Personal Development as a Student Music Therapist

Music Therapy as a Profession

To me, music therapy is a profession dedicated to enhancing the mental, emotional, and physical health of participants through the use of musical interventions. Such interventions may include (but are not limited to) lyric discussion, active music listening (giving the client the option to choose a desired form of music to listen to), neurologic music therapy applications (addressing rehabilitation and maintenance of functional behaviors), guided imagery, and music-assisted relaxation. Interventions for clients are carefully chosen to suit their needs, which is why another important aspect of music therapy is the development of therapeutic rapport between a therapist and client. Through the building of trust and secure attachment, the therapist is given the ability to develop an understanding of their client’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses. As an aspiring student music therapist, my philosophy is that music as therapy is the use of creative methods to make medical and psychotherapeutic experiences more personal and enjoyable for the client, as well as actively affecting the wiring of the nervous system.

Critical Skills for Music Therapists

Musically, every music therapist should develop effective transposition, theoretical, sight reading, and aural skills in order to serve their client effectively. While working in the field, there will be many experiences when a client may want to use a song that the therapist has not previously heard or learned the chords for. However, to maintain professionalism, it is important to communicate to the client that they have a choice in the musical selections used, and that they do not need to worry about the therapist’s ability to perform. Rather, music therapists are by definition professional musicians, and therefore must develop advanced musicianship techniques. If a song that a client wants to hear/play is in a key difficult for the therapist or client to sing/perform, then the therapist must take it upon themselves to transpose on sight, memorizing the key signatures and chord progressions. A music therapist must also use musical elements to communicate transitions, emotions, and key phrases in the music through the use of vocal dynamics (i.e. crescendo to communicate anticipation of the next verse, diminuendo to communicate a change in a story’s theme, etc.), tempo (i.e. accelerando to communicate emotions such as excitement and happiness, ritardando to transition to a song’s cadence, etc.), and instrumental patterns (e.g. the choice to strum or fingerpick on the guitar).

Non-musically, a music therapist must develop self-awareness. Not only must one be aware of their personal strengths and weaknesses, but they must maintain awareness of how their behaviors are reflected in their work. This means an awareness of the vocal dynamics they often speak at, and reflecting upon whether or not it may be too quiet or loud for their population. For example, a geriatric music therapist with a typically quiet voice may want to work towards speaking louder, in hopes of being heard by clients who may be dealing with hearing trouble. Similarly, a therapist with a consistently stoic facial expression may want to participate in improvisation classes or work towards expressing emotions more evidently, especially if they are working with young children who are still developing an understanding of the six basic human emotions.

Critical Traits for Music Therapists

Music therapists must be resilient. As a psychological, medical, educational, dramatic, and musical profession, music therapy is arguably one of the most difficult professions in the nation. As a student, one must complete three practicum experiences, an educational field experiences, a recreational music course, 180 pre-internship hours, the interview of a board-certified therapist, several psychology courses, and music courses on a primary and secondary instrument, all while participating in University ensembles and completing core university requirements. On the way to board-certification, many lose hold of that dream that initially led them to where they are, and they walk away from the profession. However, the dedicated music therapy student will find a way to succeed; they will face the obstacles with confidence and determination, knowing that their efforts will be worth it when they receive their certification and are licensed to work in the community. Furthermore, upon receiving certification, one must also understand when it is beneficial to take a break from working. As a music therapist, Compassion Fatigue is a common occurrence, especially when working in palliative and chronic illness care. However, in order to maintain personal health, it is important for a music therapist to understand the importance of self-care, and remember that although they may have the privilege to work in a career they love, they are still a person separate from their job.

