We are all songwriters!

Before starting my internship, most of the songwriting I had done with clients was in mental health populations – mostly adolescent and adult drug and alcohol rehab and clients with eating disorders.  It got very heavy at times, but was often extremely therapeutic and cathartic for many clients.  I believe this shaped my view of songwriting as something narrow and used primarily for deep, personal issues within therapy.  That being said, over the past 3 months I’ve come to view songwriting as an amazing expressive outlet for many young children with developmental disabilities.  Even simple song re-writing exercises (like “All you need is love” for Valentines Day) provide an opportunity for the client to make choices (MEFT – Musical Executive Functioning Training), exercising their executive functioning skills.

What I’ve come to observe, is that many clients with disabilities have the majority of things done for them by parents and caretakers.  When they are given a choice between two activities/songs/etc. they will choose, but when left with an open ended question like “What should we write a song about?” they often have a blank expression on their face and no idea where to start without being given suggestions of different ideas.  But once you help them get the ball rolling, they are full of ideas, imagination, and creativity and the end product is amazing!  For some clients, re-writing the words to a favorite song of theirs is the best bet because they have a clear idea of where the song is going and already enjoy how it sounds.  Other clients have the ability to help write (or independently write!) a chord progression/melody, and this is where you can challenge them to exercise their creativity.  Below is a helpful chart of chords to use in a variety of keys that can quickly spice up any songwriting session!

Somewriting tips


When writing songs with your clients, remember that every answer is valid!  As long as what the client suggests is appropriate and relevant, there is no better answer as to what to put in the lyrics than what they give you.  After all, it’s their creation and masterpiece and should have their unique personality written all over it.  If you can, think ahead about the wording of prompting questions you might ask your client in order to generate ideas.  It’s also helpful to think about the goal of the exercise – for example, is your client’s primarily reason for songwriting to express themselves or to practice decision making or leadership skills?  Determine what questions you will ask and how you will go about the process with their particular goal in mind.  If they are practicing leadership skills, let them lead you through the process and if they are struggling, challenge them to find a way to figure it out instead of offering a solution to them.  If their goal is self-expression, validate every answer they give you and do your best to reflect the sentiment of their words in the music you create.  It’s also always a fun idea to record your completed songs and give your client choices of what instruments to incorporate and how they’d like the finished product to sound.

I trust that the joy in your clients face when you play back the final version and they hear themselves singing and making music will be enough to fuel many more rewarding songwriting experiences in your sessions!


I like squeezes on my arms, I’m in control of my body!

We all know those kiddos – even when they are (miraculously) sitting in their seat for more than 2 minutes at a time, they’re still squirming, sliding down in their chair or moving their body side to side.  They are constantly seeking to interact with their environment.  Or maybe you can relate to leading groups every week and feeling the urge to bring in something new and different for the clients to experience other than instruments.  Lucky for us, the world of Neurologic Music Therapy has an answer in 4 simple letters: MSOT.  Musical Sensory Orientation Training.

Thaut, in Rhythm, Music and the Brain, describes MSOT as follows:

“Musical Sensory Orientation Training (MSOT) is the use of music, presented live or recorded, to stimulate arousal and recovery of wake states and facilitate meaningful responsiveness and orientation to time, place, and person. In more advanced recovery of developmental stages, training would involve active engagement in simple musical exercises to increase vigilance and train basic attention maintenance with emphasis on quantity rather than quality of response (Ogata 1995).”

Let’s all say it together now: MSOT is my friend!  It is so important to ensure that our clients are learning to self-regulate and getting the sensory input that their bodies crave.  Sensory integration is a neurobiological process that refers to the integration and interpretation of sensory stimulation from the environment by the brain.  Individuals with developmental disabilities often have either over- or under- reactive sensory systems, which can mean sensory input from the environment is not being organized properly in the brain.  This makes the sensory experiences we as music therapists provide for them particularly important.  Below are several MSOT strategies I’ve recently been exploring with clients – the possibilities are endless!

  1. Cabasa – I never understood the power of the cabasa until internship.  It is an easy way to take a sensory “break” while keeping the music and instruments going throughout the activity.  For my non-verbal clients I use a simple “I want ____” visual and have them choose a body part (i.e. hands, arms, legs, back) for where they want the cabasa.  You can make up a simple song or chant about where you’re playing the cabasa and use a background loop to free up your hands to provide that input for the client.  You can also use this same format but instead give deep pressure squeezes and simply substitute the lyrics to “I like squeezes on my arms”.

I want visual

2. Therapy Ball – I love using the therapy ball because it’s a great way to incorporate sensory integration into whatever intervention you’re working on (like Bi-lateral drumming).  This targets the the Proprioceptive System – helping our clients understand where their body is in space.

3. Get Creative – Have fun with exploring MSOT strategies!  For adult groups, my co-intern and I have been enjoying bringing in essential oils (stimulating olfactory system), fun themed props for Spring Holidays (tactile), instruments like chimes, cabasa, and drums, bubbles, scarves, and scented squeeze balls.  I hope you’ll find that this brings a fun, novel element to your groups.

Music making (with an instrument) naturally stimulates 3 out of our 5 senses (auditory, tactile, and visual).  If you can add some type of olfactory element, we have 4 out of the 5 covered – a great goal to aim for while session planning.  It’s great to have a variety of MSOT strategies in your tool-belt in order to adapt to what your client needs in the moment – get creative and have fun with it!


