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Arts therapies: area of practice

Arts therapists train to use music, art or drama to help people with emotional and developmental needs.

Arts therapies include music, art and drama therapy. Although this article focuses on music therapy, all the arts therapies share a creative approach to helping clients with emotional or developmental needs. Music therapists are skilled musicians who have been trained to use improvisation to build a therapeutic relationship with clients through shared music-making.

The work is person centred and may involve listening and talking as well as singing and playing instruments. Work ideally takes place in a specially equipped music room. Many clients find verbal communication difficult and music offers a medium through which emotional and developmental difficulties that affect their well-being can be addressed.

Music therapists work with a wide range of different client groups of all ages. Pathologies include a range of learning disabilities, autism, behavioural problems, mental health problems and dementia. Music therapists are employed in mainstream and special schools, children’s hospital wards, forensic units, hospices and dementia homes. Music therapy can be practised on a one-to-one basis or with small groups.

Many music therapists have salaried work within the NHS, a local education authority or a charity but others are self-employed or in private practice. They may have a music therapy room in their own home or work in a client’s home or an institution.

Working conditions therefore vary greatly depending upon the client group and type of employment. Many people work part time and in general they can achieve a good work/life balance. Working for an employer such as the NHS would involve a regular nine-to-five working day.

Skills required

 The ability to listen and respond musically to clients is essential. You will need proactive communication skills to liaise with other professionals and talk to relatives. Teamworking, compassion and resilience are also key requirements.

An interest in psychotherapy is important as music therapy is informed by psychodynamic concepts. As part of their training, music therapists will themselves undergo therapy.You’ll need a masters in music therapy from a recognised course – you could come from any degree background provided that you have sufficient musical skills.

Starting out as an arts therapist

Anyone who wishes to practise as an arts therapist, whether specialising in music, art or drama, must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). In order to register you need to have studied on an HCPC-approved arts therapy course. These are offered at postgraduate level and there are both full-time and part-time courses available. Most arts therapists who specialise in music also become members of the British Association for Music Therapy, their professional body.

Once qualified in music therapy and registered with the HCPC, music therapists are entitled to work on their own with groups or individuals. The APMT circulates a monthly employment circular to all members to tell them what jobs are available but it would be possible to start out as a freelance private practitioner.

All music therapists must have regular supervision throughout their careers and continuing professional development is also mandatory. Again, the APMT offers guidance on all aspects of working life.