A Music Therapist at Work

Music therapy is certainly one of those professions that can be considered a “calling.” Indeed, it is a field requiring the skill and training of a musician, combined with the clinical instincts of a medical professional, two very different sets of attributes.

Tracy Wanamaker, MSEd, MT-BC, has some two decades of experience as both a music therapist and an educator. She knows first-hand what it takes to successfully use music therapy to help her clients overcome their particular challenges. The key is establishing rapport.

“You have to get to know the person and their musical preferences,” she told MakingMusicMag.com in a recent interview. “That’s the most important thing.”

Therapeutic Plan

Indeed, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in music therapy; the therapist creates a therapeutic plan individually tailored to the client’s specific situation and musical interests. For example, children might respond best to nursery rhymes, while teens may prefer the pop music of the day, while a senior’s choice might be the music of their younger years.

Tracy offered the example of a client with Parkinson’s disease who was unable to communicate. Instead, she consulted with the person’s daughter.

“Through trial and error and noting the client’s responses, I could figure out her preferences,” Tracy explained.

She further offered the example of a colleague who was performing an intake assessment on a male patient who was in a coma.

“The family played soft classical music in the hospital room and the guy was obviously in distress,” Tracy said. “The guy liked heavy metal music. As soon as they cut off the soothing classical music and put on heavy metal, the guy improved.”

Part of the Team

While music therapy can help patients on its own, combining it with programs of physical and/or occupational therapy can provide exponential results. Tracy noted that music therapy can definitely be “part of the team” when creating an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for a student and that a music therapist can help that student by working toward similar goals as the occupational and physical therapists.

“I was working with a 5-year-old girl with multiple disabilities who was making minimal progress with PT and OT,” Tracy explained. “Her mom told me that the kid loved music. I started working with her and soon had her clapping her hands and stomping her feet, things that she had not done before.”

So marked was the young girl’s improvement that her mother eventually asked her child’s school to include music therapy in her daughter’s IEP, along with the other forms of therapy.

Music therapy generally takes place on a one-to-one basis, but group therapy is also viable and available, usually for younger children or seniors. Small groups may also be used in drug rehabilitation or mental health crisis situations.

Tracy’s specialty is working with children and with young adults with developmental disabilities. Other music therapists may specialize in younger children, patients undergoing physical rehabilitation, patients who have experienced trauma, or patients who are hospitalized. As to which term, “client” or “patient” is appropriate, Tracy explained that it depends upon the setting in which the therapy takes place. If it happens in a hospital or other medical setting, the recipient is a “patient;” if the therapy takes place in the home, the recipient is a “client.” (Here, the terms are used interchangeably.)

Interact and Listen

Tracy is the Music in Special Education Coordinator at the State University of New York at Potsdam in the far northern reaches of the state. She says that music therapy programs across the board are growing and that there is lots of interest in music therapy as a career. The prospective therapist must have good musical chops and excellent interpersonal skills – the ability to interact and listen – in order to succeed.

“Your musical skills should be solid – maybe not perfect,” Tracy said. “But the focus is on the person you’re working with. You’ve got to know lots of musical styles and genres.”

Tracy uses the traditional music therapy “tools” – singing, piano, guitar and percussion – when working with her clients and notes that a therapist needs proficiency in all four, plus his or her primary instrument if it is not one of these.

“You’ve got to be flexible,” she insisted. “And not in just instruments but with different types of music.”

She added that, in playing music for a client, she will sometimes make an error which she is quick to correct – not for her sake but for the client’s.

“When I make a mistake, we do it again for me,” Tracy said. “This assures the client that it’s OK to make a mistake. That’s part of the whole therapeutic process. We’re not perfect and we’re all trying to figure it out.”

Social Justice

Mirroring society at large, there is currently considerable discussion concerning social justice within the music therapy community. Therapists are beginning to consider their privilege as a therapist and to support their clients who may not enjoy the same privilege. Tracy shared an example of music therapists working with clients who prefer hip-hop music, which can at times include profane or otherwise objectionable lyrics.

“Some music therapists make them [the clients] clean up the lyrics, which impacts the therapeutic process,” Tracy said, adding that in order for music therapy to be effective, “We have to let folks express themselves as best they can.”

Tracy S. Wanamaker received her BS in Music Therapy from Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA and her MS in Special Education from SUNY Potsdam in Potsdam, NY. Disclosure: She is the writer’s sister-in-law and is pictured above.


Tom is the Managing Editor here at MakingMusicMag.com. He has worked as an editor/writer for more than two decades and plays several musical instruments with varying degrees of proficiency.

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