What About the Teacher?

A Critical Interpretive Synthesis on Literature Describing Music Therapist Teacher Support Programs

[1] Faculty of the VCA & MCM, University of Melbourne, Australia


This article presents findings from a critical interpretive synthesis of the literature pertaining to music therapist teacher support. Descriptions of music therapists providing support to teachers were identified in 40 publications and subject to a process of critical interrogation. Through this process, three tensions were identified that had the potential to impact negatively on teachers’ sustainment of outcomes from the music therapist teacher support experience. These included the challenge of a prevailing focus on students rather than teachers, an underlying tension between descriptions of education and therapy, and a lack of teacher-driven learning intentions. Within the following paper we argue for a shift from a focus on the needs of students to the agency of teachers to maximise possibilities for achieving sustained outcomes from future music therapist teacher support programs. We further propose widening the scope of music therapist support in schools to better align with the professional role of teachers.

Keywords: music therapy consultation, support, skill-sharing, schools, teachers

Rationale for the Critical Interpretive Synthesis

The Building Schools Through the Arts Research Project

This article seeks to contribute a critical review on a selection of publications pertaining to the practices of music therapists working in schools. Within this publication the phrase “music therapist teacher support” has been used to refer to any instance in which the music therapist intended to impart knowledge, skills, or guidance to a teacher through their interaction. These programs have previously been framed in various ways, such as music therapy consultation, interactive therapeutic music skill-sharing, and community music therapy informed collaboration. The synthesised findings of this review are offered in response to three tensions that emerged from critical engagement with this body of literature. These tensions related to the focus, frame, and intended outcomes of the descriptions of music therapist teacher support in the publications reviewed.

The impetus for engaging in a critical reading of this body of literature emerged soon after the first author had joined the second and third authors in a research project labelled Building Schools Through the Arts (BuSTA) that was funded by the Australian Research Council. The project involved our team of music therapy scholars working with industry partners to explore factors that help and hinder the sustainability of school arts programs, specifically those with a wellbeing focus.

The team of BuSTA researchers began their investigations with the shared assumption that school arts programs can contribute to a plethora of benefits for student learning and wellbeing (Crooke, 2016). Despite these benefits, many schools in our home country of Australia currently opt to outsource the delivery of short-term arts programs to external providers. The trend toward external arts provision can be explained by a range of systemic factors reported in the literature, including a lack of teacher training in arts provision (Collins, 2016) and generalist teachers’ subsequent lack of confidence at using arts in their classrooms (Lemon & Garvis, 2013). Thus, the BuSTA researchers sought to glean more information about how to facilitate school arts programs in ways that maximised the possibility of participating schools building sustained internal capacity for arts provision.

First author Meg1 joined the BuSTA research project as a PhD candidate eager to contribute her perspective as both a professionally accredited music therapist and teacher who had worked in both special and mainstream2 education settings. Her interest was piqued by the findings of a small qualitative scoping study conducted at the beginning of the project. Specifically, interviews with stakeholders at 19 schools revealed that one potential sustained outcome from school arts programs delivered by external providers was the internal capacity of teachers to deliver the arts (McFerran, Crooke, & Hattie, 2017). Meg knew that several music therapists had written about striving to support teachers to develop their ability to use music in their classroom through consultative practices. This awareness spurred her to focus her PhD study on furthering knowledge about sustainable music therapist teacher support programs. Further it became apparent that her positioning as a music therapist and teacher offered a unique vantage point to research the topic of music therapist teacher support. The following section of this paper presents a brief introduction to the practice of music therapist teacher support in schools. The rationale for engaging in a critical interpretive synthesis on this body of literature based on Meg’s experience of observing a school dance program as part of the BuSTA research project is then outlined.

Informing Literature: Music Therapist Teacher Support

There is a long history of school-based music therapy practice across a range of special education (McFerran & Elefant, 2012), alternative (Baker & Jones, 2006), and mainstream (Wigram & Carr, 2009) school settings. Within traditional school music therapy programs, the registered music therapist works directly with students either individually or in groups. However, over the past 20 years authors have increasingly described school-based music therapy programs in which the music therapist intends to provide support to teachers as an alternative model of practice.

Motivations for music therapist teacher support

Music therapist teacher support typically involves the delivery of a short-term program in which the music therapist provides consultation and training to classroom or music teachers. The support offered by music therapists to teachers takes many varied forms and seeks to address a range of educational, developmental, therapeutic, and wellbeing related student needs. Music therapist teacher support has traditionally intended to develop teachers’ ability to use music with their students through the use of active music-making or music-listening activities.

The first descriptions of music therapist teacher support coincide with the advent of antidiscrimination legislation in the late 20th century (Australian Government, 1992). At this time, Australian students with diagnosed disabilities and impairments were first able to attend their local mainstream school. This shift towards inclusive education sparked new work possibilities for music therapy service delivery in schools (Johnson, 1996). Subsequently, multiple authors proposed that music therapists were well positioned to support music (Bunt, 2003; Darrow, 1999) and generalist classroom teachers (Jones & Cardinal, 1998) to develop their ability at incorporating music into their classroom as a means of including all students. This intention remains relevant for contempory music therapy practice in schools, as teachers continue to require classroom-based support to uphold inclusive education legislation (Graham, 2016).

