I have always loved working with children, and after graduating from college, I discovered a master's program in music therapy and psychology. I knew right away that this program and profession was a perfect fit because it combined my passion for music with my love of working with children. The funny thing is, I never thought about working with children with special needs. This all changed, however, during my internship when I worked on a pediatric rehab unit in a hospital. As soon as I started working with children with special needs, I knew I had found my calling and I have dedicated myself to these children and their families ever since. I currently have a private practice based in Exeter, NH and I work with individuals of all ages with special needs. To learn more about the services I offer, please visit
Frequently Asked Interview Questions about Music Therapy
Q. Can you tell us something about your job?
Whenever I think about my job as a music therapist, I feel very fortunate. It is such an innovative, engaging and rewarding line of work. Music therapy feeds the souls of my clients, as well as my own. It is truly a symbiotic relationship.
Q. I love music as well and I am a follower/fan of your video blog “the Rhythm Tree”. Can you tell me when/how “The Rhythm Tree” video blog was born?
A couple of years ago, I decided to develop a DVD and music kit for children with special needs. I wanted to build a beautiful site that would feature this product and also educate others on how to use music to help children with special needs. I’m lucky enough to have a very talented brother who is the creative art director and director of design at an amazing ad agency in San Francisco called Hub Strategy. He designed my logo, website and product packaging and helped me in numerous other ways.
Video was always the heart and soul of my music therapy presentations and workshops, so it made sense to use this medium on my website. Starting a video blog was a challenging process, but I’m so glad that I stuck with it. People really need to see music therapy in action to get it. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a video’s worth a million!
Q. Sharing knowledge is the future. We can grow better and faster, if we help each other. I think The Rhythm Tree is a nice example of this way of sharing information. How does it feel to be a “pioneer” of open source in music therapy?
I feel honored to be considered a “pioneer,” but I’m just humbly following in the footsteps of those who came before me, like Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins. I feel privileged to have access to the technology to make this information accessible worldwide. One of the coolest things is to get an email from someone in a county like Iran, saying how much they appreciate this info.
Q. I see you do a lot of research about finding new objects or gestures to enhance the communication skills of your users. How do you develop these techniques / musical instruments adaptations?
I wish I was the one to develop those techniques! I’m just synthesizing what I have learned from many of the talented therapists whom I have been lucky enough to work with. My teachers and mentors have been music therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, play therapists, etc. There are so many incredible professionals in the special needs field and connecting with and learning from each other helps enrich all of our work.
Q. How do you think music therapy will develop in the next 10 years?
Internationally, I think that music therapy will become an established field of study and profession in many more countries. It is already in more than 70 countries worldwide, but that will increase.
In the US, I think that it will become more commonplace in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. We are rapidly growing as a field and there are new positions being created on a weekly basis. There is also more research being done worldwide and this will help guide the work of future music therapists.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your work as a music therapist?
I am in private practice and specialize in working with children with special needs. I see clients individually and in groups in the home, clinic and school settings. I also supervise two music therapists and I am a mentor to young music therapists just starting out.
In addition to these responsibilities, I recently launched The Rhythm Tree DVD and Music Package for Children with Special Needs. (https://www.therhythmtree.com/store) It gives parents, educators and therapists all of the tools they need to use music to help children with special needs. I also have a bi-weekly newsletter (https://www.therhythmtree.com/user-registration) and video blog that I use to educate others about our field and how they can use music to help children.
Q. What do your therapy sessions look like?
My sessions usually start with a “hello” song. I use this song to connect with my client and work on greetings and other therapeutic goals. I then use specific songs and activities that are tailored to the individual strengths and needs of my client. Although I always go in with a plan, I keep myself open to following my client’s lead. This improvisational form of music therapy can open unexpected doors to development and progress. It can also strengthen the therapeutic relationship, which is the foundation of all my work.
Q Do you have a certain structure in improvisations like the one in the video? Do you have, for example, certain sentences or chord progressions ready when you sing?
I do have certain chords and progressions that I frequently use. I love easy-to-play, open chord shapes that can be played up the neck of the guitar. I like chords that fall easily under my fingers so that I can keep my attention and focus on my client. I will be sharing my method through an on-line, self-study “Guitar Skills for Music Therapists” course that will launch in mid-September on MusicTherapyEd.com. This course is all about using easy chords and shapes up the neck of the guitar in order to create great sounding progressions that break the mold from the I IV V progressions that we all get sucked into. It also gives participants lots of fresh strum and fingerpicking patterns to work with. If your readers are interested, they can sign up for my newsletter (https://www.therhythmtree.com/user-registration) to get all of the details as they emerge.
