Meeting Diverse Needs in Group MT

How can we meet diverse needs in group music therapy? How do we select music for all preferences, arrange ensembles for all skill levels, introduce interventions for all areas of need, and utilize protocols for each individual? How do we make time to connect and communicate with each person in the group? How can we maximize the group music therapy experience for each participant? Seems like every music therapist I’ve talked to about group MT encounters these issues as well as other challenges.

Just yesterday I provided music therapy services to ten different groups in public school life-skills classes for children ranging in age from 3 to 21 years old. Even among students of similar ages and diagnosis, there were stark differences in interests, mood, participation, preferences, and skill levels among individuals in the group.

In addition to the considerations mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post, I find it challenging to balance the “group rules.” For example, how can I motivate and encourage reluctant, resistant,and withdrawn students to participate more actively, while, at the same time, taming the responses of disruptive, attention-seeking, or overly excited youngsters?

The answers to all these questions are complex and take more time and space than this blog post allows. So let us just look at three of about ten basic principles I utilize when planning and facilitating group music therapy sessions – whether adults in a cancer survivor group, caregivers in a support group, pre-schoolers in a MT clinic, older teens with autism in an after-school group, a life-skills class in public school, or other group therapy setting. You can find more strategies and protocols in our popular self-study e-course, “In Harmony”

But, for now, consider these three principles that, in my experience, apply to any group MT setting:

1. BE PREPARED. It is incumbent on me to make the most of every minute of a group therapy session, so I try to have all guitars tuned, all chairs arranged, all session plans prepared, and all materials and supplies readily available. I make every effort to begin the therapy group on time, to keep the ball rolling throughout the session, and to spend my time interacting with the people in the group rather than focusing on the logistics.

2. RECOGNIZE LIMITATIONS. One person cannot meet the needs of every individual in a music therapy group. I accept the fact I cannot make everything perfect every minute of the session for every single person. But I do make certain I take time to connect at some point with every participant, and that, for at least one portion of each music therapy session, I introduce music and therapeutic interventions that address the interests and needs of each person in the group.

3. BE FLEXIBLE. The very nature of music therapy lends itself to unexpected reactions and to occasional stunning breakthroughs. As a group gathers for music therapy, I try to take the pulse of the group as a whole as well as each individual. Then I jump in as planned, but am always ready to change course if needed. For example, one young teen had a very averse reaction to a new type of drum yesterday, so we simply put that drum away and moved to “Plan B.” Another youngster who has been lethargic and unresponsive in music therapy for over a year suddenly and unexpectedly reached out to the guitar, strummed the open-tuned guitar rhythmically while I sang the song, stopped strumming at the end of the song, then looked up at me and reached out his hand as if to indicate he wanted me to sing. When I began singing again, he smiled and began strumming again. Needless to say, we gave him 5 or moreĀ  extra minutes to strum along with any song I could think of on such short notice.

What issues and challenges do you encounter in group settings? How do you deal with those issues?