Personal Skills, Strengths, and Weaknesses

Personally, I believe that my most well-developed skills and traits are my optimism and persistence. I am a firm believer in stressing progress rather than comparison when working with others; I want individuals to understand that they do not need to have any prior musical training to participate in therapeutic interventions. Rather, I want them to focus on where they are today, and how much they have grown over the course of treatment. Furthermore, I am persistent. Throughout my entire life, I have been recognized for my work ethic; whenever I have a goal, I put in all of my energy to achieve it. This means that no matter how difficult it becomes, I will find a way to help my client achieve their own goals, and I will make sure to show them that I will do whatever I can to ensure that all needs are met.

As a student music therapist, I believe that my main weakness is my performance anxiety. Anxiety was not a major hindrance to my musical performance originally; however, this past year, it has become a major stumbling block. Both musically and socially, I have found increased difficulty in making eye contact, communicating with peers and professors, initiating conversation, and performing in front of trained musicians. I am unsure if this is the result of an anxiety disorder (as I have avoided psychoanalytic therapy my entire life); however, I plan to begin attending counseling sessions to improve my interpersonal and musical skills to ensure that I am able to continue to pursue music therapy as a profession.

My Future in Music Therapy

While the field of music therapy is highly interesting to me, unfortunately it does not seem likely that I will be continuing in the major. Due to an unsuccessful audition, I will not be able to study here at Baldwin Wallace. Although I could hypothetically audition again in the Fall semester, I do not believe that I will be able to perform well under the pressure of presenting in front of professors whom have previously rejected me. On the contrary, in the event of a successful audition, paying for two extra years of liberal arts college is too difficult financially. Therefore, I am auditioning at Cleveland State University (where I would plan to double major Music Therapy and Education), Wright State University, and Wittenberg University to pursue a Bachelor of Music Education. After, I may consider Post-Baccalaureate studies in order to prepare to take the Board Examination.

Furthermore, I am switching to a Music Education major due to an increased interest in educating children with mild and moderate special needs. After completing a field experience in a fourth grade resource room, I have discovered that I am passionate about teaching young children who live with intellectual disabilities. I want to teach the students how to become musicians as well, rather than solely focusing on using music as an intervention. Therefore, I believe that I may be needed more in the field of education than I am in therapy.

Although I am not continuing in the study of music therapy for the time being, I believe that what I have learned in this course will benefit me greatly as a special needs music teacher someday, in the event that I do not become a music therapist. At any given time in a special education classroom, there will be children with multiple types of disabilities, ranging from Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, and other common exceptionalities. Therefore, learning how individuals living with these conditions will aide me in providing the highest quality education and care, showing them that no matter where their musical and non-musical abilities lie, they can always find peace and comfort in music-making. Anyone can learn how to make beautiful music, if only someone gives them the chance.

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Until the Journey’s End: My Music Therapy Story

NOTE: The post written below is an admissions essay that I wrote for the Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music in order to be considered for acceptance into their Music Therapy program. Ultimately, I was rejected, and am currently considering transferring to Wright State University, Cleveland State University, College of Wooster, or Wittenberg University (whose music program I have already become familiar with, as I attended workshops with Dr. Kazez there during my senior year of high school). While this is disappointing, and I am still very sad about having to leave BW after sophomore year, I believe that, much like as is stated in Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Black Sun,’ “there is beauty in a failure.” 

What this means to me is that in every failure, there is something good that will come out of it. It is very difficult to be optimistic about something I worked so hard for, just to crack under pressure in the audition room. Honestly, I do not know what will come out of this; I invested a lot of time and energy (and stress… lots of stress… and some tears but whatever lol) into hopefully becoming a student music therapist, so it’s kind of difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but still. “So, why are you sharing your admissions essay if you didn’t even get in?” you may ask. Good question!

Well, honestly, I just want this to be public record (for the same reason I have published my other college essays on here) so that it can be read by more than just the few admissions officers who probably won’t remember anything about it; after all, this is just one essay out of hundreds that were reviewed. Additionally, I know that there were a few people who my parents informed about my audition who may be wondering how it went (to answer y’all: my major is Early Childhood Education). I don’t really feel like talking about it or my future plans in person, so… this post kind of serves as an explanation for some things. Also, I spent like three months writing this essay, so I want it to be on display somewhere. There are some grammatical errors and a few things that I wish I did/didn’t include in the final draft, but for the sake of authenticity, the essay below is exactly what was submitted.

