By Erinn Frees
Stepping onto the Children's elevators each day, guitars on our backs and instruments in hand, we tend to draw comments from fellow riders. They range from the typical "You must be the entertainment" to "Do you actually play all those instruments?" to "I wish I had your job."
Although explaining the ins and outs of music therapy isn't always possible by the time one of us gets off on the fourth floor, we do usually manage to smile and say, "I'm one of the music therapists." After being in this field for almost seven years, I find that this doesn't always provide a lot of clarification. So in no particular order, here are five things that you might not know about music therapy:
1.Music therapy isn't just for fun.Don't get me wrong, music therapy usuallyisfun.What kid or teen doesn't enjoy music, especially when they get to play along on a shaker or fancy electronic drum set? However, a casual observer may not notice that a music therapist has goals for each patient he/she works with, ranging from giving a 3-year-old an effective means of emotional expression when he doesn't have the words, to giving a 15-year-old relaxation strategies using music during a procedure, to motivating a 10-year-old to get out of bed. The point of music therapy is that we are using the musical experience as a means of reaching a non-musical goal.
2.A child doesn't need to be a musician or have musical experience to benefit from music therapy.Our goal as music therapists is not to teach kids how to play an instrument, or sing better, or dazzle everyone with their harmonica stylings. Therefore, the child doesn't need to be musical to benefit from music therapy. Even patients who are sedated can benefit from music therapy, as music therapy can lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as increase oxygen saturations. Patients who are able to participate on a more active level can play drums, shakers, xylophones and even a special type of harp with little to no previous musical experience. A music therapist may use teaching the guitar as a way to improve the child's fine motor skills, or having a child blow through the harmonica as a way to encourage deep breathing, but learning skills on these instruments is never the goal of the session.
3.We always use patient-preferred music.Music therapists use music from all genres to effect positive changes in the patients we work with. We wouldn't use "Old MacDonald" in a session with a 16-year-old (unless he or she requested it!) and we probably wouldn't use a song from the 1920s with a 5-year-old. One of the first things music therapists ask when getting to know a new patient is what kind of music the he or she prefers. We then work to accomplish our goals using this or similar music. We can't promise to know every song, (we're not human jukeboxes!) but we can always use recorded music or find a similar song if need be.
4.Music therapists are not just musicians waiting to make our big break on "American Idol."Across the board, the music therapists I know went into the field because they want to use their passion for music to make a difference in people's lives. We went to school for four or six years to do exactly what we do:music therapy.We spent six full months doing an unpaid music therapy internship and worked hard for the jobs we have. Although some music therapists perform outside of their day jobs, we are not performing when we are working with patients. Just listening to us sing is not likely to accomplish very many therapeutic goals!
5.We don't just sing and play instruments.We do a lot of singing and instrument play with kids, this is true. However, we also work with kids doing songwriting (for emotional expression, processing, or a way to "tell your story"), lyric discussion (again to process emotions, facilitate coping, or put a new perspective on problems), music-assisted relaxation, procedural support, recording, and CD compilation.
So let's go back to the elevator, so we can finish those conversations:
"You must be the entertainment!" – No, I'm not a performer. I do get to spend the day making great music with courageous, insightful and amazing kids, though!
"Do you actually play all those instruments?"Yes, I can… but I'd rather have the kids playing them!
"I wish I had your job!"–Yes, it is a wonderful and rewarding profession, and I wouldn't want to be doing anything else!
Erinn Frees is a music therapist at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.