Seven Stress-Busting Strategies for Music Therapists

My family doesn’t get why I am so wrapped up in my music therapy work.  At the end of a long day of sessions and team meetings and log notes, they just don’t understand why I don’t just let it all go and live like normal people do in the evening. After all, they have jobs where their work decisions really are a matter of life of death.  And they come home to sitcom re-runs and exercise machines at the gym while I am still ruminating over the best music to reach Jake or Jamie or Justin.

Stress Blog

So why do I feel so stressed?  Why do many music therapists feel so stressed?  Three reasons jump out for me.  One is that we care so, so much.  Our clients and their families are fully present to us in all their heartbreaking or beautiful or messy dimensions.  We care because we are caring people. Second, we have a hard time turning our ‘therapy’ selves off. My mentor, Dr. Clive Robbins, used to say that music therapy is not what you do – it is who you are.  So true! And third, we are always in a state of anticipation for the questions that inevitably come about our profession. Music therapy – what is that?  Is that really a job? Do people really pay for that? Phew!

If music therapy stress is hard for me, I can imagine how hard it must be for young music therapists or interns.  Since I have been doing this work for longer than many of them have been alive, I thought this might be a good time to offer some suggestions for how to change a few common practices that add to the level of anxiety and pressure at work.  Although written for the music therapist working with children, some of the ideas just might work for all music therapists. Check them out.

GET EVERYONE INVOLVED.

Most music therapists in early childhood or school based work have family or staff members in the session with them. When I visit programs, I so often see the other adults sitting in the back of the room or behind the children.  What good do they do there for you and especially for the children? Not much. Ask your family members or staff to sit in the circle or with the child. Ask them to sing and play. Bringing everyone into the music creates a rich, motivating auditory environment.  The grownups become models for the children. Sharing the music experience with everyone will make your job easier and provide for greater carry-over for the children.

RESPECT THE VALUE OF REPETITION.

I see so many young professionals and students who drive themselves crazy with the idea that they must bring in new songs each session. When I ask them why, the answer rarely has anything to do with what is best for the children. It usually reflects the fear that the adults in the room will be bored or dismissive with repeated material.  In my experience, most non-musical adults are no different from the children. They need lots of time to learn and master and integrate music.

PLAY WITH THE MUSIC.

As music therapists, we all play music. But playing WITH the music gives you a chance, within the needed repetition, to create engaging and exciting moments of therapeutic opportunity that can reach each individual child. Play with pitch, or key. Play with tempo or meter or structure. Play with dynamics or timbre.  Stretch your musical self and share the freedom of musical expression.

STOP TALKING.

We all do it. The session starts to get lost. Chaos is about to break out.  We get tense or scared.  What is the default response? Talking.  In these moments of panic, we forget to use the most valuable intervention of all – music!  If you are not used to using the music as the first response, it might be a bit unnerving. Rhythm is particularly powerful in organizing and gathering people.  Try it…you will be amazed at how well music really works!

HAVE A CHEAT SHEET.

How do you explain what you are doing at any given moment in a session? Why do particular music interventions work? What are your expectations of the children? What are your expectations of the adults? Take the time to write yourself out a cheat sheet answering the most common questions you get. Re-write it so that you can quickly get the message out without interrupting the flow of the session. Here at Raising Harmony, we give our providers pages and pages of Sprouting Melodies Sayings – simple sentences that quickly and concisely explain the work.

PREVENT HEALTH ISSUES.

Have you ever blown out your voice and then tried to go to work? Twisted your back out and then try and carry your equipment? The best way to lessen the stress of health issues that impact your work is to prevent them in the first place. Learn and practice proper posture for singing and playing.   Wash your hands.  Think before you lift equipment or a child. Spending time on prevention is way better than having to spend time recuperating.

STEP OUT.

Give yourself permission to step out of your role as music therapist. Enjoy all your other roles – spouse, parent, friend, or child. Immerse yourself in something that has nothing to do with your job. It’s really okay.

So will I follow all my advice in the coming week?  Well, I will let you know. Meanwhile, I welcome other stress-busting ideas that will help our entire community of music therapists become less stressed and more satisfied.

Enjoy the music!

Beth

  • Katie M

    These are really great reminders, Elizabeth. One thing I’m trying to do on the days I work in schools, is to take advantage of my lunch time to clear my mind and not think about what I’m doing next, what I’m doing tomorrow, what needs to be done but who knows when, etc. In the same vein, on a couple of days, I eat lunch with all the preschool teachers and assistants. It’s allowing me to get to know them better and makes me feel even more like I’m part of the team.

  • Mike Kelliher

    Thanks, Beth. These are things I will take note of. Especially responding with music!

    • Elizabeth Schwartz

      Thanks for reading this blog, Mike. I am reviewing it a month later and taking stock of whether or not I followed my own advice…