music therapy

What Is Music Therapy and What Does a Music Therapist Do?

Leading Music Therapist Brian Jantz shares advice for young musicians about music therapy, talks about what Music Therapists do, how to prepare for a career as a Music Therapist, and his own career path as a prominent Music Therapist in clinical practice and teaching. Brian is President-Elect of the New England Region of the American Music Therapy Association (NER-AMTA), works in clinical practice and research at Boston Children’s Hospital, and is a Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

What does a Music Therapist do? In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  1. What music therapy is and what Music Therapists do
  2. A Music Therapist’s typical working day
  3. Techniques and technical skills required
  4. How young musicians can prepare for a career as a Music Therapist
  5. Things to consider when choosing a school for Music Therapy
  6. Positives and negatives of the job
  7. How Music Therapists find work
  8. What problems Music Therapists face today
  9. Can Music Therapists also work in other areas of music

Brian Jantz, MA, MT-BC, LPMT, is an Assistant Professor of Music Therapy at Berklee College of Music who has been active as a clinician, practicum site supervisor, course instructor, and researcher for over 20 years. He was part of the first graduating class of Music Therapists at Berklee in 1998 as a jazz guitarist, began teaching at the college in 2009, and earned his MA as well as full-time faculty status in 2017. He has extensive experience working and supervising within pediatric medical and psychiatric/substance abuse facilities, including McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, Bournewood Psychiatric Hospital in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Jantz is currently involved with research and clinical work at Boston Children’s Hospital on neurology, hematology, and child psychiatry units. A primary focus of his current research is examining the potential impact music therapy has on the need for sedating medications during procedures, restraint use in pediatric settings, and opioid use for chronic pain management. One of his ongoing studies is examining the effect of music therapy as procedural support for pediatric patients with seizure disorders during electroencephalogram (EEG) testing.

His recent regional and national conference presentations have focused on clinical applications of the blues genre, the American Music Therapy Association’s national roster continuing education training (CMTE) for internship directors, and presentations aimed at informing Music Therapists of the important and active role they can play as part of their national organization (AMTA). Jantz presented in the fall of 2018 as part of a Berklee symposium on Music Therapy and Substance Use Disorders, focusing primarily on related music therapy research, personal case examples, and considerations for pain management and self-care.

In March 2019, Jantz presented on the effect of music therapy on pain perception and patient experience at Harvard Medical School as part of the “Effective Pediatric Pain Management and End of Life Care” conference for medical practitioners. Jantz recently co-presented at the AMTA national conference in Minneapolis on the “Music and Health Innovation Challenge” experience he had as a mentor and speaker for the first music and health hackathon held by Berklee and MIT. He will be co-presenting on the same topic at the World Congress of Music Therapy in South Africa in July 2020, as well as giving a separate presentation on self-care titled “Walking the Talk”.

Jantz is the current President-Elect of the New England Region of the American Music Therapy Association (NER-AMTA), and the NER representative for the Association’s Internship Approval Committee (AIAC).

(The following interview with Brian Jantz, MA, MT-BC, LPMT was conducted by Tom Stein on December 5, 2019. Note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

How did you become a Music Therapist, and why?

I came to Berklee originally to study jazz guitar, and at the time I didn’t know anything about Music Therapy. I took a psychology class where we visited Fernald State Hospital and I observed a Music Therapist conducting a session. Something just clicked right away and I knew that’s what I should be doing. At that time Berklee did not have a Music Therapy program, so I transferred to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which was one of the other schools I was considering before I chose Berklee.

I had always felt something was missing in my music life. I was vaguely aware that I wanted to be helping people, and had previously considered other directions like psychology and occupational therapy. When I learned about Music Therapy, I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I pursued it. After doing Music Therapy coursework at Duquesne, I learned that Berklee was starting a program in Music Therapy, so I transferred back here. I was part of the first graduating class at Berklee in 1998. Berklee was doing a lot to grow the field, especially in the area of offering practica and internships at many sites.

What does a Music Therapist do?

A Music Therapist works on non-musical goals using music as a clinical tool to support clients and patients, often as part of a clinical team. We work with other clinicians and treatment providers towards shared goals, supporting patients in different domain areas depending on the setting. Music Therapy can be viewed as an integrative treatment, benefitting patients’ psychosocial, physical, and neurological well-being. Music Therapy has even been shown to support and strengthen immune function in some studies. Working as part of the treatment team is an important part of what we do.

Music Therapy does not replace other treatments but enhances and supports treatments in direct ways. We provide procedural support to the team, working to reduce anxiety and stress for patients and their families, potentially reducing the need for pain medication or restraint of patients during procedures. There are obvious examples of music being used therapeutically throughout history, but the way we function in today’s clinical settings is relatively new and has developed greatly over the last few decades.

Describe a typical working day as a Music Therapist.

When I work at Boston Children’s Hospital, a typical day involves first meeting with the pediatric team and other Music Therapists at the site, reviewing referrals received, and deciding on priority. Throughout the day, since it is a hospital, things can quickly change, so we are in constant communication with each other, reevaluating our priorities and plans.

At other types of sites, there might be more of a set schedule, similar to what a Private Teacher might have for meeting with their students. Clinical settings vary widely. Some settings can be stressful, so the Therapist needs to have time to process what occurred in sessions, and needs a supportive team and supervision to maintain effective clinical focus.

“Music Therapy can be viewed as an integrative treatment, benefitting patients’ psychosocial, physical, and neurological well-being. Music Therapy has even been shown to support and strengthen immune function in some studies.” — Music Therapist Brian Jantz

Say something about the technique or technical skills required?

