“A Journey to Music Therapy”

Originally published Exceptional Parent Magazine, 2014

What is Music Therapy? What led you to become a music therapist?

These are questions I am asked on a regular basis; in my job, at my daughter’s school, at parties, in the grocery store and when I’m teaching at New York University. Music Therapy is a process utilizing active music making with clients to facilitate clinical growth and change. Music Therapists are trained multi instrumentalists with a strong education in psychodynamic theory and processes. Client growth happens in the music and through the relationship that develops with a trained and credentialed music therapist. It is both complex in the myriad interactions that form the basis of therapy and simple to understand: using music for healing and development makes sense.

After ten years, I am even more passionate about my career as a music therapist than at it’s inception. It is a varied career, one that has not gotten stagnant and continues to challenge. I get to use all of my creative, improvisational skills and natural instincts while playing music with people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to express themselves in this way. I get to forge connections with children and adults who are highly loving, full of life and interesting but whose limited speech and atypical way of expression can make socio-emotional connections difficult. Through music, moments of acute trauma, pain, memory and emotion can be held, acted out, shared and worked through and I am a witness to support and ground. I consider myself very lucky to have found this career in the circuitous way that I did because I think it makes me better at what I do.

The singing kid to music therapist in 30 years

When I was three, I woke from a nap and declared “I was born to sing”. My Mom and Grandma wrote it down, a bit stunned but not completely surprised. Family lore has it that I cooed, babbled, sang constantly from a very young age. My Dad played jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Edith Piaf on the stereo and I was always taking it in. I remember being struck, pulled in emotionally and musically by Ella’s voice. When I was seven years old, I memorized Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin..with all the verses. If you ever need to know the lyrics to “Cousin in Milwaukee”, I’m your girl. Singing connected me to myself, gave expression to my feelings and grounded me when I was unmoored by new social experiences. I see now that singing and performing also gave me an identity that I could hide behind. I sang all through elementary, junior high and high school and went on to the University of California at Irvine to major in Music as a vocal major. Two years of classical training made me feel like I was trying to be someone else. I struggled and felt that I was losing my jazz chops. Luck came in the form of a job as vocalist in a popular big band that played around southern California. I found I loved my psychology classes so decided to try to double major. I ended up with a Psychology B.A and a minor in music and a lot of gig experience under my belt. One music professor suggested music therapy as a profession when I changed majors. I wanted to perform, but the seed was planted.

I moved to NYC after college to pursue jazz singing. My goal was not so clear except that I wanted to play in great clubs with great musicians. I wanted musicians to be impressed with me as a vocalist and fellow musician beyond anything else. I knew some great musicians and met more, getting work at NYC clubs, private gigs and an elegant glass boat tour around the Hudson. I honed my skills and loved it. Those years in my twenties were hard and fun and ultimately a bit of a hamster wheel. I started a band called “Cocktail Angst” with a dear friend and we took off locally. At the same time, I had to make a living and was introduced to a woman who needed someone to help her run her hair accessory business. I had no business experience beyond running a band but this job fit me well. It was face paced and challenging. I had to learn everything from production to shipping to trunk shows. At night I sang, by day I showed hair accessories to Barney’s buyers or packed boxes to ship to Neiman Marcus. Approaching the second half of my twenties, I was feeling unfulfilled. The band did well…we had some high profile gigs and put out two CDs. I learned a lot about running a business..another set of skills that have served me well.

I needed to make a change, so I needed to think, soI began to run. My idea was to run the NYC marathon, but now I see that the steady pace of a long run is when I did my most productive problem solving. . I was running toward my future.  One day, I ran by a space in Park Slope that said “Music Together”. A lady was coming out of the storefront and I asked her what it was. She told me it was an early childhood music program for babies and toddlers and that she was opening this new location. I would have to go through a weekend of training. I looked more into the program and was sold. Approaching 30, I had begun to ask myself more serious questions about what I wanted in my life. One question was “what do I love most about singing”. The answer was always that I felt most fulfilled when someone sought me out after my gig and told me that hearing me sing turned their day around. I had also never lost my interest in psychology and had always been a person that strangers and friends tended to come to with their problems. I’d been studying for a few years with a great voice teacher named Deb Silver, who taught a method of vocal instruction that she called “Natural Voice Therapy”. I had been losing my voice a lot at gigs. Working with Deb helped me to really learn how to sing with all of me, how to use my moods and emotions to get every ounce out of a song, to use my breath and body …to be embodied both as a person and as a singer. It was great therapy. Convergence! Teaching Music Together cinched it. I loved singing and playing music with people not just for people who were not musicians. I got to talk to parents about their struggles and suggest ways to use music in the house to bond with and help with their children’s behaviors. At the end of every class, a bunch of toddlers would run at me and hug me.   I taught a few children along the way who interacted differently than the other kids…poor eye contact, staying on the sidelines, crying at too loud or too soft sounds, not wanting to leave their parent’s lap or never getting into it. Those parents tended to stay after class to talk to me…to ask me what I saw. Another seed was planted.

