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

First of all, I am going to take this opportunity to out myself as a control freak. I need structure, plans, schedules, routines, and pretty little calendars outlining all of the events in my day in order to keep me sane. Sound familiar? Read on! As music therapists, we are taught that the session plan is central to the treatment process, but what happens when what you’ve planned either doesn’t go over well or you notice that the current needs of the group don’t reflect what you had planned? For example: It’s Thursday night. I begin the treacherous process of planning my two-hour session for Saturday morning. The population? Adolescent addiction recovery. Meaning, the group members change from week to week, group dynamics and moods fluctuate from session to session, and specific music preferences can be extremely difficult to pinpoint. I show up Saturday morning to lead my group, present a song I have chosen for a lyric analysis that I thought my clients would enjoy based on their music preferences, and as it turns out, they hate the song. What do I do? Well, the old me would have panicked on the inside and continued along with my previously planned intervention, and tried as hard as I could to entice the group to at least get through the activity without complaint. However, I have learned that sometimes it is okay to throw the plan out the window and adapt on the spot to meet your clients where they are. The first time I recognized the benefits of this strategy, I had walked in with an amazing two-hour session plan that I was extremely excited about. Immediately, I noticed that my clients were considerably more anxious than usual. During my pre-session “check-in,” when I asked them to share both a negative and positive event that happened throughout the previous week, a deep discussion emerged that wound up lasting the entire two hours. Turns out, the group needed to talk, vent, and express themselves in a way they may not have if I had cut the “check-in” short to move on to my “planned” intervention.


So how does someone who is so in need of structure become comfortable with flexibility?


1. Stay in the present moment. This can be challenging especially if you have been used to always thinking ahead and following a plan. Allow yourself to really observe your clients. What are they saying? What kind of mood are they in? What would be the most beneficial intervention to meet the most pressing needs?


2.Have a mental toolbox full of activity ideas. Once you have a fair amount of interventions built up, be okay with entering a session without an outlined plan and choose the specific activity on the spot based on what you gather from your initial observations. This will make your sessions more effective because you will be meeting the clients where they are in the moment; something we already know to be an evidence-based technique.


3. Become comfortable with repeating interventions if they are effective. Follow your clients’ lead. If they express interest in one particular activity (choosing meaningful recorded music to listen to and discuss, for example) and you continue to see a beneficial, therapeutic response to the intervention, don’t be afraid of repetition. Even if the same intervention is used multiple times with slight adaptations (for example, choosing alternative songs during music listening), different outcomes can be achieved.


In my personal experience, the more you let go of “the plan,” the easier and more smooth your sessions will become, ultimately saving you some stress and work while creating a greater benefit to your clients.