The Other Berklee Product: Music Therapists

By Jason M. Rubin

When you think of a typical Berklee College of Music student, you probably think of a young hipster smoking a butt on the corner with a guitar case around his or her back. Pierced, tattooed, coolly soaking up street cred to accompany his shredding solos or her introspective ballads, they seem to be just an E string’s width away from the fame and fortune of superstardom.

That may be the stereotype – and for some, no doubt, the reality – but it is not the whole truth. In fact, many Berklee students are focusing their schooling and their career path on what Darla Hanley, Dean of Berklee’s Professional Education Division, has called “the compassionate use of music.” In other words, music therapy.

Hanley’s division encompasses the College’s music business/management, music education, music therapy, professional music, and liberal arts programs. While music therapy is not the largest department at Berklee, it has established itself as one of the best in the country.

The chair of the music therapy department is Suzanne B. Hanser, Ed.D, MT-BC. A licensed music therapist herself, Hanser is a past president of the National Association for Music Therapy and World Federation of Music Therapy. She created the department at Berklee in 1995. But why does a globally recognized leader in contemporary music education, whose alumni have won hundreds of Grammy Awards, need a music therapy department?

“An effective music therapist must be a superb and versatile musician,” she says, “because they have to be able to translate another person’s needs into music. Traditionally, music therapists had been trained in conservatories, but Berklee students have the ability to bring a lot of different styles and techniques into the therapeutic milieu.”

That’s important because the population for whom music therapy is good medicine is very diverse. And Boston, quite frankly, is an ideal place to hone one’s skills.“Our students do practicums at some of the world’s finest medical and academic institutions right here in Boston,” says Hanser. “They work directly with clients along the age and clinical spectrum, from developmentally delayed children to seniors with dementia. Music therapy helps people with life-threatening problems and with everyday stresses. It’s been shown that people who are cognitively impaired respond better to music than through talk therapy; even those who cannot or will not speak seem to enjoy singing.”

To become a licensed music therapist in the United States, one must complete a degree in music therapy at an institution where the program is approved by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA); a clinical internship is also required. Graduates must then take the national examination offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. Upon passing the exam, the credential MT-BC (Music Therapist–Board Certified) may be used.

Berklee’s AMTA-approved curriculum effectively combines the theory and practice of music therapy; students enroll in five levels of supervised clinical practica in which they assist music therapists from over 50 clinical settings in the metropolitan Boston area. Upon graduation, many open their own private practices, some even maintain a recording and performing career on the side. Some Berklee-trained music therapists are currently working with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to help them overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), others are helping revive the memories of Alzheimer’s patients.

Through contracts with schools, medical centers, nursing homes, and short- and long-term care facilities, music therapists with a degree from Berklee can become superstars in ways that really matter.

Jason M. Rubin is a Boston-based journalist and author, whose debut novel, “The Grave and the Gay,” was published in 2012. To learn more about Jason, visit jasonmrubin.com.

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