So you’ve decided to try music therapy. You’re probably wondering exactly what you’re signing up for. You might even have some ideas about what it will be like. If you’re worried you’ll be trapped in a tiny room and forced to listen to Bach and Beethoven for hours on end, or expected to bare your soul in front of a group as soon as you walk in the door, you might be pleasantly surprised. Let’s take a look at what you can expect at your first session.
The first thing to understand is that there is no such thing as a typical session. Every program – and therefore each session – is going to be geared to YOU. Music therapist and professor Kimberly Sena says that there’s generally an “opening” sequence that your therapist will use to help transition your mind from the hustle and bustle of your life into the safer space of the therapy session, and a closing sequence to help re-integrate you to life outside the therapy room. Over time, Sena says the opening can help prepare your brain; as familiarity with the sequence sets in, your brain tends to get ‘set up’ for therapy when you hear it. In between the opening and closing, however, the sky’s the limit, and you and your therapist could end up doing all sorts of musical things that work for you.
Since music therapy can include so many different activities, the only way for the therapist to know what will help you is to talk to you, so that’s what they’ll do first.
The first priority for your therapist will be getting to know you – not just who you are or what you’re struggling with, but also how you respond to musical stimuli, and what kinds of music you’re drawn to. If hard rock sets your teeth on edge, for instance, it’s a safe bet that listening to it or playing it won’t be very therapeutic.
Even though your therapist will be board-certified in music therapy, they won’t be able to help you unless they can understand your personal needs, so in that first session, expect to do some talking about what’s going on and what problem areas you’re experiencing. It can be difficult at first, but the more honest and open you are about how you’re doing, the better and more effective your therapy program will be. Think of it like visiting your doctor – if you simply walk in and expect them to fix you without you telling them what’s wrong, neither of you are going to be very productive.
A lot of factors come into play when devising a music therapy program, and so you might be asked some questions that you think are a bit odd. Things like visual or tactile (touching) distractions might hinder your therapy, and so your therapist will be looking to find out about these as well. Even a certain smell can trigger feelings of discomfort or stress, and those things need to be minimized in the therapy environment.
Expect to be asked about some things you might see as minor or even inconsequential: lighting, noise levels, and even where things are placed in the therapy room are all things your therapist will go over with you to ensure a stress-free environment. If you don’t feel safe and comfortable during therapy, it won’t help you, so it’s in your best interest to be up front about things that might make you feel stressed or unable to concentrate on the tasks at hand.
You might be asked to fill out an assessment, or do some small tasks to test your cognitive function. It might seem a little invasive, but it’s important that the therapist know exactly where you’re coming from and what you’re experiencing. Look at it like a type of physical exam you might get from your medical doctor – except for your brain.
The therapist isn’t the only one who gets to ask questions, by the way. In fact, the more questions you ask, the better prepared you’ll feel going into later sessions. In your first visit, you’re probably just meeting your therapist for the first time, so it’s natural to feel weird about spilling your guts to a relative stranger. If you’re not sure what questions you should be asking, you can always break the ice and ask about their background, where they received their training, or whether they’ve worked with people in similar situations to yours – and how those cases turned out.
Some mental health professionals think you should flat-out ask your therapist if they have ever been in therapy themselves. You certainly don’t need them to give you all the juicy details – and they shouldn’t – but most reputable therapists believe in order to help others, they need to be actively working on themselves as well, and so they won’t be offended by you inquiring about their own mental health. If they are, find a new therapist.
You might feel strange asking some of these things, but you shouldn’t. The whole point of this first session is for you and your therapist to start forging the beginnings of trust – the foundation of any successful therapy program. They might be assessing you, but you’re assessing them, too.
In that first session, you probably won’t jump head first into any programs or therapies – it’ll take a session or even two for the therapist to best assess your needs. Don’t get discouraged! This stage is setting you up for the best possible outcome. You might, however, use that first session to also come up with a closing sequence that helps your brain ‘finish’ the therapy sessions, so you’re not suddenly jarring your brain by stepping back out into the world.
Once you’ve made it through your initial session, you might experience feelings of being ‘drained’ or mentally exhausted; sometimes being open about your struggles and needs can leave you feeling a bit exposed. You may be tempted to give up – after all, who wants to feel worse after leaving a therapy session, right? It’s critical, however, that you stick with it. If you do feel discomfort, it will be only temporary, and if you’ve already taken the first step, you’re that much closer to making real, permanent progress!