Supporting teachers through consultation programs was additionally suggested as a way for music therapists to retain professional relevance and maintain opportunities for employment alongside the movement of students with disabilities to mainstream school settings (Smith & Hairston, 1999). Indeed, facilitating short-term consultancy programs can open up another avenue for music therapists who find it difficult to source ongoing paid work in schools. Furthermore, music therapist teacher support programs can provide a pragmatic solution to the lack of access to music therapy services for students in many school settings, as there are simply not enough registered music therapists to service each school (Rickson, 2008). This insight inspired Rickson (2010) to develop a consultation protocol in which she described processes for working with teaching staff to improve their ability to include students with high support needs through the use of music. Another application of music therapist teacher support outlined in the literature refers to work with school staff outside the therapists’ country of origin (Bolger & McFerran, 2013; Coombes, 2011; Coombes & Tombs-Katz, 2009; Margetts, Wallace, & Young, 2013; McFerran & Hunt, 2008; Quin & Rowland, 2016; Rickson, 2009; Winter, 2015). These international programs typically take place at schools in geographical locations that do not readily have access to music therapy. Several authors have described international programs in which music therapists aim to support teachers to use music therapeutically in order to address issues of trauma or grief experienced by school students in addition to promoting inclusivity (Coombes, 2011; Margetts et al., 2013; McFerran & Hunt, 2008).

More recently, McFerran and Rickson (2014) have explicitly introduced a community music therapy orientation to school-based practice in an attempt to foster the development of flourishing school musical cultures. A community oriented practice involves spending time in the school environment to identify interested staff member advocates, or “players” (Rickson & McFerran, 2014, p. 46), rather than offering training and support to all staff. When music therapists do aim to support teachers within community music therapy oriented school programs, attempts are made to build collaborative partnerships with teachers rather than positioning as an “expert professional”(McFerran & Rickson, 2014, p. 79). Indeed, collaborating with teachers who are engaged partners has been described as being a critical component of successful community music therapy framed school programs (McFerran, Crooke, & Bolger, 2017).

The challenge of sustaining outcomes from music therapist teacher support

One often implicit intention of music therapist teacher support is that teachers will not only develop their ability to implement musical engagements with their students but that these outcomes will be sustained after the music therapist leaves the school. Over the past decade, music therapists have written about the importance of sustainable program design as an ethical aspect of short-term music therapy projects in schools (Bolger & McFerran, 2013; McFerran & Rickson, 2014; Quin & Rowland, 2016). Some instances of teachers sustaining their use of musical practices after engaging in music therapist teacher support are presented in the literature. Shrubsole (2015) described an example of a classroom teacher sustaining her ability to facilitate and adapt active music making with her students learnt through her collaboration with a consulting music therapist. Furthermore, findings from an evaluation of multiple international skill-sharing projects (some of which took place with teachers) indicated that local partners were able to sustain developments in their use of musical skills after training delivered by the visiting music therapist (Quin & Rowland, 2016).

In general, however, sustaining outcomes for teachers through music therapist teacher support programs has been shown to be a challenging undertaking. For example, Coombes and Tombs-Katz (2009) described the sharing of music therapy practices at two schools on the West Bank. Over a six-week period, music therapist Coombes worked with a group of teachers and social workers to build their ability to implement musical activities with their students. Upon returning to one of the schools five months after the training program had taken place, Coombes discovered that the group of classroom teachers who had taken part in the therapeutic music skill-sharing program were no longer responsible for the music program. In this case, the role of music session facilitator had been passed on to a social worker participant of the program. The authors deduced that relying on one staff member to carry on the use of music was a problematic outcome as there was a possibility that they could leave the school or stop running the music program. Limiting the delivery of music to one staff member also appeared to have restricted the access of students to music-making activities. This discovery aligns with an early finding from BuSTA research project investigation exploring the sustainability of school arts programs. Similarly, it was often found that sustainable provision of an arts program within a school was dependent upon the presence and energy of a sole “passionate” member of staff (McFerran, Crooke, & Hattie, 2017).

Additionally, when reporting on four classroom teachers’ perceptions of the music therapy consultation process they had facilitated, Rickson and Twyford (2011) shared that three of the teachers found it difficult to carry on with music after the program had ceased. McFerran, Thompson, and Bolger (2015) have also reported that teachers were not able to adapt musical activities learnt with the support of a music therapist to the needs of the students in their new class group. It is contended that further inquiry into the factors that help and hinder teachers from sustaining outcomes when participating in music therapist teacher support programs is warranted.

Impetus for the Critical Interpretive Synthesis

A Music Therapist Observing a Dance Program

One of an initial four school arts programs investigated in the BuSTA research was a dance program facilitated by a teaching artist employed by one of the research partners, The Song Room. The aim of the program was for the teaching artist to introduce the students to dance while simultaneously supporting classroom teachers to develop their ability to use dance activities as part of their own teaching practice. DeWalt and DeWalt (2011) outline various methods of observation that can be used to study the practices used in a given context. Informed by these methods, Meg became a participatory observer of the dance program to learn more about what factors helped and hindered the success of this second aim.3 Meg took written field notes focusing on behavioural observations and interactions between participants in the dance program. She also dialogued extensively with teachers across each day and made notes of these conversations.

