Making the Equivalent Switch

By Rebecca Chen, MusicWorx Intern

So, you are interested in music therapy, but you are not sure if you want to join the field. You watched an inspiring documentary about how music magically “unlocks” memories of a dementia patient, but you do not want to risk your current job. You love music and science, but you are not sure of the risk-benefit ratio of switching careers. You are working full time and want to go back to school, but you can’t afford to take time off. You studied something other than music therapy in your undergraduate school and have pursued a career related to that field, but you still wonder “what if I had pursued a career music therapy.” You are not alone.

In 2012, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do; become a choir conductor and inherit the choral program I grew up in. During my sophomore year in college, I noticed a bus-full of children with special needs. Their caregivers sang to them and they all had smiles on their faces. I was inspired to double major in Music and Special education, but my academic advisor quickly shot me down. “Do you really want to add more to your 22-credit workload? If you are interested in both, might I suggest studying ‘music therapy’. Unfortunately, the university does not offer this program, but you can look into other universities and transfer”. I did not want to transfer. However, I kept the idea of pursuing music therapy on the back burner.

Throughout my next few years in school, and as an elementary school music teacher (primarily in at-risk populations), I continued to advocate the importance of music for children with special needs. After my first year of teaching, I decided that I wanted to pursue music therapy.  I was working for a new job that contracted music teachers into schools that could not afford them. I met someone at our training who was finishing their music therapy internship at a local hospital. He was so passionate about the field and convinced me to attend the equivalency program at his alma mater. I applied and was accepted for Fall 2018. I honestly did not know what to expect. I met my classmates via discussion-post before I met them in person. The course was a hybrid of online and in person. We were all working professionals in different fields and different backgrounds. Graduate school was a new experience.

The past two years have been a blur. I worked as a full-time elementary music teacher; lived with my parents; commuted to my master’s program after work every other week; maintained my long-distance relationship; tried to complete course-work on time; and somehow remained sane. Now, I’m not looking for a pity party; it’s a reality that we have to face if we’re trying to change careers as adults. I had to constantly remind myself that I was not alone on this journey and relied on the emotional support my baby cohort of three (four if you count our adoptee who joined us later). I was grateful to have a supportive cohort and empathetic professors.

Now, I am in my third week of my internship and I wonder about other equivalency students and their journeys with music therapy. Have they been as fortunate as I have? Do they regret making the career change? Do experiences vary across the country? When did they decide to make the switch? What was their experience in their program like? I had to find out.

Last week, I sent out a 23-question survey to “Music Therapists Unite” group on Facebook and responses quickly flooded in. I kept the survey open for a little less than a week due to blog deadlines. The survey asked about the respondent, their program, and their experience with the equivalency program. Specifically, I wanted to use this information to reach out to those who are considering the move to music therapy.

What is an equivalency program?

An equivalency program provides “music therapy training that allows you to gain the competencies necessary for becoming a certified music therapist.” In other words, if you did not major in music therapy as an undergraduate, but want to pursue a career in music therapy, this is the way to go. Before you start applying to every school that offers a program, make a checklist of your priorities. Every program is different.

  • Do you want to get it done ASAP?
  • Can you take time off work?
  • Can you afford to move to another state?
  • Full-time or part-time?
  • Online or in person?
  • Thesis or non-thesis track?
  • Bachelors or Masters?

These questions may seem overwhelming, but they are necessary to determine your goals.

As an equivalency student, your incoming skill levels will vary. Throughout the program, you will build and refine your music and clinical skills; along with the opportunity to further the skills during your internship. In fact, most equivalency students enter the program with little to no clinical skills and varied levels of musical skills. I asked participants to rate their prior experience with guitar, piano, and voice on a scale of 0-5 (0 being no experience and 5 being “I majored in this instrument).

In terms of clinical experience, 17 participants reported having little to no clinical experience. One participant had previously shadowed a music therapist prior to the program; another had volunteered for a hospice; and another worked with “persons with severe mental illness and their caregivers”.

Most of the participants had studied non-therapy-related majors and minors, and also had careers in fields outside of the populations music therapists serve. The following chart includes a compilation of participants majors, primary instruments, and their career prior to the equivalency program. Not everyone majored in music. If you are someone who is considering the move and did not major in music, you will not be alone.

