Over the next few weeks, we will spotlight our music therapists and the work they do. This week, meet Sara R. Longwell, M.M. Ed, LPMT, MT-BC, our Director of Music Therapy. (Fun fact: Sara also recently became a mom to Henry!)
1) Why did you choose music therapy as your focus?
I knew from the time I was in middle school that I wanted to have a career in a music-related industry. I grew up surrounded by music, and playing music, and it was the language I used to relate to the world around me and myself. Then as an undergrad, I majored in psychology and fell in love with that. I was already aware of music therapy and by my sophomore year I knew I wanted to enter a field that would combine my two great interests.
2) What is the hardest obstacle to overcome as a music therapist in reaching your patients?
It isn’t always especially hard to overcome, but the most important obstacle I have to overcome with any patient, with any diagnosis, is to gain their trust. Until a patient can see that I care about them, that I am willing to enter their world and really strive to understand them and accept them, we won’t get anywhere. When a patient trusts me, they’re willing to let me push their boundaries, challenge them and take risks, and those things are necessary to make any meaningful therapeutic progress.
3) Can you share a favorite memory from a therapy session?
When I worked at an inpatient psychiatric facility, one of my favorite activities was to give everyone in a group a slip of paper. On the paper I would have them write down the title of a song that they thought could be their theme song – that somehow represented who they were. Then I would collect them, draw them one at a time and have the group try to guess who each theme song belonged to. One of the groups was an adult psychiatric group with a large variety of diagnoses and patients at very different levels of functioning. In the group at this time there was a man who had schizophrenia. He always sat politely, but silently in groups, and never participated or seemed to socialize with the other patients. He didn’t seem depressed, just very much withdrawn into his own world. He didn’t seem to have much awareness or insight at all about the things happening around him.
During this activity, however, the man wrote down that his theme song would be The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill,” which is all about a silent man that no one understands and every one judges, but who is happy to live in his own world, quietly observing the universe through his own perceptions. I was so stunned by this incredibly self-aware evaluation, and it reminds me that all patients have a rich inner world, whether they show it in expected ways or not, and it’s my job to give them the tools to share that inner world.
4) What is one thing you wish everyone knew/understood about music therapy?
Music therapy is a research-based, clinical intervention that uses techniques that have been evaluated using the scientific method, and most music therapists create and track data regarding treatment. I think many people have the idea that music therapy is just relaxation or fun with music, but there is a reason you have to have a degree, complete an internship, pass an examination and participate in continuing education to be a music therapist. I would love for there to be wider awareness that rigorous research has been applied to the development and application of music therapy, and that it is, therefore, an effective and meaningful treatment modality that has a place alongside speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and other similar interventions.