The dance program took place one day a week over two school terms at a large and culturally diverse primary school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The dance teaching artist worked with six groups of grades three and four students and their teachers. In the second half of the program the dance teaching artist worked to teach a choreographed song, dance and acting routines to each year level of students for performance at the whole school production.

An Outsider Perspective

We approached the research from a constructivist perspective as described by Lincoln and Guba (2000), recognising that the creation of knowledge was subjective. In this study, interpretations were shaped by our own collective experiences as researchers and music therapists / teachers / musicians in schools.

Finlay (2002) noted the importance of interpretivist researchers questioning the way their own subjective experiences influence data collection and meaning making processes. Throughout the dance program we engaged in continual reflexive inquiry about aspects of the program perceived to be either helping or hindering the teachers in engaging with the program and developing their ability to use dance. Meg reflected on the dance program in her notes and interview transcripts independently and in regular supervision sessions in order to consider possibilities for how to respectfully make sense of this experience to inform her PhD project exploring music therapist teacher support programs.

Margetts et al. (2013) discussed the need for humility when engaging in research with a community with a cultural background other than one’s own. Through further reflection, Meg realised that she had assumed that the dance teaching artist would facilitate the program in a similar way as herself as a trained music therapist and teacher, which had not been the case. This insight caused her to become aware of her lack of dance training and the fact that she only had limited knowledge of publications describing collaboration between teachers and dance movement therapists. Meg therefore consciously endeavored to refrain from commenting on the facilitation of a dance program by a teaching artist with entirely different training and practice base to herself as a registered music therapist and teacher. Instead, Meg came to believe that holding a researcher role provided a rare opportunity to focus attention on the experience of the teachers involved in the dance program. This focus on teachers’ participation reduced the possibility of being disctracted by the content of the dance activities themselves or the task of facilitating the program.

At the conclusion of the dance program, Meg conducted open ended interviews with five of the classroom teachers and two members of the school leadership team to capture more information about their experiences. At this point, only one of the five classroom teachers described being able to embed dance into their everyday classroom teaching practice.

Reflecting on the teachers’ words in light of her own experience allowed Meg to notice ways in which the program facilitator had focused the dance sessions on teaching the students rather than addressing the professional needs of teachers. She realised that an opportunity had been missed to get to know the teachers at the start of the program that seemed to limit their engagement. This missed opportunity appeared to have had a flow-on effect through planning and implementation stages of the program. Recognising that the program facilitator had forgone addressing the needs of teachers led Meg to contemplate that a consideration of the needs of teachers may have been similarly omitted from previous descriptions of music therapist teacher support. These understandings inspired a return to the music therapy literature with a critical lens to investigate the guiding question: How have teachers been described in publications referring to music therapist teacher support?


Critical Interpretive Synthesis

The method of critical interpretive synthesis initially described by Dixon-Woods et al. (2006) was employed as a means of developing a synthesised response to our guiding question about the representation of teachers in the music therapist teacher support literature. Meg’s approach was also informed by the work of several music therapy authors who have used the critical interpretive synthesis process in recent years as a means of problematising hidden assumptions within an existing body of literature. In particular, she chose to align the methods involved in our critical interpretive synthesis with the structure proposed by music therapy scholars McFerran, Hense, Medcalf, Murphy, and Fairchild (2017). This included becoming cognizant of our particular approach and perspective, as described earlier, and subsequently identifying publications for review. Meg then engaged in an iterative process of interrogating the literature before finally synthesising her interpretations of the analysis. The second and third authors provided supervisory support throughout this process and contributed towards editing the synthesised findings.

Identification of Publications for Review

Publications were identified for review through an iterative process. Firstly, academic databases were searched for English language publications using a keyword combination of “music therapy” and “school/s”. In keeping with the intention to explore the representation of teacher support, any references that detailed a music therapist intentionally imparting knowledge or skills to a teacher through their interaction in a mainstream school setting were kept for review. It is acknowledged that not all of the papers included in this critical review used the same terms to describe the interaction between music therapist and teacher. However, for the purpose of clarity, within this critical interpretive synthesis, any publications that made mention of a music therapist intending to impart knowledge or skills to a teacher were categorised as “music therapist teacher support” and were reatained for interrogation.

Identified manuscripts included several papers in which the support relationship between music therapist and teachers was suggested rather than described (Bunt, 2003; Kim, 2009; McFerran & Wölfl, 2015; Nocker-Ribaupierre & Wolfl, 2010) as well as articles that highlighted the perspectives of other members of the school community and included mention of teacher support practices (Rickson & Twyford, 2011; Ropp, Caldwell, Dixon, Angell, & Vogt, 2006; Twyford, 2012). Papers that outlined music therapy work in a special education or alternative school setting and referred specifically to skill sharing between music therapist and teacher were also included. Publications that also referred to music therapists supporting education support and social work staff in addition to teachers were similarly retained. By contrast, research papers in which teachers had merely taken part in the collection of research data or were mentioned in passing were discarded. In response to the first inductive interrogation of identified publications, three additional papers which explored the relationship between music education and music therapy (Mitchell, 2016; Robertson, 2000; Woodward, 2000) were also included for review. Each reference list in the selected publications was then scanned for further publications pertaining to music therapy work in schools. In total, 40 publications ranging from 1996 to 2018 were ultimately selected for review and are marked with an asterisk* in the reference list.

