RhythmWORKS Music Therapy


2 Aug · Linda · 2 Comments

Time to Adapt: Being Flexible During Music Therapy Sessions

The saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men often gone awry”, probably wasn’t written about music therapists or our session plans…but it might as well have been. I have found that flexibility during sessions is as important a quality for music therapists as good musicianship and therapeutic skills.

Take for example, one of my sessions from a couple of weeks ago. I had planned a session for a group of adults with developmental disabilities based on a happiness theme. When I got there, I found out that a resident had died that morning. What to do? We talked about the person who had passed away and discussed our feelings. Then I asked them if they wanted to sing a song in honor of her memory and one of the clients asked for a hymn….which I didn’t know.  Fortunately, I quickly found a video on YouTube of the song and played it on my speaker.  We sang the song together and had a quiet moment afterwards.

Although we learned in college that flexibility is an essential part of practicing music therapy; our role-playing activities to demonstrate music therapy interventions didn’t exactly emphasize the point. Typically, everything ran smoothly and our fellow students followed our instructions without question. No one complained that they had used an instrument before, or threw a mallet across the room, or broke one of your new hand bells the first day you used them.

As music therapists, we are continually assessing the environment, our clients and how they are responding to interventions. We make decisions in the moment based on the needs of our clients and what will best help them to reach their goals. We may have to adjust things mid-song. Is the tempo too fast or slow; is the music too loud or quiet; they love Taylor Swift, but they aren’t responding at all to the song, etc.


Should you move on to Plan B or stay the course? Some things to keep in mind if clients are not responding the way you intended:

  1. What happened just prior to your session? I have entered classrooms many times and learned that it may have been an especially stressful day. In cases like this, we may spend the entire session using instruments, activities and apps to create a calm environment and encourage relaxation. I’ve learned to carry mini-cabasas; some type of large calming instrument such as an ocean drum;  and hypoallergenic and non-scented hand lotion for hand massages in my bag.  Starting a session with a sensory based intervention gives you the chance to assess the clients and help them to focus.
  1. Is the intervention at their current level of functioning? We all learned the importance of that while training to become music therapists; however, it can be trickier in a “real world” situation.  In a group setting, you may have clients with a wide range of strengths and needs. In order for each person to be successful, their individual objectives may vary greatly.  Be sure to give staff members (if they are assisting clients) clear directions of your expectations so they understand how each client will be working with the instruments, etc.
  1. If a client begins demonstrating non-compliant behavior during an activity some things to keep in mind before going to plan B:
    1. Is the behavior due to a sensory issue related to the activity or instruments being used? If building tolerance pertaining to the activity is not part of the student’s goal, then move on.
    2. Is the behavior related to work avoidance?
    3. Is it a new activity? If so, I have found that individuals, especially those with autism, may have a difficult time accepting a new intervention the first time it is used. When it is repeated the following session, the non-compliant behavior typically disappears.
  2. Don’t feel “married” to your session plan! You may have spent hours prepping for a really cool intervention, but if it’s not working, go to Plan B! It’s ok to feel a little sorry for yourself…I mean, we’ve all had those moments where we’ve spent hours prepping and you knew it was an epic fail within 2 seconds of the session.  Learn what you can from the experience and put it in place the next time.
  3. Get as much information as you can about your clients prior to their first session and ask for specifics! This summer I worked at a summer camp for children with cancer.  Although I had asked questions about their needs prior to my sessions, I discovered that I hadn’t asked the right questions. Even though my contact at the facility indicated that the children didn’t have physical limitations, I planned the sessions thinking I was going to walk into a room full of kids who were weak from chemotherapy and very sickly.  Instead, I got kids who had energy to burn and then some! LOL!   Fortunately, they were all doing very well, but I had to some quick thinking on my feet.  I adjusted the interventions I had planned and the campers had a great time.
  4. Sometimes, you need a Plan B, C and D! Last year I walked into a classroom on the first day of school to the sound of a girl screaming at the top of her lungs because she had a hard time with transitions.  No problem! I simply brought out my gathering drum that has the best vibration for helping to calm individuals. That was met with louder screams. No worries! Since it was the first day of school, I also brought my handy dandy Ocean drum that works in helping to calm people. Um, louder screams. I was beginning to sweat, but I decided to bring out my guitar because it can provide a calming sensory experience and children usually can’t wait to play it. My guitar was met with even louder screams and actual fear. My brain was working a mile a minute trying think of a calming and non-threatening intervention. Eureka! I brought out scarves and success!
  5. Finally, when in doubt, keep it simple! That is some of the best advice I ever got from a fellow music therapist. Whenever I’m overthinking things, I remember her words and it helps me to center myself and think more clearly.

So, if you show up for a session only to discover that you won’t be able to do the drum circle you planned because  it’s a testing day, no worries.  Just go to Plan B…or C…or D….or


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