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how to get a music therapy career

Kids Discover Music Careers – Part 5 – Music Therapy

This is part 5, and the final post, in the series that teaches kids about the different careers in music.  Desiree Luong is a music therapist with Blue Skies Music Therapy, and will go into how to get a career in music therapy and what her experience with being a music therapist is really like.  To read the other posts in this series, you can start with part 1 – piano accompanist. 

Music therapy as a modern profession actually started after the first two World Wars when musicians would volunteer at hospitals playing and interacting with the returning soldiers. Once the doctors and nurses started to see the measurable progress in their patients they began to request that hospitals hire musicians on a more permanent basis. Music therapy is now an evidenced-based, thriving health profession that serves people of all ages and ability levels. I personally have spent most of my professional career working with children, adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome etc, but have also worked with early childhood groups, in pediatric hospital units, psychiatric facilities, public schools, assisted living and Alzheimer’s facilities, summer camps, forensic units, and privately in-home.  Music therapists can also be found in NICU, Wounded Warriors or other veterans programs, rehabilitative hospitals working with TBI patients, neonatal programs, hospice, oncology, mental health facilities, and so much more!


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What Sparked Your Interest in Music Therapy

I first learned about music therapy when I was a sophomore in high school and realized immediately that it was exactly what I was looking for in a career. I had always been a musician, but recognized early on that I wouldn’t enjoy the rigorous rehearsal schedule of a concert pianist. However, I LOVED the feeling of reaching others with my music. You know: that feeling you get when someone approaches you after a performance and tells you that you moved them and made them feel something. When I looked into music therapy I realized that I could not only have that feeling, but would then be able to actually bring the music to them. To say, “I’m glad you felt something! Now join in!” Especially when the populations typically served by music therapists are those individuals that are often unable to access that experience independently. To see music bridge the gaps between someone’s limitations (perceived or otherwise), to improved health and well being is something I as a music therapist get to witness on a regular basis.


What is Music Therapy

But what is music therapy? What do you actually do? It’s probably best if you think of it in the same family as other healthcare professions such as occupational, physical or speech therapies because they ultimate goal of improved functional skills is the same. Clients are referred to you because of a deficit or delay in their cognitive, emotional, physical, behavioral, educational (if you work in a school) or social functioning, to name a few. You conduct an initial assessment, recommend goals, create a treatment plan and then implement that plan through ongoing sessions. Music therapists create goals for their clients that are measurable and take data at every session to measure progress and determine the effectiveness of treatment.

The difference between music education and music therapy lies in the goals. A music educator would have music related goals for their students: “Suzy will play all major scales correctly by the end of the year”. A music therapist would have a sort of “life skills” goal for their client that is not musically based, though we still use the same tools like instruments, singing, rhythm, and melody etc. So a music therapist also might have Suzy play the piano but for a different reason, such as improving fine motor skills: “Suzy will depress the piano key with enough force to produce sound 3 times per session.” Or improve attention to task: “Suzy will play through an 8 measure song without getting distracted” In both of those examples, Suzy is playing the piano, but I as her therapist am not focused on her technique or whether she is playing the correct notes (as a music teacher would), I am measuring her progress on her health goal, and all the while “Suzy” just gets to enjoy the feeling of engaging in music making; often times forgetting that she is actually working on an important skill.


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How Do You Become a Music Therapist?

I was fortunate in that I discovered music therapy when I was young and so I was able to do the research and find a university that offered it as a degree program. I have since been very passionate in the importance of introducing this amazing profession to other young people that might have not yet discovered it for themselves before they start their career searches. To become a board certified music therapist you must complete a 4 year degree program at an accredited university program (you can find a list of these on the AMTA website), followed by a 6 month internship and then a board certification exam.

The degree program is a music degree and so you must be admitted to the university’s school of music with an audition on your primary instrument. Once in the program you will spend most of your college years taking music courses (becoming proficient on guitar and piano especially) as well as psychology courses, anatomy, biology and special education. Once you pass the board exam you become an MT-BC (music therapist-board certified) and you maintain that credential by earning continuing education credits at conferences, through graduate work, research, or other educational opportunities.

The American Music Therapy Association is a wonderful resource for any other questions you may have about the profession. I would also love to be a resource for anyone looking to pursue a career in this incredibly worthwhile and important field. Anyone considering music therapy as a profession should first make sure that they are practicing their primary instrument. Just like with any 4 year music degree the competition can be tough!

Other qualities that benefit a music therapist are creativity, empathy, patience, attention to detail (data!), and an entrepreneurial streak. I mention that last one because this career is not one that you find everywhere (yet!). Oftentimes it falls to you to knock on someone’s door and tell them why music therapy is important and why their facility needs you. But don’t let that intimidate you; 9 out of 10 times they get it as soon as they see or experience their first session and then you can sit back knowing that you pushed the field forward a little bit more. Not bad for a day’s work.



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Desiree is a born and raised Texas girl who went out west (Arizona State University, to be exact) to chase her dreams of being a music therapist. She has been a board certified music therapist for the past 10 years, primarily serving individuals of all ages with developmental disabilities. She moved back to Texas several years ago where she now own her own business, Blue Skies Music Therapy, while raising her two daughters. Being a mama is her favorite job, but being a music therapist is a very close second. Other hobbies include serving in her church, planning adventures for her and her girls, binging on Netflix, road tripping around Texas, seeing Broadway shows, and singing every day!  If you have any questions or want to contact Desiree, you can reach her at


Did you enjoy this post? Does your child have a passion for music and helping others?  Music therapy might be a great career path for them.  


If you are a parent, student, or teacher who wants to learn more about music, connect with other musicians, or wants to post their latest videos of what they’ve been working on, I would love for you to join my Facebook group Music Education Connection. Collaborate, learn from each other, and grow new friendships. This is a place to receive encouragement, positive feedback, and to ask questions.



how to get a career in music therapy

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Jessica Peresta

Music teacher and music education blogger who helps parents and teachers by providing online music education lessons for kids.

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