Advocacy ABCs…the Daily Grind

by Betsy Gifford, MusicWorx intern


“So…what is music therapy? Do you just…like…sing something and make people feel better?”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this in my internship alone, I would be able to afford all the instruments on my wish list. Advocating for music therapy seems like it should be one of the simplest things to do. After all, it’s just explaining what I do every day. But how do I “simply” explain a profession that serves populations varying in age from newborns in the NICU to older adults with Alzheimer’s, and in populations ranging from Hospice to mental health to developmental disabilities to health and wellness? In my past three months as an intern, I have discovered that there isn’t one “simple” explanation of music therapy that accurately encompasses all that it offers.

As a college student, advocating for music therapy was always difficult for me because all I knew was what I had read in a textbook. I had no practical life experience from which to draw information. Even when working at a practicum site, I did not fully understand how music affected the patient. I was focused on that one part of “Brown-Eyed Girl” that I always messed up, hoping that I would play it right, and my client wouldn’t notice my mistakes. Now as a “well-seasoned” music therapy intern of three months, I still can’t claim to be an expert in the intricacies of how music therapy works, but I have considerably more experience now and am going through intense training on what to look for in a session and how to use music to reach the patient’s goals and meet their needs.

The answer to the question of “What is music therapy?” changes depending on a number of variables such as how much time you have to answer, who is asking the question, and what your setting is. For example, sitting around the dinner table at a niece’s birthday party probably isn’t the time to explain the intricacies of Neurologic Music Therapy and how Rhythmic Auditory Stimulus helps stroke patients improve their gait. But that may be appropriate if you’re working in a hospital and a physical therapist asks how you, as a music therapist, can co-treat a patient recovering from stroke.

In comparing and contrasting my responses to the question of “What is music therapy?” when I was a student and now as an intern, I am vastly more confident and comfortable in describing what I do. Instead of freezing up and getting sweaty palms, I can focus on the person’s body language as they are asking the question, the setting, how long I will have to answer, and various other details of the situation that inform me of how to structure my response. This newfound confidence is a direct result from the skills I am honing in sessions to assess a patient’s needs. When I enter a patient’s room and introduce myself, I am also reading their body language; noticing any flowers, cards or people in the room that can give me additional information about the patient; and taking in the patient’s response to what I am saying and myself.

I love that people are curious about music therapy and want to know what it is, and I love talking about music therapy and how we help people reach their goals.

Yet as varied as music therapy is, the questions about it remain the same. Not a week has gone by in my internship where someone hasn’t looked at me with a bewildered expression and asked some variation of “Why do you have a guitar in the hospital?” After the first month, this starts to get a little old and frustrating.

My most frequent internal response to questions about advocacy is more along the lines of “When will music therapy become a well-enough known profession that I don’t have to explain why I have a guitar in a hospital?” or “Noooo… it’s been such a long day, please don’t ask me if I’m ‘part of the band’ or ‘going to a concert’…” In these situations, I’ve learned to look at the person’s intent behind their question.

  • Are they genuinely curious as to why I’m walking around the hospital with a guitar?
  • Are they also musically inclined and wondering how they can bring their gift of music to people’s lives as well?
  • Are they a humorous person who likes to make jokes and subsequently asks questions that seem ridiculous to us if we miss the humor behind them?

Seeing past a person’s words and into their intentions is one of the best ways I have found to quiet my internal, sassy voice and answer in a constructive and professional manner that will interest the person asking and give them at least one more nugget of information about what music therapy is.

It may sound as though I don’t like it when people ask what music therapy is, but that is far from the truth. There are days when I have so many things going on inside myself that I don’t feel as though I have the capacity to answer questions about music therapy. On those days, any questions I receive instantly put me on guard and make me feel defensive about my profession. This is when it is imperative that I look past the person’s words and explore their intent behind the question.

  • Are they a family member of a patient and curious if they can get this musician to come see their family member?
  • Are they a hospital employee that is looking for something to assist patients during their stay?
  • Are they a hospital volunteer curious about what this musical service is that the hospital is providing?
All of these opportunities provide me (as a music therapist) an opportunity to advocate for the profession, if I am willing to look past myself and take those opportunities.

There are times at the end of the day when it is incredibly tempting to keep walking and not make eye contact with that person I know wants to ask me a question, and there are days when I’ve had such emotionally heavy sessions that I cannot handle answering a question about music therapy. To my fellow music therapy students, it is ok to have days when all you can offer as a response is a polite smile and a one-sentence explanation of music therapy. Keep working to expand your repertoire of music therapy explanations and promote your profession as much as you are able. To my non-music therapy readers, keep asking questions about music therapy! Yet, please be sensitive to the fact that we will have times when we are drained mentally, physically, and emotionally and do not have the capacity to fully answer your questions.  For all of us, it is important that we learn to look for the intent behind people’s words and actions and see the positive intentions they have, rather than assume something negative.


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