That’s a question I hear on a regular basis, usually from a shocked healthcare provider or family member after I break out my oboe or mini-marimba in a music therapy session.
The fact is, being a music therapist requires a high level of musicianship, in both breadth and depth. Music therapists have to play a lot of instruments and have to play at least one instrument extremely well.
All music therapists must sing and play guitar, piano, and percussion.
To be a board-certified music therapist, you must complete an academic program approved by the American Music Therapy Association as well as clinical training through undergraduate practica and an approved internship. Through the academic and clinical training process, prospective music therapists must demonstrate competence on multiple instruments: voice, guitar, piano and percussion. Over years of clinical practice, most music therapists eventually use some instruments more than others – I favor guitar over piano for its portability and reliability, for example – but we all have to demonstrate competency on these instruments before we can become music therapists.
All music therapists have a primary instrument, too.
On top of learning those four core instruments, music therapy students also have to have a primary instrument. Also known as our “major instrument,” this is the one we play in university ensembles, in private lessons, and ultimately for a senior recital. Some music therapy students have voice, piano, guitar or percussion as their primary instruments, but others have an instrument that you would typically find in a band or orchestra as their primary instrument – flute, trumpet, violin, cello, or bassoon, for example. My primary instrument is the oboe, and while I don’t play it in every session, it does make an appearance on a regular basis.
Many music therapists keep learning new instruments over years of practice.
The thing about music therapists is that we all really love playing music, and we just can’t stop developing as musicians. Lots of music therapists are performers as well, and many of us become much more skilled on our instruments than might be apparent in a clinical setting. Many music therapists learn new instruments, too. I joined the ukelele craze a few months ago, and learning to play the harp is on my list for the future.
What does this mean for you?
All of this means that you should expect your music therapist to be a highly skilled musician, who can sing well and play multiple instruments across different types of music. Music is the medium through which we serve clients, so you’d better expect us to play music well.