I took the Clifton Strengthsfinder 2.0 test going into my freshman year of college. My school required every student to take it as a means to gain insight into ourselves, and to provide a building block to grow from. According to the test my top strength out of 34 is empathy. A short description of this strength, as defined by Strengthsfinder, is “People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.”
My Empathy strength is something I greatly value and appreciate in myself and try to cultivate in a healthy way. It is what has driven me into a helping profession, music therapy. I attribute a lot of the ease in building rapport with clients and my ability to reach out to the underdog to it. However, every strength has an evil twin sister and I would like to talk about the shadow side of empathy. I truly do view this natural propensity as one of my greatest assets, but I also know at times it can be my fatal flaw.
I am not always aware of when I am taking on the feelings of others. There are often times when I will be perfectly fine, but then enter into a conversation between two people that is tense and immediately feel stressed myself. Once I “take on that feeling,” it can be very difficult for me to shake it off. Sometimes I will carry that stress through the day, constantly feeling on edge.
These “shadows” don’t take away from what empathy is. Discovering it in myself also means learning how to separate myself from it when necessary as well. My first step has been becoming aware of it and how it affects me. I’ve learned that with
this awareness, my next move forward is to set healthy boundaries for myself; something that I am in the process of learning currently. I have also discovered that when something feels off, it’s not necessarily because of me and that’s ok. In the words of the great Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”!
Here at the Music Therapy Center of California (MTCCA) we do not only offer music therapy sessions but also adaptive lessons. But, you may be wondering, how are adaptive lessons different than a music therapy session, and what makes lessons adapted?
While both an adaptive lesson and a music therapy session will need to consider the student’s ability level, the focus of each are entirely different. While the goal of a lesson is to learn an instrument, the goals of music therapy sessions will vary (e.g. speech goals, attention goals, etc.). Adaptive lessons are also different from traditional music lessons. The way in which musical concepts are tailored to fit the student’s strengths, needs and ability levels, Where the outcome of an adapted lesson is focused on learning and playing an instrument, outcomes of music therapy sessions are non-musical and focused on the process, not the product.
When a student has special learning needs and abilities, it’s important to find someone who knows how to present concepts in a way that will ensure successful experiences. Teaching adapted lessons is not unique to just music therapists. However part of the training that a music therapist receives ensures that they are well equipped to consider the diagnosis, learning needs and best practices to help students be most effective. A music therapist will also likely have more experience incorporating multiple senses and techniques to present music concepts in a more creative way to further the ultimate goal of learning the instruments.
At MTCCA, our approach includes a multimodal and nontraditional approach to teaching. For example, lessons may include a variety of different instruments and a faster pacing of songs. If the student has challenges with fine motor skills such as finger strength and dexterity, skills necessary to play the piano, desk bells, can be a fun way to approach this skill with each finger in isolation (bells are played by pressing the button on top of the bell). Or having a student play finger cymbals or castanets, along with a preferred song, can build finger strength and develop a pincer grip (a skill necessary for writing). Once these “warm ups” are practiced, the skills learned can be transferred over to the piano.
I lost my voice entirely for three full days, however, like in the theater, the show must go on and the job must still be done. Despite not being able to vocalize anything above a soft whisper, I still had clients who needed services. Although not an ideal situation, sometimes things are out of your control. However, thanks to the support of a few wonderful supervisors and co-workers I was able to adapt and create voice-less sessions. I wouldn’t recommend losing your voice as a music therapist, but do as I say and not as I do. So, in case you have the unfortunate fortune of this
happening to you too, I thought I would share a few tips I learned.
- Recorded music is your friend
As music therapists we know that live is almost always better, because we can manipulate it for our needs on the spot. However, recorded music is better than no music. It will provide a steady beat and will likely give you different timbers than you can provide on your own. So play a game of name that tune or pass out instruments and rock out to an exciting song, with a bit of hidden exercise built in. Instruct clients to follow the music as you stop and start or get loud and soft. A little pre-recorded music can go a long way.
- Drum roll, please!
Drum circles are great for all populations. They encourage prosocial, motor, and cognitive functions. So, take time to drum to a few pre-recorded songs. Maybe it’s a song that relates to the season or a holiday coming. Try rhythmic imitation or build group cohesions as everyone follows a leader who changes speed or stops and starts.
