How To Become a Music Therapist
Music Therapists work with everyone from children to elderly Alzheimer’s patients, as well as clients with substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, mental health problems and developmental disabilities. They use musical performance, lessons, songwriting, and music listening as part of an integrative course of therapy to improve the individual client’s social, emotional, physical, and/or cognitive abilities. Music Therapists can work in a range of settings, from addiction recovery centers to hospices to adult schools to special education programs. They partner with Nurses, Doctors, Counselors, Physical Therapists, Speech Therapists, and Client Service Directors to help the client reach their goals.
Advancement occurs through experience and further education. Music Therapists who attend graduate school can focus on research and advanced clinical practice, and advance professionally and financially in this way. Music Therapists can also move into supervisory positions or university teaching and research roles. Therapists who open a private practice can also charge their own rates, therefore making it possible to earn a higher income.
Education & Training
Even the most basic education requirements to become a Music Therapist are hardcore. Aspiring Music Therapists take courses in music, biology, psychology, physiology, social and behavioral sciences. In the final two years of study, students are required to complete 1200 hours of fieldwork as an intern in a health or education-related setting. Music Therapists must have at least a BA in their field. Those interested in graduate school can obtain an MA degree or a doctoral degree that combines music therapy with related areas of study. Aspiring Music Therapists who did not major in music for undergraduate can sometimes take equivalency courses before pursuing their MA, depending on the school.
All Music Therapists must pass a certification exam from the Certification Board for Music Therapists and continue to pass the exam every five years or take recertification credits. Successfully passing the exam will give the Music Therapist the designation of Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC).
Experience & Skills
Job shadowing and internship experience are essential for anyone hoping to get a job as a Music Therapist. A deep knowledge of several musical instruments is vital, of course. Music Therapist Kalani says that even after years of performing music professionally on stage, “it was hard, at first” to play music while simultaneously maintaining “extra headroom for the client. Struggling to play a song gives no time for the client, so you have to be super confident in your musical abilities so you can see how the client is reacting.” He recommends that potential Music Therapists have a firm knowledge of instruments like guitar, piano, and ukulele and that they work on developing technical skills in drumming and a strong vocal presence.
You must have “a passion for serving people,” says Kalani. “Your number one goal has to be to help people,” with a love for music coming in second. For anyone interested in this career, two essential qualities are “patience and persistence, because it’s hard to become a Music Therapist.” Kalani adds that Music Therapists must also have “tenacity, be hard-working, and not be the kind of person who takes things personally” because clients can get frustrated or angry and sometimes are unable to control things like swearing. So, compassion and understanding are also important. “You have to like people, be creative, and be a problem solver,” he says.
Working as a Music Therapist isn’t a way to get paid to play music for a living, Kalani strongly cautions. “It’s not a fallback career. Lots of people don’t make it through [the degree program],” he says. “It’s lots of work, but it’s rewarding. Don’t take it lightly.”
There really is no typical day for a Music Therapist. Music Therapists can work in different locations with different client populations every day, including adult daycares, nursing homes, addiction treatment centers, and daycare schools for the developmentally disabled. Usually, Kalani says he does four fifty minute sessions with a client group of around twenty people per session. He brings in his musical equipment, including instruments the clients can play, and together they sing a mix of new and familiar songs. Each session is staffed by on-site caregivers, with a ratio of usually around five clients to a caregiver. “You don’t learn a formula and just do it, you’re creating an answer together,” he says about the client/Music Therapist relationship.
Employment can be obtained as a result of an internship, responding to job postings or through calling care facilities and checking in with Client Services Directors. In Kalani’s case, he got his first Music Therapy job because someone at an addiction recovery center found his website—so have a good website outlining your credentials, experience, and what makes you special.
The demand for Music Therapists is growing, while at the same time, the budgets of many healthcare facilities are also shrinking. Kalani advises that schools are the fastest growing area for Music Therapists to find employment because “they have more funds, and [therefore] more opportunities.” Positions in hospitals are “secure” and relatively “easier to get,” he says, adding that “older adult facilities are tougher, which is too bad because shut-ins love” when Music Therapists visit.
Most Music Therapists receive a salary through the organization that employs them. Private practice Music Therapists can charge an hourly rate.
Unions, Groups & Associations
- ”Work on your musical skills,” Kalani says. “You must be nimble, you must be able to play in a different meter or different key.”
- “Check out videos on YouTube and do research.” Kalani recommends videos of former Arizona state senator Gabby Giffords working with her Music Therapist.
- “Get a head start” on reading about psychology, biology, and physiology books, as your education will be filled with similarly challenging coursework.
- “Learn how to read a study, know the scientific method.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Try to research and understand what the career is, and have a passion for serving people.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“People don’t understand what the career entails. Not doing their research, just filling in the blanks with their own imagination. Read a book, do research, job shadow.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Ask ‘What does a Music Therapist do every day? If I was watching a Music Therapist do their work, what would that look like? What’s going through the Music Therapist’s head when they’re working? What’s informing why they do what they do? This helps [you] get the big picture, with tools, techniques, and strategies. It’s not just performing.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
”What’s the most rewarding aspect?” Kalani says it’s “seeing evidence that something I’ve done has helped somebody. Seeing clients make progress. Seeing people open up, brighten up, be more social, relax, and get more energy.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Flexibility. Musical and interpersonal relationships can be in a state of flux, you have to be able to move” accordingly.
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Kalani is a Southern California-based Music Therapist who started his musical career as a performing artist specializing in world music percussion. He was invited to present at a conference for Music Therapists, started teaching them new instrumental skills and shortly afterward was inspired to go back to school for his Music Therapy degree. He specializes in working with clients with addiction, developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and aging-related issues. He has written over ten books, including The Way of Music – Creating Sound Connections in Music Therapy.