I’m a Music Therapist is written by Brea Murakami, MM, MT-BC. She is a board-certified music therapist and adjunct faculty member at Pacific University in Oregon. Brea is interested in how music can positively impact emotion and memory and in connecting the science of music cognition to the clinical practice of music therapy.
I found a brilliant conversation starter on twitter last year that I’ve used from everyone to family members to complete strangers and I always get an interesting answer. The question, “What’s something about your job that seems obvious to you that isn’t obvious to the general public?”
In my role as an educator, my answer would be something like: my job is so much more than showing up for class. So many of my responsibilities happen outside of the classroom, and often go beyond my formal job description as the Clinical Coordinator of Music Therapy. Even though I’ve spent eight years in higher education as a whole, there are so many little details and tasks that professors have that I never appreciated as a student. So, as the school year wraps up for me, this post is a small tribute to the 2018-2019 school year, and hopefully illuminate some real world details about being in academia as a music therapist.
6:15a: My alarm goes off for the first time. I’ve given myself plenty of time to get up, but as usual I turn on the latest episode of the NY Times’ The Daily podcast by rationalizing that I’m just starting my day on an informed foot (while staying under the covers)
6:45a: My second alarm goes off. Michael Barbaro’s voice lulled me back to sleep but I get up this time and head to the shower.
7:37a: I get into my car with some coffee in a travel mug. I didn’t have a chance to eat since my hair took forever to blowdry. The coffee should hold me over until I can grab a bite between classes. I’m getting a slightly late start for my 45-minute commute.
8:20a: I arrive at my first practicum session of the day at a preschool. My two practicum students are already there. It’s the last session of the semester so we have a few minutes to talk about explaining to the preschoolers that we’re taking a break for summer and I have the students quickly run through the new repertoire they’re leading.
9:20a: Session ends. Me and my student have about 15 minutes to talk about what happened during session and reflect on what the students have learned over the past semester before I have to run to my first class.
9:45a: I walk into my first class, Clinical Processes II. This is the last day of class, so the last portion of the students are doing clinical role plays. I make some end-of-semester announcements and hand back graded assignments before turning to floor over to the students.
11:30a: After class, I have a one-on-one meeting with a student regarding her music therapy proficiency exam coming up during finals week. We do a dry run of her proficiency exam and I offer her some last minute tips on how to practice before the real deal in a few days.
12:05p: I finally have a minute to myself. I check my school email quickly and reply to the ones that take a few seconds to answer. I remember that I have a bagel in the office freezer, so I walk over to toast the bagel and get a refill on coffee from the Keurig. On the way back, I pop into my co-faculty’s office to say hi and remind her about music proficiency testing starting in two days.
12:50p: I’ve been checking Facebook, but ten minutes before my next class starts, I remember I have to make some last minute copies.
1:00p: Time to teach my second class, Clinical Processes I. More clinical roleplays, but this class is much smaller so we’re done with role plays with about 30 minutes of class left. We spend the rest of the time reviewing the final exam study guide and then I have the students write down their class schedules for the fall semester. I’m hoping to have the next semester’s practicum placements assigned by the end of May (we’ll see…).
2:35p: Clinical Processes I ends and I head right to my office to pack up for my next practicum session, but a student stops by to have me sign an add/drop form for a class conflict next semester.
2:55p: I arrive at my second practicum site, at an older adult community a few minutes from campus. My student is already in the lobby, and we only get 5 minutes of prebriefing time. For this practicum, we do individual room visits and my student already has the plan laid out. We do three “mini-session” wrapping up the therapeutic relationship, because we’re taking a break for summer.
4:00p: We get more debriefing time this session and we get to dig in a little more about how the student has learned from doing individual sessions for the first time. We also have a quick chat about how she’ll structure her data collection graphs for her final progress report due next week. After the student leaves for class, I run into the other music therapy supervisor and we have a chat about her students’ progress and some new supervision sites I’m lining up for the fall.
5:00p: I stop by a grocery store to pick up something for a “Faculty and Staff of Color” gathering this evening. I settle on a bag of popcorn because people always bring too many sweet, dessert-y things to potlucks I’ve been to recently. Glad I don’t have to sit in my office to wait out rush hour traffic tonight.
6:08p: I arrive sort-of on time to the reception and I’m the third person there besides the host. More people arrive soon and I get to meet an Occupational Therapy faculty member that’s really cool. When I get up to get another drink, I meet the Health Sciences librarian who is really interested in music therapy. I suggest that she come observe a session after summer and she’s really enthusiastic about seeing music therapy in action!
7:15p: I’m an introvert, so I give myself permission to leave after an hour or so. Glad I don’t have to worry about cooking dinner tonight. Traffic’s pretty clear on the drive home so it takes an abbreviated 40 minutes. I listen two Planet Money podcasts on the way.
