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Being A Music Therapist During a Pandemic: A Year's Review Through Music

My year started out on a beach in the Dominican Republic with my husband Bryan and two of our best friends. Our most difficult questions that week were “should I nap by the pool or the ocean?” and “how many dinners should we eat tonight?” I started each day with a coconut and finished it off with a cocktail.

2020 was going to be a year to remember. Bryan and I spent my few waking vacation hours (I napped a lot) talking about our plans for the year. It all seemed so exciting and so possible.

On the airplane ride home, we read about the coronavirus and joked that we had better be careful in the airport. Even in the early moments of the virus coming to the United States, we did our best to laugh it off, singing songs like “My Corona”. I heard rumblings of a shut-down and selfishly thought, “Wow, two weeks at home? That'd be so nice!”

We know the next part of the story. I was sent home March 23rd and those two weeks became three months. Sweatpants went from being a luxury to just about the only thing that fit. The reality of isolation gave me a deep, visceral reaction. There have been ups and downs and a heck of a lot of music that got me through each phase of the pandemic.

Taking Time for Worry & Grief

“Tryin’ to Keep It Together” by Norah Jones

“Level of Concern” by Twenty One Pilots

While I don't always enjoy feeling my feelings, I usually have a lot of them. I was told to think positive, stay positive, BE positive. I felt lost with who I was as a remote music therapist. So much of what I do is reading the room and providing an in-person presence. How was I supposed to DO MY JOB when all I had was Wi-Fi and a guitar? I remember long conversations with my boss where I chose my words carefully: “How exactly do I see patients effectively right now?”

I gave telehealth the old college try. As music therapists we adapt, right? Well, it was far from smooth sailing for me. I like to think I'm a fairly techie gal but being on screen gave me heart palpitations. It felt like someone had tied my hands behind my back as I tried my best to put a big smile and do my job.

One of my first remote experiences was with a telehealth computer being wheeled into a patient's room. They cried when they found out that I could only be on the computer screen and asked me to come in. I then watched them vomit all over themself as I called for a nurse on my phone. When I closed my laptop, I had a big cry. In fact, I cried a lot during those first few weeks.

taking comfort in these two

This. Is. Hard. That's OK to acknowledge. I needed to recognize that things were not going to be normal for a very long time. I slept too much and filled up on junk food. I checked the news, watching the rise of cases day by day. I was faced with a few very uncomfortable questions like, “Who am I outside of being a music therapist?”

Accepting the "Now Normal"

“I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” by Noah Cyrus

“Bummerland” by AJR

My husband is not one to allow pity parties. It's very annoying because wallowing is so deliciously indulgent. He reminded me often of that which I knew was true: I still had so much to be grateful for – so much support and privilege, a job, my health. So, taking one out of Bryan's book, I decided to reframe my thinking.

Things are going to be weird for quite a while. What would make things even minutely better? There were a few things that popped out quickly, like focusing on others and taking care of myself. So that's what I decided to do.

Rising to the Challenge

“I Just Wanna Shine” by Fitz & Tantrums

I tapped back into my creativity – something I hadn't done for a while. My fellow music therapist, Celeste, and I decided we'd start a remote version of our early childhood group with an iPhone and a blanket in my backyard. This quickly became the highlight of the week, getting me back to feeling like a music therapist. I was doing something I loved. Those videos were covered by the Associated Press, allowing us to share our music group beyond our hospital.

I started volunteering at the hospital. Twice a week, I'd spend my day bringing groceries to patients in housing. It felt good to get out of the house and feel purposeful. I got a unique opportunity to see more of what my hospital does to support patients and families, and the extra lengths they were going to during the pandemic. I would walk back and forth across the housing grounds and got to thinking about new avenues for music.

We took up concerts on the housing lawn. Kids who couldn't leave their room waved from their windows with giant foam hands. Other sat on the lawn, enjoying popsicles and music at a distance. These continued for months until it got dark early and too cold.

While this wasn't traditional music therapy, it was a weekly reminder of how much I loved to play music.

Finding Community

“I'll Be There” by Jess Glynne

Community was never as important as it became this year. For me, community used to mean going out to dinner or hanging out with a big group of friends. This year we were forced to get more creative.

I leaned into the music therapy community in a big way. I started Pediatric Music Therapy because I wanted to connect with other medical music therapists. Though I had conceived the website before the pandemic, I never felt so alone in my career than those first few months of lockdown, and it reframed how I moved forward.

I created new friendships with music therapists I had never (or rarely) spoken to in person. I found joy and purpose in offering group supervision and resources to others. I found the time to sit down and learn from others doing amazing things in our field. “Medical Rounds with Music Therapists” is probably my favorite thing that has come from this opportunity.

I worked alongside the AMTA Pediatric Work Group and continue to find inspiration this amazing group of colleagues. Can you BELIEVE all the great things medical music therapists could do even during a global pandemic?! I’ve seen conference presentations, resources, new positions – you name it!

Leaning Into Humor

“Zen” (with K. Flay & grandson) by X Ambassadors

“Batshit” by Sofi Tukker

If you know me at all, you know I often cope through jokes. When I'm having a "feels" moment, joking tends to be the easier option for me.

This was a challenging time, especially in healthcare. Upon returning to campus, I was given some super flattering green goggles. Condensation would drip down the lenses making me feel like I wa

not a fan of dress-up

s out in the rain. I found a way to laugh at the challenge. I'd send flirty pictures to my husband in all my protective garb, letting us laugh about it when we needed it.

During one of my weekly grocery outings a man at Trader Joes asked how my apocalypse was going today. It made me laugh out loud. Every good joke has a hint of truth, right? I adopted the question and started to ask patients, families, and staff. It captured some of the pure insanity of the situation.

Cultivating Gratitude

"Simply the Best" by Noah Reid

The pandemic has shown a bright light on fortunate I am. Each day as I drove to work, I passed a long line of cars waiting at the food bank. I was so supported by my institution and never missed a paycheck. I know that's not the case for so many.

If this year has shown us anything, it's to value what's really important. I enjoyed the extra time with my husband. I tried to be more patient on phone calls home. And I was more present in the interactions I got to have with patients and families.

I am grateful to work alongside amazing healthcare providers who weathered this trying time with grace. I am continuously amazed by our interns who have demonstrated flexibility and openness. They learn under an ever-changing work environment with many times in which I couldn't give them clear answers.

I am grateful more than ever to be a music therapist. In times of hardship, music is something we all need. There are times when I've let myself be angry, singing songs loudly to myself in the car (hello “Zen” by X Ambassadors). There have also been times of quiet introspection, feeling my feelings in the comfort of cozy song.

Holding Onto Hope for the Future

“Head Up High” by Fitz & the Tantrums

“my future” by Billie Eilish

On December 19, I received my first COVID vaccine shot. I (as you can probably guess by this point) had a lot of feelings. I felt guilt for having this privilege when so many others are waiting for it. I felt relieved to get this process started. I felt sad for those whose year was met with loss or uncertainty. I felt gratitude approaching 2021 with a light in this long tunnel.

2021 will not be starting on a beach but my heart is full of gratitude and hope. As music therapists, we are constantly asked to be flexible and we have showed creativity and ingenuity. If we can flourish during a global pandemic, there is no stopping this field.

I can't wait to keep chugging along and building this community with all of you, no matter where you are in your music therapy journey.

Happy 2021! Let's do this.

Love you all -


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