So, you want to be a music therapist…

I knew I wanted to be a music therapist the moment I read about it while writing a research paper in early high school. Before this, I had wanted to be a: poet, dancer, art teacher, French teacher, marine researcher, boat builder, and a spy (ala Harriet, of course). Now that I AM a music therapist, I can’t imagine being anything else (though, I still plan to be a boat builder, at some point..) I realize now that had I known what music therapy was, I probably would have chosen that career even earlier in life.

I’ve had students from fifth graders through fifties (second career) email me to ask about music therapy. I can’t give them the answer they (and their parents) want to hear: “Yes, you should become a music therapist!” Just like music therapy itself, choosing a career is an individualized process.

Music therapy isn’t a simple career choice, in the way that there aren’t thousands of full-time-with-benefits jobs available just waiting for qualified new MTs. But these days, what is a simple career choice? I know plenty of people who have graduated with honors from law school or with an English degree who are not working in their fields. This is something you should come to terms with- that life is … life. It’s not necessarily difficult or easy, it’s just a constant process of decision-making and effort. If you’re up for that, you can really do anything you want!

A student recently asked me over coffee whether he should go to school for music therapy. He was bringing up questions about having health insurance, and a steady schedule, and other careers in which he may be interested. I told him that if music therapy is something he’s really passionate about, then yes. Otherwise, he should take some time to figure out what he wants. Then he hit me with the big question: “How do I know if I’m passionate about it?”

You just know.

It’s a funny thing, passion. It’s different from talent, from skill, from effort. Skill and work effort, you do- you sit down at the desk and you work, and you think, ‘I’m good at this!’ and create things for your boss and then you go home and continue on with the rest of your life. Passion, however, is something you HAVE. You don’t just do it, you cannot NOT do it. You don’t complete it and then go home and watch Netflix, it creeps in so that you’re never really done, and even if you’re not good at it you keep doing it and trying to improve.

Feel free to argue with me on this. But I can’t find another explanation for why artists, for years and years, would suffer the way they do to make art that may or may not be bought, may or may not be recognized. And oddly, almost all the other music therapists I’ve met- particularly those in private practice- feel the same way.

When the student asked me about passion, I said ‘you just know’, but then I went home and thought about my own reasons and my own explanation. Is ‘passion’ too flowery a word? Was I sure that I didn’t mean dedication, or choice, or validation? But I can look back and safely say that it’s passion. The feeling that everything I’ve done in life fits into this career- it all makes sense. I’ve tried other things, I’ve been good at other things, I’ve even loved other things (I worked at a law firm for a year and seriously considered staying- the people were great, the work was interesting, I had zero financial worries)- but there is this drive to do what I’m doing now that I truly can’t explain.

Sometimes I hate passion. Sometimes I want to squish up my passion into paper ball, stick it in a storage container underneath my bed, and take a job counting blades of grass 8 hours a day for awhile. There are people in the world who never decided what they wanted to be or do, they just picked something and they do it every day and then they have time for wonderful hobbies and relationships and vacations. Sometimes I am envious of these people. Alas, I have a passion, and I’m quite stuck with it. 

And how do I know? I know because every day, I lug nine different bags of instruments up and down the three flights of stairs into the shared apartment I can afford, travel hundreds of miles in my 2003 car, patiently explain what music therapy is to people who tell me I should go on The Voice in every single elevator, and plan ahead weeks at a time so I know which things need to be in which bags for which clients. And I do this happily! When I complain about it, I complain happily. It’s a very different feeling from when I do those same activities for something I’m not so passionate about. So that’s how I know. I look at my life, and how ridiculous it is, and how hard it is to fit anyone into it (even my cat no longer lives with me!), and I think, “If this isn’t passion, I would surely have chosen something easier.”

And that’s how you will know! You won’t know these things until you try, you have to research the field, talk to people in it, make pros & cons lists, and think about what you REALLY want in life. And it’s okay if it’s not a private practice in music therapy, because there are some really amazing other careers and there are ways to keep music in your life.

Because I’m passionate about it, I work hard and I don’t give up, and that has given me success. I’m able to work for myself and live comfortably and say no to things I don’t want to do.

Every person is different. (if we could all accept this, the world would be a better place!) And I believe that every person has a passion- it doesn’t have to be your job. It just so happens that my passion and my job are the same, but many people have a passion in knitting, in collecting salt and pepper shakers, in tag football, in cooking… you don’t have to make your passion into a career, and it’s okay if you don’t even know what it is yet!

“Best of luck in your decision!”


P.S. The quick answer to "HOW do I become a music therapist?" once you know you want to is: Go to an accredited, approved, university music therapy program, complete an internship, write a thesis, take the board-certification exam, and then keep learning!