The Coolest Internship EVER

banding together secret show

Banding Together’s Jam Sessions provide youth with special needs with an opportunity to come together for a one-hour jam session where we play drums, sing songs, dance and have a great time with friends. After EVERY Jam Session, I leave feeling completely inspired, full of enthusiasm for life and a heart full of love and appreciation. I always feel incredibly grateful to be involved with this organization but I also feel the desire to share it with others. I want everyone to know how amazing these youth are and how music therapy allows them to shine at their brightest.

On February 12th, 2016 that desire to share with others became a reality. Banding Together was recognized by professional skateboarder/snowboarder, two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White and his band Bad Things! We were invited to a secret show by Bad Things, sponsored by San Diego’s local radio station 91X. We all arrived and got to hang out with the members of Bad Things, rock out with them, take pictures with Shaun White and just plain ol’ have a good time. The best part of it all was getting to see the Jam Session participants in an inclusive environment, thrilled by this unique and exclusive opportunity just for them

When I started internship, I had no idea that I would get to hang out with the coolest people ever and get to go to events with celebrities sponsored by radio stations! Every week I get to jam and hang out with the best of the best! This is definitely one of my top internship highlights.


The Autoharp is Your Friend


Ever since myfirst semester of music therapy coursework, I did not find the autoharp very useful. I figured, I can play the guitar, I prefer the guitar, therefore i have no use for the autoharp. However now that I am in an internship in Neurologic Music Therapy. I see a the the autoharp in a whole new light.

If I have learned anything about Sensorimotor Movement in my internship it is that you want the music to do the work in driving the movement.The music should tell the body what to do. For the music to reflect a movement like shoulder rotations (such as swinging the arms above the head)  the music should simulate a rolling motion, such as the sound that you would hear if you were to strum every string of the autoharp. The autoharp having 36-48 strings,  which allows for large rolling movements such as hip flexion’s (swinging your leg as sing in the following video) and shoulder rotations (mentioned above).   (*Disclosure, I am not belittling the guitar with it’s 6 strings. The guitar can still be played with the intention of inspiring movement)

Below you will find definitions of the two Sensorimotor NMT techniques that I have become familiar with over the last 5 months of internship.

Patterned Sensory Enhancement (PSE) is a technique which uses the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and dynamic-acoustical elements of music to provide temporal, spatial, and force cues for movements which reflect functional exercises and activities of daily living. PSE  is (a) applied to movements that are not rhythmical by nature (e.g., most arm and hand movements, functional movement sequences such as dressing or sit-to-stand transfers) and (b) it provides more than just temporal cues. PSE uses musical patterns to assemble single, discrete motions (e.g., arm and hand movements during reaching and grasping), into functional movement patterns and sequences. PSE cues movements temporally, spatially, and dynamically during training exercises (Thaut et al. 1991).

Therapeutic Instrumental Music Performance (TIMP) is the playing of musical instruments in order to exercise and stimulate functional movement patterns. Appropriate musical instruments are selected in a therapeutically meaningful way in order to emphasize range of motion, endurance, strength, functional hand movements, finger dexterity, and limb coordination (Elliot 1982, Clark and Chadwick, 1980). During TIMP, instruments are not typically played in the traditional manner, but are placed in different locations to facilitate practice of the desired functional movements (Thaut 2005). Speech and Language Rehabilitation


Music Lessons for All Needs

Our team recently met to brainstorm essential teaching components, strategies, adaptations, accommodations, methods, and resources for teaching adapted lessons. I want to share with you what I learned in the article “Ten Characteristics for Teaching Students with Special Needs” by Beth A. Bauer.

  1. Consistency is crucial. This consistency applies to the rewards we provide, routine, schedule, home practice routines, time of day and location of the lesson,.
  2. Adaptability, find something that makes sense in their world. Examples include; using stress balls to teach hand positioning for piano, or creating fun mnemonic devices to learn the notes of lines and spaces in the music staff.
  3. Flexibility is a MUST. This flexibility pertains to lessons plans, studio setup and pacing of the lesson. Some days a student may come into the lesson after having a rough day at school and have a melt down. As the therapist “you need to find a way to work on something that will redirect the student away from whatever is bothering them and still be applicable to the lesson.”
  4. Setting Expectations “for students with special needs should be no different from the expectations and goals for students who do not have disabilities. By setting consistent, high expectations for everyone, the students know that we believe in them and that we know that they can be successful.”
  5. Patience, is your  best friend. Patience with repetition, multiple methods, reinforcement and redirection, and patience with getting to know your students.
  6. Compassion. Tell the parents of your students what their children CAN do instead of what they CANNOT do. Treat the child as a person first, without regard for a disability label. Focus on the positive aspects of the lesson, even when there is a meltdown, there is at least one positive aspect to find and share with the parent.
  7. Have a Sense of Humor.
  8. Learn from your mistakes. “We should always try our hardest but know that you will make mistakes. Mistakes are acceptable and the important lesson is that you learn from those mistakes.”
  9. Lose the Ego. Perfection is not everything, and it is not about the therapist. We will learn far more from our students than they will ever learn form us.
  10. Have FUN!!