What it takes to be a music therapist

Find out how Clara got into music therapy as a career!

Written by Niamh Courtney


Bloggger, Niamh, chats to Clara Rose about her career and work as a music therapist.

You hold a Bachelor of Music from Maynooth and went on to complete a two year Music Therapy Masters at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance in UL. Was this all a 'master plan' or made up was you went along?
I wouldn’t call it a ‘master plan’ (does anyone have one of those?) But here is how it all happened:
When I was in 6th year in school and thinking about what to study in University I had a few ideas; Music, Film Studies, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy and Marine Biology were all on my CAO form.

I went for the BMus (Bachelor of Music) interview in Maynooth and began studying ‘pure music’. At this point I didn’t even know ‘Music Therapy’ existed. Then in third year I studied a Music Therapy module. I did some research into the area and the courses on offer. I became very interested in pursuing a Masters in Music Therapy from UL. After my degree I took a year out to get experience for the Masters in UL.

Had you always planned to study Music Therapy? Why did you decide to venture into that particular field?
Not at all, at the end of second year in my Music Degree I was reading the module list to make choices for third year and spotted a module in ‘Music Therapy’.
I began to get excited. When I saw this I thought; ‘What is Music Therapy? This actually exists?! It sounds like the PERFECT career for me!’ I began to research it and found that the only course in Ireland was the Masters in UL (this is still the only Music Therapy course offered in Ireland). You had to have either a Music or Psychology Degree and ‘relevant experience’ in the field of healthcare to apply.

I had the music degree and I kind of had the healthcare experience; my brother, Daniel, had Cerebral Palsy and loved music passionately. It was his way of communicating with the world. This really informed my experience of music, acting as a way of ‘promoting health’ in a person – singing with my brother, listening to music with him and dancing with him. It allowed him to ‘be’ in the world and to connect with others in a very special way.

After my degree I took a year out to ‘get experience’ to apply for the Masters. I got a job as a care assistant in a residential service for adults with disabilities. I really enjoyed this work and as a result, knew I was interested in working in the healthcare field as a music therapist.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
Being a musician is not an easy job. You HAVE to love music as the rest of what it involves can be challenging, difficult, pride-swallowing work!

  • Love music and have a strong work ethic.
  • Invest money in excellent instruments and music equipment.
  • Have a clear plan of where you want to go in the music business – even make a business plan.
  • Meet people in the business, talk to everyone – you never know who you might meet. Network!
  • Be fearless.
  • Look well – have a think about your ‘image’ and wear clothes you are comfortable in and that express who you are.
  • Manage your time well and plan time off.
  • Give your creativity time to grow and develop.
  • Have fun but keep your head.
  • LOVE music, stay true to yourself and your creativity!

Being a musician means:

  • PR expert, online marketer and self-promoter.
  • Manager and administrator.
  • Organising your own gigs and negotiating fees with venues.
  • Employing other musicians to work with you and paying them.
  • Studying music and writing charts for musicians to read.
  • Being self-employed and doing your own taxes (or get a good  accountant!)
  • Working while others are partying!
  • Writing music, recording music and playing music.

What advice would you give to students who are trying to become music therapists?
The first step is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I interested in working with music in the healthcare setting?
  • Do I want to be part of a growing area, where I have to qualify my role almost every day, explain what I do to almost everyone I meet but be on the forefront of a really exciting field, ‘Creative Arts Therapies’?
  • Do I want to work in an area that is dynamic, fulfilling, that really helps people BUT that is also challenging, not state-regulated (in Ireland yet) and is relatively unheard of (but is growing!)?

If the answer is Yes, then here are the steps:

  1. Get a music degree or a psychology degree
  2. While studying for your degree: If you are studying for a music degree: While studying get a job or volunteer in a healthcare setting either playing music or care work (disability service, hospital, nursing home, etc.) If you are studying for a psychology degree: play a lot of music, learn about music and same as above.
  3. Apply for a Masters in Music Therapy (in Ireland or UK) and hopefully you get it!
  4. Complete Music Therapy Masters course (in UL it’s a 2 year course, in UK there are some 1 year courses).
  5. Decide what clinical population you wish to work with.
  6. Apply for jobs. Unfortunately there are not many in Ireland at present, they are mainly in Northern Ireland or the UK. Or set up your own work as a ‘Self Employed Sole Trader’.

What is a typical day for you?

I work four days a week as a music therapist. I work as a musician at weekends. Every day is different! Generally on my ‘Music Therapy Days’ I travel to two to three services per day, running group and individual music therapy sessions with clients. These services range from disability services, nursing homes and a hospital. In a week I see up to 100 clients. The earliest I start work is 10am, the latest I finish work is 8.30pm. I usually ‘dine’ in my car at lunchtime but if I’m lucky I might go to a coffee shop. On my late finishing days I have a big lunch and a late dinner. Always make time for food.

On a Friday I do Music Therapy or Music administration: sending emails, phone-calls, Music Therapy client assessments, post CDs, update ‘Clara Rose’ website, practice music or write songs. Some weekends I am off and others are busy with gigs. I tour around Ireland solo or with my band and in Europe. I toured Europe solo twice in 2014.

In regards to music therapy, what are the most challenging and rewarding elements to your job?
Challenging elements:

  • Constantly defining what music therapy is and qualifying it to managers and staff.
  • Dealing with money and organising funding for my posts
  • Separating my work from my personal life and making sure I don’t take my work home with me

Rewarding elements:

  • My clients – they give me so much energy and happiness every single day. They are amazing people who face their difficulties every day with bravery and good humour. We have so much fun and have so many meaningful experiences together every day!
  • When a client who can’t speak smiles at me.
  • When a client who can speak tells me I made their day.
  • When a tired staff member ‘dances’ into a music therapy session and the entire room of clients laugh!
  • The complete knowledge that no matter the challenge or difficulty in my day that I have helped someone, even if it is only for one moment.

What was your career defining moment?

Music Therapy:  September 2014: securing a HSE funded post at a Hospital and presenting about Music Therapy to the clinical team (Doctors, consultants, head nurses, therapists).
Music – there has been a few…

  • Receiving the pressed copy of my debut album, ‘A Portfolio’.
  • Launching my debut album (2010)
  • Touring Europe for the month of March 2014 performing my own music.
  • Performing in The Olympia Theatre’ with The Don Baker Band at the ‘Gig for Gaza’ (September 2014).

Is there anything I didn't ask you that you would like the readers to know?
As the saying goes; “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. This is definitely true for me – I absolutely love what I do, I’ve been very lucky in life to have the gift of music and in all areas of my work I get to share this gift. I’m so grateful for this. As they say, ‘If you follow your heart, your dreams are never far behind’!

You can find out more about Clara Rose through her website, Facebook and Twitter.

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