An Open Letter to First Year Music Therapy Students

Dear First Year Music Therapy Student,

You did it! You have gotten into your university’s music therapy program! That alone is a big accomplishment, and something to be celebrated. You are about to embark on an incredibly fulfilling journey, full of learning, challenges to overcome, and exciting people to meet! Some of you may be itching to get started, while others of you have some hesitations. As someone who had many ups and downs throughout my time as an undergraduate music therapy student, I wanted to take the time to offer you some encouragement and words of wisdom as you embark on this exciting journey to becoming a music therapist.

take the time to develop authentic relationships with your fellow music therapy students

Enjoying our snow day off together as freshmen in 2016

I cannot stress this enough! While the field of music therapy is continuously growing, not many other people outside the music therapy world quite understand what expectations are placed on music therapy students. Additionally, each music therapy program has its different focuses and approaches, and each program continuously grows and evolves as time passes. Already, the Colorado State University music therapy program has changed certain class requirements since even I have graduated! The people who you will be able to lean on when challenges related to your studies arise will be your fellow music therapy students. They are your colleagues, your study partners, and your support system as you grow as a musician, therapist, and a professional.

Speaking from my own experience, I could not have made it through my undergraduate studies without the support of my fellow music therapy students. When a challenging examination rapidly would approach, we would spend hours eating dinner together and quizzing each other on concepts. When one of us felt nervous about a performance, we would gather and each perform music in front of each other to help ease our anxiety. We proof read each other’s resumes, helped each other learn difficult concepts, supported each other when a member of our group needed support, and celebrated with each other when one of us succeeded in our endeavors. Our friendships were so strong with each other during our time as undergraduate students that to this day we all still keep in touch asking each other for advice as professionals and celebrating each other’s professional successes.

It is also important to emphasize that at the end of the day, you all are colleagues. Many of your fellow students will have different interests in the profession. Learn from each other, collaborate, and most importantly, remember that completing your degree together is never a competition.

get to know students in other fields of study

During my time as a music therapy student, I made the decision to be actively involved in Colorado State University’s Health Profession Student Association. This student association comprised of students who were interested in becoming pharmacists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, doctors, among other health professionals. Being involved in this student association allowed me to not only learn about other health professions that someday I hoped to work with as a music therapist, but also allowed me to teach other students about music therapy. I eventually decided to act as a student officer in the association, which gave me the opportunity to collaborate with student officers studying other health professions. Through serving as a student officer, I was able to set up a presentation education other students about music therapy, invite a professional music therapist to an interdisciplinary panel discussing traumatic brain injuries, and have multiple conversations with other students educating them about music therapy. This experience gave me valuable tools about communication and collaboration as I entered the professional world.

In addition to being involved with other health professional students through extracurricular means, I also made the decision to take a Human Gross Anatomy course. This course was in-depth. I would spend hours in the class, studying, and in the required cadaver lab. However, not only did I learn a lot of valuable information about human anatomy in this course, I also developed a close friendship with four other students who were interested in occupational and physical therapy. In addition to the many hours we spent studying together, we had many valuable conversations about each of our professions, and even talked about ways our scopes of practice overlapped in the professional world. I had one of my study partners mention to me that he had heard of music therapy before and did not consider it an effective form of treatment, but after having conversations with me throughout our studies he hopes to collaborate with a music therapist in his future work as a professional physical therapist.

Our advocacy work can begin as soon as we are students, and with other health profession students! Through developing a relationship with students studying other health professions, not only can you educated them about your scope of practice as a future music therapist, but you can also learn more about their professions and how you can collaborate with other professionals in the future!

ask your professors for advice and help

Coming into college, I was an incredibly shy individual. Approaching professors always seemed daunting to me. I felt intimidated by their wealth of knowledge in comparison to my small understanding of the field of music therapy. However, I quickly realized that the professors at Colorado State University deeply care about our success as students. Keep in mind that our professors are passionate about the music therapy field to continue to grow and develop, and a huge part of that growth is dependent about the successful education of the next generation of music therapy students. Our professors acknowledge that not one music therapy student enters the program knowing everything there is to know about music therapy. Go to office hours with questions regarding your studies, or even if you are curious about something beyond your studies! In my experience, music therapy professors acquire a PhD because they are passionate about exploring everything they can in the field, and are usually happy to talk about what they have learned through their many years of experience and study. Ask them for advice, I cannot tell you how many mistakes I was able to avoid from the sound advice of a professional who made the mistake for me.

I will forever be thankful to the help I received from the professors at Colorado State University. The personal story I like to provide is about my many attempts to pass the required guitar proficiency. While my guitar skills were up to standard, my singing was not, so I failed guitar proficiencies three times. For many years, I was extremely self-conscious about my singing voice. I had difficulty staying in pitch, sight-reading, and having a good vocal quality. I would get severe anxiety before singing in front of anyone. One of my music therapy professors took notice of this, so he dedicated some time every week for me to come in and work with him on my voice. With his help, and the help of many others, I was not only able to finally pass the guitar proficiency, but now people who know me are shocked that I ever had a problem with singing in front of people. This one of the many examples in which professors throughout my course of study helped me to succeed in the program.

