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Music therapy: an alternative career for musicians

Words by Alana Mitchelson
Brown Paper Parcel Photography

Music therapy is an expanding profession that blends therapeutic health methods with musical artistry and technique.

Monash Health paediatric music therapist Liz McLean says music therapy is growing in popularity and that health organisations are generally beginning to understand the true importance of “the arts” in health.

“There is more acknowledgement that while we obviously need to treat physical issues, we need to also consider they’re so closely tied with other elements of one’s wellbeing that also need to be targeted,” McLean says.

“I think Melbourne has a really innovative and passionate group of music therapists who are keen for music therapy to grow as a profession and they’re doing some really interesting work.”

McLean describes music therapy as a research-based profession that utilises the properties and structure of music to help support people’s health and wellbeing. Music therapists complete assessments based on the psychological, developmental, physical, emotional or spiritual needs of patients and their families. Music therapy can involve carefully manipulating rhythms and sounds to reduce heart rate, respiration rate and anxiety related physical symptoms.

They work with clients across the lifespan dealing with a range of health problems. It might involve working with a cancer diagnosis, a patient with an eating disorder, someone with rehabilitation goals after a stroke, or premature infants and their families. A music therapist’s work can also vary from community settings to hospital wards, education models, aged care facilities or private practice.

In her experience, McLean has noticed that music therapists are now entering the field from a variety of backgrounds such as music, occupational therapy, nursing, social work, counselling and teaching.
“I think the diversity is really positive and can be quite beneficial from a therapy point of view. But I think it’s important to note that you do need to be quite proficient in playing at least one instrument and have an overall strong musical ability, particularly for vocals and guitar.”

McLean is a classically trained singer who has always had a passion for music, but wanted to align herself within the health sphere. She completed two years of full-time study, specialising in music therapy before becoming a registered music therapist.

One example of her work within paediatrics was an instance where she worked closely with an adolescent girl during her long recovery process after a traumatic brain injury. McLean initially used recorded music and the live performance of songs that were familiar to the patient as she slowly began to regain consciousness from an induced coma. Music therapy was able to then work alongside the rest of the health care team in supporting a number of psychological and communication goals.
McLean says that regaining speech through song is a beautiful way to re-access the voice. Significant speech improvements and boosted self- confidence levels became noticeable after the use of music therapy.

McLean later assisted in the recording of an original song written by the patient during music therapy sessions. This song writing process encouraged the girl to reflect on her time in the hospital and her emotional journey across this really acute experience.

Other methods include music assisted relaxation using recorded or live music, music assisted counselling, song lyric analysis to validate and express emotions, playing familiar music to reduce anxiety or act as a diversion from pain or reengaging the patient with an instrument they once played.

McLean enthusiastically comments on the steady flow of work in music therapy in Australia, especially in metropolitan areas. She believes Melbourne has a healthy music therapy community.
“Melbourne is a bit of a hub when it comes to studying music therapy as courses are only offered here and in Sydney.
“Students come from interstate and regional areas to complete training and the hope is that they might take music therapy back to other parts of Australia and country towns.”

McLean strongly encourages those interested in pursuing a career in music therapy to make use of online resources.
“It is important to read about what’s involved and where you’ll be working. Organise to meet a music therapist to gain some firsthand observational experience before applying.

“There’s great variety in music therapy work and it’s a wonderful, rewarding profession to be a part of.”

For more information on music therapy and career opportunities in this field, visit http://www.austmta.org.au

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