So, you want to get a degree in music therapy? Studying music therapy is an exciting endeavor whether you’re just starting out or going back for a graduate degree. Having gotten both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music therapy, here are some questions that were important in helping me make the right decision when choosing between fabulous programs.
To ask faculty…
What is the program’s music therapy philosophy?
This important question will you a general idea of what approaches your courses will cover. In my opinion, if you’re going for your first degree in music therapy (e.g., Bachelor’s, equivalency), choosing a school with an “eclectic” or generalist approach will probably introduce you to a fuller menu of music therapy techniques than a school that adheres to a more narrow teaching philosophy (e.g., neurologic music therapy, psychodynamic, behavioral, etc.). On the other hand, if you’re going for a graduate degree and know for sure that you want to specialize, this question will help you choose a program that aligns with your priorities.
What degree will I have when I graduate?
Although you can major in music therapy, your degree could be a bachelor’s/master’s of music, arts, science, or music education. While you’ll get the same basic music therapy foundational courses, the type of degree each school offers can impact how classes are structured, or your flexibility in choosing electives. For example, a bachelor of music in music therapy will require you take more classes in music than a bachelor of science in music therapy. Be sure to look over a sample course schedule outline (often found on the university’s academic catalog) so that you know what classes you’ll take in what order.
What kind of clinical supervision is provided for practicum students?
No matter the degree, you’ll somehow be involved in providing music therapy services in the community as part of your fieldwork (aka, practicum) placements. Supervision by an experienced clinician (both on-site and in the classroom) is an integral part to helping you process and make the most of this hands-on learning. Will your supervision be one-on-one so you get tailored feedback or will your supervision be held in a group so you can hear other students’ experiences? Will you be supervised by a faculty member or a graduate teaching assistant? Is supervision time focused solely on what happens at your practicum, or is there time to work on other music therapy skills like clinical presence and song leading? All of these questions will give you a better idea of how you will be mentored as a music therapist.
Are there any entrance exams required of incoming students?
Entrance exams are common for placing students before classes start. I had to take hour-long music theory and music history entrance exams during orientation week for my Master’s degree. (Meaning, I had a crash course in 12-tone theory the day before the theory test!) Don’t get caught off guard and give yourself plenty of time to study and shine.
What are past alumni doing now?
Your end goal after finishing your music therapy degree may be to practice music therapy, set up a new music therapy program in the community, go into a related field, learn research, or something else entirely. Asking about what current alumni have accomplished will give you an idea of opportunities this program provides and give you a preview of networking opportunities to help you reach your goals.
What percentage of students graduate on time?
This is mostly a question about the pragmatics of how your resources (i.e., time and money) will be best spent. If a significant portion of students take an extra semester to graduate, dig deeper to find out why. Do they take a semester off to travel abroad? Do students find they need more time to complete all course requirements? If there are issues, knowing so before you start your degree can give you a head start on planning out your course sequence appropriately so you don’t waste time or money.
To ask current students…
What do you love about the program?
Current students are living the life you want to have soon! Getting their opinions on what works well in a program will help you learn about a school’s strengths and give you an idea of whether this program aligns with your priorities and interests.
What is challenging or frustrating about the program?
Every music therapy program has its weaknesses. Although you might have your heart set on your “dream program”, don’t forget to consider the flip side. You don’t want to have blinders on when you finally accept a spot in a music therapy program.
Do you feel like the music therapy faculty are available to students?
The faculty are a big component of the culture and mentorship opportunities of a program. Is there an open door policy and are office hours regularly scheduled? Or, do you need to make an appointment to get face time with a professor? While faculty members are usually juggling multiple responsibilities and busy, you want to get a sense that your experience as a student is at the top of the faculty’s priorities.
How will this program develop my musicianship?
Music therapists are musicians first. Having strong musicianship gives you the tools to be flexible and responsive with music, our primary agent of change. However, there are surprisingly few hard standards about how a student’s musical competency is measured across music therapy programs. Ask how many classes you’ll be required/allowed to take in piano, guitar, voice, and percussion (the basics of music therapists’ musicianship). Depending on your strengths as you enter the program, hopefully you can find a program that provides the clinical musicianship training that will grow you into a well-rounded clinician.
How many graduates pass the board certification test on their first try?
Until you pass the board-certification exam, you can’t practice as a music therapist. Asking about a school’s pass rate can be a very rough metric for understanding how well-prepared you’ll be for the test after your internship.
Graduate Degree (Master’s/Doctorate)
What funding options are available? (Graduate teaching assistantships, scholarships, fellowships, conference reimbursement, etc.)
If you’re already a music therapist, it can be tough sell to go back to school if you’re faced with going into debt. Luckily, many programs offer opportunities to serve as a teaching assistant that can provide tuition waivers and/or a stipend. The number of spots available may change from year to year, so be sure to get updated information for the year you apply. Check to see if you qualify and then definitely go for some free money!
Am I able to choose my thesis advisor/mentor?
I’d venture that every graduate degree in music therapy requires some kind of thesis or clinical capstone project. It’s also likely that you’ll be working closely with one of the faculty members who will advise you on this project. Because you’ll develop a close professional relationship with this person, it may be important to you that you have control over mentors you (or at least understand how advisors are assigned to students.)
Am I limited in the types of electives I can take?
Because a graduate degree has fewer credits available as electives, your choice of non-music therapy classes should be laser-focused. Some schools put limits on the number of lessons available to non-performance majors or may only let you take a certain number of credits in a related field (e.g., psychology, medicine, education, etc). Knowing the sandbox you’ll be playing in ahead of time will help you choose a program or course sequence that is best for you.
I’m interested in (this area/topic/specialty). Does the music therapy program currently have related, interdisciplinary ties within the university or community?
Interdisciplinary research is a hot topic right now. If there’s another field you want to be able to collaborate with (e.g., special ed, medicine, etc.), check to see whether the programs you’re applying for can help you make connections that will help you reach your professional goals.
What research are faculty currently involved in?
I’m a research enthusiast and I may be biased, but for me it’s really important that faculty are actively involved in furthering knowledge about music therapy. If this is also a priority of yours, ask about what active research projects are being worked on, how many articles faculty have published in the last few years, and whether they actively attend and present at conferences. This question may also give you a head’s up of whether there are opportunities to assist in research first-hand!
Are there opportunities to gain supervision/teaching/research experience?
Being an advanced-level music therapist means much more than being a clinician. Music therapists are often involved in mentoring the next generation of music therapists and furthering the field’s progress through scholarship or research. Grad school can provide great opportunities to hone these skills. Be sure to ask what non-clinical growth opportunities are available!