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How Music Therapists' Support Successful Employment

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

When music artists write about the subject of work, they normally address the struggle of the day to day work life. Just think about The Beatles "Hard Days Night" or Dolly Parton's "9 to 5". Given this, it might seem counterintuitive to use music to teach job skills -especially given some of the stereotypes about musicians being lazy, unprofessional, etc.. However, in the hands of a music therapist, music becomes an effective tool to teach vocational skills and support successful employment.

In the hands of a music therapist, music becomes an effective tool teach vocational skills and support successful employment.

Through our contract with the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), Anderson Music Therapy Services is a part of making that happen.

Our music therapists provide Pre-Employment Training Services (Pre-ETS) over the course of a 16-week music therapy program. That’s a very jargon-heavy way of saying we are using music interventions to prepare students to be successful in the workplace.

The tireless work of activists like Lois Curtis & Elaine Wilson, ADAPT, and ASAN have made employment with community supports a possibility for many folks with disabilities. This is a cause to celebrate since only 50 years ago these individuals might have been forced to spend their whole lives in an institution against their will! Side note- If you’re not familiar with the history of the disability rights movement, I encourage you to click through the links above and take some time to acknowledge all the folks who put themselves on the line to achieve legal protections for all of us. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way thanks to all those who did the hard work before us, and successful employment is now a goal for most high school students. Through the DARS pre-ETS program, students have assistance transitioning from school to the work place.

Now, you may be wondering, how can music therapy teach vocational skills? By using the group dynamic to strengthen all the components that lead to success in interviews, peer relationships, and navigating workplace culture.

Now, you may be wondering, how can music therapy teach vocational skills? By using the group dynamic to strengthen all the components that lead to success in interviews, peer relationships, and navigating workplace culture.

In developing our program, we took a lot of inspiration from Rhythm 2 Recovery and integrated its concepts for group drumming with other group music therapy interventions (such as collaborative songwriting, instrumental improvisation, mindfulness and music, lyric analysis, etc.). What follows is a brief summary of the skill sets we cover in our DARS program.

Our 16-week curriculum encompasses many topics, but they can be simplified into a few categories which are detailed below.



Healthy communication is essential to any relationship, professional or otherwise. Because music is itself a form of communication, it provides an excellent medium to facilitate these skills. Our group members address non-verbal communication, self-expression, using “I statements” to minimize conflict, and using written communication through lyric composition.



Over the course of our groups, we see increased group cohesion and teamwork during drum circle activities. Participants improve their ability to listen and respond to one another while cheering on and supporting each other during solo playing. By learning conflict resolution strategies and working through frictions in the group, participants who may not have initially gotten along are able to successfully make music together in a respectful, enjoyable manner.


Because music is an inherently emotional medium, it’s very effective for teaching emotional expression and providing a healthy outlet for emotions which could have potentially negative effects. Group members practice both expressing their own emotions through instrument playing, lyric writing, and discussion, while also perceiving the emotions of others. Our therapists also incorporate mindfulness techniques to hold space for emotions. An example of this intervention is a sung “lovingkindness” meditation which directs attention to feeling positive emotions towards people we may not always feel warmly towards.


A large portion of our curriculum focuses on giving group members the skills they need to achieve as much independence as possible in the work environment. Participants articulate goals and desires for themselves and their careers through songwriting and work on identifying and discerning their own unique interests. Group members gain confidence through playing instruments, soloing, and expressing themselves musically over the course of the program. Additionally, students learn self-advocacy skills and how to stand up for themselves independently.



All the skills we work on in music therapy groups are generalizable to the work setting. Because music is in and of itself motivating, it makes the learning process much more engaging and rewarding than sitting in a standard, boring lecture.

The experiential aspect of our program increases “buy-in” from participants, as they take ownership over the songs they write and the music they make. Using a drum circle at the beginning of each group energizes participants and clarifies their focus, while the variety of musical interventions used in any one session provides enough novelty to combat the looming threat of boredom which may exude from any group of teenagers :D


We hope to continue expanding this program to serve more schools in our region, as well as to make our curriculum available to other music therapists in Virginia who may be able to provide services to other schools in the state. Thank you for your support as we strive to assist our clients in developing the skills they need to live their best life!

To learn more about our program Pre-ETS program contact your local DARS Counselor or the director of AMTS at


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