Interrogation of the Literature

The process of analysis began with Meg reading back over field notes and interview transcripts from the dance program and identifying aspects that appeared to have helped or hindered teachers’ engagement and subsequent sustained development. These insights were used to create a series of questions to explore in the literature. Information from the 40 publications was extracted into a spreadsheet to respond to the questions noted in Table 1.

These initial questions formed two overlapping and intersecting foci of interrogation for extracting information from the publications. Firstly, Meg paid attention to the descriptions of teachers within the literature across the stages of the music therapist teacher support presented in the publications. In line with the critical perspective of this review, this process included being mindful of instances in which teachers were not described as well as instances where they were. Additionally, Meg explored explicit or implied descriptions of factors that appeared to either help or hinder teachers’ engagement in the process of providing support to teachers and any subsequent sustained outcomes.

Rather than attempting to exclude personal thoughts and feelings from the review, Meg drew on personal responses to problematise the current presentation of music therapy teacher support in schools and explore new ways of thinking. McFerran, Hense, et al. (2017) have shared the benefits of paying close attention to embodied emotional responses when reviewing publications within a critical interpretive synthesis of the literature. Meg’s responses were noted in a separate column in the spreadsheet, and we continued to have reflexive conversations about what those responses could suggest about what was absent or misrepresented in the literature, as well as what appeared to be incongruent with promoting the sustainment of outcomes.

The interpretive process of critically reflecting on the literature involved reading and re-reading each publication to obtain information and insights and developing new iterations of the initial questions listed in Table 1. For example, through responding to the questions in Table 1, Meg noticed that teachers did not appear to be the focus of the music therapy teacher consultation programs. This realisation led Meg to perceive a sense of discomfort about the way educative concepts such as curriculum were presented within the publications. A set of additional questions, presented in Table 2, was therefore developed to further interrogate the literature related to the use of language when planning for and evaluating programs. At this stage, the body of literature for this inquiry was widened to include publications that explored the presentation of educative concepts more generally, (as mentioned previously in the section above titled “identification of publications for review”). Once again, Meg explored explicit or implied descriptions of ways in which educative concepts were described, as well as ways in which these descriptions appeared to have related to factors that helped or hindered teachers’ engagement and sustained outcomes.

Table 1

Initial Questions Used to Interrogate how Teachers were Described in the Literature

How were program intentions described?
How were teachers described? What were goals for teachers? How did music therapists and teachers negotiate goals and program content? How were teachers involved in program implementation? What outcomes were described for teachers? What appeared to help / hinder teachers’ engagement?
What appeared to help / hinder sustained outcomes for teachers? What is my embodied response?
Table 2

Additional Questions Used to Interrogate how Language Related to Program Planning and Evaluation was Presented in the Literature

How are the needs of the focus person / people presented? How are student goals framed? How are teacher goals framed? How are outcomes described?

Synthesising the Interpretation of the Analysis

After data had been extracted, a further iteration of analysis began by reflecting on responses to each question across the body of publications as a whole. This involved grouping our responses to each of the questions together and searching for commonalities, as well as further reflecting on the underlying assumptions that appeared to have shaped the construction of this body of literature. Through this process, three overarching tensions were identified that would be likely to impact negatively on teachers’ sustainment of outcomes from the music therapist teacher support experience. These tensions related to the focus of the program itself, the frame of student goals and intended outcomes for staff learning. These tensions are presented in synthesised form in the following section of this paper alongside a discussion of key learnings gleaned from reflecting on these findings.

Findings and Discussion

Tension Between the Needs of Students and Teachers

Overwhelming focus on student needs

The first major tension identified within this critical interpretive synthesis was between the needs of the teachers participating in the music therapist teacher support and the needs of their students. We noticed that, on the whole, in spite of the intention to support teachers to develop outcomes from the process, identifying the needs of teachers was not prioritised within music therapist teacher support programs. When references to teacher needs were present, authors tended to portray ways in which teachers were able to cope with challenging work conditions, rather than strengths or personal experience with music. For example, Coombes and Tombs-Katz (2009) outlined the way “Teachers and social workers working in this environment face daily challenges associated with stress and anxiety” (p. 3). Brotons (2001) similarly reported the prevalence of teachers experiencing stress and burnout.

Conversely, authors overwhelmingly described the identification of student needs as the initial focus for their music therapy work with teachers. For example, when writing about her music therapy school consultation protocol, Rickson (2012) noted the importance of collating data pertaining to each individual student and conducting environmental and clinical music therapy assessment processes with students. Indeed, the identification of the individual needs of students can be seen as in keeping with the traditional practice of music therapy in schools (McFerran, 2014, p. 328). However, it seemed that initial identification of the needs of particular students in the classroom was often incongruent with the intentions of supporting teachers to develop their use of inclusive practices. In the mid 1990s, Jones (1996) identified the importance of reflecting on the shift towards inclusive music therapy practice in schools by asking "How do you transition services toward inclusive environments when the services it delivers have historically been associated with institutional-like settings?" (p. 44). McFerran and Rickson (2014) proposed an answer to this question by changing the focus of music therapy school programs in schools from identifying student issues to “getting a feel” for the needs of the whole school community (p. 68). However, in practice, work in this space (McFerran, Crooke, & Bolger, 2017) has still seemed to prioritise student needs over those of staff members.

