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  • Writer's pictureElise

What does it take to become a master of music therapy?

100 weeks, 640 hours of professional placement, 50+ learned repertoire songs, 7+ instruments, 7 presentations... a slice of what it takes to transform from a community musician to the first steps as a music therapist - and still there is an incredible amount to learn.

The last 2 years have been hard work. Roll your sleeves up and get comfortable sort of hard work. If undergraduate degrees were to be described as a set of fast sprints, a masters is a marathon (and I guess PHD's are those long multi terrain endurance races that take days or weeks to complete, although I'm not speaking from experience).

Marathons take preparation, physically and mentally. Learning your capacity for endurance, finding intuitive ways to push yourself and ultimately, your limits. You need to know yourself and fight the barriers of weaknesses (procrastination). When starting out, you will have had many life and academic experiences which have lead you to this point. Training has already begun, but now it's time for the real challenge week by week, keeping the diary clear and negotiating enough work/uni/life balance. I think the hardest thing about post graduate education is that you've already been out earning money (albeit something temporary or not really what what you want to do) and you're used to having the stability of income. Now where to make space for all this new work and placement about to commence? * See bottom of page for a little bit of advice!

Especially in the area of therapy, not only do you need to have what it takes to form therapeutic relationships with fellow humans, but in doing so you need to also form a deep therapeutic relationship with yourself. To be the support to another person (and realistically, many people), you will need to be prepared to face the sharks in your ocean, and know how it's best to move forwards on a journey of acceptance and appreciation. This is personal and there are many ways to do this - just knowing what makes you happy and what gives you support in times of need will help to form these foundations and give you the building blocks you need to help others.

Music being the catalyst within music therapy, people sitting in the seat of a music therapy masters have had experiences where their music has brought them to a deeper understanding of themselves. As Helen Bonny calls it, a 'peak musical experience' (Bonny, 1998/2002), a moment where music, mind, body and soul align into a moment of complete beauty, on a personal level, or moments of observed transformational effect on others. This deep understanding of both the music and it's effect on the psyche, transforms then into how music can be used to positively influence and inspire others, connecting people with their internal senses and external communities, especially with people who my have challenges in communication or physical or mental wellbeing.

Another very important trait of a music therapist: being a people person. One of those people that talks to strangers, smiles at elderly people and asks them about their life stories. People that make silly faces to babies on busses, or bring tea to homeless people on the street in winter (with heaps of sugar). People that make up silly rhymes when things aren't going quite right, or spend that extra hour of time they don't have, making time for others. I have never met a more empathetic group of people people in my life as the people on my music therapy course, and all the music therapists and lecturers I met along the way. The word that I can use to sum it up is 'genuine'.

The academic side of a masters is always a slog, citing a huge range of sources and referencing correctly, but I believe by the time you get to masters level you have formed an individual formula. A structure that can be replicated from assignment and assignment and is efficient to the way you work as an academic person, which will vary from post it notes on print outs to excel spreadsheets, from endnote to onenote. We are so lucky to live in an age where technology has now caught up with usability and it is easy to find, notate and reference from behind your personal laptop at home.

For me, professional placement was the most important area for growth and learning. Different placements in completely different environments - aged care, adults with (dis)abilities, a SSP school for children with autism, adult mental health and adults with traumatic brain injury both in a hospital setting. Music as a source for emotional support and creativity for individuals, offers new ways to approach communication, patterns of thought or behaviour, playing out of feelings and connecting with memories, sensory and cognitive processing and using music to prime movement. In the coming months, I will outline some of these areas and their leading research for further learning and understanding about the power of music within the music therapy realm.

If you are considering taking the step from community music to the music therapy masters, here are main points:

1. Practice all your instruments in a range of different styles and genres

2. Get to know yourself - look into the corners and practice musical improvisation

3. Be a people person

4. Get a method to your academic approach - think about the best formula for you

5. Get ready to clear that diary, get those sleeves rolled up and a comfy chair at the ready

Overall, the masters course has set me up with a huge range of skills to take with me into my professional work as a music therapist. What I know now, compared to what I knew 2 years ago is an incredible amount, and I am a complete advocate for proper academic training so that music therapy can be viewed as important as other allied health professions such as speech pathology and occupational therapy. The application of evidence based music interventions needs to be celebrated as a unique and integral part of human existence and development. After all, without music where would we be?

And finally;

* My advice: get really good at cooking healthy, simple food on mass. Overnight oats with frozen blueberries for breakfast, organic pasta and roasted veg for lunch (make loads for 3 days) or a big salad to keep in the fridge to have with any sides and then a big cook up for dinner which can be saved, shared or frozen.

And make sure you make time for 1. the things you love the most and 2. some good ol' vigorous weekly exercise to get that blood pumping.


Bonny, H.L. (1998/2002). Autobiographical essay. In L. Summer (Ed.) Music and consciousness: The evolution of guided imagery and music (pp. 1-18). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Further reading:

Music Therapy Handbook - Barbara L. Wheeler



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