Q. I know from working with children with special needs myself, that it is sometimes very hard to get their attention and to keep it. What are things you do in order to get and keep their attention?
The first and most important thing that a therapist can do is to set the stage for success. Ideally, a small, empty room is best. If this is not possible, use sheets to cover up any distractors. Having shelving to keep instruments on and out of reach is also helpful.
During sessions I use a lot of exaggerated musical dynamics. One of my favorite techniques is the sudden stop or freeze. This is particularly effective when running groups. It can gain everyone’s attention in an instant. I also use a lot of humor and theatrics and find that these are often more effective than music when you need to maintain a child’s attention and motive them.
Another important approach is to meet your clients where they are at. If you have a child who has a ton of energy and whose attention is all over the place, you need to go into “double-shot espresso mode” and ramp up your energy to meet your client’s energy. If you are laid back, you will lose them. I am quite the chameleon during sessions, always adapting my energy to my client’s.
Q. The thing that struck me the most about that YouTube video, was that the boy participated very well. Could you tell about things you do to have them not only listening but participating as well?
Following a client’s lead and then adding your own direction to an activity can be a great formula for success. Another important consideration is timing. That is a skill that can’t easily be taught. It comes more from experience and intuition. Knowing when to prompt a child to do something challenging is a subtle, yet powerful art. There are windows for opportunity when working with clients, but they are fleeting and can sometimes pass within a second or two.
Q. What is one of your favorite music therapeutic activities?
I wrote a song called “Copy My Beat” where a client needs to listen to my drum beat and then repeat what I do. It is a great song for imitation, correspondent counting, sequencing, receptive communication, sustained attention and many other goals. It is also adaptable to different developmental levels by changing the complexity of your rhythmic pattern.
Q. Any last piece of advice?
I think it is important to focus on your strengths. If you love working with the elderly, than specialize in that. If you do your best work with kids, than focus on that population. Once you find your niche, find mentors in the music therapy field and other related fields, and develop deep and long-term relationships with them. The most successful people, no matter what the field, all have mentors to guide them along the way.
Q. I want to become a music therapist. Can you tell me about the schooling and career of a music therapist?
Please refer to this American Music Therapy Association page and it's links for some great information about this.http://www.musictherapy.org/careers/employment/
Q. Is there research being done in the field of music therapy? Where can I learn more?
Yes! The American Music Therapy Association has put together some excellent fact sheets about the research on Autism, Alzheimer's, Wiliam's Syndrome, Special Education, Depression, Mental Illness and much more! You can go to http://www.musictherapy.org/research/factsheets/ to learn more.
Q. What made you choose this field? Why?
After finishing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I started looking into graduate programs and discovered the filed of music therapy. I knew it was the perfect fit since it combined my passion for music, psychology and helping children.
Q. What types of music do you play? Why those types of music?
I play different styles of music depending on the age and interests of my client. With children, I tend to use children’s music and with adolescents and adults, I use a lot of blues, folk, pop and rock. I do a lot of personalized songwriting for my clients so that I can have songs that address the specific goals they are working on. For example, I might write a song about using eye contact when greeting someone. My style is also very improvisational so I will make up songs in the moment to engage my clients and help them meet their goals.
Q. What instruments are used and why?
I use voice, guitar and a variety of percussive instruments. The guitar is great for being face-to-face with a client and also allows me to move around freely. The percussive instruments are perfect since they are easy to play. Although piano, guitar, percussion and voice tend to be the most used instruments in the field of music therapy, there are a multitude of other instruments that are also used.
Q. Is certain music better for certain situations? What and why?
There are times that I use relaxing music at a slow tempo in order to help calm an anxious or overstimulated client. I recorded a relaxation CD that I use with my clients for this purpose. You can take a listen at http://bit.ly/12Ro6mr. In addition, I will also use upbeat music in order to energize a client so that they are ready to work on their goals. In general, I assess what music my clients like and use that to motivate and engage them.
