What I've Learned

When I decided to move back to Maine, I was leaving an enriching experience working at a major hospital in NYC. Music therapy was an integral part of the healthcare team for oncology patients- we received referrals, went on rounds, left chart notes after patient sessions. I can’t tell you the number of people who strongly advised me not to come here. Alas, I’m fairly stubborn once an idea is in my head- and seeing the field of music therapy grow in Maine is an idea that’s been in my head since I was 15. So, I packed up my belongings and drove home, ready to share my knowledge and get to work.

I really did learn a lot in graduate school. As supportive as I am of music programs in alternative settings (I was teaching lessons to children with disabilities while I was studying music performance), I remain on the side of advocacy when it comes to explaining the difference between those and music therapy programs. There is a gigantic learning curve to become a music therapist. We have to have a deep understanding of musical modes, styles, rhythms, qualities, chordal structures on piano and guitar, percussion, and proper voice technique. We have to understand the needs of patients in a huge variety of settings- schools, hospitals, rehab facilities, adult day programs, memory care, early intervention, and more. We have to study neuroscience in order to know which parts of the brain process which parts of music and which diseases will affect those parts so that we can reconnect them. And we have to know enough about counseling and psychotherapy to be able to work with countertransference, help patients deal with trauma, and be cautious in making musical choices. Music therapy is not so simple. Trust me on that. It’s actually kind of exhausting.

And then, as you probably know, there weren’t actually any jobs in Maine for music therapists. So I had to start a business, which meant I also had to educate thousands of fairly stoic Mainers about something they would likely consider snake oil. I had a busy schedule of conference presentations, coffee meetings, and introductory sessions- some of which went better than others- while also working full time for four litigation attorneys. Because I had to pay off my student loans and … live.

Long story short, here I am! Six years later! Alive (somehow)! I’m considering this my five year anniversary of Maine Music & Health because during the first year, I was only working on lunch breaks and weekends. Some people say five years is the time it takes for a new business to … not fail. I think ten is a safer bet, but I’m celebrating anyway!

Here are some things I’ve learned. These may be helpful to you if you’re planning on starting a business in a field that doesn’t exist in your state. Or just entertaining? Either way…


1. Life is unexpected. Go after what you want.

This is adapted from the old adage ‘life is short!’ because that seems to encourage some people to go out and rage, rage against the dying of the… healthy habits? Sure, life may be short, but if you take care of yourself it’ll be somewhat longer and also more enjoyable.  Find ways to enjoy each moment and don’t make excuses about what you can’t do. Just take a step.

2. Collaborate with lots of other people.

There weren’t other music therapists in my area so I had the opportunity to work with everyone from physical therapists to direct support professionals to parents. And then because I had to learn about running a business, I joined some professional groups and found inspiration in people who worked in construction, renewable energy, and hospitality.

3. Be professional.

Chart your own meaning from this, but I will say that it’s helpful to be taken seriously if you’re trying to start a business. I think I’ll leave it at that so that I don’t offend anyone- but really consider everything from the way you behave at parties to the way you behave in conversation. If what you’re doing works for you, by all means keep doing it!

4. Create strong fences.

Having boundaries will serve you well in your personal as well as your professional life. Learn to be comfortable using the word “no” as a full sentence. First of all, you can’t do everything, and that’s okay. Taking on too much leads to burnout and a poor quality of work. This means saying no to extra work in a given month but also learning to politely end a conversation or wrap up a session on time.

5. Learn to delegate.

Ask for help when you need to. It’s impossible to be great at everything. Be discerning, though, and choose helpers who are a good fit for your work style and will represent your organization properly. I once had an acquaintance volunteer at an event I was putting on and I was so grateful for the help that I blindly accepted; they ended up disrupting that event enough that attendees wrote about it in their evaluation forms. Lesson learned.

6. Don’t be a jerk.

I call this the “B” factor. It’s one thing to have a competitive business in your field- that’s required to do well and keep getting clients. It’s another thing to step on other people’s toes and get ahead using unethical methods. This seems like a no-brainer to me, and most creative arts therapists already get it- but sometimes I run into those who don’t. And I make it a point to stay away from them, and refer people to someone else.

7. Respond to opportunities when they arise.

There is nothing that frustrates me more than seeing 70 unread emails at the end of the day (by the way, I highly recommend using unroll.me) - but if I didn’t go through them, or if I didn’t write back to someone for a few weeks, I’d miss out on some valuable relationships. Although you can’t do everything, you should definitely do the things that seem worth doing.

8. Show what you do.

I can blog about and give speeches about music therapy all year, but no one really gets it until they see it. This has been particularly true in the hospital, when suddenly a nurse will walk in on a bedside session and say, “Oh my gosh, this is what you do? Ohhhh…” and then start referring clients.

9. Value yourself.

Try asking your plumber to come in on a sunny Saturday afternoon to do some free work on your messy bathroom because it’s great for his business exposure. You have a skill, you worked hard to learn that skill and to be good at that skill, you probably pay money to keep honing that skill and its tools, and other people should value your time. Just because your business is creative, complementary, or ‘looks fun’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid for it.

10. Be patient.

As long as you keep trying, it’s kind of hard to fail. If you are failing miserably, reflect and reassess and try again. I think if you follow your gut and have a sense of flexibility, you’ll land on the right path.