We spoke with Megan Ley, a music therapist who works with adults with intellectual disabilities at the Milwaukee Center for Independence.
What music or arts programs were you in growing up?
I started in choir--that was primarily what I did. I was also in orchestra through middle school and high school, so I play the violin. I was part of the Lacrosse Youth Symphony Orchestra. I was also in show choir and took piano lessons.
Do you play any other instruments?
With the music therapy program you do learn how to play guitar as part of the main curriculum. So I play guitar, piano, I picked up some other random instruments like ukulele—once you learn how to play guitar you can branch out pretty easily. The ukulele is really useful in that you can carry it anywhere, you can play a lot of different styles of music on it. Sometimes I play the autoharp, or just weird stringed instruments.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went to the University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities. I didn’t know about music therapy at all in high school, and I didn’t really know about it going into college. It was after my first semester of college, my mom works at the hospital in La Crosse, and there happened to be a music therapist who worked there. So she kind of heard about it, and thought that I should check it out. I set up a job shadow, I followed her around for the day. On that day she was in the oncology unit, so she was going around to people who were getting chemotherapy. Which was pretty powerful, and I got to see the effect that music had on people at a pretty dark time of their life.
So that was how I got to thinking—wow, I really need to do this. I transferred into the program at the University of Minnesota. Luckily they have a really great music therapy program there. So I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in at the time, but then I stumbled into music therapy and was like, yes this sounds like something I want to do.
Music was a big part of my life, and I had heard from so many people “What can you really do with a music degree?” and that kind of negative “is it really practical?” attitude.
What was the program like at University of Minnesota? What type of classes did you take?
It’s a four year, undergraduate program. You’re in the music school, so when you start out as a freshman you’re in basically all the classes that the other music majors take. You take Intro to Music Therapy to get an overview of what it is, all the different things you can do with it. And then as you progress through the program it became more specific to music therapy and psychology. Also in your Junior and Senior year—and I think this is the same throughout all music therapy programs—you do a practicum. Every semester you go to a site where there is a music therapist and you shadow them, and help them there.
Did you have a favorite part or aspect of the program? A favorite class?
The thing I liked the most about where I went to school is that it was really hands on. Instead of just talking about music therapy, we were always doing things in class like role playing. At the time I didn’t really like this, but we had to videotape ourselves a lot so we could watch it and improve. And they had a lot of other opportunities for practicum with different populations—with children, with older adults, and everything in between.
What are some different types of music therapy? Is it by age group, or different approaches?
Sometimes it’s hard to describe music therapy, at least for me, because there are so many different things you can do with it. There are different philosophies. The University of Minnesota is very cognitive behavioral, so focusing on goals and accomplishing those goals in a timely matter, measuring something. There are different approaches that are more psychoanalytic, more improvisational. There’s also neurologic music therapy. So there are different, more specific schools of music therapy.
Music therapists can really work with anyone, from premature infants all the way to older adults in hospice care. Music therapists work in hospitals, schools, treatment facilities, rehab facilities, even correctional facilities. Lots of variety.
Generally, what is your job like? What are the things you do on an average day?
In general, music therapy is using music, but we’re focusing on things that are not musical. So that’s where we differ from things like music education. You’re not focusing on whether or not someone’s playing an instrument correctly—it’s not really about the music. At my job, I have a lot of groups. I have two groups a day, and we’re working on a lot of things like social skills, communication, expressing emotions.
What are some of the activities that you do with clients?
Each group I have has a different focus. Like I said, we focus on social skills. For one group we might do a hello song just to welcome everyone to the group and let them know that we’re getting started. It’s a structured way for people to work on greeting a peer, this is how you say ‘hello’ or ask about someone’s day. Or this is how you answer those questions. So that might be something we do to address a pretty basic social skill, something like saying hello. Another thing we might do is I’ll say “We’re going to write a song today, I want you to tell me what we’re going to put in the song. What style is it going to be? What instruments do you want to use?” It’s about making decisions, listening to other people’s input, coming to a compromise, working as a group, working with others.
Playing instruments is a big part of it. Taking turns, impulse control. Just choosing an instrument.
A lot of times I’ll be playing something on guitar to lead the group and I’ll have other people playing instruments with me. It’s a collaborative group effort, not just me singing the song. I want people in the group to be doing something active and working on something.
What’s your favorite part of the job, favorite stories?
There are so many great things about being a music therapist. Even just creatively, there are so many opportunities to be creative musically and do so many different styles of music—I’ll do anything from folk songs to Taylor Swift, in one group maybe.
One of my favorite things about this job is seeing someone who might not in other aspects of their life respond to things--maybe even look up or smile--do something musical or hear something and interact and engage. That’s really rewarding and something I really enjoy about being a music therapist.
If someone is interested in music therapy, what would you say are some required skills or experiences? Do they have to have a musical background before college?
I think it helps to have a little bit of a musical background, but I think it’s more important that you have to be interested in people and that aspect as well. Being flexible is a big thing. A lot can happen in any group of people, you need to be able to think on your feet, be flexible, be in the moment.
Do you have advice for people interested in music therapy?
I was going to mention that if someone is interested in music therapy, going to the American Music Therapy Association website would be really helpful. It’s a good place to start, it has all of the schools in the country that have a music therapy program, basic information about music therapy.
It’s a really great opportunity to be creative. And if you play a really weird instrument and think like "Oh, I’ll never really use this,” chances are you can find a way to use it in music therapy.
Something that’s really rewarding about music therapy is that I found that music is something that touches a lot of people regardless of their functioning level and it can have an effect on really anyone of any background.