Finding Balance in a Job with Multiple Hats

When a typical day consists of balancing being a therapist, music instructor, and occasionally, an early childhood music teacher, it can feel like my main job is actually figuring out how to balance all of the different roles.

I struggle with balancing the position of teacher and therapist because I tend to rigidly categorize myself as a music therapist who should only pursue music therapy-specific roles.

Although I grew up taking music lessons every week, I never pictured myself in a teacher role. Even in my current position, I am still learning what the role of a music therapist truly looks like.

How I found a balance in the various hats that I wear in my professional life

I struggle with balancing the position of teacher and therapist because I tend to rigidly categorize myself as a music therapist who should only pursue music therapy-specific roles. However, the more I’m actively working within this field, the more I see opportunities for my music therapy training to supplement other disciplines/roles and vice versa.  

In teaching lessons, the music therapist in me is able to tune into my students’ developmental, psycho-social, and behavioral needs, all the while keeping them engaged in the music and task at hand.

In music therapy sessions I often find myself drawing on the resources, repertoire, and lessons that I have used teaching the individual lessons and classes.  

During the times when the roles of music instructor and music therapist intersect, I have to remember that no matter what I’m doing (whether it’s teaching individual lessons, 1:1 music therapy sessions, or leading group music therapy sessions), the most important aspect of my work is empowering my students and clients to live life fully.

I find joy in knowing that growing my students’ music skills could lead to more opportunities in their academic and extracurricular life, future performance opportunities, and even a future career.

As for my clients, I love using music as a tool to lead to physical, communicative, emotional, academic, social, and recreational wellness.

These are just some of the reasons that I love what I do, day in and day out. If you have taken on different roles as a music therapist, I’d love to hear from you! let me know in the comments how you have worked through your various roles, and how your roles have informed your day to day life.  

Adult Piano Lessons in Springfield, Illinois

Song Discussion and Songwriting: Increasing Emotional Wellness

Song discussion and songwriting can be beneficial and fascinating practices. Not only do they give an opportunity for the client to respond to a song in a real and genuine way, but they are also exercises in expecting the unexpected.

It can be scary to never really know how the client will respond. Thankfully, through many hours of clinical training, embracing the uncomfortable has become easier. I’ve come to appreciate the moments where my clients feel empowered to express themselves through song lyrics in a safe space.

How do I validate emotions that can’t exactly be defined?

One song discussion and songwriting intervention that I have recently used involved goals of discriminating and processing emotions, increasing self expression, increasing reminiscence, and strengthening coping skills.

The application began when I played a song that was requested by my client. Once the song ended, I asked my client how it made her feel. After a long pause, my client answered, “somewhat in between.”

In my head, I was pondering: how do I validate emotions that can’t exactly be defined? Do they need to be defined to be valid? All of a sudden, this intervention popped up in my head that both honored my client’s response and could be a starting point in helping my client increase her coping skills and emotional processing.  

My client mentioned that the song made her feel both sad and happy. I grabbed my white board and used a dry erase marker to draw a happy face on the left side of the board, a sad face on the right side, and a neutral face in the middle.

With each experience, I validated what was shared and made her know that it was a safe place to share only what she felt comfortable with.

Next, I went through the lyrics, two lines at a time, and asked my client to place the lines under each emotion that best matched how the lyrics made her feel.

After we finished placing the lyrics under the various emotions, we took a look at the board and saw just how mixed a song could make someone feel. Not only was this helpful for my client to visually see the diversity of emotions, but it also helped the her to see that it was okay to not feel strictly “happy” or “sad” all the time.

To make this intervention more personal and to further allow my client to discriminate emotions based on her own experiences, I prompted my client to describe moments in her life where she felt happy, sad, and in between. With each experience shared, I validated what she said and again stated that it was a safe place to share only what she felt comfortable with.

We didn’t have time to put her experiences to music yet, but we are excited to finish our original song during our next session. 

Song discussion and songwriting can be a very personal experience, and therefore can look different for each client. What are ways that you have incorporated emotional goals and coping skills in song discussion and songwriting? We’d love to hear from your experiences, so let us know in the comments below!

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Where Music Lessons Have Taken Me

Where Music Lessons Have Taken Me

“What instruments do you play?”

That’s one of the questions I get asked the most when I tell people that I’m a music therapist. I usually list off my instruments and the conversation continues.

You’d think I’d get tired of answering this question. Instead, it’s the opposite.

I’m always glad when someone asks because it gives me an opportunity to reflect on each instrument I’ve learned, the relationship I’ve had with each instrument, the season in my life during which I was learning, and where it has brought me today.

Given the sheer amount of time, financial investment, practicing, and personal growth that is associated with learning instruments, choosing an instrument and sticking with it is a big deal!

