Music as Therapy: A York Alumna Talks Career and Well-Being

Posted by Sam on March 31, 2016

Careers | The Vari Reel

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For those of you who might not know, March is Music Therapy Month. To bring it to a fine conclusion, we took the occasion to speak to York University alumna Shirley Khalil, now the owner of Rubato Music Therapy, who has worked as a successful music therapist for many years. We asked her to tell us a little bit about her career, the role of music in health and mental well-being and what set her on her particular professional path. Enjoy!

Would you mind telling us about your educational background?

 I graduated from York in 1999, with a BFA in Music (Piano Performance), then received my Master of Music Therapy degree from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2005. I completed the two-year program, which began in 2003. To prepare for it, I returned to York part-time to take the psychology prerequisites, as well as Piano Improvisation. A 1,000-hour internship for the Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT) was included in my music therapy training, and I received Music Therapist Accredited (MTA) status upon completion of the internship and submission of an Accreditation File (which has now been replaced by an Accreditation Exam).

 Currently, I am completing certification training in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, a form of music psychotherapy requiring a separate training process.

Seeing as you are a graduate of York, can you tell us about your experience during your time here, and how it may have influenced your career path?

I enjoyed my time at York. I really appreciated the variety of classes the Music program offered. I also enjoyed being able to collaborate with musicians of diverse backgrounds in a fun and non-competitive environment.

I began learning about music therapy while at York through research and reading, and it was a noon-hour event during my fourth year that provided me with a connection to a music therapist. Several alumni from the music program were featured as part of a panel to talk about their careers in music, and one of them was a music therapist who was working at CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) at the time. I was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to volunteer with another music therapist there, which I did for two years. It enabled me to receive some valuable firsthand experience of the field prior to applying at Laurier.


In regards to your career, what made you decide to want to become a music therapist?

As a musician, I was always aware of how music affected me, and of its importance in my life. When I began to learn about music therapy, I was instantly drawn to it, because I realized that it was a way for me to be able to utilize my musical abilities to help others overcome obstacles and realize their own potential. Knowing how accessible music and its elements can be for people, and being able to help them use music to work through issues and emphasize strengths, is extremely rewarding.

What is it exactly that do you as a music therapist, and how does music therapy work? Does one have to play an instrument to work as a music therapist?

Music therapists are, first and foremost, trained musicians. They utilize their primary instruments in music therapy (e.g. piano, guitar, voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, etc.), and will learn and use many other instruments. Instruments may also be adapted for client use in a variety of ways. Technology has provided a wider variety of digital and electronic instruments and applications that can be used for playing, song writing/composition and recording.

Music therapy uses music and its elements to help clients reach clinical goals and objectives that are formed from an assessment, which includes learning about the client’s medical/psychological condition(s), social background, as well as music preferences. Interventions include singing, instrument playing, improvisation, song writing, music listening, song-lyric analysis, music and imagery and music in combination with drawing/art or movement. Goals for therapy are developed and based on social, emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual and cognitive needs (alone and in combination).

In day-to-day work, I work with both individual clients and groups. Session planning and ongoing assessment and evaluation form part of the process. Communication and collaboration with family members, caregivers and other professionals working with the clients are important both to inform me of my clients’ progress in other areas of their lives and to inform others of their progress in music therapy.

What would you say is the most common reason people seek out your services? Who benefits from music therapy?

It’s difficult to single out a common reason for people seeking music therapy, because we work with such a wide variety of clientele and in conjunction with medical treatments and other types of therapies. Perhaps the creative aspects of music therapy, and the creative potential that can be accessed in each client, is a common factor. People across the life span and with a variety of needs can benefit from music therapy: from women before and during childbirth all the way to palliative (end-of-life) care and families in bereavement. In my career so far, I have worked with adults and the elderly with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia or other complex medical conditions; children and adults with developmental delays, cancer, Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder); victims of abuse and adults in bereavement. Clients do not need to have any musical ability or knowledge to benefit from music therapy.

For those interested in a similar career, what kind of advice would you offer?

I would definitely advise anyone interested in music therapy to make connections and learn as much as possible before applying for an undergraduate or graduate program. Look for opportunities to speak with music therapists. Read the literature and research that’s available. You may also wish to attend conferences hosted by professional associations as a means to network and learn about the latest developments in the field.

Check the requirements of the undergraduate and graduate programs to see which fits best for you. You might begin an undergraduate degree as a music major first, taking introduction to music therapy courses before applying for the music therapy program in year 3. I personally recommend, if possible, to take both the undergraduate and graduate programs. If you are already pursuing a music or psychology degree, similar to my path, then l recommend looking into the graduate programs and fulfilling those requirements over a second undergraduate degree.

In considering the current labour market for music therapy, many music therapists work in private practice or as self-employed music therapists collaborating with other music therapists or other professionals. There are some full-time and part-time positions available in various settings. It may be wise to supplement your education with workshops or courses on how to set up and run your own business. Education is ongoing to stay current with developing methods and adding other skills (e.g. verbal counselling). Most importantly, engaging in self-care activities and keeping yourself fulfilled personally using music and other hobbies will help you feel satisfied with your career.

Outside of working with a professional music therapist, is it possible to include some music therapy in our everyday lives?

I am an advocate for using music in everyday life in ways that are therapeutic, and I believe that many people use music for therapeutic purposes intuitively. Listening to music can both enhance or change your mood, aid in relaxation or distract from pain. Playing songs or pieces that are meaningful to you can evoke positive memories and associations, or provide important messages within their lyrics. Singing, dancing or drawing to music encourages free play and creative or emotional expression. Joining a community choir or playing in drumming circles or other instrumental ensembles fosters social interaction. Learning to play an instrument can boost self-esteem in addition to enhancing cognitive and physical function. Go to concerts. Don’t be afraid to explore or express yourself! You never know what you may discover.    

As a firm believer in the therapeutic power of music myself, I found many gems in Shirley’s insights. Thanks to her for taking the time to speak to us! Even if you’re not into music as much as we are, many of her ideas apply generally to finding a fulfilling professional path after school. What do you think? Comment below or tweet us at @yorkustudents.


Sam recently graduated with an Honours BA in Communications.

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