Music Therapy Things I Did for the First Time in 2017

The new year is just about here and every blog, website, and podcast seems to be doing a “Year in Review” post; I’m not above jumping on that bandwagon too. For a twist, I’m focusing on the new experiences I had in 2017. It’s based on a tradition I do every year on my birthday where I list everything I did for the first time in the previous year of my life. I’m a Sagittarius, so by my birthday I’m already in a reflective mood. This practice reminds me that I’m still growing as a person, even if I feel like a boring, old lady who is a few cats away from being an introverted shut in. Just kidding, I’m not a pet person. (It remains to be seen if the rest turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

In the same spirit, here’s a non-comprehensive list of music therapy things I did for the first time in 2017:

1. I defended my original research and presented about it at two new conferences

A year of writing, 92 participants, and a week of becoming nocturnal led up to my thesis defense last March. There was an element of ceremony to my defense that I really appreciated, giving a weight and the feeling of formality to my defense. I bought a new dress for the occasion, my friends and family showed up (either in-person or virtually), and listened as I debuted by results. More than anything, I loved the feeling that I was sharing with the world a small piece of knowledge that no one had known before. Yay research!

My thesis research then got accepted for talks at the World Congress for Music Therapy in Tsukuba, Japan and the Society for Music Perception and Cognition’s conference in San Diego, California. In addition to the excuse to travel and visit new places, I had the simultaneous feelings of being a badass (people think my research is cool and has rigor!) and an imposter (people are gonna tear my research apart during the Q&A!) These feelings were tempered by the actual experience of being a part of the scientific community. I felt like my work appreciated, but also given valuable feedback within the context of both fields. If you’re curious to learn more, here’s a link to my thesis manuscript.


2. I facilitated my first “miracle” music therapy experience

Music therapy is not magic, it’s a clinical therapy that’s informed by evidence and best practices. But a lot of times music therapy gets marketed as something that can reach people that are unreachable, helping clients make breakthroughs that aren’t possible through other means. And while I’ve gotten the chance to see some amazingly positive client responses in my sessions, I’d never had a client go through a dramatic, jaw-dropping transformation in my sessions. Not that I measure my effectiveness as a therapist by these “miracle moments”, but I did get the impression that every other music therapist I knew had such a story in their back pocket.

That changed this year when I was working in neurorehabilitation during my graduate practicum. I was co-treating with a speech language pathologist (SLP). The client was a woman who was largely nonresponsive to others after experiencing a traumatic brain injury. According to the SLP, this client had been in rehab for months without making progress. In conjunction with the SLP, I started a musical improvisation to work on sensory orientation. As I began sporadically starting and stopping my guitar playing, the client began laughing, like she was in on the musical joke I was playing with her. She started joining in the back-and-forth with a shaker and some vocalizing that flowed for about 10 minutes. At the end of the session, the thanked me for the music in a complete sentence, something her SLP had never seen her do before. It goes without saying that the SLP was floored and became a believer in music therapy that afternoon.

I have mixed feelings about this “miracle” the music and I facilitated. It was such a beautifully affirming moment for the client and my identity as a clinician, but did the client’s dramatic response mean that I was a better music therapist? Had I not been as effective of a music therapist in my previous five years of clinical work? In the end, I’m grateful that the music I created an environment that encouraged the client to express herself and that the experience helped make an advocate of another therapeutic colleague. Still, I don’t rely on this experience to justify my work.


3. I became a professor

Although I enjoy doing clinical work, I know my strengths lie in the academic side of the field with researching, writing, and teaching. I was so excited, then, when I accepted my first faculty position as the clinical coordinator at Pacific University right after graduation! Officially becoming an academic came with a move to a new city and a new habit of wearing high heels (I’m pretty short, and need all the help with height I can get). But more importantly, becoming a professor came with a deeper feeling of responsibility for my students than I felt as a teaching assistant.

Sure, I’ve supervised and graded and taught before, but during my first semester as a professor I felt much more responsible for my students’ learning. I became a mentor and model for my students and their expectations for professionalism and practice in a field they hadn’t yet fully entered. At the same time, I started navigating and learning my teaching style. How strict would I be in enforcing attendance and homework policies? How hard of a grader would I be? How would I negotiate with students when my expectations weren’t met? These are all questions I’m still answering as I prepare for next semester’s classes, but I can say for certain that I really enjoy teaching. I know it’s a cliche, but I’m definitely learning from my students everyday I step into the classroom.

In the end, I’ve seen enormous growth in myself as I reflect on 2017. More importantly, perhaps, I’m looking forward to 2018. I’m planning on starting a private practice, publishing papers, and propelling myself into a PhD program soon. Cheers to the new year!

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