so much easier by the talented teachers and therapists that I work with, a supportive school district, and my fabulous students.

    To answer a question from above–yes, a degree in music therapy involves a fair amount of psychology classes and some music therapists take advanced training classes in counseling.

    Please check out the American Music Therapy Association website at http://www.musictherapy.org for more information about music therapy!

    Thanks again, Amber!!

  15. I have never heard of this job – very cool!!!