Sharing Your Story, Making a Change

During the month of January, these is a push for Music Therapy advocacy.  This guest blog by Dena Register, Ph.D., MT-BC  is a part of that effort.  I hope it provides you insights.  For the non-music therapist, I hope you will join in spreading the word and be a part of our advocacy efforts.  So, here’s Dena!

Part of being a music therapist is sharing your stories—incredible stories—of the triumphs, both great and small, that you encounter every day.

We often have the opportunity to witness the absolute best in the human condition, from the new parents who are learning to adapt and support their pre-mature infant to the family who is grappling with a hospice diagnosis of a loved one. It is not unusual to hear (or say) the phrase “power of music” in our work with patients or clients of any age or ability-level.

I’m not sure that we teach storytelling, per se, as part of the music therapy curriculum, but perhaps we should. It is often the masterful account of how we choose, use and manipulate musical elements to get these “amazing” results that catches the eye of a potential funding source, employer or legislator. We are constant advocates for our clients or patients and our profession with every story that we share.

To that end, I’d like to share a story with you about the power of telling the “right” story, to the “right” group of individuals in just the “right” manner.

The Phone Call From Oklahoma

In late September 2008, I received a phone call from a member of the Oklahoma State Task Force. It was a Wednesday afternoon of a very busy week that seemed as though it ought to be Friday. There was mild panic intermingled with genuine excitement on the other end of the line.

But first, a little background:

Through several interesting twists, one of the task force members was introduced to and befriended a former State Senator who was a huge advocate for children’s services in the state, particularly for young children with special needs. He happened to be visiting the new RISE school in Stillwater, Oklahoma on a day that Robbin Buford, a board-certified music therapist, was providing services to one of the groups there.

Over the course of their new friendship, the former Senator asked a number of questions about music therapy, what kinds of services were available to constituents in the state, what kind of training music therapists received and if there were schools and internships in Oklahoma. Former Senator Long was impressed by what he saw at the RISE school that he began coaching the Oklahoma State Task Force in what steps to take to

  1. ensure that music therapy was recognized by the state and
  2. that state job descriptions were updated to require the MT-BC credential and provide quality services to patients and clients in the state.

Now back to that phone call:

Ed Long had arranged for several lawmakers who were currently in office, as well as some agency directors, to come to the RISE school the following Monday morning. He wanted the guests to have the opportunity to see Robbin in action and to have some time to discuss music therapy and the implications for the state over lunch following her session.

Robbin was calling me to see if there was any way to have regional and/or national representatives from the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) present at the meeting to help field questions and talk about other clinical areas where music therapists provide services. Needless to say, this was an opportunity that we just couldn’t miss! With the help of the other members of the task force and Judy Simpson, AMTA’s Director of Government Relations, we were able to pull together packets of materials and a brief presentation following Robbin’s session.

I left Lawrence, Kansas on Sunday evening to drive most of the way to Stillwater for the Monday morning meeting. We all arrived an hour before the session to set up materials and prepare ourselves to meet and greet as people arrived to observe the group of eight children in the early intervention classroom. There were four children in the group with various special needs, including Down syndrome and autism.

As our guests arrived most were congenial and found a place in the observation booth or at the classroom entrance to watch the session. One gentleman in particular came in, introduced himself, shook hands and maintained a closed body posture with his arms folded across his chest. He went to the observation point that was the farthest away from the group and stood in the background.

A Change in the Room

As the session began, you could see the increased interest in what was occurring during the music therapy session. Body tensions subsided, people moved to a closer location to get a better view of what was happening and they began to ask questions about what was going on in the session.

The children, as always, did a fantastic job attending and engaging in a variety of musical processes that worked on skills across all developmental domains. This was true throughout the session, all the way to the post-session clean up where several children sang while marching the materials down the hall to be put away. Our observers were all smiles and full of questions as we moved from the classroom space to the conference room.

The Powerful After-Effect

As influential as seeing a live session was, the interactions that followed are what I will never forget.

The Director of the RISE school arranged for the physical therapist (PT), the occupational therapist (OT) and two parents to come to the meeting and share their experiences. Both the PT and the OT indicated that having music therapy services available at the school made their job easier AND more effective. Children didn’t need to be pulled out of the group as often because Robbin was able to use music to support the goals that the PT and OT were working on and the children could “work” in the context of the large group.

However, the most powerful moment of the day came from a mother of one of the children with autism. She shared her experience at a number of different early childhood programs where her child was provided the requisite services, including a paraprofessional, according to the law. She said that while these services met the requirements there were no laws stating that those individuals had to work to see the best in her child or to try and maximize his potential and help him thrive in a least restrictive environment.

She ended by saying, “When Robbin comes in to provide music therapy we all see responses and possibilities in him that we don’t see at any other time. It is a chance to see my child look like every other child.”

The room was silent. I still tear up when I share this story.

This was followed by the Director of Developmental Disabilities Services for the state asking a very pointed question, ”Where can we send other legislators to observe these kinds of services?”

Robbin smiled sweetly and said,  “Right here.”

His reply: “I understand but what OTHER locations in the state offer this kind of service?”

And again she replied, “Right here.”

There were at least three jaws that dropped with that realization. In essence, only 18-20 young children in the whole state of Oklahoma were receiving these services on a regular basis.

This advocacy meeting was a “win”.

Oklahoma’s Music Therapy Practice Act Bill

Things began to move rapidly in the days, weeks, and months that followed this meeting. The task force has been summoned to present to various lawmakers and agency heads. They’ve invited parents and clients to testify about the effects of music therapy, conducted a self-study to explore support for music therapy services in the state and submitted legislation to allow licensure for board-certified music therapists.

If you asked any of the ladies who signed up to join the task force, I’m quite certain none would have said that they 1) always dreamed of doing this kind of advocacy work and 2) that they considered themselves proficient at it.

However, the bill they have helped to champion made it quickly and easily through the Senate last year and into a House committee before getting stalled behind budget negotiations. The bill will be pre-filed again this year and, if all goes well, will move through both the House and the Senate before arriving on the Governor’s desk for passage into law.

Advocacy and YOU

We have all learned so much about our profession and our capabilities through this process. One of the most striking things about this journey and how far this group has come is that there are less than 40 music therapists working in the state of Oklahoma! What an incredible illustration of the impact a few people can have AND the impact of music therapy on the lives of those we serve.

As you enter 2011, what kind of impact will YOU make? What contribution do YOU have to share? I’ll leave you with these few things to think about:

  • Advocacy is for anyone. Advocacy happens everywhere, any day of the week, any time you are engaging in a professional capacity. You can advocate at every level (e.g. from grassroots to state governors to national legislators). Any opportunity, any conversation is a way to advocate for the profession. Advocacy also happens within out profession–as when you talk to a person trained in music therapy about board certification. And the skills are familiar to you because you already do this in other ways–you advocate for your clients, your employment, and your pay.
  • Advocacy is a language. You need to know your audience and tailor your advocacy skills for that audience. It’s just like tailoring your clinical skills for different clinical populations. And experience is the best teacher–having your audience experience music therapy first hand is very powerful.
  • You are powerful. When you choose to support your self and your profession by maintaining your membership in AMTA and renewing your board-certification you are contributing to a more powerful you AND a more powerful professional presence. When you send a letter or an e-mail or make a phone call to a legislator you are using your power to participate in what is happening in your state.

Dr. Dena Register is the Regulatory Affairs Advisor for the Certification Board for Music Therapists and an Associate Professor of Music Therapy at the University of Kansas She can be reached at