Q. What type of patient receives musical therapy? Why does that person qualify for therapy?
There are music therapists working with many different populations. A few examples are people with special needs, seniors in nursing homes, people in the hospital setting and individuals recovering from strokes and other brain injuries. If someone has a therapeutic goal, then chances are that they qualify and would benefit from music therapy.
Q. What does a typical work week consist of? (Appointments? Hourly? Structured? Etc.)
Every day is so different! I typically see a medically fragile child in their home for a session, then I might zip over to a local middle school to work with a group of students with special needs and then over to my office to see a couple of private clients there. Every client is so unique and this makes the work very engaging, inspiring and fulfilling! I have a private practice so my work will look quite different than a full-time music therapist employed by a medical hospital.
Q. What is Music Therapy?
Music Therapy is a research-based healthcare profession that uses music to help clients reach their therapeutic goals. These goals are accomplished within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed either a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree in music therapy.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into this definition.
• “Researched based” points to the fact that empirical research on the effectiveness of music therapy is being done at many universities throughout the world.
• “Health care profession” means that music therapy is akin to such fields as physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy.
• “Uses music to help clients reach their therapeutic goals” means that music therapists are helping clients work on traditional therapeutic goals that might typically be found on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP). For example, a music therapist working with a child with Down syndrome might be addressing a speech therapy goal of improved articulation. The music therapist can use custom-written songs that have many of the words or sounds that the child is struggling with. The child then gets to have fun singing the song and practicing that sound or word many times. With music therapy, you can get the repetition without the monotony!
Q. Are there any rules/regulations involved with musical therapy?
Yes, music therapists have an ethical code that we abide by. This code of ethics is written by the American Music Therapy Association and the Certification Board of Music Therapists. For more information, go to http://www.musictherapy.org/about/ethics/
As part of our series on music therapy, accomplished music therapist Ryan Judd of The Rhythm Tree spoke to us about how music therapy helps in the analytical and creative development of every child.
Q. What goals do you try to accomplish with children via music therapy?
The traditional goals include speech/communication, gross motor, fine motor, academic, social and behavioural development. Although I focus on these goals, I also use music therapy to build a child's self-esteem, confidence and spirit.
Q. How old must a child be before she or he can start music therapy?
A child is ready for music therapy as soon as she or he shows a positive response to music. I once worked with an 8-month-old girl who had global developmental delays and I would play the guitar to encourage her to make sounds. When she started making sounds, I figured out what pitch she was producing, adapted the key I was in to match this pitch and used it in a song. It led to an increase in her vocal development which was one of her therapeutic goals.
Q. How can music therapy be used to teach school subjects better?
For particular subjects, music therapists can put academic information into a song format to make it easier for a child to remember. It is a similar approach to the one most of us grew up with, such as learning our ABCs with the ABC song.
Q. How do you use music therapy with children who don't have special needs?
Usually, music therapists are not asked to work with neuro-typical children. But that does not mean typical children can't benefit from music therapy. If I were to work with a typical child, I would find out if she or he had any academic, social or behavioral difficulties and focus my interventions on those areas. We would be using music to work on non-musical goals.
Q. How does music therapy help a child cope with emotional stress?
Research has shown that music therapy helps reduce muscle tension, increase self-esteem and decrease anxiety. It also provides a safe place for emotional expression and release.
Q. What is the minimum age for music therapy with a child with an autistic child?
As soon as the child is diagnosed, music therapy can begin. This can be as young as 2 1/2 years old.
Q. How many days does Music Therapy need to be applied for?
Continuous weekly sessions between 30 and 60 minutes long work well. Most of my clients continue to need therapy so it is not uncommon for me to see a client for years. At a minimum, I would want to see a child once a week for 4 months.
Q. Which type of music is effective for an autistic child?
It all depends on the child. Music therapists will try different styles and tempos of music with a client to assess their preferences.
Q. How can a music therapist decide what instruments an autistic child will prefer?
Music therapists will assess a clients interest in different instruments by introducing them to various instruments and see what they are more drawn to and motivated by. Typically, a music therapist will use piano, voice, guitar and various percussive instruments like tambourines, maracas, drums, cabassas, rhythm sticks, etc.
Q. I noticed that all of your video clips were in individual settings. Do you also do group sessions with this population or have you found that individual is more successful?