Furthermore, the enduring initial focus on student needs perceived within the literature seemed to have a direct impact on the experience of the participating teachers. In one publication, Rickson and Twyford (2011) asked school staff members for their perspective on outcomes from a music therapy consultation program. They discovered that despite positive outcomes for students, teachers and support staff stated that their work conditions made it difficult to carry on the music once the music therapist had left the school. One teacher described how although she was receptive to ideas suggested by the music therapist consultant, “apart from the odd thing we haven’t really instigated anything that we got from the music program, because we can’t” (pp. 75–76). This raises the question of whether shifting the initial focus of the consultation program to the identification of teacher needs would have allowed the music therapist to determine the kinds of activities that the teachers might have been able to instigate in their school context, and in turn yielded a different result.

In a later publication, Twyford and Rickson (2013) proposed that:

To be empowered to feel and act in 'naturally' musical ways, and to not only maintain but develop their use of music, individual staff members might need the carefully planned support of a music therapy consultant, offered within a confidential consultation relationship, focused specifically on them, rather than the child (p. 133).

We agree with this statement and through critical reflection noticed that ways in which the focus of teacher support was depicted within this body of literature did not always appear to be compatible with the needs of participating teachers.

With further immersion in the literature, it also became clear that very few publications explicitly detailed ways in which teachers even volunteered to participate in the music therapist teacher support process. In their description of a music therapy program exploring music therapy for grief and loss with students in Ireland, McFerran & Hunt (2008) shared that despite attempts by the music therapist to prepare staff members to carry on with addressing the issues identified through music therapy, this did not ensue. The authors postulated that “too much responsibility had been placed on an unwilling school community, which resulted in a lack of ongoing action” (p. 49). This insight named the crucial importance of what Bolger later referred to as community “buy in” (Bolger, McFerran, & Stige, 2018) when engaging stakeholders in collaborative music therapy projects striving for sustained outcomes. It is suggested that voluntary participation in the music therapist teacher support process is a likely prerequisite of teachers’ development of sustained outcomes.

Lack of attention to teachers’ musical and professional needs

Several authors of more recent publications reviewed have suggested that building strong positive relationships with school staff members (Twyford & Rickson, 2013) and drawing upon the strengths and resources of school staff (McFerran, Crooke, & Bolger, 2017; McFerran & Rickson, 2014; McFerran et al., 2015) are vital for successful music therapist teacher collaboration. Yet, the critical review process also allowed us to bring to light several instances within the literature in which the music therapist did not appear to be supportive of teachers’ musical and professional needs. For example, it is common practice within music therapy to engage participants in building confidence through use of their preferred musical material and instruments (Wheeler, 2015, p. 451). However, with the exception of the intercultural skill sharing projects outlined by Quin and Rowland (2016), descriptions of the use of teacher preferred instruments and musical material was lacking within this body of literature.

Some authors describing music therapist teacher support programs explained that music making needed to take place out of the classroom as the musical activities were either too noisy (Suh, 2015) or too difficult to manage inside a classroom (Rickson & Twyford, 2011; Twyford, 2012). However, it is argued that leaving the classroom within a music therapy teacher support program is likely to have a detrimental effect on the teachers’ sustained skills. This is because a teacher is unable to leave students unsupervised in the classroom, and rarely has the chance to engage one-on-one with students.

Many authors alluded to the difficulty of engaging in ongoing conversations with teachers due to time constraints faced by both teachers and music therapists. When outlining a community music therapy approach to teacher support, McFerran and Rickson (2014) suggested dialoguing with school leadership at the start of a program to build understanding of the importance of making time to meet with teachers. However, few publications overtly included description of such meetings as part of the process of music therapist teacher support. It is extrapolated that starting music therapist teacher support with a focus on teacher needs may be an important practical step in promoting sustained outcomes from such programs.

Through questioning the initial focus of music therapist teacher support programs we do not wish to imply that the needs of teachers are somehow more important than the needs of students, or that the needs of students and teachers are not interconnected within a classroom setting. However, it is proposed that the order in which music therapists focus on the needs of teachers and students should differ depending upon who is the intended primary recipient of the music therapists’ support. When the intention is to provide support to teachers so they may sustain outcomes from the music therapy program, we argue that the primary focus is the teacher. Focusing directly on the teacher is then more likely to result in sustained practices and benefits. Students also stand to greatly benefit from a shift in focus.

Tension Between Therapeutic and Educative Frames

Frame of goals for students

The second major tension identified through this critical interpretive synthesis was between use of therapeutic and educative frames for planning and evaluation. One commonly understood aspect of music therapist teacher support was that a music therapist partners with teachers to set goals for students based on an assessment of students’ needs. The music therapist then supports the teacher to address these goals through music making, regularly evaluating progress and changing goals as needed. However, through critically reading the literature we noticed that framing student goals as therapeutic seemed to restrict the potential for effective collaboration with teachers and subsequent sustained teacher outcomes. Furthermore, we identified that student goals set by music therapists did not always appear to align with teachers’ professional obligations.