8:00p: I get home. I check my work email and answer the ones that require a more in-depth response before tidying up my apartment. It’s Reading Day tomorrow so I don’t have to set my usual alarm! I watch some Frasier while I input the students grades from the role plays this afternoon.
10:30ish: Finally, I get to bed anticipating the craziness of finals week.
Granted, these were my Tuesdays this semester, and every day looks slightly different. But, I think this is a good representation of what I do as a Clinical Coordinator with a nice balance between teaching and clinical supervision. Still, being in academia means a lot more meeting, emails, and planning that happens outside the classroom. And the days can be long, but I’m looking forward to the summer so I can focus on more personal projects. Let me know what you think of this blog format, and I may do some more in the future :)
Music therapy students come from a ton of musical backgrounds. I’ve had students that are classically trained pianists, but have never played in an ensemble with other musicians. Some students are self-taught and never had a lesson, but have gigged and gone on tour around the world. Others are singers who have a background in musical theater with a great ear, but still have to work on the basics of music theory. As a music therapy professor, it’s my job to get them all to a basic level of musical skills that a working music therapist relies on everyday, something called “functional musicianship.”
When I was overhauling my program’s music therapy proficiencies, I used the above guidelines to outline what we would require students to be able to do by the time they went into their music therapy internship. Still, I’m finding that it’s not enough. There are other skills not covered in the proficiencies that I’m finding students need when working in the clinic. Some of these skills I call “micro-skills” that they need to do before even starting to attempt the music therapy proficiencies.
Being able to hear a chord progression for a song and being able to start the melody in the right key
Knowing a guitar strum so automatically that they can talk about something completely random while performing the strum
Then, there are what I call “extended skills” that seem to go beyond the AMTA’s definition of functional musicianship. Things I’ve needed to learn to be an effective music therapist, but were never formally taught to me in either of my music therapy degrees.
Extended skills like:
Being able to correctly name and knowing the country of origin for a variety of percussion instruments
Being able to perform a short freestyle rap
Being able to play a guitar while walking
So, me being me, I made my own list of “functional skills” as a supplement to the AMTA functional music skills competencies. The plan is to work in opportunities for my students to practice these skills into my teaching so that my students are better prepared for their practicum placements and internship. And to be transparent, I’m still working on some of these functional skills myself like being able to beatbox and knowing basic music therapy phrases in Spanish. Acquiring the skills necessary to be a competent music therapist is not easy, but it’s important to be prepared for a wider variety of clinical situations and serving clients.
Check out my list of “Functional Skills Drills” here. I hope that these can serve as an audit of sorts for both music therapy students and board-certified music therapists. I expect the list to continue growing with others’ feedback so feel free to comment or tweet me at @BreaMTBC if you have other Functional Skills Drills suggestions!
The sea captain’s voice sang the opening note of the Spongebob Squarepants theme song over a speaker:
“Oooooohhh!... —” and then silence as the music cut out for the third time in row. The group groaned in unison with frustration that they were only hearing the first few seconds of a song they knew and loved. About a dozen of us were sitting in an ring, some on chairs, others on couches: me, two students, two staff members, and about 10 adults with traumatic brain injury. One of the students was leading a “Name That Tune” intervention to work on long-term memory recall. Unfortunately, the wifi wasn’t cooperating.
My student read the room. Clearly, everyone knew the song and was itching to sing along, but by a technology glitch was interfering with our musicking. And then, by instinct, my student starting the song again in a mock-sailor’s accent and the group fell right into chorus:
“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” “Spongebob Squarepants!”
“Absorbent and yellow and porous as he?” “Spongebob Squarepants!”
“Who’s nautical nonsense be something you wish?” “Spongebob Squarepants!”
“So drop on the deck and flop like a fish!” “Spongebob Squarepants!”
The whole group erupted in laughter at their enthusiastic singing about a cartoon that no one had watched in years, but we all still remembered the words to a tee. And the repetitiveness of the response section ensured that everyone participated after the first or second line, even if they weren’t familiar with the show. Afterward, the conversation had a great buzz. A few people shared about their favorite character or memories of watching the show in high school, exactly practicing the goal that my student originally had in mind.
This spontaneous moment clearly hadn’t been devised ahead of time. As a music therapy supervisor, I’m a stickler for my students’ weekly session plans. Have they written out step-by-step task analysis? Have they planned out their transitions into and out of the activity? Did they think through exactly what materials they’ll need? But while there’s definitely a role for strategic planning in music therapy, it’s even harder to teach the instincts and responsive decision-making my student displayed in that moment: being able to facilitate a session when the session doesn’t go according to plan. They had turned a hiccup into something better than they could have planned for.