(MORE DISCLAIMERS: In the section when I start talking about the specific years of my father’s timeline, they might not necessarily be 100% accurate. The only years that I know for certain are correct are the year of his retirement (2003), the year he wanted to retire (2013), and the year of his diagnosis (1992). The rest are educated guesses because my memory is kinda weird. Like, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out Michael Jackson died (someone whose music I didn’t even listen to while he was alive) but I can’t remember these dates that are actually kinda relevant to my life. Which, for the record, when I found out Michael Jackson died I was in New Philadelphia, Ohio at a church summer camp painting a kid’s nails. It was a Thursday, and I’m pretty sure it was June 25th. I had just finished fifth grade and– ANYWAY! That is all.)

Well, I think that’s all that needs to be covered before I write the essay below! Remember, kids– life has many setbacks, but that’s no excuse to give up. *finger guns*

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Looking back on the past eighteen years of my life, there is no set path that led me to pursue a career in music therapy. In fact, there have been several instances that I have lost my way, hoping to find peace in other areas of interest. However, from the very first days of my life, I have encountered signs on the side of the path that have led me back to the main road.

I am the youngest child in a family of five (seven, if you include our two dogs), and all of us except for my biology-loving sister, Faith, have performed in music ensembles. My mother spent much of her teenage years as the only alto clarinetist in the now-defunct Cleveland All-City Orchestra, performing in Severance Hall and in other venues throughout the Cleveland area. My father is a jazz-trained bass guitarist, who has over thirty years of experience in jazz bands, military music ensembles, orchestras, and church music groups. My eldest sister, Charity, performed as a soprano in our local high school’s Varsity choir, performing in concert venues all over the United States.

It goes without saying that as the baby of the family, I have been immersed in music from the very first days of my life. As a young child, I would often attend my father’s rehearsals, admiring how he played his bass guitar with such ease and great energy. In these rehearsals, I remember thinking, “I want to be just like my daddy someday.”

Soon, I found myself following in the footsteps of my parents shortly after singing my first vocal solo in a church service at the age of ten. I then began to teach myself new strumming techniques on the acoustic guitar, purchased an autoharp, and even learned a major scale or two on the violin.

After years of exploring my musical interests, I began performing in the community through participating in music theatre and vocal performance master classes through the Victoria Theatre Association and Human Race Theatre Company, along with training in music theatre vocal repertoire with Ashley Leasure, a Master of Music at the Wright State University. Selections representative of my lessons with her are Boublil and Schonberg’s “On My Own” and “I Dreamed a Dream,” along with several selections from Avenue Q and Jekyll & Hyde. During my time training with her, I was cast as a Mezzo-Soprano in the Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra and Dayton Playhouse production of Les Miserables, as well as being given the opportunity to perform with the Miami Valley Symphony again under the direction of David Deitrick during their last concert of the 2014-2015 season, a production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9.

Overlapping the time I spent rehearsing and performing with the orchestra, two of my friends also decided to form a self-conducted small vocal ensemble, performing an a cappella rendition of “Mary Did You Know” at the Ohio Fine Arts Festival (myself singing the alto and tenor parts) and eventually performing at the National Fine Arts Festival in Orlando, Florida (at which we received a Superior rating). Throughout the course of my final year of high school that followed, I performed with my school’s senior vocal ensemble at graduation, and even originated a voice acting role in the Dayton Writers Movement audio drama Unwritten. However, even though I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the arts, my college career began on an entirely different track.

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INTERRUPTION (sorry)

Attached are two of the three recorded “Mary Did You Know” performances.

Above: This is us singing offertory a few months before Nationals. I’m the first soloist, and the middle voice during harmony. I ran out of breath a couple times in this.

