Originally published in Creators, SPU's fine and performing arts newsletter.
If you ask Betsy Pinney what she loves to do, one of the first things she'll say is, “Play the harp.” But the Seattle Pacific University junior never thought she’d be able to do so professionally. In fact, as a freshman she planned to be a nursing major. It was an early morning music theory class that changed everything.
Taught by Assistant Professor of Music Carlene Brown, the theory class covered what Pinney expected: music fundamentals, the basics of musical keys, the complexities of musical analysis. But the class also introduced her to something she hadn't considered before: a career in music therapy.
Now, thanks to a new Seattle Pacific major in music therapy, the first of its kind in Washington state, Pinney will one day play her harp professionally — but not in a concert hall or classroom. Instead, as a trained music therapist, she will utilize her musical and analytical skills to help people heal in settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.
“Music is a powerful way to reach people,” says Pinney. “You can connect with them in ways most things can’t.” Carlene Brown, the program’s director, agrees. “Words aren’t the only means to get at what is going on. Music provides a release and a way for people to respond and work out issues.”
Music therapy offers many career opportunities, and nationally, the number of openings for music therapists exceeds the number of qualified candidates.
A relatively new field, music therapy came about after World War II as a way to aid recovering soldiers. Today, however, music therapists serve all ages and conditions, from autistic kids working on their motor skills to middle-aged adults recuperating from surgery to elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Music therapy is a little bit like putting together a puzzle. First the therapist gets a picture of what a person needs. Then she or he uses music to fill that need. For one person, the therapist might perform meditative music to reduce stress; for the next person, the therapist might have the subject write song lyrics to express inner turmoil or tap a drum to improve motor skills.
It sounds simple. But the countless variables encountered in working with clients means that music therapists need to be creative, empathetic, and sensitive.
To develop these traits in her students, Brown oversees a rigorous program that combines high musicianship skills and proficiency in multiple instruments with academic requirements, such as cross-disciplinary courses in psychology, biology, and anatomy and physiology.
Students also observe and work with board certified music therapists out in the field; specialize in areas such as special education, psychology, or physical science; do a six-month internship somewhere in the United States after graduation; and take a national board certification exam. Pinney arranged a required practicum session at Seattle’s Bailey-Boushay House, a nationally recognized facility that offers residential care for people living with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses.
Throughout the demanding program, Brown makes sure to keep the degree in perspective for students. “A benefit of having a music therapy program at SPU is that it allows for a dialogue about Christian values,” she says. “And how to integrate those values into therapy.”
Ultimately, she reminds students that it’s not about them or their personal glory. “They need to understand that music therapy is true service. That its end goal is healing and uplift and hope. That using their music is actually God’s work. And that’s cool.”
Which is something Pinney says inspires her. “Some day I want to open a house for women who have been abused physically, sexually, emotionally,” she says. “It will be a place for women to live safely and comfortably while they receive the therapy they need.”
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