Thursday, June 24, 2010

The making of a music therapist

I've always loved music, always loved to sing, always wanted to play an instrument and couldn't wait to make it to 6th grade so I could start in the beginner band.  From Day 1, I was the stereotypical "band nerd" you've always heard about.....I hung out in the Band Room 24/7, I ate/drank/slept Band and Band-related activities, and my idea of a fun sleepover at a girlfriend's house was to bring my trumpet so we could practice Band music together!  I knew from 7th grade that I wanted to be a band director and to model myself in the image of Mrs. T, my amazing middle school director.  From that point on, I was laser-beam focused on the goal:  make AllState Band, go to Furman University and major in Music Education (just as Mrs. T had done), then have a fabulously successful career by imparting the love of music and of Band to young people just as she had done for me.  And I'm proud to say that I did most of that....SC AllState Band 1985/86/87/88/89, graduated from Furman "magna cum laude" in 1993, and taught band at middle school and high school levels from 1993 to 2009. 

And yet somehow none of that matters to me any more.  Looking back at that now is like watching a movie about someone else's life, as if it wasn't even really me who did all of those things.  I have truly, literally, taken the "road less traveled" and left behind the competitive, obsessive, all-encompassing world of Band (with the capital "B", to distinguish from just plain old band).  The reason for this life detour is the same reason that brings me here, that qualifies me to belong to this group of hopeful parents.........I became a mother to two children with "special needs". 

Thanks to an incredibly supportive husband, and encouraging friends and family, I left my teaching job in May of 2009 and enrolled in the Music Therapy program at a university that's 10 minutes from my house.  The program is one of only two in South Carolina, and its existence and nearness just confirms for me that this is what I'm supposed to be doing.  I have to admit that I only recently understood what Music Therapy actually was, and I would have NEVER thought (back in my full-speed-ahead Band days) that this was something I'd ever want to do.  But my boys changed me, changed everything, and now I know without a doubt that this is what I want to do, what I'm meant to do.  And the more I learn about MT (I have just finished my first full year of the program), the more amazed I am by its power and its potential.  In the same way that I used to get that rush of adrenaline and excitement when a clarinet player first reached the high register, now I get it from seeing a preschooler with CP smile when she is able to grasp and shake a maraca.  Instead of drilling a concert band in a scales and arpeggios routine, I'm helping kids with developmental delays hold scarves and wrap them around a Maypole.  The thrill of seeing "my kids" go into an AllState audition was replaced by the infinitely bigger thrill of watching a preemie's heart rate stabilize when I hold her and sing to her. 

Music therapy can truly do amazing things with almost any population.  Some of my classmates plan to go into hospice work, or geriatrics/Alzheimer's patients, or inpatient psychiatric  facilities, etc.  But I know that I'm still a teacher at heart, and will be working with children but just teaching them different things.  The goals will be different, the strategies different, maybe the rate of progress will be slower but so much more rewarding.  I'm so proud of the profession of music therapy, proud to be only a year away from being board-certified to practice (hopefully!), and I want to recommend MT to all of you who read this.  If you've never heard of music therapy, or don't know much about it yet, visit the website of the American Music Therapy Association to find out more.  

And if we needed any more proof of the power of music and its ability to reach people in a way that nothing else can, I'll share this:  In May, as I shadowed and assisted a local MT for a few weeks, one of our sessions took place in an inner-city middle school.  The class was small, but with a very diverse group of students with moderate to severe disabilities.  One young man in particular stays in my mind (let's call him Mark).......I was not shown the IEPs of these students, but from what I observed, I concluded that this young man probably had autism.  He spent most of the time hitting himself in the face/chin and making basically undistinguishable sounds.  He was probably 13 or 14, I'd guess, and was functionally non-verbal and not engaged with the class or with others.  One of the activities that the MT planned for this particular day was designed to address motor skills/coordination as well as socialization, and involved the popular song "Cha Cha Slide".  When the music began, it's as if Mark awakened, engaged with what we were doing and outwardly showed that he heard us for the first time in the session.  We asked everyone to stand up so we could dance, and Mark quickly got up and began to move.  He took my hands to dance with me, and wouldn't even allow other students to "cut in" on us when they tried to!  When a line in the song said "Everybody clap your hands", he did!  I clapped too, and he even put his hands on the outside of my hands so we could clap together.  There was no doubt that he enjoyed the song, and after it ended, we sat down.  A few moments later, he sang that same line back to us..."everybody clap your hands".  No words, just an "uh" sort of syllable, but it was sung with exactly the same rhythm and inflection as in the song!  And then he clapped again, just as before.  This song reached Mark, and he didn't want it to end.  As a group, we enjoyed a shared experience with music, and we felt the incredible power that music inspire us, to move us, to touch us.  And that is why I find myself back in college at age 38, and why I know without a doubt that this is what I want to do with the remainder of my life.  And I love it. 


  1. Thank you. You bring tears to my face. My son is has autism, and I know he would love MT!

  2. I heart you, Jen. :)

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