Co-written by Ellie Ruddock and Rachel Swanick
With the end of the academic year approaching and many music therapists beginning to think about starting their career, we thought it would be helpful for us more ‘seasoned’ (ahem!) therapists to provide some advice and guidance. Being a music therapist is not just one thing. Of course, you will get to play music with people far and wide but you will also need to know about setting up your business and work, managing administrative tasks, working with families and other professionals as well as how to look after yourself emotionally and physically. As big fans of keeping the musical metaphor alive, have a read of our musical themed guidance and once you have read it, why not get it touch with us? We would love to hear from you and both of us – Ellie and Rachel – are always happy to help.
Into the Unknown
Embarking on the Music Therapy training is an enormous event: there is so much to learn, so much of oneself to understand, and so many practical requirements of each course. It is daunting, exciting, exhausting, beautiful…it’s truly life changing. Learning to be a Music Therapist involves learning explicitly about yourself and how you relate to others, which is quite frankly exhausting! An entire world view could be shifted or redeveloped. In this early stage of becoming a Music Therapist, we need to look after ourselves; it really is the beginning of this fantastic, slightly cliched and very much overused term we refer to as ‘self care’. What does self care really mean? The dictionary (Oxford Languages, 2021) defines the term as a noun:
the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health.
Personally, I think self care shouldn’t be a noun, but a verb: we need to be doing it. All the time. Self care will look different to each person; for some it might be increasing rest periods, for others it might be increasing other things we do alongside the training. We need to enable students to access the training in the best way possible, because a lot is expected of trainees. And a lot is expected of music therapists. Clinical practice is at the heart of our professional work, and it’s at the heart of the training; as qualified therapists we embrace the unknown most days at work and we are skilled in doing this through practice throughout our training and beyond! Here is a question for you: what do you need to contain and nourish yourself when faced with the unknown?
Blow your own trumpet
Thinking about using your skills to help vulnerable people as a way to make money can make many music therapists feel uncomfortable. We know we have to pay our mortgage and bills and yet asking clients to commit for a period of therapy at £XX can feel too awkward. The feeling of knowing our value mixed with resentment towards doing extra duties for free and trying to make therapy accessible for all can be overwhelming. However, with thought and planning, there are things we can do about it.
The first thing is to CREATE YOUR NETWORK
Often music therapists will feel isolated, insecure or uncertain when setting up new services – so please know that you are not alone. Creative arts therapists, in general, often have portfolio careers – some therapy here, a private client there, a sprinkle or performance somewhere else. Use this variety to create your network. Talk to everyone, ask all of the questions, join peer groups, collaborate with a fellow trainee, contact other therapists on social media – even the BIG NAMES (everyone loves a nice tweet, right?!). By doing this and bringing variety and expertise into your work, you will expand your knowledge in the field, creative opportunities and develop your business mind.
Then GET ORGANISED
- Decide on your minimum fee per hour – ask other therapists, consider your admin tasks and
note writing, travel time, equipment. Stick to it! In the words of L’Oreal, “You are worth it”
- If you are working freelance, create your paperwork. Have a standard contract to give to clients and a notes template. Make a consent form and an evaluation form. Ask for support from fellow therapists or a friend of a friend who once worked in HR (!)
GET TRAINED UP
There are so many opportunities not only provided for music therapists, but for small businesses and charities. Do some research and think outside of the box. Remember you will need GDPR and safeguarding training, regular CPD and maybe a business course might be helpful.
- Websites and social media are a great way to show your skills and meet other therapists. They help generate clients, too
- A leaflet with your interests and key skills is a brilliant way to connect with clients
- Get involved in sharing the wonderful aspects of our work: write articles, join research groups, start a podcast, offer a free session. In short, make your therapy accessible for all.
Generating and setting up your structure and work will be time consuming at first. Think of it as building the foundations of your therapy home (metaphorically). At first, you might have to say yes to everything before being able to pick and choose. But once you are established and secure in your skills, you can take the time to decorate your therapy home with the things that bring your joy.