These “happy accidents” as I refer to them in my head can at first feel intimidating, especially for students and new clinicians. You’re afloat from a session plan that’s supposed to lead to predictable success for your clients in working toward their clinical goal. The landscape of what’s about to happen next is dimmer and you have to prepare to respond to a wider array of potential responses from the client (for better or worse). But going “off script” (or even walking into a session without an explicit plan) does not mean that you as a clinician do not maintain control. Instead, you’re improvising and shaping the session in real-time to where the client is and where they want to go.
Developmentally, I’m just starting to be able to trust my ability to make the most of these happy accidents. Temperamentally, I’m much more of a planner. But with six plus years of experience, I’ve started to recognize a pattern of tepid client responses when I stay too close to my script, which doesn’t serve my purpose as a clinician. If I’m not flexible, if I’m not open to reading and following my client’s mood or preferences, then I’m not being an effective leader. Instead, my session plan can become rigid and occasionally overbearing.
With this theme in mind, below are some tips for becoming a more flexible and responsive music therapist.
Read your client’s behavior as communication. Your clients will tell you through their body language whether they’re getting what they need from your session. It doesn’t feel great to see averted eyes or distracted body postures when you’re leading an activity, but it’s good information to know that you’re not connecting with the group on some level. You may want to change up the activity, verbally check in with their energy levels, or even ask they directly how you can refocus the session on a music therapy activity that fits where they are in that moment.
Practice leading lots of types of interventions. When you do have to go “off session plan,” you need to have a well-stocked clinical toolbox to pull from. All music therapists come from a certain musical background that makes us comfortable with certain types of music and ways of interacting with music. Maybe you played in a garage band in high school and you love songwriting or you started off as musical theatre major who loves leading with your voice. With this awareness, make sure to practice musical skills to fill that clinical gap. (For me, it’s original songwriting and rap.) But if you aren’t comfortable with leading certain types of music interventions, you won’t be able to solidly lead that type of intervention on the fly when needed.
And finally, know that these insights and awareness took me years to get to as a music therapist. With my growth and my newer supervisor role though, I’m learning to appreciate and even seek out “unexplored territory” within my sessions. When something goes wrong, my instinct is not to get the session back on track with the original session plan as soon as possible, but to embrace and maximize the moment however that best serves my clients.
“So, why would a music therapist want to learn how to code?”
This question was posed to me at 8:30p on a Friday night in a quiet, nondescript office building just south of downtown Portland. I’m sitting in a room with five other men, and we’re on break from an “Introduction to Programming” class being offered by a local code school, PDX Code Guild (they’re great!) And this question is totally fair because my profession and my interest in learning to code don’t typically go together. My answer has partly to do with (hopefully) upping my chances of being accepted to a to-be-determined PhD program. From doctoral students I’ve spoken with, coding is a helpful skill to have. The other part of my answer has to do with plain curiosity about this STEM skill that seems to be mentioned everywhere nowadays. I took the class hoping to get a feel for this mysterious skill. What I didn’t expect was to develop a completely new perspective on learning.
The class was a short intro (3 days/week for 2 weeks), but right from the beginning I felt super welcomed. Initially, I was a little nervous being was the only woman taking the class and because my coding experience up to then was limited to knowing three or four html codes to format my blog posts. The culture at PDX Code Guild, I was relieved to find, is super friendly and accomodating. Lessons were balanced between interactive, group coding experiences and individual labs to apply those skills. And during the group lessons, it wasn’t unusual for the teacher to overlook something himself so that we could practice troubleshooting all together. Even though most of the labs were creating very simple games (e.g., punctuation emoticon generator, rock/paper/scissors game) I was having a lot of fun!
By the end of the first week, I realized that I was genuinely reslishing something I had never appreciated before: making mistakes. I know that sounds weird. Making a mistake, being wrong about something means that I did something incompetently. Why would doing something badly be enjoyable and exciting? Something I appreciate about coding is that it’s so logical, that instructions to the computer need to happen in a certain order for your program to run. But how you build those instructions can be done any number of ways. I hadn’t realized how much creative freedom you can have in problem-solving via coding. And every time I made a small mistake and the program wouldn’t run, I had to go back, think through my ideas, and make adjustments. The immediate feedback and the challenge of translating my ideas into programming syntax made me want to perpetually try new, more streamlined ways of doing things. And when my program ran successfully it was thrilling!
