Practicing What We Preach

Analysing Music Therapist’s Use of Music For Leisure

Anne Delleman, MusicWorx Intern

Last week, a client insisted that I play them my favorite song, and I realized I couldn’t. In fact, I couldn’t play a single song by any of the artists I listen to the most. Afterwards I reflected on how my use of music for leisure had changed in the last few years and how I felt about these changes. I started asking my co-interns and supervisors about their use of music for leisure and I got so many interesting and mixed responses (78!) that I created a google survey focused on these questions. 

I found some of the response trends to be surprising and I suspect you will, too! I’ll share the responses to the survey and the patterns that they followed and summarize the tips that music therapists provided on how and why (or why not) to maintain music as a leisure skill.

Here is what you guys said!

Because of my personal experiences and discussions I had with colleagues, I was not surprised to see that music therapists reported that we engage in music for leisure less often than we did before becoming music therapists.

So how do we engage with music now that we are music therapists?

Responses showed that music therapists and students are far more likely to engage with recorded music for leisure than we are to play an instrument or sing for leisure! Combined, only 44% of survey respondents claimed that they actively engage (sing/practice) music for more than one hour a week, while a significantly larger 72% of respondents claimed to engage with personally preferred recorded music for less than one hour a week.

When hours were approximated from responses (.5 hours for the ‘less than one’ category, 2 hours for the ‘1-3’ category, 4 hours for the ‘3-5’ category and 6 hours for the 5+’ category), I found that overall music therapists play an instrument/sing for leisure only ~1.73 hours a week on average, while we listen to music almost twice as often, at ~3.32 hours a week on average! This isn’t surprising, as receptively engaging takes a lot less physical and mental energy, and we often are singing and playing all day so our bodies and minds want a break. Beyond that, listening to recorded music while multi-tasking is possible with activities like driving, exercising, cleaning, etc..  Analyzing with a more singular focus if listening to recorded music while multi-tasking can have parallel benefits to listening would be interesting.

A self-perceived decrease in music for leisure and a tendency to engage in recorded music are the only two questions that did not have significant reply trends based on experience.

What categories of experience? Let’s see!

Sixty-four percent of respondents are credentialed music therapists and the remainder are either music therapy students or interns. Each represented category had at least 8 responses which allowed for enough information to find marked trends!

The methods that we use to engage with music changes as we gain experience.

Interestingly, interns and professionals with 15+ years of experience spent the least amount of time engaging in playing/listening to recorded music for leisure. A whopping 93% of music therapy interns, 75% of music therapists with 15+ years of experience and 70% of music therapists with 5-15 years of experience reported playing an instrument or singing for leisure for less than one hour in the past week. On the other hand, only 27% of students and 30% of music therapists with 0-5 years of experience reported playing an instrument or singing for leisure less than one hour in the past week. The significantly different responses from new MT’s vs those with experience makes it seem like early in one’s career (but after internship) active music making is still very important to music therapists’ leisure and self-care, but eventually they either lose time and/or interest in participating in music leisure this way.

Survey responses showed a similar and very linear downwards trend when it came to playing one’s major instrument at least once a month.

This gradual decline is also possible due to a decrease in time or interest. However, this trend may be explained by the fact that maintaining skills on our major instrument takes a lot of effort. Many music therapists choose to learn new instruments to keep things exciting and feel successful. Their active playing time then goes to these new instruments as opposed to their major instrument from college.  

This decrease in active music involvement may seem discouraging, but fortunately, as music therapists gain experience, they find other ways to engage with music! When first analyzing attendance and participation overall I found that there was roughly a 50-50 split for each. This data wasn’t very intriguing, but when we break the responses down by experience level we see something interesting, a trend opposite those that we just looked at above!

The responses show that after finishing college (during which we are likely surrounded by other musicians and lots of opportunities to attend and participate in performances), music therapists report a steep decrease in involvement with live music and performance groups. However, involvement does steadily and gradually increase again. Financial factors are likely involved here, but there is potentially more to it! As mentioned above, music therapists with 0-5 years of experience were twice as likely to engage in music for over one hour a week than practitioners with 5+ years of experience (70% vs 31%). As music therapists run out of time or interest (or quiet) for engaging actively at home, they then possibly seek out other modalities for music enjoyment.

