By combining musical talent and psychotherapy, music therapists help patients and their families through illnesses and dying. They employ listening and counseling skills in addition to involving patients in singing and playing or listening to music.
Music therapists combine music and psychology to help patients and families in settings from nursery to hospice. They may work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, schools, treatment centers or in patients' homes.
Most music therapists are employed by facilities, but about a quarter are in private practice, according to Michael J. Silverman, director of Music Therapy at the University of Minnesota School of Music (music.umn.edu). The university grants undergraduate and graduate degrees in music therapy, and administers a post-graduate equivalency program that puts students with music degrees on track for certification by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (cbmt.org). The American Music Therapy Association (musictherapy.org) offers more information about the career.
The education angle
Students must audition on their principal instrument and undergo an interview before admission to the university, where they are required to study other instruments in addition to taking psychology courses. "They get a good dose of music and a good dose of psychology," Silverman said.
Music therapy was developed after World War II to help returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Silverman. The university's program began in 1972. Augsburg College (augsburg.edu) also offers undergraduate degrees in music therapy.
Sarah Newberry received her master's degree in Massachusetts before returning to her native Minnesota to practice. She works with Children's Hospitals & Clinics of Minnesota and with Allina Hospice. At Children's, Newberry is part of the Child Life Department, which provides coping and developmental support to children and their families. She brings a cart full of musical instruments to patients' rooms to make sure she has something to fit each child's needs.
Making music, engaging patients
"Music therapy is a lot about intuition and really being present with where the patient is at and seeing how they're responding," Newberry said. "We'd like it to be as interactive as the patients feel comfortable with. We usually try to engage the patient in some kind of music-making."
With her hospice patients, Newberry sings and plays songs patients prefer, facilitates musical reminiscing and musical legacy projects, such as recording a CD of the patient singing their favorite songs or a booklet of lyrics that were meaningful to the patient.
"In hospice it can be really different, because there are people with varying degrees of responsiveness and cognitive abilities," Newberry said. "We work with family members with music as well, but sometimes they need more than the music. The need verbal support and I often provide that as well."
The job market for music therapists is good, and music therapists can expect to earn about the same amount as nurses or teachers, according to Silverman. "There is more demand than supply, which is a really good problem to have," he said.