Several authors have differentiated between educative and therapeutic frames for the student goals set within descriptions of music therapist teacher support. For example, Bunt (2003), stated that when working in schools "the [music] therapist is challenged to consider the relationship between therapeutic objectives and a more educational framework" (p. 189). The difference between education and therapy has been described as “a difficulty” by Pellitteri (2000, p. 389). Annesley (2014) additionally noted that "sometimes my role can involve allowing things to happen in therapy which might not be accepted in the classroom" (p.37).

This distinction between therapeutic and educational goals for students was often also acknowledged through comparing music education and music therapy programs. Some authors described a certain level of overlap between music education and music therapy yet proposed that each discipline had its own unique goals for students (Bunt, 2003; J. Smith, 2017). For example, several authors have attempted to point out the difference between addressing student learning of music curriculum through music education and addressing therapeutically oriented extra-musical student goals through music therapy (Brotons, 2001; Montgomery & Martinson, 2006; J. Smith, 2017).

A further illustrative example of the differences between frames for goals used by music therapists and teachers was presented in a comparison of outcomes from two drumming groups addressing a school violence prevention initiative (Suh, 2015, p. 78). Within this program Suh noted that, contrary to music education, student participation in music therapy did not relate to the attainment of grades. Mitchell (2016) also pointed out that “a common distinction between music education and music therapy is the fact that education necessitates attainment of predetermined standards” (p.35). However, Suh also noted that, when facilitating a therapeutic drumming group “the music teacher’s approach was more focused on educative goals” whereas the consulting music “therapist was trained to be more focused on the individual’s emotional status than the school music teacher” (pp. 75–76). This paragraph reminded Meg of the differing professional roles held by music therapists and teachers working to address student goals in a school context. It also seemed that debating the differences between the relative merits of therapeutically and educatively framed student goals often seemed to contribute towards an unhelpful dichotomy between therapy and education. This dichotomy in turn detracted from the ability of music therapists to support the work of teachers.

Furthermore, it seemed that some authors prioritised their own therapeutic agendas to further the profession of music therapy which served to limit their ability to effectively collaborate with teachers. For example, Woodward (2000) stated that knowledge of both education and therapy practice is needed when working with teachers. However, her suggestion that “therapy is more important than teaching because learning and teaching opportunities arise naturally from therapy” (p.97) is problematic in a school context in which the primary aim is the education of students delivered by teaching staff. By contrast, more recent publications demonstrated the evolution of music therapist teacher support towards a greater consideration of the school context in which the work takes place. Mitchell’s (2016) contention that “music therapists do not have a monopoly on music's therapeutic potential and affordances" (2016, p. 34) seems a more helpful starting point for music therapists aiming to support teachers, and more amenable to the development of collaborative partnerships. While music therapists are obviously aware that the professional role of teachers is to educate students, greater consideration of the many aspects encompassed within a teaching role is warranted when developing school-based programs that involve providing support to our teaching colleagues. Thus, we contend that setting student goals with a therapeutic frame is incongruent with our understanding of the fundamental aim of music therapist teacher support programs – supporting teachers with their professional responsibility to teach. Instead, music therapists are encouraged to partner with teachers to set educationally framed student learning intentions, as per teachers’ professional obligations.

Naming a tension between therapeutically and educatively framed goals within this literature base is not intended to imply a hierarchical relationship between therapy and education, nor suggest that setting therapeutically oriented goals for student growth is not a valuable and much needed intention for music therapy programs in schools. However, in rejecting the assumption that student needs must be prioritised over teacher needs, working with teachers to set educationally framed learning intentions for their students is vital. Furthermore, supporting teachers to set educatively framed student learning intentions is expected to contribute to teachers’ sustainment of developments from the music therapist teacher support program after it has ceased.

In her book about music therapy group work in special education, Goodman (2007) acknowledged that the way goals are required by the school setting can challenge the clinical orientation of the consulting music therapist. However, she also pragmatically cautioned the reader that “goal-setting need not define the therapist’s way of working” (p.115, original italics). It is thus proposed that supporting teachers to set student learning intentions has the potential to remove responsibility for measuring student progress from the role of the music therapist. This shift has the potential to mitigate any potential challenges experienced by music therapists who do not feel that measuring student educational progress aligns with their professional training as a music therapist.

Music therapists who feel challenged by the prospect of supporting teachers to set educationally framed student learning intentions are encouraged to develop their knowledge of therapeutically oriented and critical approaches to education. Indeed, Mitchell (2016) presented a case for therapeutic education that uses the affordances of music and posed the question “Just as learning opportunities arise naturally in therapy, what if opportunities for therapeutic growth arise naturally in teaching?” (p. 26).

Presentation of the concept of “curriculum”

One of the key aspects of a teachers’ professional role involves the education of students related to the relevant curriculum framework. Engaging in this critical review allowed the identification of some challenges with the current understandings of the educative concept of “curriculum” presented in the body of literature.