For me, the musical journey began at age five, when I started taking piano lessons with my sisters.

  • Was it fun all the time? No.
  • Did my parents have to shuttle four kids to their lessons every week? Yes.
  • Did I have to practice over and over? Yes.
  • Was it worth it? Yes.

To name everything I have gained as a result of taking piano lessons would take a long time. Therefore,  I will share just a few:

  • Learning discipline (i.e. “doing the things that are good for me even when I don’t feel it)
  • Finding a creative outlet
  • Building confidence and competence to grow in a new skill
  • Gaining opportunities to share music with others (joining the praise team at my church or accompanying friends who love to sing)

One of the best things about the piano was that it served as a foundation to the other instruments that I learned.

I began the French horn at age 11.

While I never had any previous experience with the horn, my dad played the trumpet and instilled within his kids a deep love for brass instruments. I loved how the French horn looked, sounded, and also the fact that you could turn it all around and spit would come out! All in all, music was enjoyable to me, but I did’t become serious about it until I started to think about college and what I would major in.

My senior year in high school presented a series of new challenges including auditioning for an honors orchestra, understanding the role of principal horn, and eventually, committing to audition for colleges as a prospective performance major.

It was a stressful time in my life, but the feeling of working so hard towards my goals and meeting them gave me the fuel and confidence to continue my music journey in college as a horn performance major.

While at college, I immersed myself in learning repertoire, technique, and fundamentals. All of which deepened my skills and forced me to take ownership of my own growth as a musician.

My confidence as a performer was lacking, however. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure. It came to a point where I no longer felt confident as a musician and I wanted to desperately find the joy and confidence I had felt when I first started to fall in love with music as a young piano student.

Long story short, I found my way from the field of performance to music therapy, where my love of music was not stolen by a drive for perfection, but was able to be expressed in helping others.

Over time, I began to learn guitar and pursued voice lessons. By the end of my college career, the list of instruments had grown, confidence was regained, and my joy for music continues to fuel everything I do.

Laura Tam | Music Therapy Connections | Springfield, IL

Everyone’s music journey is different, and I’m glad mine turned out exactly as it did. If you want to start your journey, it is never too early or too late! Whether it’s taking early childhood music classes, beginning ukulele, pre-lesson classes or instrument lessons, we’d love to meet you and help you soar.

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What I Wish I’d Known as a Music Therapy Student

The last couple weeks, I’ve been sharing a lot about the process of becoming a board-certified music therapist. It really wasn’t that long ago, however, that I was a beginning music therapy student, taking introductory courses in music therapy, and wondering how my head knowledge of music therapy content could eventually translate into skills and application with real clients.

In this post, I hope to share insight as to what being a music therapy student really is like, and also talk about the things I wish I had known along the way.

Know your blind spots, and make a plan.

This is a big one. First of all, music therapy requires so much more than one straightforward set of skills. Music therapy is a blend of several major fields, involving:

  • Music theory
  • Music performance
  • Counseling
  • Psychology
  • Research

All of these involve a high degree of discipline and self-awareness. As you start out in your studies, what areas listed above are you avoiding or make you tense up? Know that it’s okay to not be where you want to be right now. You’ll get there. Be honest abut where you are right now, and be proactive about how you can practice, study, and get more comfortable with the things that scare you.

It’s not always about the grades.

One of the most important things you will learn to appreciate about being in a school environment is that it is a place where a lot of personal growth happens, critical thinking is encouraged, and opportunities to go beyond your comfort bubble can occur.

That being said, take time now, before you graduate, to explore your identity: who you are, both as a student and outside of school. Part of being a music therapist is being able to have a strong identity, to be aware of self-biases, and to be open to other cultures outside your own.

Perspective is key.

You might not get into all the classes you want, you may not have enough hours in the day, and it might be easy to compare yourself to others. Know that you may not have control of every step in your journey, but what you can control is an attitude of gratitude. Take a step back, and remember, you have the best major in the world. Then keep going.

For more information on majoring in music therapy, you can read this helpful article. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!

Music Therapy Hill Day Recap

Music Therapy Hill Day | Music Therapy Connections | Springfield, IL

When you hear the words “Hill Day”, what images come to mind? A celebration of rolling green hills? Marching up an incline with great conviction? To be honest, when I heard about Music Therapy Hill Day a couple months ago, I didn’t have much of a clue either.

Simply put, Music Therapy Hill Day is when music therapists and music therapy advocates come together to represent music therapy and the current needs of the profession.

More importantly, we come together at the state capitol to converse in person with our house representatives and senators. The relationships that are built with those in office have been instrumental in not only having our voices heard, but also in shaping future legislation that could provide greater access to music therapy services for the public from qualified music therapists.

