Music Therapists Do It Differently: Session Planning

In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part one of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here.

Let’s start with this group scenario:

Imagine Janet doing a music therapy session with a group of twelve residents in a memory care community. You watch her strap on her guitar and lead the group in singing “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” (one of their favorites!). Then Janet leads the group through several songs about the rain and the sun, encouraging them to wave colorful scarves with the song “Over the Rainbow” and to sing along with “You Are My Sunshine” and “Singing in the Rain.” At some point, everyone gets a maraca or a drum and plays along while Janet sings “Keep On the Sunny Side” and “I Love A Rainy Night.” It looks like everyone is having a great time! This is the kind of glimpse you might get into a music therapy session. What is going on beneath the surface?

#1. Session Planning

Music therapists always go into a session with some kind of a purpose or plan based on the needs of the client(s). This plan is based on the assessment process with which we begin music therapy work. This is different than how an entertainer might approach a performance. For entertainment, the focus is probably on putting together a good show, highlighting the best numbers, and ending with a bang. Entertainers can plan their program without knowing the residents well. This is also different from how an activities professional might lead a sing-along or musical bingo game. Here, the focus may be on the activity itself, doing the event that is on the calendar and bringing the folks that are most likely to participate and enjoy.

In music therapy, we start with what we know about the clients and plan the session based on their needs and goals.

Think back to that scenario I described above. Janet doesn’t start the session with “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands” because she really loves that song. Rather, she uses this consistent beginning song to welcome people into the session by name and to assess the level of energy and attention in the group on that particular day. She doesn’t have people wave scarves with “Over the Rainbow” just because they’re pretty (although they are!). Rather, Janet knows that the visual stimulation and moving in time with the music will help people engage with the group process, even if they can’t or won’t sing. And Janet doesn’t choose her songs for group singing just because they are group favorites (although they are!). Rather, Janet knows that having one theme carry throughout the session will help to spark memories and conversations in this weather-obsessed corner of the Midwest. Of course, music therapists strive to perform well by providing top-quality live music. And of course, music therapists plan a program in advance, with expectations for how activities or experiences will go. The difference is that the quality of the performance and which activities actually happen in a session are secondary to what is going on with a client or group of clients. (I’ve been known to chuck out a planned song to sight-read something suggested by a client during the course of the group’s conversation. I guarantee my pre-planned song would have sounded better.)

For music therapists, the starting point is always the client – what they need and what is most likely to engage them in the music. That’s how we do it differently.


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