What Is the Experience of a Community Musician Who Is Also a Music Therapist?


I am currently employed as a community musician with a theatre company who creates plays with women in prison, marginalized youth in rural areas, and substance users. A major part of my role with the women in prison is to help them to write songs which are then incorporated into the annual play. These songs are also used to develop the play's script, which is co-written by a writer and the women via drama workshops. Through this work, I draw heavily on my undergraduate training in music therapy. I am, however, loath to call what I do 'therapy' since it is not the focus of my work, and also the term 'therapy' has negative connotations for the participants and colleagues with whom I work. My experiences as both a musician and a music therapist in the community have led me to the beginning stages of a Master's degree study at the University of Melbourne through which I hope to examine the relationship between musicians and music therapists who work in community settings.

The notion of "community music therapy" has received much attention in recent years, provoking a variety of thought processes as to its definition and all that it encompasses. Amidst the "polyphony of voices" (Stige, 2003), the relationship between music and music therapy in community settings has been a point of discussion . I have decided to explore this issue through semi-structured in-depth interviews with both musicians and music therapists working in community settings within Australia. As this is a qualitative study, it is important for me to examine my own biases and to set them aside. One way to do this was to have my supervisor, Dr Katrina McFerran, interview me about my own work as a community musician with women in prison, questioning me about aims, methods, outcomes, roles and relationships with participants. In addition to helping me "bracket" my biases, it was a great way for me to put myself in the shoes of prospective research participants and re-learn that it can be hard to articulate oneself when under pressure, that a certain head-space is preferable in interviews, and that having someone to listen to my reflections can actually help me move forward in my own search for meaning. Transcribing the interview was also an interesting experience, as I was able to rethink my thinking. Now, the transcript is an interesting relic of what I once thought I thought! And yet it still highlights some interesting aspects of the research topic.

Interview Excerpts and Discussion

I have chosen the following excerpts from this transcript in order to highlight what I believe are some salient issues concerning the relationship between musicians and music therapists who work in community settings. Throughout these excerpts my own words are prefaced by "L.O.". The questions of Dr Katrina McFerran are prefaced by "K. McF." I have also added my own interpretations in italics.

The first issue we discussed was my aims as a community musician working within the prison:

L.O.: I have lots of different aims. I have therapeutic aims as well as musical or artistic aims. Musical or artistic aims are to write a song, to create soundtracks to shows, that sort of thing. . . but within that I have therapeutic aims. . . for women to experience what it's like to have their thoughts put into songs, so self-expression and validation of what they feel. . . to create rapport and relationships with the women through music. . . so a musically-based relationship with them.

Interpretation: This way of conceptualizing aims and intentions is different than the format commonly published in music therapy literature. Rather than seeing musical aims as concrete objectives within a therapeutic aim, I describe musical aims as like an umbrella that encompasses therapeutic aims within. Interestingly, however, I note that the therapeutic elements of my work are certainly not a requirement of my employment but that they are necessary for my own personal satisfaction:

L.O.: My intentions are not just musical and . I find that that's a very personal preference. I wouldn't get as much out of the work if my intentions were purely for the play. . . musically I wouldn't be as interested in it. So I guess I do have therapeutic intentions perhaps.

Interpretation: It is generally accepted that a therapist's personal motivations for conducting therapeutic work are an important aspect of counter transference (Bruscia, 1998). The following passage further elaborates how this issue is important to my work as a community musician as well as to me as an individual, regardless of the expectations or title of my employment:

L.O.: Usually because we work in groups with them [the women] I observe what they're like and so sometimes I will work specifically to what I see. . . so, for instance, if a girl is extremely withdrawn I'll work on drawing her out or if another girl says "I don't wanna sing bloody music who cares about bloody music" I'll work on trying to see if she is interested.

K.McF: So you identify information from the groups and then work on that material individually.

L.O.: Yeah. I wouldn't say that it's more important than creating the song, though. Probably for me it's equal and. . . well, those sorts of aims and intentions are more for my own motivation I guess [but] I'm not expected to do that. And I guess it's also because I just wouldn't be able to work any other way.

K.McF: What do you mean?