Some publications outlined ways in which session goals could be aligned with music curriculum (Brotons, 2001; Chester, Holmberg, Lawrence, & Thurmond, 1999), or suggested that music therapy could address students’ personal and social learning (Bunt, 2003; Robertson, 2000). Meg reflected that music therapists sometimes use the word “curriculum” with a rigidity that is different to the way a trained teacher might understand it. For example, when reporting on community music therapy oriented work across four mainstream school settings, McFerran, Crooke, and Bolger (2017) explained that “some programs crossed the boundaries between structured curricular activities and the more emergent, creatively driven ones” (p. 17). This description contrasts with the idea reflected in current local curriculum guidelines: while teachers are required to use curriculum guidelines to frame learning activities, curriculum use has no bearing on how teachers organise learning activities (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2015). As such, addressing the curriculum does not need to prohibit emergent and creatively driven ways of learning.

In her chapter about the possible forms of music therapy service delivery, Johnson (1996) explained that learning goals for students who require the regular curriculum to be modified to suit their needs are outlined in an “individualized education plan” or IEP (p. 71). Several authors described music therapy consultation programs where content was framed according to the IEPs of individual students (Brotons, 2001; Chester et al., 1999; Goodman, 2007; Twyford & Rickson, 2013). However, these authors did not include information about how IEP goals connected to the overarching curriculum framework used by the whole class. For example, Rickson and Twyford (2011) presented four case examples of music therapy consultation to address the IEP goals of students with additional needs. The authors concluded that “Although some ideas could be taken into the classroom, the group activities were difficult to manage in a class of twenty-five children” (p. 72). We agree that music therapists have specialised knowledge that can support the inclusion of students with a range of individual needs. However, this oversight seemed to restrict the potential for the classroom teacher to uphold inclusive education legislation (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2016) by engaging the whole class group in musical activities suggested by the music therapist.

We realised through reflecting on language used to describe planning and evaluation in the music therapist teacher support literature that music therapists could benefit from a greater knowledge of curriculum. In particular, it would likely be helpful for music therapists to deepen their understanding of the relevant curriculum framework in their own setting. This knowledge would likely assist them to support teachers to develop educatively framed student learning intentions to address in their work together.

Tension Between Intended and Sustained Teacher Outcomes

Intended outcomes for teachers

Reconceptualising the primary aims of music therapist teacher support as assisting teachers with their task of educating students led us to critically re-examine descriptions of teacher learning goals presented in the literature. This investigation revealed that learning goals for staff almost always related to skill development to address identified student needs rather than the professional learning needs of the teachers. When writing about facilitating in-services for teachers, Heine (1996) reminded readers to “recognise teachers as adult learners who bring to the in-service a host of ideas, experiences, needs and strengths” (p. 95). Some publications aligned with this statement and presented what appeared to be highly collaborative and teacher focused processes for determining staff goals related to the overall focus on building inclusivity (Rickson, 2010), or therapeutic growth for students (Coombes, 2011). At other times authors mentioned the ways in which music therapists used their expert knowledge to suggest possible goals for teachers. From there, teachers set professional learning goals based on the areas of practice they needed to develop in order to best serve their students. It is therefore suggested that collaborating with teachers to set intentions for their own learning may support both teacher engagement and the likelihood of sustained outcomes from the process.

Again, this is not to suggest a hierarchical relationship between teacher and student needs in which one is prioritised at the expense of the other. Rather, it is advised that working alongside teachers to set professional learning intentions within music therapist teacher support programs may potentially mitigate the challenges reported within the literature of teachers not being able to sustain outcomes from their interaction with the music therapist.

Descriptions of sustained outcomes for teachers

As previously outlined, many authors commented that teachers found it difficult to sustain gains in their ability to use music with their students after the program had ended. However, there were some positive additional sustained outcomes described in the literature. McFerran, Crooke, and Bolger (2017) outlined ways in which one wellbeing coordinator was now targeting a wider group of students with her music program. Coombes and Tombs-Katz (2009) shared that staff were now using music to assist with management of student behaviour, commenting that the music therapy teacher support program may have contributed to them developing confidence in this area.

Another powerful sustained outcome presented in several publications was that the music therapist teacher support programs exposed staff members to other ways of seeing and being with students. Some authors reported that the music therapist teacher support programs provided an alternative framework for understanding a child with additional needs (Pellitteri, 2000) and showed teachers about specific talents of students (Coombes & Tombs-Katz, 2009; Rickson & Twyford, 2011). Others described staff changing ways in which they spoke to students after engaging in the music therapy program (McFerran et al., 2015) and referred to improved relationships between staff and students (Margetts et al., 2013; McFerran, Crooke, & Bolger, 2017; Rickson, 2009). Coombes and Tombs-Katz (2009) mentioned that one teacher built their ability to manage stress throughout their participation in the music therapy program. They went on to state, however, that this “was not a primary goal of the program” (p. 6).

These outcomes caused us to consider ways in which outcomes described from music therapist teacher support programs could be aligned to outcomes reported in the professional learning literature. For example, authors have described the way that teacher professional learning programs can also result in improved student-teacher relationships (Roorda, Koomen, Jantine, & Oort, 2011) and teacher stress management (Owen, 2016). We also noticed that the sustained outcomes presented above appeared to be more closely relate to teachers’ professional growth, than their development of music skills to use in the classroom. We agree with a suggestion made by Woodward (2000) that using music therapeutically requires specialised and professional skills that are outside the realm of being a teacher. It is therefore suggested that music therapists work alongside teachers to set their own professional learning intentions to address through their collaboration with the music therapist.