I remembered my college professor suggesting music therapy as a career. I looked into programs and found that NYU had a really well respected Master’s Degree program. I started observing music therapy sessions and was floored by how diverse of a field it was. I had to learn to play the guitar and improve my piano skills. I worked for a year on my theory and musicianship before auditioning for the NYU program. I got in and, boy, what a deep learning experience there. People often think music therapy is a job where a musician plays music for people in a hospital and doesn’t require a degree. It’s much more complex than that and there is deep training involved.

Music Therapy training includes a lot of self-exploration. Like any other kind of therapy training, music therapists must know themselves well in order to be effective. We must be able to tap into our projections and counter-transferences so we can recognize what therapeutic choices we are making and why. In Music Therapy, music adds a third component to the therapeutic relationship (the relationship between the client and the therapist and/or the therapist and the group members and the group members to one another).  I began to break down my own defenses, of which I had a lot at first.   Learning that there was a kind of music therapy that used the voice as primary instrument to effect change, made me feel like I’d found my planet. I studied with Dr. Diane Austin for three years post graduation and have incorporated her way of working with my clinical work with children with autism spectrum disorders. I find this work richly rewarding. I have also been lucky to start and run programs at New York Presbyterian hospital over the years. I have done songwriting with people while they receive chemotherapy. I continue to do workshops at NYP with patients recovering from open heart surgery and their family members. We work on breathing for recovery, toning techniques for healing, singing to improve mood, motivation, create a place for release from stress and provide an opportunity for families to let down with one another while in the grips of a stressful and frightening experience.

In 2011, I was asked to interview for the job of Director of Music Therapy the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. This job has created an opportunity for me to use my business side (thank you fashion business), my clinical skills, supervision and teaching sides and is constantly new and challenging. I feel grateful to be given the chance to explain music therapy to many people, from funders to potential outreach partners to parents looking for music therapy for their children. In 2013, I began to teach Intro to Music Therapy at NYU, which is a survey course with half graduate students and half undergraduate students of various majors. I continue to perform a few times a year, singing jazz and big band music. But I am fulfilled, busy, full, excited and amazed by the complexity, richness and beauty of the field of music therapy. I am grateful every day for the clients who share themselves with me through music and the way that this life lets me improvise and play, grow and change while feeling firm ground under my feet.

Music Therapy with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

In 2005, I was lucky to be invited to be the music therapist at a new private school opening in Midwood, Brooklyn for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders called Reach for the Stars Learning Center. At RFS, the multi-mode model incorporates ABA therapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy and Music Therapy to address the developmental, social and emotional goals of each child.. By adding music therapy to a behavioral model of teaching children with autism, Reach for the Stars has shown their commitment to reaching each child in every way that we can. As a music therapist, I use a mix of improvisation, structured music activities, a multitude of instruments and movement to help the children I work with achieve their goals. The clinical goals are developmental in nature and include aiding expressive language development through singing; improving fine motor skills through playing the keyboard, improving hand/eye coordination through playing and tracking drums and xylophone. I am also focused on the social and emotional development of each child. In music, the child and I create our world together. Even a child without speech can create sound with me as we play together and that sound will forge a connection between us.   I have seen many children begin to make great strides in expressive language through their motivation to sing. Some children exhibit parts of themselves that had not previously been expressed. I meet each child where they are, speak with classroom teachers, OTs and SLPs about global goals and behavior plans and then work with the children to focus on what music can bring to that particular child. With music, I can meet and help a child to shape his experience of the world and his way of expressing in the world by using the varied elements of music: tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, range etc. Music is in motion as it grows and changes. People are in motion as they grow and change. Music is resonant internally and externally in a way that mirrors our simultaneous internal and external experience as people. Music is motivating and it works on many levels.

At the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, we offer both an onsite music therapy program and outreach programs. At the conservatory, we serve children and adults, mostly with developmental delays and autism. We offer adaptive piano lessons for children who learn differently. We meet each child where they are and move together in music to help the child to grow and relate. Music Therapy goals are prescriptive, individualized for each client. We currently have 21 outreach programs in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens which are also specific to each location. We work in public schools with children with developmental delays, after school programs that focus on helping with conflict resolution and social/emotional function for typically developing children. We have adult dayhab programs that come to the conservatory each day of the week and culminate the year with a recital in our concert hall. Our onsite children also are given the opportunity to do a group recital.

The best way to understand what music therapy is, is to see it. There is some wonderful footage on the conservatory of music website (www.bkcm.org) and here is a link to a video of a child I worked with at RFS. This little boy wanted to write a song to sing for his graduation from the school. We came up with this song together, incorporating his considerable musical skills with his penchant for performing.

Can you see why I love my job? I hope if you are intrigued by music therapy or are interested in exploring for yourself or child, that you will feel free to contact me at the conservatory (toby (dot) williams (at) bqcm.org). There is so much complexity in music. There is so much complexity to who we are as people. Music + People = a very rich and life affirming combination indeed.