L.O.: Those aims and intentions I have . it feels like it's my natural way of working with anyone no matter who was employing me or what title I had and regardless of whether they were sick or in prison. Whatever the conditions I would always try to work with what I see."

Interpretation: The above passage also reveals an attempt to treat musical and therapeutic elements as equal foci. Discussion of focus had also occurred earlier in the interview and further illustrates the equal importance I attribute to the musical and therapeutic elements of my work:

K.McF: So, your focus is on the generation of material.

L.O.: Yes, but within that there's many smaller foci, like, for instance, one day I might focus on one woman who isn't contributing to the group and is looking very shy and very "what am I doing here". I might have a small focus of trying to engage her a little more and trying to find out about her musical interests and things like that.

K.McF: Other sub themes under the idea of generating material for the show?

L.O.: Getting the women to express whatever is troubling them and to help them transmute it into music or art, so rather than just express it and say here's what you expressed in a song, one of my focuses is to try to work with what they're saying and to transmute it into some higher form.

K.McF: OK. So you generate material for the show but within that you work with individuals within the group or you try and help them transmute their troubles into the musical material, into a higher form. Is there anything else in terms of your focus?

L.O.: Well, my focus is also in terms of generating material for the show. A smaller focus is making sure there's a variety of musical styles and things expressed because otherwise it would just be a boring show so I do have that . well, you know, sometimes, there tend to be a lot of ballads that come out so I tend to want to try to direct a few other types of songs to happen and usually I'll do that within the group. So if we create group songs it's somehow more open to my suggestion of let's do it in a spoken-word protest song or let's do it in a hip-hop rap or whatever, whereas for individuals it tends to have quite a similar output all the time no matter who the individual is. So my focus is in creating more variety. I also have a focus of trying to interact musically with the women in terms of finding out the music that speaks to them, so speaking their language is a focus of mine. I'm always trying to find out what they like and what they would like to speak musically.

Interpretation: Despite my seemingly equal consideration of musical and therapeutic elements, when discussing my perceived role I place much more emphasis on being a musician:

K.McF: So what do you see your role as being in trying to approach those aims and intentions?

L.O.: Sometimes my role can be the musician, so basically to be there just to provide the musical support for the songs that they have in their heads that they're going to write. Sometimes my role is to actually facilitate the songwriting, so to give them ideas, musical ideas and sometimes my role is in giving them examples of what they could do, so there are different levels of what musical interaction is needed depending on how musical they are and how certain they are of their own wants. But my general role in there is as a musician, I would say.

K.McF: And when you see yourself as a musician what do you mean by that?

L.O.: I mean that my role is to help the women create music for the show that they're putting together.

Interpretation: While I seem clear about my role as a musician, the next excerpt shows confusion when I try to describe the nature of my relationships with the women:

L.O.: OK, they're based on equal, well they're based on artistic collaboration I would say, so the relationship is that we work together. So they'll say, "hey look what I've written, can I put that to a song" and then I'll say "yeah, that's really good, let's work on that," so that's the basis of our relationship. It's definitely not a friendship, although you know deeper relationships can come out of it. It's not a therapeutic relationship either because I'm not there to help them work through their issues, it's just a spin-off if it happens. So it's an artistic collaborative relationship, I would call it.

K.McF: OK, So when you say it's not a therapeutic relationship and yet you described giving a lot of positive feedback and support to the ideas people come to you with, would you sometimes also provide negative feedback or suggest changes and things that need to be improved?

L.O.: In their behaviour or in their song?

K.McF: In the musical material.

L.O.: In the musical material, yes - I don't just take what they give me. Sometimes I will, but sometimes if it doesn't work for the show I might just need to change some lyrics or there's scope for me to put my own artistic or aesthetic ideas onto it although I actually don't do that often because of the way I like to work, so I usually do take what they offer as what it will be unless it doesn't fit for the show. Did that answer the question?

K.McF: Yes, because what you described as being equal was actually not equal because you described taking all of their ideas and providing positive feedback and now you qualified that and said that if it doesn't work for the show you might change it.

