I recently had a conversation with a music therapy professional that left me pondering many things. I was looking for some guidance on my private practice, and I ended up talking to a person who has spent years teaching music lessons as her music therapy private practice. Anyone who knows me knows what I feel about lessons (and if you don’t I’ll explain over the course of this blog).
Music therapy is when a music therapist works with an individual/group in order to use the therapeutic qualities of music to achieve personalized goals. This means that a music therapist will asses a person and figure out what they need help with. The categories that most music therapists assess are Communication, Academic, Musical, Motor, Emotional, and Social. In order to work with someone, a music therapist must identify that the person is lacking in one of these areas, and once this happens, the music therapist will find ways to use music to meet these needs.
I always get very frustrated when people talk about music therapists teaching people how to play an instrument. I am very bad at teaching people how to play instruments, and that is the reason why being a music educator never crossed my mind. Are lessons music therapy? Lessons can be therapeutic, but it goes back to what I said above. Teaching someone how to play an instrument has to have a therapeutic purpose. Let me share a few examples of how this can work.
1. Lessons are often used with persons with disabilities. A lot of people with disabilities live their lives being told that they can’t do things. Music therapist often use adaptive lessons to give them a sense of accomplishment that they don’t usually experience in their daily life. Music lessons with disabilities work on motor skills, cognitive skills, and it can even be helpful with emotional skills in this situation. There are other areas that music lessons can be used for, but they very from person to person.
2. Lessons can be used with Veterans. In my internship we used lessons to develop a coping mechanism. Learning how to play an instrument gave the Veterans something to turn to when their PTSD got too bad or when they were up and couldn’t turn their brain off. In the VA setting lessons are typically used to benefit someone’s emotional being, their communication, and their social life.
3. Lessons can also be used in the hospital setting to help with pain management. There’s nothing that helps distract a person from what their going to than having to focus on an instrument. In this setting this works on Motor Skills, Emotions, and can even help with Academic Skills.
Now you’re probably wondering how lessons can do all of this so let’s review that. Lessons help with communication, because there’s a lot of communication that goes into learning the instrument. Yes, the therapist explains and shows how to do a lot, but the client must be able to communicate their struggles and ask questions to learn the instrument. This can also open the door by giving the client someone to trust, which can lead to them communicating a lot of other things with the therapist. Lessons can help with academic because it takes a lot of thought to learn an instrument, and if the patient really enjoys it, then it can be used as a reward to get them to do any work that they need to do. Learning an instrument helps with motor because every instrument involves Gross Motor Skills in using the arms and then fine motor skills in using the fingers. Lessons work on the emotional level because it works as an outlet. When someone is angry or sad, they can represent these feelings in the instrument. Therapists often gauge where clients are emotionally by how they play. Instruments can help the social domain because the therapist gives the client someone to socialize with. In the VA, most people who learned the guitar were later put into the guitar group for socialization.
So as you can see lessons can be a very beneficial music therapy intervention, but it only works as therapy when the therapist and client have goals that they are working on and continue to work towards those goals. Once the goals have been met, then it’s probably time for the therapist to re-evaluate and see if there are other goals that can be worked on, or it might be time to terminate the therapy. Unlike normal lessons, music therapy lessons can’t last forever and they won’t last as long as the parents are willing to pay. I hope this helps some people better understand music therapy and the function of lessons!