one of the things I am most grateful here in the US is that I get to know interesting people with lots of different backgrounds from all over the world. One of those people is Ares, a 27 year old Catalan girl that happens to be a music therapist. I overheard her talking about it a few times at our weekly get togethers with the Harvard group and wanted to know more. What it is, how it works (if it works) and why it is so important. So I thought why not create a new segment on the blog where we (as in you AND me) meet interesting people and talk about interesting stuff.
So there you go. Without further ado, I’m happy to introduce you to Ares and her work as a music therapist (because let’s be real, you probably don’t know much about it, do you?).
Sandra: What is your favorite song?
Ares: Wow, that is a difficult one. I can’t give you an answer from the top of my head for one particular song. I for sure have songs I love when I hear them, it also depends greatly on what mood I’m in.
Sandra: Do you think that you consume music differently compared to a person that doesn’t have a professional background as a music therapist?
Ares: Music is really powerful. It affects us all, in our way of being, feeling or behaving. I am no different in that sense. When preparing for a therapy session I will have to obviously put my personal emotions behind and think about what choices will benefit the patients condition and his wishes best. And sometimes it’s difficult, because your background in music might be really different than the one from the patient. To sum up, yes, I think that I listen to music differently. But mainly due to the fact that I grew up with taking piano lessons and being very involved with music from an early age on.
Sandra: We’ve already jumped into the discussion but let’s maybe quickly explain to everyone who has never heard of music therapy before, what is it,in a sentence or two?
Ares: Put very simply, I’d say it’s a form of therapy using the means of music in every possible form to make the patient feel better. The therapy part implies an engagement with the patient, a therapeutic agreement, the patient recognizing his needs and what he needs to improve on. Without those elements it’s making music in a group or alone, enjoying music but without the therapeutic aspect.
Sandra: You used to be a nurse before becoming a music therapist. Why did you want to change careers?
Ares: I actually always had this thought in the back of my head that I wanted to study music. But I also always liked helping people. So life happens and I chose to train as a nurse. After finishing my undergraduate studies I had to choose which specialization I wanted to pursue in a Masters. I somehow didn’t feel like pursuing a Masters in nursing so I ended up with music therapy as it is the perfect combination of all the things I love. It wasn’t easy for me as people kept telling me it’s a hard field to find work in. What also was nice was that I knew if things wouldn’t work out as a music therapist I could still apply a lot of my knowledge in my day to day work as a nurse in a hospital.
Ares: When I lived in Oxford, I used to work with rehabilitation patients that had suffered from strokes, cerebral palsies or car accidents. During the week it was impossible as they were busy with their physiotherapy and other occupational therapy sessions. But on the weekends they were free and I would occasionally do some exercises with them after my nursing work was done. At the school of music I used to work in Barcelona I started doing music therapy with little kids. I remember one boy that suffered from cerebral palsy, all of his right body side was paralyzed. He loved to play the drums. I encouraged him to use his right side to play even though at the beginning he really didn’t want to. He obviously wanted to play with the side he was able to play with. And you know what? After a year I saw real progress.
Sandra: That is fascinating. What does a normal day in the life of a music therapist look like?
Ares: It all really depends on the target group you’re talking about as music therapy is practically applicable to everyone, be it pregnant women, babies, toddlers, kids, teenagers, seniors etc. What is also very important is the type of therapy that you’ll apply in your sessions, there is a variety of schools. Norton-Robbins for example is an approach where there are two therapists, one playing the piano and one minding the patient. There are other models where you do everything in groups, some where you never talk during your sessions, others that only do improvising, some that only listen to music and don’t do anything else…the list goes on.
Sandra: So from what I understand there’s no typical day in the life as the whole set up and context varies greatly according to your patient and the type of therapy model that you’ll apply, right?
Ares: Correct. Generally, however, I will plan a session of 45 minutes. My main focus will usually lie on improvising and on the fact that patients should enjoy themselves and the music. What I love to do at the end of every class, if the patient’s condition allows it, is a feedback round. They are asked to reflect on what they’ve done and created during the session, if they had been improvising for example and created a song only using their body as instruments. Of course it’s not compulsory. But it is a beautiful way for the patients to reflect on what has happened and what they’ve experienced and created.
Sandra: What have been patient stories that you like to remember?
Ares: I used to work with a group of teenagers that mostly suffered from conduct disorders. There was a girl in the group that was a bully a school and another kid, they didn’t know each other, that was a victim. Two personalities that in a normal school setting would never have talked to each other, respected each other and heard each other, which is really important. Feelings of mutual understanding were able to be formed, which in my opinion never would have been possible to be formed in a psychologist’s office in a more conventional therapy set up.
Sandra: Does the music help as a connection maker?
Ares: Yes, it definitely does! And the interesting thing is that while they are in the session they really aren’t aware of what’s happening. It just happens. It’s actually at the end of the session, when I do the feedback round where they’ll understand what happened to them.
Sandra: What were things those teenagers said in the feedback round?
Ares: The girl that used to be a bully would say things like “I heard the sound that the other kid was making”, or “When you sang that part, I really liked it”. Those were sides of her personality as a bully that she never had shown or expressed before, actually listening to others, sharing something with others. That was fascinating. Also, a psychologist was always present during those sessions and she really was surprised to see certain aspects of that girl’s personality that she hadn’t seen before in sessions with her.
Sandra: How long does such a transition take time to happen?
Ares: It really varies a lot. In this case we did the sessions for about a year. Generally I’d say it takes about 10-12 sessions in minimum to see a change. The first sessions are needed to build trust, the fact of making music is difficult, the matter of reflecting on it is challenging as well.
Sandra: Have you also seen cases where the therapy just wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be the right choice?
Ares: Yes, that can happen. Especially when a person is very closed-off. If you offer them exercises and they will block any attempt. Or if parents for example don’t see the value in the therapy sessions and will transmit that feeling to the kid coming to class. That will also be difficult.
Sandra: Will you leave those cases be?
Ares: There will always be an attempt to try and upkeep the therapy. But it doesn’t always work. Which is ok. There are also cases where you just can’t do music therapy due to the conditions of the patient. As listening and engaging with music will activate all of your brain parts and will animate the visual and imaginative part you’ll have to be very careful with patients that have bipolar or schizophrenic problems for example. You’ll have to be very mindful and know what the limits are.
Sandra: So that also requires you to have a lot of knowledge of physical and medical conditions?
Ares: Yes! You definitely need to know what conditions there are and how they’ll most likely react to music. During your training you’ll have to have medical backgrounds.
Stay tuned for tomorrows continuation of part 2, where we’ll talk about Spice girls, babies, instruments and lots of other things. And listen to some music today, ok?