Hey there! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on my development as a music therapist. How I’ve grown. What I’ve learned. What mistakes I made when I first started out. What mistakes I still make. Even though I have a gained a substantial amount of experience, I am always learning and developing new skills.

Below, I’ve identified 5 mistakes that I know I made, especially when I first began my career as a music therapist. Wondering if you too are making these mistakes? Read on.

Mistake #1: Not Reading the room.

Have you ever walked into a room only to realize that something’s just not right? There might not be a tangible event you can put your finger on. The roof isn’t on fire. The building is intact. But something just feels wrong? Tension in the air is a very real thing! Maybe the group you are about to see has had a very rough morning. Maybe everyone’s grumpy because it was raining on the way in. Or something has happened personally between staff members and you aren’t privy to the whole story. You don’t need to know but something is off.

So what’s the vibe you are getting when you walk in (or the client walks in to see you?) Relaxed? Tense? Happy? Angry? Keeping your pulse on the overall mood is paramount to having a successful session.

What if reading the room doesn’t come natural to you? In my opinion, that’s a blessing and a curse. Some days I would love not to sense all the different energy coming at me all day long. I could go about my business blissfully unaware. But of course this skill is very helpful in implementing great sessions! So, practice these three things. Stop. Listen. Ask.

Stop. When you first greet your client or enter a space, stop for a moment to give awareness to your own energy level and then the energy level of those around you.

Listen. Many times, the parents, teachers, or therapists of a child or group will have something to say. By listening you create that space for them.

Ask. How are you? How has your morning been? Check in with the child and the adult. Depending on the situation, you might do a quick check-in musical activity.

Mistake #2: Thinking you are there only to serve your client.

This is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I see happening across the board. And it’s easy to fall into this trap when you work in a school or facility where you have exclusive interaction with the child or client. At my center, however, the parents play as big a part (bigger really) in the services we provide. Failing to connect with the parents of the children we serve means failing to establish a long-term relationship. After all, the parents are the decision makers, not the children. You can have the best music therapy session in the world and see all the progress in the world but without parental rapport and support, you have no clients. In the world of private pay and private practice serving parents too is key.

Mistake #3 Sticking to your plan.

You stayed up until midnight working on that session plan and by golly, it’s good! After investing a ton of time and energy into preparing for a session, it’s easy to want to stick to your plan come “h*ll or high water” (Tell me I’m not the only one who uses that phrase?). But what if it’s just not working? What if the child you arrived to see is bouncing off the walls and is really struggling with focus? What if your group is groggy and quiet? What if there is a fire drill in the middle of your session? (And that has happened to me by the way. Multiple times.) What if your client is having a meltdown?

Throw that plan out! Don’t stick to your plan. Quite honestly, I think we music therapists are well suited to be flexible and adapt to our clients’ needs. That’s a quality that makes us unique. As musicians, we know that music is flexible and we can extend that flexibility to our clients.

What to do instead? One strategy is to “over plan.” Have more music interventions ready to go than you know you will need so that you can choose the ones that are most beneficial in a given moment. Another strategy is to have a “trump card” in your back pocket. That’s the one music therapy intervention that you KNOW is the child or group’s most favorite. Channel your inner Princess Leia and save that music intervention for your “most desperate hour!”

Mistake #4: Failing to provide structure.

Honestly, this mistake is kind of the opposite of Mistake #3. But it’s a common one. The definition of music therapy set forth by AMTA includes language “using music based interventions to accomplish individualized goals.”

That’s because every client is different. An individual. At our center, our philosophy has always been to provide client-centered services. If a child needs an improvisational approach we provide that. If a child needs a behavioral approach, that is the route we take.

Many times, however, I have noticed that our child clients need structure. I mean, hey – my own kids need structure. We won’t even talk about what happens when I mess up my son’s bedtime routine (hint: it’s not pretty). Kids need to know what to expect. This helps them feel safe and secure. When a child feels safe, then we can address other needs (Maslow, anyone?)

Have you thought about how you will provide that structure during your sessions? Here are a few ideas:

  • Use a visual schedule. Mine is simple and sweet.
  • Sing the same opening and closing song each week. This also simplifies your session planning and preparation time.
  • Incorporate the child’s preferred music into your session. An easy win to help you build rapport!
  • Be Consistent. Is it ok for the child to move around the room? Do your group members need to remain seated on the floor? There is no right or wrong answer. Only the structure of your response being the same one every time.
  • Use a token system. This isn’t for every client but it works wonders for some of mine!

Mistake #5: Not Watching Your Language

No, not that way!!! I’m talking about the words you use in the session. New music therapists or students frequently struggle with communicating effectively and succinctly. And sometimes those of us with lots of experience still do too. Every so often, I catch myself and think, “THAT didn’t make sense! Try again Mary.”

Some of the best advice I ever received was from my college professor. After observing one of my practicum sessions, he said four simple words that I will never forget. In fact, I have passed those words on to my practicum students and my interns. What are they?

Less Talk. More music.

That sums up what I am trying to say. Stop explaining what you are doing and use the music to show it. Also, many of my kids on the spectrum are quite frank and literal. So if you say, “do you want play the drum?” and they say “no,” well…..you DID ask! If you say “read the music,” don’t be surprised when they start reading the words on the page rather than playing the instrument.

There are appropriate times in your sessions to offer choices but if the activity is not optional, it’s effective enough to say “play drum!”

Here’s another example, Instead of “Ok, let’s check the schedule and see what’s next. Can you see what’s next? Ready to read a story See the picture of a book? That’s means it’s time for a story.” Instead try: “Check schedule. It’s story time!”

So what about you? Are you making any of these mistakes? As I already confessed, I know I have. Making mistakes is how we experience, pivot, and grow. And that is perfectly OK! Let me know if you can relate by sending me a message – mary@musictherapykids.com

<3, Mary

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Join the 7 day mini email course that will revitalize your sessions with kids! Get a lesson every day with fresh music strategies and tips for running groups that you can use right away.

You're all set! Day one of the mini-course is on its way.