Music and English (double) Performer, office admin Percussion
Music Composition and Professional Music Retail Voice
Music Technology and Jazz Voice Music Teaching Artist Flute
Psychology and Music (double) Student (“mostly”) Piano
Music and Psychology Student (“had not started my career yet”) Piano
Music Technology Guitar
Major in Biology, minor in Music. Accounting and retirement plan services Piano and Guitar
BA Music/BA Psychology Private teacher Viola
Piano Performance Piano Teaching Piano
Music Performance and Interdisciplinary Studies Teaching private lessons Flute
Music Composition Self-Employed (a small catering business and a photography business) Voice
BA in Music, applied studies in violin Nanny, medical receptionist, concert master, and children’s music director Violin
BS in Kinesiology: Health and Human Performance w/a minor in music Nanny, Barista, and Private Piano Teacher Piano
Music Education Orchestra and violin teacher Violin
Music Undergraduate college student Piano
Psychology Specialist (work duty similar to social worker) Piano
Music Education Music education Bassoon and piano
Music Education Elementary music teacher Voice
Music Performance – Voice Stay-at-home mother Voice
Music Business and General Business Arts marketing/nonprofit fundraising and management Tuba
Music Music education Saxophone
Music, Applied (Voice) Retail, Sales and Technology Voice

Of these 22 participants, 47.8% graduated from an equivalency program and the rest either did not graduate or are currently working on their degree. Program lengths varied from 1.5 years to 5 years with the most common length of 3 years plus internship. According to the data collected, 19 of the 22 respondents worked during school. Most of the programs were either in person full-time or online. Despite the time requirements, 21 participants reported working 10 to 40 hour weeks. One of those participants stated that they did not have anyone supporting them while they finished the program; which I would imagine is similar to most adults changing careers.

Speaking of changing careers, I asked participants to share what inspired them to switch to music therapy, and here are some responses that may inspire you:

  • “Did not want to pursue a music teaching career after graduating undergrad and considered going back for neuroscience. Felt music therapy was a better blend of music, neuroscience, and psychology without starting a new education and career path.”
  • “I’ve experienced and seen the psychological healing that music has on both myself and others.”
  • “A love of music, people, and an interest in how music affects us.”
  • “I was poor and needed a better job.”
  • “It was the culmination of everything I love to do in one profession.”
  • “After observing a group, I was so attracted by how music can build connections between people and make the therapy more pleasant and non-intimidating.”
  • “The combination of using music to work in special education.”
  • “I did not have a career prior to pursuing my education in music therapy. It has always been my dream, but I set it aside to become a stay-at-home parent.”
  • “I realized I wanted to work directly with people and play music every day.”
  • “I was exploring music education as a vehicle for more than learning music skills, and the transition from teacher to MT-BC looked like a good career switch financially.”
  • “After I graduated I worked in retail for a while, and then decided I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. So, I applied to grad school.”

I can assume from the information that each participant decided their switch careers at different times in their life. One participant stated that they were glad they were older when they entered the field. Others entered right after their undergraduate studies.

Here are a few things that equivalency students want you to know prior to starting the program:

In the Program

The program takes a while to finish (1.5 years to 5 years). Prepare to do a lot of guitar. Unfortunately, the programs provide little time put into functional music skills but keep all of your notes and session plans for easy reference. The equivalency program requires quite a bit of independent study and practice time required in addition to course work. Do not let your first fieldwork experience define what music therapy will always look like. Most of the knowledge you gain is from fieldwork, not textbooks. However, reading everything in the textbook is still important. Take advantage of your fieldwork supervisors’ expertise and ask questions about their routines. Equivalency programs are fast-paced and you will need to take time outside of your regular workday to keep up.

Internship and Professional Life

You will need to frequently advocate for music therapy. Music therapy is not as widely recognized as other fields, but do not feel discouraged! Some equivalency students find few internships that are close to your designated area, and finding a job in your preferred population is difficult as well. Most jobs do not pay well, even with a master’s degree. Internship support varies; pick one that will fit your needs. Music therapy is approximately 70% white women, from the middle to upper class. Diversity is an issue that leadership at the national level have acknowledged and many therapists are advocating for more diversity.

Overall, changing to the music therapy field has its pros and cons. Most participants do not regret making the switch and are happily finishing their programs. Decide what is the best fit for you and if you are ready for the switch. I hope this post gives you a better look into equivalency programs and prepares you. Equivalency programs look different from all over the country. Whether you are ready to make the switch now or later, know that you are not alone and that you are entering a field where self-care is part of the professional ethics and the field is made up of professionals who want to help others.


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