- Yay for TIMP and PSE
If you are familiar with Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) techniques, I would recommend using TIMP and PSE. No verbal explanation or continual prompting is needed to implement this technique. As long as a beet is present and clients can visually track your movement, the intervention can be carried out.
- Embrace your inner mime
Because you will not have no way to communicate verbally, body language will be everything. Big body movements and exaggerated facial expressions will aid in your success. Having signs or something to write instructions on isn’t a bad idea too.
It’s crazy to think my internship is coming to an end after (only?) 6 months. As expected, this internship has challenged me in countless ways while providing opportunities for therapeutic learning, personal growth, and building meaningful relationships. There were moments when I thought this internship would never end and there were weeks that flew by way too quickly. Yet here I stand, six months older, six months wiser, and (as Kanye West would put it) six months harder, better, faster, stronger. One thing I’ve worked on throughout this internship is being able to recall experiences and adequately synthesize information in order to improve from it. Trying to process after sessions my first few months sparked nothing but a blank deer in the headlights stare and absolutely no memory of what had transpired only 30 minutes prior. I can confidently say I’ve greatly improved in that area, but here goes one last word-vomit-filled, bittersweet attempt at summarizing information from what feels like a blur of a six months. The following are my top internship learnings:
- Know your strengths and use them to your advantage
I learned very quickly in this experience that things rarely go as planned. I’m grateful for the ability to look on the bright side when things seem frustrating and to highlight small victories when sessions don’t go as I expect. Even though there were stressful and overwhelming moments, this strength has kept my spirits high and I was able to fall back on this throughout the length of my internship.
2. You have to take care of yourself before you’re able to take care of others
It’s easy to tell someone to prioritize self-care, but in actuality this task is much more complicated. I’ve tackled this topic in one of my previous blogs, but truly understanding the ins and outs of this incredibly broad subject has turned me into a better therapist, student, and overall functioning human.
3. Teamwork makes the dreamwork; you’re never really alone
Getting the chance to observe physical and speech
therapy helped solidify my perception of a team approach. I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the multi-disciplinary therapeutic field.
4. Sometimes being the dumbest person in the room is the best thing you can do for yourself
Somewhere around month 3 I read this article that truly changed the game for me. It quotes Michael Dell saying “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people…or find a different room.” I’ve really had to work on shifting my competitive mindset to one that is accepting of personal flaw and open to seeking out information from those who know more than I do. This has completely changed the way I look at my professional priorities and career development. I’ve learned that it’s okay to compare myself to other people as long as I am using this to build myself up rather than tear myself down.
Robert Schumann once said “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts—such is the duty of the artist.” While this concept can be applied to any musician playing any instrument, I have felt it particularly relevant throughout my journey with the violin. It is by nature one of the most expressive instruments with the capacity to portray almost any emotion. It has a unique timbre that is both vulnerable and brilliant at the same time. It’s sound is approachable yet its mechanisms are complex in that they require perfect synchrony and execution. The various ways in which it can be played give virtually limitless options as to how this instrument can be used in music therapy interventions. Not only are the sounds unique, but they give the client something new to experience. Often times clients are only exposed to the main therapeutic instruments (i.e. voice, piano, and guitar) which could become repetitious. Bringing in a different instrument gives the client an opportunity to form a new relationship with the music. Whether it is alerting, drawing attention, or accentuating different motor movements the client will most likely not respond to the intervention the same when executed from a different instrument. There is also a large repertoire of music for violin that can relate to a variety of cultures. From classical to modern or from Irish jig to Italian opera, there is music out there for any population. Another benefit to the violin is the level of mobility the instrument provides. The therapist is able to make eye contact and move around the room if their music is memorized or if they are improvising. This allows for more intimate interactions with individuals in a group as well as individual settings. While singing and playing is a possible and challenging skill to acquire, it is not necessary in order for the instrument to sound complete. The melody can be played by itself or with a background beat and be equally as effective as any other therapeutic instrument. The following infographic illustrates some tips, tricks, and precautions when using the violin (or another primary instrument) in a therapeutic setting.