This insight that better, more meaningful learning happens when you make a mistake felt revolutionary to my work as a music therapist. Granted, there are way more variables to juggle in music therapy, and our clients probably won’t respond as immediately or lineally as a computer program. But essentially, creative problem-solving is an essential part of music therapy. When I’m planning a session to reach a clinical goal, when I’m building the session when a client, or when I’m trying a new intervention, these are all times when something unintentional might happen. But, these moments of miscalculation may even bring a pleasant surprise. At the very least, mistakes give me important information that I didn’t have before. And with that information I can improve my facilitation or approach. Of course, the scope of mistakes in music therapy has its limits. Making too big of a mistake, not monitoring a situation closely, or failing to respond appropriately has the potential to result in harm. That’s the importance of clinical training: to recognize and reduce instances harmful outcomes to clients.
That being said, though, I really want to incorporate the safety I felt to make measured mistakes into my work as a music therapy supervisor for my future students. From coding, I felt like if I made a mistake, I was less likely to do it again. Making mistakes helped me remember a coding rule or concept better because I had experience with applying it and misapplying it. I think the same idea applies to being a music therapy student. For example, if a student is leading a song discussion and they completely forget the questions they had prepared in their session plan, that can feel scary. But, making this mistake might lead them to rely on reading the clients’ body language more and pay attention to shaping the discussion in a way that’s more responsive in the moment. Heck, the spontaneous discussion may flow more smoothly and better meet the clients where they’re at than the planned questions would have.
Ideally, I want my students to accept that they will do the wrong thing sometimes, not get self-conscious, and move on to try something new. That sentence is deceptively simple and music therapy training and practice is not that direct. But, learning to embrace and making mistakes can lead us to be better music therapists than if everything went according to plan. Who knew that’s why I want to keep learning how to code?
I’ve spent a lot of time in school (almost 20 years by my count.) And it was exactly nine months ago today that I had another first day of school, but this time as a professor. One year later and I’m even more excited to start back again in the fall. (Although, having the summer off is a great perk!) Here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a first-year educator:
1. There are still lots of things I need to learn.
Just because I was standing at the front of the class instead of seated in a desk, I did not know everything I needed to know for the classes I taught. Every time I sat down to write the syllabus, I’d have a flash of panic: how am I going to talk for a few hours each week on all of these topics? It had been so long since I had learned the basics of music therapy as an undergrad, there were a lot of late nights spent reading and preparing lecture slides.
And of course, students would inevitably ask a handful of questions that I didn’t have a complete answer for. I’ve found that being transparent, stating that I don’t have the exact/complete answer to everything, and following up with more information in the next class was a good way to go. Logically, I know it’s not possible to know everything, but it wasn’t until I started teaching that I became comfortable with this fact.
2. Teaching makes me a better music therapist.
Part of my duties as a clinical coordinator include being an onsite supervisor for a handful of practicum sites. Students and I jointly lead music therapy sessions and we spend about 10 minutes afterward debriefing. Specifically, we discuss what happened in the session and strategize ways to maximize the therapeutic benefits for next week. My students are so observant and every week they’d ask great questions about why I chose a certain song, or structured a discussion in a certain way.
I hadn’t realized how much of my clinical skills are intuitive at this point. As a supervisor, my students kept me accountable and forced me to articulate the purpose behind any clinical decision I was making. Over the semester when I began handing the reins over the students, I learned how to give feedback by balancing both positive and constructive feedback. So many skills are required of music therapists (playing multiple instruments, discussion leading, clinical presence, knowledge of repertoire and specific diagnoses, to name a few). Being as a supervisor gave me a fresh appreciation for my profession.
3. If you set high (and clear) expectations, students will rise to meet them.
During grad school at University of Miami, I worked harder than I ever had at maybe anything before. My UM professors and advisors pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of, and I came out the other end with organizational skills, work ethic, and a thesis that I’m really proud of. As a teacher, I knew that I wanted to set the same high expectations for my students.
Walking into my first day as a clinical coordinator, however, I realized that I hadn’t accounted for the learning curve on both my part and the students’ parts. As they adjusted to my inexperienced and burgeoning teaching style, I was learning what was and was not realistic for music therapy students who have a million other responsibilities outside of practicum and the classes I taught. I learned to be clear about what I’m looking for and to explain the relevance of assignments to the real world of music therapy practice. By the end of the year, though, I was so proud of them for making huge steps in their session leadership, clinical writing, and ability to make a clinical argument for music therapy. I was such a proud professor as the students gave their final practicum presentations this month!
Yes, this is totally cheesy, but I’m so lucky to have found this teaching gig. I just got this semester’s evaluations from my students and this comment blew me away:
“I’m very grateful to study under Prof. Murakami and can’t wait to tell people, ‘Oh yea, Brea? She was my professor.’”
I don’t think I deserve that kind of reputation quite yet…though reading that comment was very encouraging. In the meantime, I know I’ll continue to grow so as to (hopefully) earn that kind of comment someday. Here’s to many more years of professor-ing!