By Elisa Aven, M.M., MT-BC

            As a traveling music therapist, I often encounter residents and family members in various facilities who see my guitar on my back and immediately assume that I am there to perform. Even when observing my work in action, it can appear from an outsider’s perspective as if I’m just playing music for entertainment purposes. I know that what I do involves much more than just singing and playing instruments, that the therapy process requires building rapport, assessing, adapting, planning interventions that will meet a client’s specific needs, and evaluating their effectiveness, but it wasn’t until I started gigging as a performing musician outside my work as a music therapist that I truly understood and was able to pinpoint the differences between the two.

Last November, I was asked to perform with my acoustic duo at a birthday party. Being primarily a hospice music therapist, showing up at someone’s home with my guitar felt strangely familiar, yet I had to keep reminding myself that I was there only to perform. We set up our sound equipment and instruments in the backyard and began to play the songs that were requested. A party guest and his young daughter who was dancing to our music came up to us to pay us a compliment and I wanted to hand her a fruit shaker so she could play along. In the middle of our performance, a party guest approached us and asked for a specific song that we hadn’t been asked to play and one that we didn’t have in our repertoire. I immediately felt the need to find something similar, pull the song up on YouTube, or write down the song title so I could learn it for a future session. It was a bizarre feeling to realize that this was not my role, at least for the moment. When we were finished with our set, the man who hired us handed us an envelope with a tip inside. My initial thought was to thank him, politely refuse the money, and suggest he donate it to our music therapy program. Along those same lines, we were offered food that was served at the party and we were sent home with bags of goodies.

I found that my skills as a music therapist came in handy when setting tempos and selecting the order of songs to match the mood of the party. I instinctively knew when to pick it up as guests began to show signs of potentially losing interest and when to slow it down as I observed them wishing to talk to another.

Being able to just focus on the music without all of the other elements that make up a music therapy session made me appreciate the work I do as a music therapist even more. It can be easy to lose perspective at times especially when there is so much misunderstanding and misconception about what we do. It may look and sound like entertainment, but it is so much more than that. I see the difference I make in the lives of my clients and their families, but even I forget how much my training has affected my way of thinking. The therapeutic process has become second nature. It is ingrained in who we are as therapists and sometimes it takes moments like this to put it all in perspective.