Music Therapists need flexibility in terms of what they can provide in a clinical setting. It’s helpful to have some level of mastery on one instrument, but that alone isn’t enough. Having some level of proficiency on several other instruments beyond your principal instrument is important. In clinical practice, you must be comfortable singing. The guitar is frequently used along with piano, and percussion instruments. It is essential to have some comfort level using these instruments. We want to be able to choose the right instruments in meeting our clients’ needs in the moment. There are also important non-music skills involved such as assessment, treatment planning, and documentation.

One of the most important things a Music Therapist must be able to do is to connect their clinical capabilities with their musical skills. This isn’t as simple as it might seem. For example, you might be great at jazz improvisation, but this isn’t necessarily the same style of music or level of performance you will need to work in the clinical setting. There might be spontaneous sections in the music where the Therapist has to use their skills in an entirely new way based on where the client is. You need to be open to the unknown and develop the ability to think quickly on your feet.

What should a young person do to prepare for a career as a Music Therapist?

If possible, you should directly observe a music therapy session. If that’s not possible, there are videos of sessions you can find online, at websites such as the American Music Therapy Association, or New England Regional AMTA, or on YouTube. There are some good books you can read, articles, and websites you should check out. If you are certain you want to pursue it, you should begin to gain competency on a variety of musical instruments and in various genres.

What schools would you recommend (besides Berklee) and what should students consider when looking for a program of study?

As President-Elect of the New England Region of the American Music Therapy Association (NER-AMTA) it’s hard for me to recommend any particular school, out of fairness, but of course, since I’m at Berklee I think we have a terrific program and I can recommend that. There are many great programs all around the country, and it’s pretty easy to start researching online.

As far as what to consider, you should look at whether a particular school offers undergraduate and graduate programs, or just undergraduate, which could be a factor in choosing the best place for you. Some schools have only undergraduate and others have Masters and even Ph.D. degrees. If you are only planning to get a Bachelor’s degree perhaps you might choose a school on that basis. If you want an advanced degree, some schools offer joint degree programs. You should look at the classes offered to see if the approach is unique in some ways and if it is in line with how you’d like to practice. It’s good to gain some awareness of the different philosophies and how they might influence the programs.

Also, look at where the schools place students for internships beyond their program studies, and whether you can see yourself working in those sites. The types of internship sites that maintain relationships with the school might also say something about the quality of the program and the graduates. There are also databases where students can find approved national roster sites around the country, but it’s important that each school has a record of placements in internships as it is a requirement for taking the certification exam. Berklee’s practicum placements play an important role in preparing students for their internship.

What are some positives and negatives of the job?

The positives include using music in a way that clearly benefits others on a daily basis. You will expand your skills as a musician, and be energized by the work if you are in a setting that’s a good fit for you. On the other hand, if the setting is not a good fit, the opposite can happen: you can suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout, by taking the challenges of your patients too much to heart. This happens, so it’s really important for Music Therapists to practice self-care and seek support from their supervisors and team.

How does a Music Therapist find work?

Some find jobs through their internship and practicum experiences, having had an opportunity to explore whether specific settings are a good fit for them while demonstrating their skill set. The AMTA website has postings for openings shared nationally, and our New England Region website has job postings for openings in New England states. It’s a good idea to attend meetings and conferences at the state, regional, and national levels, in order to network. There are also opportunities announced on social media pages and it never hurts to reach out directly to contact the person posting. As in every profession, it is important to be a good networker.

“Know that everyone connects to music, that there is this healthy part of everyone that responds to and experiences music, and that this is a big part of what makes music such a unique clinical tool.” — Music Therapist Brian Jantz

What’s the biggest problem Music Therapists face today?

Although perception and awareness of what Music Therapy is and is not have been increasing, we still face the challenge of being viewed by others in a way that is not always accurate. There’s more awareness now than 10 to 20 years ago, but just because we are understood here in Boston or in our clinical workplaces, doesn’t mean people know what we do everywhere. We must educate and clarify what we do to others without being defensive, and we need to be professional and respectful in doing this.

What special challenges for POC, women, underrepresented constituencies exist?

We are engaged in ongoing discussions at the local, state, regional, and national level regarding how to have more diversity in our field. For example, at conferences and meetings, we prioritize creating safe spaces for marginalized communities and have conversations about what we need to do to be more inclusive and the diversity in our field. Some things we are working on include how we can make music therapy education more affordable, have paid internships, and make sure that research from underrepresented groups is equally considered for publication.

Having more paid internships is important because for graduates needing to work for six to nine months without pay in order to qualify to take the certification exam, this has been a significant barrier. We recognize that diversity and inclusion are important issues that we must address to benefit our field.

Does having a professional career outside of music therapy, whether in music or outside of it, help or hurt your professional opportunities?

I believe it helps your opportunities, as long as there is a balance that works for the individual. Some Music Therapists, and I’ve been in this place, can forget about their own music, which is what attracted them to being a musician in the first place. You shouldn’t forget about your own music, because one area can really feed the other. Working as a Music Therapist, you are playing music every day, playing instruments you might not normally play, and genres that are new to you. It makes you a better musician and can improve your songwriting, performing, improvising, and foundational music skills. I’ve observed students and professionals now writing better songs as a result of what they learned through clinical Music Therapy work.

Some Music Therapists choose to work 20 hours a week to allow time for other aspects of their career in music. This speaks to the flexibility needed to build a career in music, as they are stepping outside of their clinical practice. I really think it can help, as long as there is a balance that works.

If you could tell your son or daughter (or students) just one thing about music therapy, what would it be?

Just know that the field of Music Therapy involves taking something you love, music, and using it to benefit others, regardless of whatever challenges or illnesses they may be facing. Know that everyone connects to music, that there is this healthy part of everyone that responds to and experiences music, and that this is a big part of what makes music such a unique clinical tool.

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