Interpretation: So, while the boundaries between being a music therapist and a musician are blurred for me when I consider my aims, focus and relationships with participants, I remain quite firm on my role as a musician rather than a therapist. Meaning is shifted towards therapy, however, when I discuss hoped-for outcomes:

L.O.: I hope that they enjoy communicating their song to other people so that other people's responses are positive to their song and that they bask in that, and I hope that they hear reflected in the song back to them what it is they've felt the need to say anyway. I hope that they've been able to experience change through the songwriting process, some sort of change as small as it may be, some sort of self-development.

K.McF: Personal change?

L.O.: Personal change, yep. I hope that their voices get better [giggles]. I hope that they learn to sing, that their musical skills increase.

Interpretation: Discussion then moves from hoped-for outcomes for the individual participant to hoped-for outcomes for broader levels of the community. This resonates with the ecological approach, developed by Bronfenbrenner and formally applied to music therapy by Bruscia (1998).

L.O.: I hope that it improves their relations with the prison community, so with the other women who are in the prison because they watch the show and also with the prison guards; that the prison guards get to see some of the issues that these women are facing that they normally wouldn't consider.

K.McF: And do you find that they attend?

L.O.: Yes, they do. And also, the general public attends so I also hope that these women are heard because it seems that they don't actually have much of a voice so I hope that people from the general public that come to watch actually go away thinking about or be a little more informed about what it's like.

Interpretation: Although we have seen that in some of my answers I have given equal weight to musical and therapeutic elements, we have also seen that I lean towards therapeutic aspects when discussing hoped-for outcomes. This leaning is also evident when I talk about perceived outcomes.

L.O.: I've heard one woman say that this is the only thing that's ever worked for her. I've had many letters written to me by the women saying that it brings them a lot of joy and I've seen outcomes like they're able to send songs to their loved ones overseas if they're international prisoners or even if they have family here. I've seen their families cry when they hear the songs. I don't know if that's an outcome [laughs] but it's something that happened. I've heard that families encourage some of these women to participate in the theatre group on the outside. I have seen the groups we work with appear to be stronger. I've seen conflicts be resolved. I've seen women come out of their shells. I've seen women being able to be heard, they're able to voice their concerns and complaints. I've also seen discussions ensue about that and sometimes . development of thought. (Laughing) This is all very subjective but it's what I've seen. What else? I've seen other women who are not in the theatre group, other women prisoners, be really supportive. I've seen some prison guards be supportive. I've seen people who come from the general public be quite shocked and moved by what they see. I've had some of my relatives and friends cry when they've seen the show.

Interpretation: So, it may be safe to say that I like to evaluate my own work based on perceived therapeutic outcomes and it is here that musical outcomes don't pull as much weight for me. This is probably a result of my personal interest in the therapeutic potential of music rather than in music for its own sake. This personal interest further influences my musings of the nature of the relationship between musicians and music therapists who work in the community.

L.O.: I think it's highly individual. I think it would depend on what type of musician you are in the community or it would depend on what type of a therapist you are, what your individual biases and . hopes and dreams are [Laughs]

K.McF: Oh, how lovely!


It is difficult to derive some essence or theoretical concept from the interview without subjecting it to more rigorous analysis. However, it can be seen that I attributed varying levels of emphasis to "music" and/or "therapy" depending upon the aspect of my work being discussed. When considering my aims, I tended to attribute equal importance to music and therapy; music was clearly emphasized when reflecting upon my role; and a discussion of outcomes revealed a leaning towards the concept of therapy. Such shifts of focus between "music" and "therapy" may imply that I experience my identity as a community musician incongruently, or that I draw fewer boundaries between being a musician and a music therapist than I would ordinarily suppose. Rather than deeply discussing such boundaries, I seem to have placed more importance on my personal motivations for the work. This aspect of personal motivation may also arise as an important factor for the participants I interview as part of my data collection. And it may not. Like many qualitative studies the research might provide more questions than answers! (Creswell, 1998).


Bruscia, Kenneth E. (1998). Defining Music Therapy (2nd. ed.). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Creswell, Jon W. (1998). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design. Choosing Among Five Traditions. California: Sage Publications.

Stige, Brynjulf (2003). What could Music Therapy be? Voices: World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved 21/3/2004, 2004, from www.voices.no/mainissues/mi40003000125.html