This proposition is not intended to prohibit music therapists supporting teachers’ ability to use music in their classroom. Rather, this recommendation intends to honour the agency of teachers as professionals. Placing emphasis on teacher-driven learning may in turn assist music therapists in ensuring that music therapy interventions are supportive of the needs of teachers, who may then better support the needs of their students.

Next Steps

Several pertinent possibilities for future directions in music therapist teacher support emerged from this critical interpretive synthesis on the literature. It appeared that the initial assessment of student needs often prohibited music therapists from addressing the needs of teachers in a way that might lead to sustained outcomes from the process. This overall finding echoed the words of Coombes (2011):

Indeed, it became clear as the project progressed that the tension between providing a satisfactory training experience for staff and at the same time ensuring that clients were also catered for was an enormous challenge. In hindsight perhaps more time spent with the trainees helping them devise activities might have stimulated the emergence of a more culturally and contextually specific programme (para. 71).

Critically reviewing these publications has also led us to grasp that an advisable aim for music therapist teacher support is to provide teachers with help to meet their professional obligation of educating children rather than attempting to provide teachers with the skills to use music therapeutically. Therefore, the first recommendation from this critical interpretive synthesis is to focus on the agency of teachers when aiming to build sustained teacher skills through music therapist teacher support programs.

By paying attention to the depiction of teachers in this review, a number of processes that may assist music therapists in engaging in future music therapist teacher support programs were identifed. These processes include ensuring that the teachers volunteer for participation, are respected for the time pressures they are experiencing, and consider teacher-preferred strategies for music making. Furthermore, it is recommended that music therapists consider collaborating with teachers to:

  • Shift the initial focus to teachers and conduct a strengths-based and contextual assessment of teachers’ professional learning needs

  • Support teachers to set their own professional learning intentions and

  • Collaborate with teachers to set student learning intentions in line with the appropriate curriculum framework.

Teachers may then be supported to address student learning intentions (through facilitating music related to the appropriate curriculum framework) while addressing their own professional learning intentions.

This review also confirmed what Rickson alluded to as a gap in the training of music therapists to be able to work sensitively when providing support to teachers (2012). It may be helpful for music therapists to further their contextual knowledge about the professional obligations required of the teachers they hope to partner with when engaging in future school programs.


This paper presents the findings of a critical interpretive synthesis that explored the representation of teachers in literature pertaining to music therapist teacher support programs. Through this process, we noticed that a lack of attention to the needs of teachers appeared to impact on the sustainment of outcomes from such programs. We also perceived a discrepancy between commonly described intentions for teachers’ development and descriptions of positive outcomes from music therapist teacher support. Working towards teacher-identified professional learning intentions may assist music therapists in facilitating programs in ways that support teachers to sustain outcomes after the music therapist ceases working with the teacher. This has the potential to positively impact students in a sustained manner.

Enacting this shift in practice necessitates music therapists developing knowledge about the professional obligations of teachers in their context so that they may support teachers to set student goals in line with educational legislation. The findings of this critical interpretive synthesis suggest exciting potential for music therapists working in schools to support teachers with their professional learning needs, so that they may in turn better support their students. The recommendations that emerged from this critical interpretive synthesis of the literature are not offered to diminish the value of music therapists striving to address the immense needs of students in the current day educational climate. Rather, it is expected that through paying greater attention to the needs of teachers, music therapists will be well placed to support teachers to sustain developments in their own teaching practices for the benefit of both teachers and their students.

About the authors

Meg Steele is a Graduate Researcher at the University of Melbourne exploring music therapist teacher support programs. Meg is a music therapist and teacher with interest in supporting teachers to develop their use of creative and inclusive teaching practices. Meg is also passionate about the continuing professional development of music therapists, and the use of music in self-care.

Dr Alexander Hew Dale Crooke is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is a transdisciplinary researcher who works across the fields of music therapy, social science, adolescent mental health, music education and cultural studies. His current research agenda centres on the benefits and challenges of school-based arts programs, focusing on issues of psychosocial wellbeing, research methodology, policy and contemporary youth culture.

Dr Katrina Skewes McFerran is Professor and Head of Creative Arts Therapy at The University of Melbourne. She is a music therapist and researcher with a deep interest in music and young people in a range of educational, medical and community contexts. She has written a number of books, including: Creating Music Cultures in the Schools (Barcelona Publishers) with Daphne Rickson.


[1] Meg is the first author, and the PhD Candidate involved in this research. We have chosen to use her name to ensure that her presence is reflexively noted in the text. This PhD research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

[2] In the Australian context, the term “mainstream” is used to refer to a non-special education school setting. All students who reside in the local area are welcomed to enrol in a mainstream school.

[3] Ethical approval for undertaking data collection for this study was granted by the University of Melbourne humanities and applied sciences human ethics sub-committee (Project 1545449.4) and Catholic Education Melbourne Analysis, Policy & Research Team (Project 2165).



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