Music Therapy Students Provide Tele-Health Services

Photo: Music therapy student Gracie Nunneley with clinical supervisor Melissa Heffner (inset)

by Holly Haber

Just as physicians are telecommunicating with patients for social distance, so, too, have SMU music therapy scholars taken their practica online.

“All music therapists around the world had to figure out rather quickly how to serve their clients through tele-health, so it seemed like a logical step for our students,” explains Janice Lindstrom, M.A., MT-BC and lecturer in music therapy.

The SMU music therapy department, chaired by Dr. Daniel Tague, trains students to practice music therapy through a four-year academic program and a six-month internship followed by a board certification exam.

Now, they’re using HIPAA-compliant Zoom accounts to connect weekly with clients, aiding their physical and mental health via live music, talk, singing, playing instruments and movement.

A board-certified music therapist supervises each one-on-one session.

Seated near her piano at home in Dallas, junior Elizabeth Carr-Jones meets with a client in nearby Garland while her supervisor joins from further north in Denton.

“This is how we can continue our music therapy training while staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Carr-Jones, a music therapy major. “Working in this way is forcing me to experiment with new ways to make music together.”

With one client, Carr-Jones employed her bassoon, an instrument not typically used in music therapy. She also led some call-and-response musical improvisation because Zoom sometimes presents challenges with sound quality and lag time for people improvising simultaneously.

Malley Morales, another music therapy major in her junior year, has also come up with some workarounds for clients who don’t have musical instruments at home.

“I am relying on more verbal processing skills, helping clients use non-traditional instruments, like pots and spoons, and music-assisted relaxation,” Morales says.

Music therapy student Cela Patras with clinical supervisor Melissa Heffner (inset)

Sophomores Gracie Nunneley and Cela Patras also provide live music in their sessions and invite clients to sing, notes Melissa Heffner, M.M., MT-BC and adjunct professor and music therapy clinical supervisor.

“Sometimes what they’re singing together is a song that the student helped the client write that reflects the client’s feelings or thoughts about a situation in their life,” says Heffner. “Sometimes they sing together while also moving to music – doing practical exercises that ease joint and muscle pain, which the client is then encouraged to continue during the week whenever they’re feeling discomfort.”

Patras has led a client through an improvisational music-making activity using the percussion instruments the client had on hand, and helped him put together musical activities he could do with his grandchildren during video chats. And Nunneley helped a client experiencing stress to relax through music, providing a recording for her to play as a sleep aid before bedtime.

“All of these interventions are used to promote well-being in the lives of their clients at a time when they are feeling the effects of isolation due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders,” Heffner notes.

Until social distancing came into effect, two students had been doing clinical work with children on site at local hospitals, and three gerontology students had been conducting music interventions with seniors in assisted living centers. The facilities couldn’t quickly switch to online sessions, so in order to provide students the clinical experience they needed by the end of the semester, Lindstrom reached out to colleagues and friends in order to identify homebound individuals who could benefit from music therapy.

She linked with elderly parents of faculty members and friends with medical issues, and the online practica were up and running within a week.

“The students are continuing to develop their music therapy skills while also having the experience of providing tele-health,” Heffner says. “And, their clients are actively engaging in music activities that bring them joy, help ease their anxiety, decrease pain, and provide healthy leisure activities.”

One thought on “Music Therapy Students Provide Tele-Health Services

  1. Thanks for the great work you do for the special needs community locally and far afield. I am wondering if my 11 1/2 year old son, James, might be a good candidate for someone to work with in a more extended practicum in the coming term/year. He’s got Down Syndrome and Autism, is nonverbal but loves music. Sadly, because of his erratic and sometimes loud/excited behavior in the presence of music, we can’t take him to many live or in-person venues. But he loves, loves, loves it!

    We live locally (Irving… almost in Dallas), and you’d be happy to know he loves SMU’s campus. As a teacher, I know the wonders music therapy would do for him, but cost has been prohibitive in the private music therapy industry. Given James’ unique blend of special needs, he might provide some wonderful learning opportunities for your program, as well.

    If there’s any possibility for teaming up for a mutually beneficial trial run, please let me know. Feel free to contact me directly:


    Peter Saliga

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