Music Therapy: A Viable Career for Educators in the Performing Arts

Music therapy - Pyragraph
Photo by Midiman.

Music therapy may be an up-and-coming field-of-interest for current and former educators in the arts, and here’s why: With many school districts cutting funding to non-STEM-related classes, music, humanities and arts educators need something reliable to fall back on.  I tried the role of English teacher out for a while. It didn’t suit me. However, the parts of teaching I loved the most were the units in which I had a chance to teach Shakespeare, poetry, creative writing; you know, the good stuff.

Some of the best teaching takes place in arts-related classes.

I realized this about myself, and then I realized that if I continued teaching a large part of me would die inside: that part of me that yearned for expression, for voice, for poetry, for song. This is why I’m considering delving into music and theater on the side, again, after having taught English Language Arts, Creative Writing, Poetry, and Composition at both the high school and college levels. I’m fascinated by the long-term possibilities of music therapy for aging adults and its numerous benefits for hospitals, hospices and convalescent homes.

Aging adults, continuing education and therapy are fields that have piqued my interest as of late, because I recently witnessed my father dealing with multiple health issues. As one result of being under an enormous amount of physical, emotional, mental and psychological stress, music was sometimes the only thing that helped him emote and seem more lucid when he was going back and forth between being awake and half-asleep. Old hit songs like “California Dreaming” by his favorite musicians—bands like The Weavers, The Mamas and the Papas, and Bob Marley & the Wailers—were the only thing that brought him joy uncluttered by the chaos of various nurses administering multiple prescription medications and regular blood drawings. Music and singing stirred his ability to grasp onto life and feel amazed, alive and human, again.

For my father, a lifelong choral singer and fan of classical music, as well as popular music incorporating a great deal of harmony, music has been a source of pride inherently tied to his identity. Because of his singing with the choir at the church he attended for many years, he was able to travel to Italy with his choral group. The incorporation of music has helped my father recover with dignity and joy—which has helped heal him on multiple levels besides the physical. In recognizing the power of music for my father, the nurses and I were echoing a number of recent findings in neuroscience and psychiatry connected to music as healing and tied to memory.

This sort of patient-centered care is crucial to people’s ability to heal spiritually and psychologically, as well as physically. Many hospitals are beginning to recognize the importance of a well-rounded approach to spirituality and wellness that extends beyond a single hospital chapel with a narrow one-size-fits-all mentality. Moreover, a more diverse understanding of cultural diversity and breadth of traditions connected to wellness has greatly improved the quality of many hospitals for patients who don’t ascribe to a Judeo-Christian religious practice.

Another important component in patient-centered care involves good communication with family members, close friends and partners. Rather than shutting out the family until a diagnosis is given or a surgery is completed, hospitals are making a much greater effort to involve family and friends—as well as the patient—in decisions related to hospital versus in-home care, for example, or patient release.

As with patient-centered healthcare, student-centered education takes a very multi-tiered approach, involving not only the doctors in charge of a particular patient but also support staff, nurses, and around-the-clock caretakers. This helps to ensure that students feel like people, rather than numbers. Classrooms that incorporate this kind of student-centered teaching often have much higher success rates and better reviews than teachers and schools that stick to the traditional, top-down model.

The systemic changes in our public education system, such as cuts in arts programs like music and performing arts, have turned many good teachers off from teaching. That’s a shame, because some of the best teaching and mentoring of difficult-to-reach students takes place in arts-related classes and extracurricular activities. However, some former music and performing arts educators manage to find their way back into education, albeit in a nontraditional, circuitous way.

Take, for example, Carl Hermanns, a former education major who went on to pursue a graduate degree in symphonic conducting at Carnegie Mellon. Now, after many years of conducting followed by working with public school children in San Diego, Hermanns teaches in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. The roundabout path to his current role wasn’t detrimental; in fact, it provided him with valuable, enriching life experience that can teach us a great deal about alternative routes to continued involvement in education reform and arts-related outreach in the public sector and at a community level.

For those of us who no longer feel called to teach in a traditional classroom setting, there are many ways to influence and contribute to the expansion of music therapy programs and arts education reform: continuing education or graduate-level coursework in educational leadership; or curriculum reform; researching or writing articles about arts-based education; and providing music therapy or teaching classes in the performing arts at a local theater or community center.

If you’re interested in using your background as a music or performing arts educator for music therapy in schools and hospitals, the American Music Therapy Association has a number of equivalency resources to consult. Whether or not you continue to pursue music or arts-related education and outreach via classroom settings, you’ll find a number of resources explaining various career paths toward music therapy certification.

Do you have a background in music, theater or the performing arts that you’re considering applying to a career in music therapy? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

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