Above: Yes, I’m wearing a headscarf. It was 2 a.m., which explains what happened at 1:11.

Above: This last video is actually me on a really bad vocal day, but overall this is probably the best one.

Okay, sorry. Back to the essay.

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As college auditions were drawing near, I found myself growing more and more unsure of my capabilities. Although it is true that I have had several performance opportunities, I still felt inadequate compared to my peers; none of the schools I attended while growing up had music programs, I had not been able to take as many private lessons as most musicians due to the financial and logistical struggles of dealing with my father’s illness, and I simply felt unprepared. I found myself cancelling auditions just as soon as I scheduled them, ultimately deciding to major in Criminal Justice instead.

It didn’t take very long to realize that I had made a mistake in choosing my major. Every day, I would wake up and remind myself that it would just be another class to sit through, another exam to take, another four years of studying a field I wasn’t truly passionate about. This short period of my life would pass faster than I would know; technically, I didn’t even have to use my degree. I just needed to study something, even if I spent my days staring at the clock. I never felt that connection to my major that everyone else seemed to have; everyone else seemed to have a sense of pride when asked what their major was. I, however, wanted nothing to do with mine.

I still wanted to do something in the field of music. Even more so, I wanted to do something that would positively impact my community. Luckily, during my first semester here at Baldwin Wallace, I was given the opportunity to participate in two organizations that would change my perspective on my career as I knew it: BW Singers and America Reads.

Performing as an Alto II under the direction of Dr. Weagraff, I found myself learning more and more about choral music every day; in BW Singers I found myself surrounded by both with similar experience and abilities, which shattered my expectation of the Conservatory being a cut-throat environment and restored some of the confidence I lost during my last year of high school. However, my work-study position with America Reads is what truly got me out of the Criminal Justice major.

America Reads is a tutoring program provided by the Cuyahoga County Public Library system through which students in grades Kindergarten-Grade 8 participate in after-school tutoring at one of the Cuyahoga library branches. In October, I began working at the Parma branch as a student tutor. Many of our students come from underprivileged backgrounds, receive low marks in school, or live with cognitive disabilities. As I spent more of my week days outside of work trying to find new ways to help my students with disabilities, I began to realize that perhaps my interests truly lied in working with those affected by mental and physical handicaps. I knew I wanted to work with music, but I didn’t want to simply perform; I also did not feel like a career in music education would be the best option for me, either. I also knew that I wanted to help rehabilitate those suffering from impairments, but I didn’t want to be a physical or occupational therapist.

Like many confused college students, I called my mother to ask for her advice. “Why don’t you consider a career in music therapy?” she asked. It was at that moment that everything made sense, as I was already quite familiar with music therapy due to my father’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

Diagnosed with M.S. in 1992, my father’s careers in the Air Force and music performance both eventually had to be cut short. Being a progressive disease, the disease slowly took away the things he loved in small steps. First, he was forced to retire ten years earlier than he had hoped due to his inability to walk without limping. Having been born in the latter years of his military career, I have very few memories of my father’s time in the service. However, I do have vivid memories of my father’s passion for continuing in his Air Force career, hoping to retire in 2013 after thirty years of service. Returning back to civilian life was difficult, and not even two years after retiring from the Air Force, he was also unable to remain in the work force. Then, he became more reliant on walking with a cane. In 2011, he stopped driving. In 2013, even walking with a cane became too dangerous, and he began using a walker. And in 2014, he lost the most important thing to him: his ability to play his bass guitar at the level of proficiency necessary to keep up with the music.

In the present day, my father often uses a motorized wheelchair to get around public spaces, while he is still able to walk very short distances at home. He has lost most of the functioning on the right side of his body, which makes daily tasks such as writing or using eating utensils difficult. Furthermore, his cognitive ability is declining at a steady rate, and his memory continues to weaken more each day.