I do lead group sessions with child with special needs and feel that group sessions are better for working on social skills, but more challenging for working on specific, individual goals of each client.
Q. I was wondering whether you ever get clients who might get distressed/upset or act out during your sessions. If so how would you deal with this? Is there ever a point where you might have to stop the session altogether?
I do have children, especially children with ASD, who get upset during sessions. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does, I first take a look at what events led up to them getting upset and what their behavior is communicating. Are they in pain, are the lights bothering them, do they have an auditory sensitivity to a particular instrument? Perhaps, they just need to go to the bathroom and if they are non-verbal, this might be difficult for them to communicate. Once I have an idea of what is upsetting them, I do my best to help them get their needs met. There have been a couple of times over the past year, when a child went into a meltdown and despite my efforts, I was unable to help or re-direct them and the session ended early. Sometimes, this is the best option. The last thing I want is for a child to create negative associations with music therapy, so I am fine with ending a session early when it is necessary.
Q. Do you ever come across students who have music therapy written in their IEP and what is your involvement in that process?
Yes I do. I work with many children who have music therapy written into their IEP. For some students for whom music therapy is deemed necessary for them to receive a fair and appropriate education (F.A.P.E.) it can be on the IEP as a related service. For music therapy to be a related service, a formal assessment first needs to be done such as the Special Education Music Therapy Assessment Process (SEMTAP) or Individualized Music Therapy Assessment Profile IMTAP. The results of these thorough assessments must show that music therapy is necessary for F.A.P.E.
If it is beneficial, but not "necessary" then it can be listed as an "Enrichment Service." Group work in schools also is considered an 'Enrichment Service."
I recommend checking out www.preludemusictherapy.com for information about the differences between enrichment and IEP services. You can also read more about this topic at http://www.musictherapy.org/research/factsheets/
Q. If you do have students you work with through IEPs and schools, does the district pay for those services or is it a case-by-case situation on the child and their needs?
If music therapy is listed as a related or enrichment service on an IEP, the school pays me for these services.
Q. Do music therapists specialize in working with only one type of client? Most music therapists I've seen work with children, and I'm not sure I would want to do that. I think I would want to work in a nursing home or hospice setting - are there a lot of music therapy jobs like that?
Most music therapists specialize in one population, but there are some who work with different populations as well. There are music therapists who specialize in working with elders and also in hospice settings. Since the elder and hospice populations are not my specialty, I'm not sure how many jobs there are for those settings. I would recommend finding a local music therapist in your area who does this type of work. Here's a link to help you find a music therapist in your area. https://netforum.avectra.com/eweb/DynamicPage.aspx?Site=amta2&WebCode=IndSearch
Q. On average, how many hours per week do you work? Is music therapy a "typical", 9-5 kind of job, or is the schedule more flexible?
I tend to have an average of 20 music therapy sessions per week and those range from 30-minute to 60-minute sessions. There are also many hours per week spent on session planning, marketing, scheduling, bookkeeping, etc. If you are self-employed, it's definitely not a typical 9-5 job but if you work for a hospital as a full-time music therapist, then you could have a more typical 9 to 5 schedule.
Q. Is there anything you wish you had known before you chose this profession?
I wish I would have known how challenging it would be to learn the piano! Music therapists have to pass a proficiency exam in piano and guitar. I cruised by with guitar since that is my primary instrument, but I struggled with piano, even after many lessons and much practice.
Q. Is there anything else you would want to tell someone considering a career in music therapy?
I think that it is an amazing field of work to be in and music therapists are getting more opportunities, recognition and respect than ever before!
Music Therapy Infographics
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Music Therapy Colleges and Careers
I frequently get asked about what schools and universities offer music therapy degrees. To answer this question I have compiled a list of the more than 50 schools in the United States and Canada that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in music therapy.
I also get asked about music therapy as a career and what classes one should take in preparation for a bachelor's or master's program. The American Music Therapy Association has put together some excellent information in regards to this at http://www.musictherapy.org/careers/employment/
Music Therapy Interviews
Podcast Interview with Judith Epstein on the JustEducation podcast. We had a great talk about how parents can use music to help children with special needs learn, grow and develop!!! http://www.justeducationfirst.com/about-8.html
Information from the American Music Therapy Association
To download articles from the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) about the benefits of music therapy with the following populations, use the links below.