Recommended reading: The Economics of Therapy, Ed: D. Thomas and V.Abad. this book is so fantastic and really easy to read. It has helpful tips and will help you own your therapy as a business.
Don’t let go, you’ve got the music in you
So, you have made your dream job. You are thoroughly enjoying playing music every day with clients who need support. But hang on, is that a tricky spot up ahead? Did you not take any holidays because you didn’t want to let anyone down or were worried about money? Are you actually a little bit fed up of hearing ‘You are my sunshine’?! Compassion fatigue is almost certainly felt by all therapists in all fields at some point. This is when our capacity to think about the needs of others is pushed aside in the face of our own needs. It can feel like we have forgotten the words to our favourite song. As Ellie mentions above, we have to make the conscious decision to move self care from theoretical to practical and make it a habit in our practice. Taking regular clinical supervision and being part of supervision groups is key to our work. If we don’t look after our self, we can’t look after others. There may even be times when the therapy triggers something within us and we need to take a course of personal therapy. It is honourable to be part of someone’s vulnerable moments, but it can also feel unsafe. Making lasting habits in ways to identify those moments are so important: perhaps you could regularly improvise your own music, or make time to be creative in another way – through dance, art, crafting. We are always cheerleading our work in music therapy so why not utilise ourselves.
No no, no no no no, no no no no, no no there is a limit!
Learning how to feel comfortable saying no is a hard but important challenge to experience as a Music Therapist. Taking into account the content from the above chapters, we have discussed how important it is to be resilient as a therapist, and one of the ways we need to observe resilience is knowing our personal and professional boundaries. Saying “no” might be an uncomfortable experience for you: it might feel confrontational, or like you’re letting someone down, or a myriad of other negative things, but it’s important to know your limit and therefore protect yourself and your clients. Furthermore, it’s important to know your preference. It is okay if there are certain areas of practise you don’t want to work in (and you have probably thought a lot about why that is and unpacked it already), or that you want to focus on the areas that you do want to work in. It’s okay – no it’s encouraged – to know when you have reached your limit or you need to put preventative measures in place to look after yourself as a whole person with personal and professional needs. This is where self-care really shifts from the theoretical into the actual: putting your own needs high up on the list and nurturing yourself in your working environment.
It would be beneficial for music therapists to feel comfortable being open and honest with our colleagues about why we need to say no: not only does this model the concept but it helps us deepen our relationships with our peers and maintain healthy and respectful professional relationships. We should not only do this for ourselves, but for our colleagues too: nurturing, championing and listening when someone says no. Music therapists have to work hard to be recognised and understood compared to our colleagues in other AHP professions, so we need to come together as a profession to hold one another up and support one another, especially in being able to say no. Helping our peers and colleagues to keep themselves safe and healthy is really important.
Music therapy is a vast, varied and ever changing field to work in. There is support from all levels at all points, you just need to shout up. You can be full time, part time or simply dip your toes in the water. To use a musical metaphor, we are like a huge choir. Sometimes you can take a solo or you can hide in the harmonies, but there is a place for all voices to sing together.
Bunt, L. & Hoskyns, S. (2002) The necessity of regular supervision in The Handbook of Music Therapy. Hove: Routledge
Bunt, L. (2015) Looking inside the Profession with Kenneth Aigen in British Journal of Music Therapy Vol 29 (1) p18 – p26
Carr, C., Tsiris, G. & Reigersberg, M. (2017) Understanding the present, re-visioning the future: An initial mapping of music therapists in the United Kingdom in British Journal of Music Therapy Vol. 31 (2) p68 – -85.
Odell-Miller, H. (2016) The role, function and identity of music therapists in the 21st century, including new research and thinking from a UK perspective in British Journal of Music Therapy Vol 30 (1) p5 – p12
Rogers, C. (1961) ‘Speaking personally: “this is me” – some significant learnings’ (p15 – p27) from A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy; on becoming a person. London: Constable & Company Ltd.
Thomas, D. & Abad, V. (2017) The economics of therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Wilson, S. (2018) Considering the ways music therapists are working in 2018 and beyond in British Journal of Music Therapy Vol 32 (1) p4 – p7.