As I’ll discuss later, many of the short answer responses to “what is your advice?” focus on the importance of community. Response trends show that many of the experienced practitioners have discovered this advice and are involved in performance communities to keep them engaged with music, even as time and lifestyle make it more difficult to actively engage with music making on a regular basis.

So how does this matter in the long term?

When I analyzed my own decreased use of music for leisure I thought, “oh no, what if I end up disliking music therapy because I’ve lost my passion for music making?” So, I was very interested to see other’s answers to my question about how a change in music leisure skills could contribute to burnout. I predicted that there would be a resounding “of course it would kill my passion”, as I have read that self-care practices have a direct impact on experiences of burnout, and I assumed that as music therapists, music would be a large part of our self-care practices. Interestingly, as with most of the questions there was a heavy trend based on experience.

Students were the most likely to agree that a decrease in music use for leisure would contribute to burnout, while on average professionals with 15+ years of experience actually slightly disagreed that a loss in music leisure skills would contribute to their likelihood of burnout. Woah.

We could take this in many directions. As music therapists gain experience, do they gain more reasons outside of music appreciation to stay in the profession? Or do the music therapists who experience a loss of passion for music burn out before they hit the 5-year mark? Perhaps the joy of music making with clients begins to fill the need for musical enjoyment that we experienced on our own time before finding the profession. Finding the real answer is outside the scope of this blog post, thought one day it is a question I hope to delve deeper into.

So what advice did everyone give?

This question didn’t vary with experience level. Each cohort level was able to give valuable and poignant advice and I was impressed and honored by the amount of time that went into many of the responses. Throughout the responses there were many very popular themes. For example:

  • Fourteen individuals explicitly recommended joining a band or community music group
  • Three responses recommended learning new instruments.
  • Fifteen responses recommended setting aside a structured time/or window (not specific to ensembles) to practice.
  • Four people suggested that balance is of most importance (even if that means quiet).
  • Five respondents mentioned the importance of listening to preferred music with intention or for reminiscence.
  • Six respondents brought up the importance of reminding ourselves why we joined this profession to begin with/ remembering why music sparks joy.
  • Seven people suggested keeping important personal music and music for work separate.
  • Seven individuals mentioned the importance of having fun with music (not mentioning an ensemble) through casual practice, “jamming” or improvising.

What struck me was the frequent contradictions in advice. Many responses mentioned structure or setting aside specific time, possibly even adding it to a “to-do” list in your calendar, or else it will never happen. On the other hand, I had other replies mentioned more casual and fun involvement, listening in the car with the windows down, or accepting that we don’t always have room for or even an immediate need for music leisure. One thing that I couldn’t help but glean from responses is that what we need for self-care will vary based on who we are, and where we are in our career. One response from a well-experienced clinician stated:

“Right now… I have way more stressors than is typical. Usually I do perform and play more, but balance has been more important than playing or attending concerts and some of the other things you mentioned right now. I played professionally, so playing my primary is really difficult now that I can’t play for the hours I used to. So advice: I look forward to making more balanced time in my near future, I reevaluate my priorities all the time, I gain great pleasure from making music with my kids, I’m usually learning new stuff for myself and others all the time. But balance is key. And terribly difficult. I listen a ton, to all kinds of music, particularly when I can’t make music more often, and then when I can I sit at the piano or guitar and play whatever comes out, and soon I’ll be playing my bass in orchestra again!”

This respondent re-enforced many of the points made above. Playing in an ensemble is important, but playing our major instrument at our collegiate level is DIFFICULT. Finding time for having fun with music, for example, playing with our children or friends, is important. And that sometimes listening to our favorite music is easier to fit into our time and can help us stay inspired. Importantly, she mentions the need for self-evaluation and balance, which at the end of the day are two of the most critical elements of self-care.

As a music therapy intern I found this post encouraging. To all other 12 out of 13 interns who answered that they play music for leisure less than an hour a week, I hope you find some glimpses of hope or insight from this post, too. The survey responses inspired me to reframe my perceived loss of music leisure as a temporary experience that actually may be a necessary part of my life balance right now. I’ll continue to re-evaluate what I need and look forward to having more (or less) time in the future to participate in music making.


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