I’m a music therapist. That means I travel all over the Kansas City area, visiting nursing homes and assisted living communities. I’m always hauling my guitar and a bunch of other assorted musical gear. When you pass by one of the group sessions I’m leading, you’ll probably see a bunch of folks smiling, singing, and tapping their toes, enjoying some of their favorite music.
This all looks like fun, and it is! But I’m not really an entertainer. When I do music with older adults, I’m focused on things other than being entertaining. (More on that below.) In fact, music therapists are not always the best entertainers.
Here are four reasons NOT to hire a music therapist the next time you need some entertainment:
1. You’re having a really special event.
Many entertainers can put on phenomenal shows to make a one-time event super-special, but music therapists work by building relationships with individuals and groups. I discourage senior living communities from scheduling sessions with me less often than once a month, simply because the relationships that develop as we do music together take time to develop and repeated visits to nurture.
So, you should hire the best special entertainment you can for your special events.
(Exception: Music therapists can be great for a special event when they already have established relationships with the group or participants.)
2. You plan to have a huge group in attendance.
Because of our emphasis on building relationships and adapting music experiences to meet individual needs, music therapists usually work with smaller groups. In fact, I usually limit my groups to 12 people, allowing more with adequate staff or volunteer support.
By contrast, entertainers are most often ready to perform for as large a group as you have, and groups of performers probably work best with bigger groups anyway. (Can you imagine fitting a jazz band into a resident’s room?)
3. You want a particular kind of music.
Music therapists have a very broad basis of musical knowledge, some serious performance experience, and the ability to learn new music quickly, but we don’t know everything! I’ll be the first to admit that I am no substitute for a mariachi band, a steel drum player, or a hula dancer. A music therapist can only bring to the table whatever music experiences they have.
When you want a quality performance of a particular kind of music, hire the best entertainer in that genre.
4. You’re looking for costumes or impressions.
Part of putting on a good show is looking the part, and I have seen some folks who were thrilled to see someone in an Elvis costume, or leiderhosen, or a grass skirt. When I come to a session as a music therapist, though, I can only bring myself, even if it’s my self in a grass skirt, joking about the fact that I’m in a grass skirt. I would never pass as a hula dancer.
When you’re looking for a good show, complete with fancy costumes or impressions, find the entertainers who are good at that.
In the meantime, DO hire a music therapist when:
- You want to target specific communicative, social, emotional, or physical goals.
- You want residents of varying ability levels to be able to participate actively.
- You want to see some serious group cohesion-building.
- You’re open to seeing some spontaneous changes in the planned program, all according to the residents’ needs on a given day.
- You’re willing to commit to an ongoing music therapy program, with regular sessions to allow for relationships to develop.
Music therapists AND entertainers can help senior living communities and other eldercare groups improve the quality of life for their residents, especially when you let each of us do what we do best!