My father began attending music therapy sessions at the Dayton Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center after years of participating in occupational and physical therapy. Working with the institution’s board-certified music therapist, he was able to work with different strumming techniques and musical exercises to improve his physical strength. Unfortunately, my father’s therapist has recently retired, and the medical center has not found a replacement for her. While my family is fortunately financially stable enough to hire a private-practicing music therapist, many of the other veterans at the VA solely rely on their veterans’ benefits to receive health care, and have been forced to terminate music therapy treatment until the center hires a replacement.

Living near the University of Dayton (where there is a music therapy program), it is rather confusing that there are so few music therapists, and frankly, it is disturbing. Time and time again, music therapy has produced evidence of being beneficial to all people; yet so few have access to it.

I want to help change that. After that phone conversation with my mother that day, I knew that I had found what I wanted to do with my life. I began working with Blaine Heeter, a Master of Music at Wright State University and teacher at Stivers School for the Arts, on the pieces that I will be presenting at my upcoming audition, which include Reynaldo Hahn’s “L’Heure Exquise” in B flat major. After last semester ended, I also met with a local piano teacher in the Dayton area to learn to play the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” which I will be performing in the piano placement portion of the audition.

In addition to preparing my performances, I have also registered for many of the required music courses. I am in my second semester of BW Singers, I am enrolled in Performance Attendance, Beginning Guitar Class, Introduction to Music Therapy, and Educating Children with Special Needs. As a student in Professor Edie Hardin-Steiner’s Introduction to Music Therapy course, I have observed and interviewed Amy Schneider, MT-BC at Laurel Lake Retirement Community. I have also begun attending Cleveland Student Music Therapist club meetings in order to become more involved in Baldwin Wallace’s music therapy community. In addition, I am a declared Applied Music minor and an advisee under Professor Nanette Canfield.

I believe that I am a strong candidate for Baldwin Wallace’s music therapy program for a multitude of reasons. Not only have I taken music courses and extracurricular activities here, but I also have completed the majority of the prerequisite courses necessary. I have already taken Principles of Psychological Science, Principles of Sociology, Workshop in Exposition and Argument, and the First-Year Experience requirement (receiving grades of A and A+ in all of the courses). In addition, I have achieved a 3.911 GPA during my first semester here at BW and have a strong work ethic. This upcoming summer, I plan on taking extra Biology, Psychology and HPE courses in order to finish the remainder of my prerequisites; I also plan on attending the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music choral conducting workshop in July. Furthermore, being a year older, I am more prepared. Having spent a semester here already, I am well-adjusted to the expectations of college life, and due to the time I have spent in the liberal arts departments, I can say that I have adequately explored my other options, and am certain that a career in music therapy would be a good fit for me.

I believe that there are many ways that I could positively impact the world as a music therapist. Due to my family’s personal experience with musical interventions with Multiple Sclerosis, I have developed an interest in using music therapy as a means for helping clients suffering from autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders. In addition, I am also interested in pursuing geriatric care, working in a retirement home in the Cleveland area. After spending a few years in the practice, I plan on pursuing a Master’s degree in Psychology, so that I can further develop my understanding of mental, intellectual, and developmental disorders and apply the knowledge to enhance my therapeutic services.

At the end of the day, there are so many possibilities with the field of music therapy that it is impossible for me to pin down a single path I would like to take with it. However, I believe that the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory will help me realize my potential as a student music therapist, and I believe that I have the persistence, the passion, and the creativity necessary to thrive as a member of BW’s learning community.

I know that I have much to contribute to Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music’s class of 2021, and I know that I have so much that I need to learn. I know that there will be many challenges that come my way as a non-freshman beginning the music therapy track; I understand that I will not be graduating with my original class. However, I am excited to face whatever challenges come my way, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes, for however long it takes in order to make a difference in the lives of my future clients. I look forward to the opportunities that studying music therapy at Baldwin Wallace will bring, and I plan on seeing it through to the very end.

“I won’t lose hope until I go the distance and my journey is complete.”

-Michael Bolton, ‘Go the Distance’