Q: How did you first get into music therapy?
Julie: “I found out about music therapy back in high school band class when my teacher had us present a project featuring a music career other than performance or teaching. I found music therapy just searching through the internet and I immediately fell in love! I knew I needed to learn more about it and wanted to find out how I could one day be a part of this amazing profession. As someone who has always wanted to help people and find a career in music, I knew this was a perfect combination for me.”
Q: How would you define music therapy?
Julie: “Music therapy is the evidence-based practice of working with an individual musically to accomplish developmental, psychological, physical, emotional, or spiritual goals. The therapist and client create a therapeutic relationship, which is connected by music. Music is not merely a tool in therapy, it is a part of the relationship formed in each therapy session. Music therapy can be individualized to each person and has no limit to its benefits to a person’s body, mind, and soul.”
Q: Does one instrument or genre to have more benefit over another in music therapy?
Julie: “I don’t believe that one genre of music has more benefit than another. As a music therapist, I need to meet the client where they are, so if we need to use heavy metal music and scream at the top of our lungs in order to process what the client needs, so be it!
“When it comes to instruments, I tend to lean toward singing and playing guitar, piano, ukulele, or hand percussion. I try to allow my clients to use whichever instruments will help them express what they are feeling, or what instruments may aid them in what they need to work through.
“It all depends on what my client needs in the moment, so that I can help them therapeutically to give them an opportunity to grow.”
Q: What is the difference between playing music for the client, versus teaching the client to play an instrument themselves?
Julie: “It all depends on the needs of that specific client. Some may not want to learn or are not able to learn how to play an instrument. But singing and clapping along to the music or shaking egg shakers along might be beneficial enough for that client. Some clients have a desire to learn an instrument, so we try and weave that into the client’s goals and objectives of therapy.
“When I play music for clients, I make sure that the music used will allow them to engage with me and the music in a way that will help them achieve their goals.
“When I teach an instrument, I use the opportunity to not only teach, but to also therapeutically help clients work toward their goals – maybe things like working through frustrations, timing skills, social awareness, gross and fine motor skills, and more.”
Q: What are your favorite scientific studies involving music therapy?
Julie: “The first is a study of using music to help Parkinson’s patients regain or maintain a steady gait pattern by using the beats of the music while walking.
“The second study uses music to help regulate the heartbeats of premature babies in a NICU unit of a hospital by using different aspects of music, such as humming, singing, softly playing an instrument and/or singing.
“Another study discusses helping patients in an Alzheimer’s/dementia unit recall memories by using music that they grew up with. Music therapists can help the patients recall memories long lost by using music!”
Q: The last time we met you were co-oping at an elementary school. Tell me about that experience.
Julie: “From August 2019 through May 2020, I was a music therapy intern at the Monroe County Intermediate School District (in southern Michigan) studying under music therapists Angie Snell and Laurel Rosen-Weatherford. Part of my internship was going to schools across the county and to music therapy into classrooms. I was able to work with several different classrooms and use music to help various students work on academic enhancements, social awareness skills, peer relationships, and handling frustrations.
Q: What is your music therapy philosophy?
Julie: “I believe music has the power to make a significant difference in people’s lives; it is a way that I can connect with others to work on goals to improve a person’s quality of life. Music is a mixture of sound, silence, expression, emotion, in both the physical and the non-physical. Music can touch all aspects of a person – body, heart, mind, and soul. By the very nature of music, it is both complex and simple. I believe that every person on this planet is innately musical and has musical responses in their bodies that we are all unaware of until we bring it into the light.
“People can benefit from music in several ways. I believe it is essential to treat the entire person’s body, mind, and soul in therapy. My philosophy of music therapy is to simply meet my patients where they are at and work with them in a person-centered, humanistic, and developmental relationship approach to music therapy. I believe the relationship formed with the therapist is significantly connected to the overall success of treatment for each individual. With all my patients, I will express care, challenge growth, provide support, give shared power, and expand possibilities for them.
“I also believe in an integrative approach to wellness, by looking at the client as the whole person first, rather than focusing on symptoms alone. I recognize the importance of being aware of and using aspects from other approaches, including cognitive, behavioral and psychodynamic.”
Julie Elwell, MT-BC, holds an BMT in Music Therapy from Eastern Michigan University. She is currently a music therapist at a mental hospital in Columbus, Ohio. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and space.