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Unique Nursing Jobs: Music Therapist

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Sometimes the perfect career just comes together, one that merges your skills, goals, and passions. If you’re creative, talented and want to change lives, then music therapy could be music to your professional ears.

This job uses clinical and evidence-based music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional—that’s you—who has completed an approved music therapy program, says the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

You’ll work in general and psychiatric hospitals, community mental health agencies, rehabilitation centers, day care facilities, nursing homes, schools, and private practice, says AMTA. There, you’ll provide services for adults and children with psychiatric disorders, cognitive and developmental disabilities, speech and hearing impairments, physical disabilities, and neurological impairments, among other challenges.

Help Them Overcome

Music therapy is the perfect career choice for Patricia Reis, MT-BC—meaning she’s board certified—at Austin State Hospital in Texas, a psychiatric facility and she’s also in private practice. Reis has music in her blood and was formerly a music teacher. Once she learned about music therapy as a career, she couldn’t wait—I remember her determination and excitement.

“As a music therapist, you facilitate the therapeutic goals and objectives according to the client’s needs—not just musical,” she says. “We can help them overcome and cope with depression, disability, and so much more.”

And who doesn’t love music? “Music is a universal language—every culture uses it—and it proves an invaluable tool to help achieve a client’s goals,” she says.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” echoes Julie Guy, MM, MT-BC, NMT-F (neurologic music therapist) and co-founder and director of The Music Therapy Center of California in San Diego. “I remember being intrigued and mesmerized by the powerful effects that music therapy could have on a person.”

She recalls working in a daycare program for Alzheimer’s clients, encouraging a very agitated elderly gentleman. “He kept wandering off and he was combative,” she says. “When we did music therapy in a group, he suddenly became engaged, dancing and interacting meaningfully with everyone, attitude completely changed.”

Someone gave him an old Walkman portable audio cassette player with headphones, and from that time, he became content to listen to music all day long, Guy says.

Music Therapy Plays Wellness

Following a national trend, music therapy finds itself on a track toward wellness initiatives, says Judith Pinkerton, MT-BC/L. She’s also the founder of Music4Life Health Club & Training Center in Las Vegas, Nev. and currently serves a six-year term, now as president, for AMTA’s Western Region Chapter.

“Music affects the central nervous system and has a significant effect on wellbeing,” she says. “Music therapy began in the military, extended into disabilities, and is now coming full circle as a tool for school settings, hospitals, veterans, and a wide range of mental disorders”

In fact, music therapy originated after World Wars I and II, when musicians volunteered to play for residents in veterans’ hospitals. Now in the evolving world of care under the Affordable Care Act, music therapists work as part of an interdisciplinary team overseeing patients.

“We can make the jobs of other health professionals easier and more effective,” Pinkerton says. “When patients are anxious, depressed, angry or sad, music therapists can often manage them in minutes. Many nurses appreciate that.”

Music therapists seem to have the gift—not just of music. “In my own personal experience, music therapists are really ‘in tune’ with how to produce effective, healing music, whether instrumental or vocal,” she says. “We possess an understanding of the human spirit from the inside out, and are able to manipulate the musical elements in a truly desirable way to aid the healing process.”

What the Science Says

Music therapists witness such minor miracles on a regular basis. The scientific literature demonstrates music therapy’s effectiveness and its increased use in a variety of healthcare genres:

A May 2014 study in the Journal of Patient Preference and Adherence found music therapy improved global and social functioning in schizophrenia and/or serious mental disorders, gait and related activities in Parkinson’s disease, depressive symptoms, and sleep quality.

In the Journal of Addictions Nursing, an October 2014 report said that substance abuse “treatment programs may be utilizing art and music therapies to address unique patient needs of women and adolescents.”

The Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing shared a December 2014 study, reporting “music therapy may have potential benefits in reducing anxiety, depression and agitated behavior displayed by elderly people with dementia as well as improving cognitive functioning and quality of life.”

How to Get There

The music therapy degree is a four-year bachelor’s degree in music, divided into three foundations: music, clinical and actual music therapy. The clinical focus requires 1,200 hours of field work or an internship at a healthcare or educational facility. You’ll obtain your B.A. at one of 74 AMTA-approved schools.

Once you complete that or its equivalent, you sit for the national certification exam administered by The Certification Board for Music Therapists, a separate organization. Then you’ll obtain your MT-BC (board certified) credential to practice. Master’s and doctoral programs also offer the opportunity to move further forward.

If you already have a B.A. in music, you’ll do a certificate program or MT equivalency. Take only those courses necessary to complete what would be the equivalent of a B.A. in music therapy—not an “entire degree.” If you work in a related healthcare field, you may be an ideal candidate for a certificate program, so to get more information, contact individual degree programs.

Want to test the waters first?  Volunteer for opportunities in nursing homes, camps for children with disabilities, and other places that service the disabled.

Salaries vary according to location and focus—full-time or not—says Pinkerton. The overall picture looks generally rosy, with compensation between $25,000 and $200,000 annually. According to PayScale data, the average salary for a music therapist is $39,755 per year, with a reported salary range of $25,482 to $74,419 annually.

In addition to basic career opportunities, Pinkerton says her creative and innovative peers often develop how-to CDs, activity books, and online continuing education curricula.

Organizations Ensure Competent Practice 

An effective partnership, AMTA and CBMT have collaborated on the State Recognition Operational Plan since 2005, says Judy Simpson, MT-BC, MHP, and AMTA’s director of government relations. “Its goal is to achieve official state recognition of the music therapy profession and the MT-BC credential required for competent practice,” she says. “Desired outcomes include improving consumer access to music therapy services and establishing a state-based public protection program to ensure that ‘music therapy’ is provided by individuals who meet established education, clinical training, and credential qualifications.”

She lists states with:

  • Music therapy licenses: Georgia, Nevada, and North Dakota
  • A music therapy registry: Rhode Island and Wisconsin
  • A music therapy state certification: Utah

“We currently have music therapy task forces in 43 states addressing this operational plan, which includes the states listed above that have passed legislation,” says Simpson.

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