An essay by Dr. Jennifer Sasser, gerontology program director, was published in the International Journal of Reminiscence and Lifelong Learning in January 2015.
Our bachelor of music therapy program has a new director: Laura Beer. Laura hails from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she most recently served as music therapy coordinator at Lesley University. A 3,100-mile, cross-country trek later, Laura is now settled into Oregon and ready to tackle the new project of overseeing one of Marylhurst's most popular undergraduate programs.
She recently sat down with us and shared her views on the music therapy field, her personal taste in music and her hopes for the future of Marylhurst's music therapy program.
Share a little bit about your background and personal history.
I have been a music therapist for 25 years now, having received my BA in Music from Smith College and my MA in Music Therapy from New York University. I've worked with children, adolescents and adults in a variety of clinical settings. My most recent work was with hospice patients.
A few years ago I took the plunge and went back to school, and I now have my doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado. I grew up near Buffalo, NY, but have lived all over the country, including New York City, Colorado, Boston and now Oregon. My partner, Cyndy, and I have family in Colorado and are happy to live closer to them now!
What attracted you to Marylhurst and its program in particular?
Marylhurst University's music therapy program has an excellent reputation, and I am proud to be part of this learning community. I align myself with many of the core values here at Marylhurst, including the commitment to the education of the whole person. The fact that it has a beautiful campus is a bonus!
What are you most excited about in directing this program?
I am most excited about the opportunities for growth and development in the program. Music therapy is a rich field with many exciting changes going on, and helping students develop the clinical and musical skills needed to work with diverse populations is something I find rewarding.
Can you give some examples of those exciting changes?
Music therapy is moving into a lot of new areas of practice, especially the area of medicine. In the past few years, music therapy has gotten a lot of publicity — through unfortunate means sometimes, such as Arizona's former representative, Gabrielle Giffords. The media was very public in sharing that part of her healing journey was through music therapy.
Music therapy is also being used now with veterans. We're finding that when someone with PTSD says "I can't talk about it," that doesn't mean they don't want to talk about it. It means that physiologically — at a brain chemical level — they can't talk about it. They're literally blocked from being able to access the words to talk about their experiences. Music opens those passages up. Music reaches into those areas affected by trauma and helps people work through their experiences in a more healthy way.
With music therapy becoming much more established as a health care profession, it's important for us as educators to not only keep up and ahead of the curve, but it's also our responsibility to keep researching and guiding students towards the best fit for their career path.
Do you find that misunderstandings about the field still exist?
Despite the fact that music therapy has received a great deal of attention in the media, I still find it necessary to give "elevator speeches" to many people I meet about music therapy. Once I connect their own love for music to its potential to help, however, people intuitively understand how it works and why it is important.
Interest in music therapy programs seems to be rising (or at least holding steady) during a time when other programs are feeling the economic pinch. In your opinion, what are a few reasons this may be?
The ability to combine one's love for music with a passion for helping people makes this the ideal profession for many people. Seeing people respond to music when nothing else seems to reach them is awe-inspiring — it is what motivated me to become a music therapist, and I have never regretted this decision.
On a more practical front, music therapy is, in many ways, a cross-disciplinary therapeutic medium which makes it a cost-effective way to offer treatment. For example, research shows that when a music therapist is working in a hospital with children or adults recovering from major surgery, pain levels are lowered, the need for medication is reduced and recuperation time shortens. The patient benefits from the emotional, physical and spiritual power of music, and the hospital benefits from decreases in post-surgery infection rates, medication levels and staff monitoring needs.
From your perspective, what are the most critical issues or topics facing the music therapy field? How might your work at Marylhurst engage with those issues?
One of the most critical issues facing the music therapy field right now is whether or not to require graduates of an association-approved program to have a master's degree in order to become board certified. All other creative arts therapies, as well as the fields of speech language pathology and occupational therapy, require a master's degree to practice. So in some ways music therapy is behind the times.
If the field decides to move towards a master's level requirement, I believe Marylhurst is poised to address the need for a master's program in the Northwest area and to continue to prepare students at an undergraduate level for a career in music therapy.
Another issue facing our field is having clinicians musically prepared to undertake the demands of a diverse client population. One day I might need to know folk tunes from the 1920s, the next a contemporary pop tune and the next to engage in unstructured piano improvisations with adults. The fact that the program at Marylhurst is rooted in a strong music education makes it, I believe, attractive to potential students and necessary for longevity in the profession. This type of music-centered program ensures we are educating people in a comprehensive manner and preparing them for the realities of clinical practice.
Speaking of diverse kinds of music, what is your favorite kind of music?
I know it's an impossible question.
You know, it really depends on my mood. We bought a new rig to move from Massachusetts, and they give you three months of free XM radio. I listened to an Elvis station, a Frank Sinatra station, the rock station, the classical station.
When I'm working, my personal preference is to listen to ambient music. It helps to filter out sounds going on around me.
But for fun, some of the best concerts I've been to have been so diverse: Sarah McLachlan playing at Red Rock Theater with the Colorado Symphony behind her, Stevie Nicks, Bob Seger... Aaron Meyer who was here for this year's Summer on the Green series — that was great. Blues music, I adore. I really enjoy a lot of live music. That's where the juice is. So I guess the answer to your question is: Whatever I come upon and whatever feels right in that moment.