With all that being said, do not be hesitant to go to your professor’s office hours. They have office hours for a reason, and will be happy to help you grow and learn so that you will be able to add to the ever-growing field of music therapy!

if possible, attend a music therapy conference

CSU Students attending National Conference

I will never forget my first music therapy conference. I could not believe that I was surrounded by hundred of professionals and students all passionate about the same field I was passionate about. This is one of the only times that you get to learn from such a diverse range of professionals from all over the nation in one place. Through presentations and conversations, I guarantee that you will be able to take away so much valuable knowledge that you will be able to apply to your studies.

Another exciting thing to do at conference is to be a student presenter at Passages. This is an opportunity for you to practice taking a topic you are passionate about an effectively delivering it to an audience. The more often you do this, the better you will be at public speaking. This will help you immensely in the professional world, as I guarantee you that someday you will be presenting to facilities, families, and other professionals about what you can provide to individuals with disabilities as a music therapist. Get the practice in while you are student!

If there is a financial barrier to attending a conference, talk to your professors about scholarships for which you can apply.

be involved with your student association

CSU’s MTSA program the day of the 5k fundraiser

Being actively involved in my university’s music therapy student association was one of the best decisions I ever made. Not only do you meet, and get to know, tons of amazing people in your field, you get to go through the growing pains of stepping into leadership roles before you enter into the professional world! Because, trust me, you will have them. In my personal experience, being involved in fundraisers has helped me communicate with people outside our field about what I do, and helped me immensely as I went into the professional world trying to set up my very first music therapy contract. My communication skills, my ability to collaborate, and my skills advocating for something I am passionate about all started with involvement with CSU’s Music Therapy Student Association. Trust me, you will not regret working with your fellow students to continue to grow not only the comradery in your program, but also grow knowledge and understanding of the field of music therapy!

Reframe your mindset about learning

I wish I had incorporated this attitude earlier in my undergraduate studies. There were times throughout the program I had the thought, “why am I learning this? I am exhausted, and I do not see how this will be applicable in the future.” Later in the year, I entered classes with the mindset of, “I have this amazing opportunity to learn about a subject from an expert in the field. I will never have this opportunity again, so I want to make the most of it.” Things like neuroanatomy, physiology, and even music theory suddenly became more interesting to me. I found myself excited to go to class and learn about all the interesting neural connections and debates in the field. I asked questions, not to pass the class (like I had done before), but because I was genuinely curious about something. In all honesty, some days I found myself in my old mindset, but when I made an effort to incorporate this new mindset, classes and school became a lot more exciting for me. Remember, this is the one time in your life where your primary job is to learn about something you actually found interesting enough to put in all that work just to have a seat in the classroom!

Also a little tidbit: find a way to back up your class notes effectively! That is one thing I desperately wish I had done.

don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone and try new things

One of the best decisions I ever made in college was to try something completely unrelated to music therapy and became a raft guide. It was incredibly outside of my comfort zone. I was always taught to fear Colorado rivers, and now I found myself spending every day, rain or shine, subjecting myself to the elements of the river. Not only that, I had to take into account other people’s lives. There were times I questioned my decision to accept a job as a raft guide, and times I was not sure if I could do it. However, to this day I am grateful I did.

Before guiding, I would experience a lot of anxiety focused on the future. I would spend a lot of time overthinking everything that I needed to do in order to guarantee my future success, both in my professional and personal life. However, when I was guiding a boat, I could not think about anything besides what I needed to do in that exact moment to keep myself and others safe. My work as a river guide became incredibly grounding for me.

Additionally, becoming a river guide unexpectedly opened up many new, and exciting, doors! Not only did I meet people with many different life experiences, the world of adaptive outdoor recreation was also opened to me. I set down a path of finding ways to make rafting, skiing, and many other outdoor activities more accessible to people of all abilities, and discovered many incredible adaptive programs here in Colorado. This ultimately lead me to become an adaptive ski instructor. I am excited for what possibilities will unfold in the future in combining my love for the outdoors and adaptive recreation with my love for music therapy, which would have never happened had I not went out of my comfort zone and became a river guide.

most importantly, be mindful of burnout

Entering into my music therapy program at 18 years old, I was SO excited and had so much passion about music therapy. I joined every single extracurricular that I thought was even remotely involved with music therapy. Not only that, at one point I was a student officer for not one, but three different student organizations. That became a big mistake. My passion soon turned into major burnout as I found myself having no time for self care, and no time for leisure activities that helped to rejuvenate me. I was spread so thin that instead of giving my all to one thing, I barely scraped by as I tried to make all three commitments work on top of schoolwork and my personal life. My love for music therapy dwindled, and I found myself trying to have the spark I had when I was 18 entering the program.

That experience taught me an important lesson though; everyone is susceptible to burnout. I thought I would be the exception, but I was not. So yes, join student organizations, follow your passions! But always remember to find tangible ways to take care of yourself and your health, physical, mental, and spiritual, in the process.

Best of luck to you as you begin your journey to becoming a music therapist!

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