By Sarah Sparrow, MT-BC

Has this ever happened to you?:

You are facilitating a music therapy session that is not one of your regulars. The group meets weekly but you are just covering for a colleague. You walk into the facility, introduce yourself to the appropriate staff, find your way to the group, and set up your things. You introduce yourself as the visiting music therapist. You tune your guitar as the group eyes you curiously. You are standing before a group of people whom you have never met and know very little about besides what you learned from previous session notes (written, of course, by your very organized and thorough colleague, MT-BC). The notes are enough to design a great session plan that will address the goal areas specified, but you still feel nervous as you survey the faces before you. You do a brief initial analysis of each client as you smile and strum the chords of your introduction song, but in your mind you are thinking to yourself, “But who are these people – really?”

One of the essential parts of the music therapy session is the therapeutic relationship. How is this effectively achieved while working for the first time with a group of individuals, when your contact with them is brief and feels mostly introductory? When you walk into a pre-existing music therapy group as the “guest” MT-BC, what is the best approach?

  1. Don’t Act Like “The Substitute”: Although you may not know these clients in the way that you know your regularly scheduled one, you are still a clinician who is trained to work with individuals of all ages, diagnoses, and dispositions. It is important to remember that being the therapist means that you are in charge for that hour. Although it is not a sign of weakness and may sometimes be necessary to defer to a staff member during your session (examples of this are: if a client needs assistance to the restroom or has difficulty telling you his/her name), when it comes to assessing clinical needs, you are the expert. Yes, these people are new to you, but you have the tools to help them work towards their goals. Confidence in your ability to effectively treat and lead the group before you is essential to any music therapist, but when you are in a situation that feels uncomfortable or new to you, it can the difference between a mediocre and a very effective treatment session.

  1. Be Willing to Adapt: Again, this is another thing that all music therapists must bring into every session, including familiar groups; however, it is a non-negotiable with a brand-new group. One of the things that can make an unfamiliar group so intimidating is that you can’t know (or really even guess) what they’re going to do next! It is important to have backup interventions to the ones you have planned, in case you get halfway through a planned song and realize that you are simply not getting through. Be willing to take feedback (or even criticism) graciously from clients who feel the need to explain to you how “So-and-So (your colleague) always does this” and use that as an opportunity to validate clients for their participation and contributions to the group that day.

  1. Take Good Notes: When you are writing your session note,  also write down (or audio record) the names of the clients who were present at group that day….unless you have a photographic memory, do it right away! You want your note to be detailed enough to give your colleague an accurate picture of the entire session: status of clients before and after the session, significant quotes from particular clients during the session (and make sure if you do this, the name is given), and any major events (outbursts, clients leaving the group, etc). A follow-up conversation with your colleague is also a good idea to provide clarity and to make sure that pertinent information was communicated effectively.

Being a per diem music therapist has some very special benefits. For one, you have the opportunity to be a support to fellow colleagues. You also get lots of small snapshots of various populations and group dynamics which enhances your skills as a clinician. Facilitating music therapy groups which are unfamiliar to you may challenge your therapist’s intuition and overall approach to the group music therapy setting. These are an opportunity to grow as a therapist and develop confidence, adaptability, and attention to details that will only enhance your effectiveness.