The day before Hill Day finally came around, and here I was, not really sure what to do or what to expect. Having been told to contact my senators and state representatives, I located my district, called my senator from my local district, and within minutes got a call back from his staffer notifying me that my senator carved out time in his schedule to talk with me about music therapy.

With a meeting scheduled with my senator and my fellow MTC music therapists to accompany me to the capitol, I felt a greater sense of resolve and looked forward to what the next day would bring.

As I walked into the capitol building the next morning, I got the chance to meet other music therapists, student music therapists, and music therapy educators who had traveled to Springfield. To me, it was amazing to see so many different individuals from all points in their careers passionately representing music therapy. There were even several, like me, who were attending Hill Day for the first time.

Music Therapy Hill Day

The day was packed with hand-delivering folders of information to Illinois state representatives and senators, personally meeting with Senators about a bill that would implement licensure for music therapists in Illinois, and getting to know other seasoned professionals who were at the forefront of music therapy advocacy and education.

Before I knew it, my small part in laying the groundwork for greater awareness for music therapy in Illinois had come and gone. Rachel, Katey, Alisabeth, and I all had opportunities to share not just about the frequently asked questions regarding music therapy, but specifically how our local Springfield community has benefited from the services we provide here at Music Therapy Connections.

Music Therapy Hill Day | Springfield, IL

As we all ended the day eating lunch together, I felt a great sense of privilege for being a part of a workplace that cares about its community, the laws that protect our clients, and the future of the music therapy profession in our state.

I learned that advocating for music therapy can just be as simple as making a phone call to those with influence, and that I’m a part of a greater community of music therapists who love what they do!

This time next year when you hear about Hill Day in your state, take the time to reach out to your music therapy community, ask them questions, and see how you can be involved. You’ll be amazed at how much you learn.

My First Month as a Music Therapist

A woman holding up a clipboard with a calendar in front of her chest

When I walked into Music Therapy Connections exactly one month ago, I was wide-eyed, slightly dazed, and excited to cross the threshold from student to professional. In the past two months a LOT of major life changes occurred: I finished my 6 month internship, got engaged, moved to central IL, and started my first job as a music therapist. It’s been a whirlwind of transitions and adjustments, and I wanted to share an inside view of what my first month at MTC has been like.

Week 1

My first week consisted of an orientation and meeting my students and clients for the first time. As a brand new face at MTC, I was concerned about making a great first impression not only on Katey, Rachel, and Alisabeth, but also on my new clients, students and and parents.

As a therapist, building a relationship with clients is so important to building a foundation for building trust and a safe space for the client to grow and develop. What if I don’t connect with my students? What if I get overwhelmed with the new environment and can’t find my stride right away?

Even in those moments of doubt, I quickly realized that the environment at MTC is one of the most supportive places to grow, to be vulnerable, and to gain support from their team of seasoned and driven music therapists. It was clear that I was in good hands, and I couldn’t wait for what next week would bring.

Week 2

My second week involved leading my first group for older adults at an assisted living facility and also observing Alisabeth’s early childhood music classes for children ages 0-5. I loved seeing how the music engaged each child, facilitated pre-academic skills, and fostered so many positive interactions!

This week I appreciated interacting with clients of all ages and walks of life. The range of different clients that MTC serves is wonderful, and it’s pushed me to expand my song collection and adapt each song to meet the specific needs of each client.

Week 3

A big part of my third week was devoted to advocacy and reaching out to local businesses to talk about music therapy. This involved calling facilities, meeting with administrators and even demonstrating examples of a typical music therapy session. Because music therapy is an emerging profession, advocating for the evidence-based efficacy of music therapy is a huge part of what music therapists do.

This experience was a huge learning experience. I didn’t always have all the answers and I experienced several rejections from various individuals, but I’m glad that I gained opportunities to advocate for music therapy and insight into the small business aspects of the profession.

Week 4

Week four was special to me because I recently became board certified, and I also got to share a special moment with an older client of mine. In previous sessions, I had noticed that this client often didn’t sing along with me or actively play the instruments that were given to her. But this week, as I played and sang “Blue Suede Shoes”, her eyes lit up, she smiled and began to dance along to the beat while pointing to her bright yellow socks.

It was such a joy to see how this song became an opportunity for her to express herself and engage with others around her. It was a privilege to share in that moment, and it definitely ended my week on a good note!

This first month has taken me so many places, from figuring out many new responsibilities to developing relationships with each new client and student. Today in our weekly music therapist supervision meeting, Katey asked me to share how I felt like on day one versus how I feel today.

Honestly, I’m still in the process of working through my challenges and fears by trial and error, but I’m glad that MTC is the perfect place for me to grow. As the music therapy team all sat in a circle in matching bean chairs, Alisabeth stated such a comforting truth: “We’re just… this big circle that just supports each other”. As I close out this first month, I couldn’t agree more.