Carine Ries, music therapist and founder of Sound Resonance, highlights important skills learned as a musician that are immediately transferable into the context of developing a sustainable career and setting up a business. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Music Therapy and an evolving professional landscape
In 2014 the World Music Therapy Congress identified 14,623 music therapists worldwide, many of them funded directly or indirectly by Governments (Thomas, D. et al, 2014). In the UK two years of vocational training at master’s level prepare music therapists to work in health, social, and educational settings. However, with funding cuts affecting the above-mentioned sectors, and with a general increase in self-employment rates in the UK being observed, there will most likely be fewer funded positions offered to music therapists in the future. As stated by Thomas et al. (2014), ‘we have little control over the financial health of government budgets; however, we can be proactive in controlling the financial health of our own businesses.’ The time has come to embrace the changes in the professional landscape and look for different ways to build a successful career and make a living.
Developing a portfolio career is often mentioned as a necessary characteristic of many musicians’ and artists’ careers. To some extent this is also true for music therapists, as full-time posts are becoming increasingly rare and many therapists work in more than one setting, and possibly with more than one client group. Some therapists also work in other musical roles. I am by no means suggesting that this should be the future of the profession, and understandably many music therapists would be reluctant to choose a portfolio career, setting up a business, or working in a self-employed capacity. To name just a few, some of the downsides include: less financial predictability and security, additional administrative and managerial duties, irregular or long working hours, less stability overall. However, having embarked on this route personally, I also see many positive sides: having a varied working week, getting to operate in different musical capacities, and collaborating with a range of professionals and institutions.
I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my observations and experiences I have had over the past years as a music therapist, musician, and to some extent as an entrepreneur. During music therapy training a lot of focus is given to acquiring musical and therapeutic proficiency and I will highlight some of the skills and concepts which are transferrable and have been helpful in my career development.
To improvise musically with clients, therapists have to be able to be present in the moment, be spontaneous yet thoughtful, sometimes offer structure and sometimes sit with the chaos, and dive into the unknown.
Running your own business often means not having the safety of long-term contracts. Being ok with not knowing where things are headed is not something, that can necessarily be taught directly. It is an attitude, which can develop over time. Being able to improvise and use different skill sets to create work can be one way to feel less dependent on the availability of existing jobs.
- Listening and communication skills
Being able to listen to clients on multiple levels and ‘hear between the lines’ is probably one of the most fundamental parts in any therapeutic work. Being able to listen non-judgmentally, attentively, and with compassion and an open heart is at the centre of the therapeutic relationship. Meeting a client where they are at and communicating at the right level is a further important skill.
When setting up new long term work or engaging in a collaborative partnership, communicating our own ideas and intentions as well as understanding what partners need and what they are able to bring to the relationship seems to be the logical first step. As shared objectives may only become clear over time, it is important for all involved to keep listening and communicating.
- Working in a client-led way
Music therapists usually follow a client-led approach, which often means being able to sit with the unknown, trusting the process, actively listening, and simply being with the client. At times it can also mean planing for a session and then being able to throw the plan out of the window because something unexpected happens.
The flexibility to accommodate and adjust to different contexts, alongside learning to trust the process and giving things time to unfold seems just as important when trying to develop successful new partnerships and a business. There may be setbacks and often things do not develop in a straight line, but with the right amount of trust they may just work out after all.
- Negotiating boundaries
Therapists actively work with boundaries, their meaning and use for the clients. In the therapeutic relationship boundaries can be explored, pushed, disliked, tolerated, and held, whilst keeping the clients safe.
When working in different musical capacities within the same institution, reflecting on boundaries and the meaning of different roles for myself and for others, is a fundamental and dynamic process. With different roles come different challenges and responsibilities, and personal boundaries as well as therapeutic boundaries have to be considered. How many roles can I take on and carry out with integrity? When do boundaries become blurred for clients if we meet in more than one context? Am I working in everybody’s best interest?
Many therapists feel strongly about protecting the boundaries of their professional role and would stay clear of this kind of arrangement. Personally I think it strongly depends on the context and the relationship between the therapist and the institution.
- Creative expression
As music therapists we strongly encourage and use creative expression as a way of communication, interaction, and individual expression.
Thinking outside of the box, and approaching situations in professional life creatively seems to turn many problems into interesting challenges, and may even generate unexpected new opportunities along the way. To some extent it also takes creative thinking to integrate different roles and jobs and make them feel like one coherent whole.
- Being reflective and staying curious
Staying curious and open and taking a sincere interest in the client’s journey is an important part of being a therapist, as well as being in the moment and simultaneously reflecting on the wider picture and supporting clients in reflecting on their own experiences.
Staying curious, continuing to learn, and wanting to keep developing on a personal and professional level seems to be the best way to make new connections with people and areas of interest. Finding inspiration in other people’s work as well as integrating new concepts in one’s own thinking ensures progressive and innovative practice.
Whilst looking outwards in order to expand the professional horizon, it seems equally important to listen inwards and stay mindful of one’s own sense of identity and direction, both on a professional and personal level.
In conclusion, there are a number of transferrable skills, which can potentially contribute beneficially to building a well-functioning business. This list is not comprehensive, and there are of course other skills directly involved in establishing a successful business. However, with a packed curriculum and little time available on degree programmes in conservatoires, it is understandable if more specific entrepreneurial components such as marketing and business skills still take a back seat at this point. One could argue that those skills may feel more relevant to some therapists than others, and if necessary could be acquired over time and with increasing professional experience. Nevertheless, I personally think that incorporating business and economics skills would make a valuable addition. Finding one’s feet in the professional world can be challenging for many different reasons, and therapists should feel as prepared as possible when leaving a music therapy training course and entering a rapidly evolving professional world.
Thomas, D., Jacobsen, SL., Ledger, A., Kern, P., Adad, V. (2014) Economics of Therapy: Clients, Cash, Colleagues and Competition. Round Table at World Music Therapy Congress, Krems, Austria.
Carine Ries is a music therapist and founder of Sound Resonance. Sound Resonance is a start-up company working towards making musical, creative, and social experiences accessible to a wider range of people in the community, with the aim of contributing to people’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life. Music reaches people in very unique ways and can be a strong catalyst for positive change, personal growth, and social cohesion.
Sound Resonance combines artistic, creative, and therapeutic thinking to deliver community and therapy programmes and Sound Resonance collaborates with professionals from diverse backgrounds to share progressive practice and increase the positive impact and sustainability of its activities in the community.