By Tia Mae Frostrom, MusicWorx Intern
When approaching my internship capstone, a special project “providing a resource or program”, I first considered where my interests and skills might overlap. Reflecting on my past university experience as a music therapy major, I recalled countless conversations about music skills. Students expressed challenges with musical skills requirements, and voiced feelings of frustration and exhaustion. While we offered each other support, many agreed that instrument instruction courses could have been significantly more helpful if instructional materials focused on skills specific to music therapy. These conversations highlighted a need for additional support and inspired me to use my own musical strengths to create a music skills resource.
The resource ‘Stylistic Music Skills with Tia’ is a free online course teaching both basic and advanced piano and guitar stylistic music skills for music therapists. This course is meant to be self-guided to accommodate the user’s individual time, pace, and capacity of learning.
About the Course
The four main goals in the creation of this course:
- Instruction of basic and advanced music skills: providing two levels of complexity will accommodate the varying skill levels users may begin with when entering the course and support success.
- Instruction through the lens of stylistic music skills: designing the course through teaching stylistic skills aims to support skill transferability into functional playing and MT practice.
- Providing history of genres: providing basic background information of genres MTs may encounter in practice will increase our understanding and ability to put these genres into practice, and may promote further curiosity, listening, and learning of less familiar genres. The course covers a variety of genres, including some not addressed in instructional units.
- Accessibility: made to be free, self-guided, and easy to navigate for the user’s benefit.
The course is organized in three units, with multiple lessons listed by genre in each unit, and a basic and advanced skill within each instructional lesson. Each instructional lesson includes written and video material, and sometimes supplemental materials.
Unit 1: History of Genres – educational lessons listed by genre, no direct music instruction.
Unit 2: Piano Skills – instructional lessons listed by genre, basic and advanced skill per lesson.
Unit 3: Guitar Skills – instructional lessons listed by genre, basic and advanced skill per lesson.
Why Create This Course?
As mentioned earlier, I had numerous conversations during my undergraduate with peers who voiced challenges learning functional music skills on our primary music therapy instruments while juggling other academic and clinical work. Instrument instruction courses teach the music therapy primary instrument basics of piano, guitar, percussion, and voice; however, for some students, these courses were their very first experience with a specific instrument. Trying to balance clinical, stylistic, and overall instrument mastery at a beginner level oftentimes led to stress and slower learning.
I also recognized that within music majors (including performance and education majors) at my college, music therapy students seemingly had the least time to practice and thoroughly learn our main instruments. While performance majors had less academic and clinical work, and education majors didn’t have to learn each instrument as comprehensively, music therapy majors were expected to have well-rounded musical ability on our primary instruments and had more academic and clinical coursework than our peers. From my experience, students repeatedly put their musicianship on the back burner to make room for other priorities. “I’ll just practice some other time” was a phrase I heard – and used! – a number of times in response to competing responsibilities.
Another consideration for music therapists is navigating how to creatively apply our musical skills in clinical practice. Due to the nature of academia, many college instrument instruction courses are made for all music majors and are not commonly specific to music therapy. This leads to a disconnect between learning how to play an instrument and how to clinically use instruments for therapeutic purposes.
These conversations, observations, and experiences encouraged me to create this course. I feel lucky to have had more substantial training on our primary instruments prior to college compared to many of my peers. My experience includes 14 years of singing, 13 years of piano, 8 years of guitar, 10 years of basic saxophone, and basics of auxiliary percussion, bass, and ukulele. I also used to perform in church, rock, and school bands. Throughout my college and music therapy career, I have still been very interested and involved in strengthening my musicianship. With this musical background, I felt equipped and excited to find a way to support other MTs expand their musical horizons.
When constructing this course, I hypothesized that piano and guitar skills were students’ greatest need. I created a short 10-question survey to receive insight and confirm my hypothesis. The survey responses echoed former conversations from my time in undergrad and are summarized below:
Student’s primary instrument – 4 ‘other’, 3 vocalists, 1 pianist, 1 guitarist, and 1 percussionist.
For each of the four primary instruments, I asked respondents if they had “experience playing [voice/piano/guitar/percussion] prior to higher education?”; the answer options were “no”, “minimal” or “comfortable” and received mixed responses:
- Piano: 50% minimal experience, 50% comfortable experience.
- Guitar: 50% no experience, 20% minimal experience, and 30% comfortable experience.
- Percussion: 50% no experience, 30% minimal experience, and 20% comfortable experience.
- Voice: 30% no experience, 20% minimal experience, and 50% comfortable experience.
I also asked respondents to describe their experience learning these primary instruments during college, alongside classes and clinical work. The words ‘easy, fun, difficult, and frustrating’ were provided as example answers, which may contribute to their higher frequency in the following reports.
Of the responses, the word “challenging” was in 4 responses, “fun” in 3 responses, “frustrating/frustration” in 3 responses, and “difficult” in 2 responses. Additional responses included these descriptors and phrases: “lots of individual learning”, “feeling not good enough”, “required a lot of work outside of my course load to feel comfortable”, “easy”, “all of my colleagues expressed that same frustration”, and “scary.”
Here’s a Word Map visualization of all the qualitative responses followed by visual charts from the four survey questions:
These responses indicate that students have varied prior instruction experience on music therapy instruments, and many have little to no experience; higher education instrument instruction courses were minimally to somewhat helpful with learning musical and clinical skills. Piano is reportedly most difficult and needs most support, with guitar, voice, and percussion following in most to least needed support. All together, this data confirmed my initial hypotheses and demonstrates the need for additional support in learning music skills, which this course provides.
Reflections and Future Considerations
Creating this project has reflected my love, respect, and desire for continued growth in my own musicianship and knowledge. When first brainstorming this project, I was very idealistic: wanting to have separate functional music skills and stylistic music skills, units on voice and percussion, and include more genre lessons. As the project progressed, I had to reconsider and narrow my focus to what it has become today.
In the future, I would like to continue expanding the course to include those initial ideas. One respondent from my survey made a note of incorporating electronic music into music therapy curriculum, which would also be a great future addition to this course. I would also love to consult and invite other music therapists to add to the course in their areas of expertise. My team members also offered ideas of how to expand this concept into future projects such as a social media community, workshops, or a business. Outside of business ideas, I would also be open to helping change the way skill courses are taught within academia. Either consulting with colleges about how to adapt music skill courses to be more beneficial or by becoming an instructor myself in these courses.
The ideas to consider and look forward to are broad as I continue supporting music therapists’ musicality. I have learned so much in creating this course and am so excited to share my love for musicianship with other music therapists. If you are interested in connecting or learning more about the course, feel free to contact me online–by searching my name, Tia Mae Frostrom.
This course can be accessed at MusicWorx Inc.’s Music Therapy and Wellness Hub under online courses. Thank you for your interest, and I hope some of the lessons can be supportive in your future practice.