(Above: Sherrene Teh in action)
A day in the life of a music therapist: Talk about the passion
By LAY HSUAN, LIM
It would not be an exaggeration to say that music is a universal language that anyone can relate to. Music is also a powerful tool that breaks cultural and social barriers, as we can see from the worldwide craze of “Gangnam Style” in 2012.
Realising the potential of music in reaching the hearts and minds of its listeners, let us explore music therapy and its career potential in Malaysia. Sherrene Teh, a registered music therapist, shares her experience.
Passion and exposure
Having enjoyed working in a reputable chemical company as a communications person for 1½ years after obtaining a Bachelor in Classical Music, Teh felt her heartstrings tugged to pursue her passion in music and healthcare.
“It took me another 1½ years to leave my job to pursue a master’s degree in music therapy. I spent two years at the University of Melbourne and completed my Master of Music Therapy there.”
“During my time in Australia, I had the opportunity to do internships at a community centre and a psychiatry facility at The Alfred Hospital.
“I had a chance to work with a group of adolescents with eating disorders at the Monash Children’s Hospital. I also worked with at-risk students in a mainstream school in Melbourne,” says Teh.
The necessary preparation
Music therapy is the intentional use of music in medical, educational and everyday environments to improve, maintain or optimise one’s health and wellbeing.
“I came across the term ‘music therapy’ during my degree. I was excited, as it was a new possibility to venture into – other than being a music teacher or a performer.
“I started exploring my interest by working with people with disabilities. I volunteered in Malaysian Care to see if I had the patience and empathy, and guess what – I loved it! Also, during my working years, I took a diploma in public relations,” enthuses the bubbly Teh.
“Of course I had my concerns as a music therapist since it’s a relatively new career path in Malaysia. But, having supportive parents and trust in God made it easier to take this leap of faith.”
When asked why she came back to Malaysia instead of continuing her service in Australia, Teh elaborates, “Malaysia is my home. This is where I grew up; surrounded with culture I’m most familiar with.”
“I always tell people that being a Malaysian puts me in the most strategic position. I know songs in different languages, I can converse in various languages, and I know the dos and don’ts of our cultures. Also, people with disabilities in Malaysia deserve better!”
A selfless service
“Music therapists are trained to assess clients, design a treatment plan and evaluate if the treatment for the client is effective or not. That summarises up what I do, really.”
“The first meet-up is usually getting to know the child – his or her likes, dislikes, preferred instruments, preferred songs, physical abilities, communication skills, musical skills, sensory, level of understanding, cognitive skills, social and emotional abilities.”
“From there, I’ll design a treatment plan to help develop the areas that the child finds challenging, using music as the vehicle to achieve that. The assessment and evaluation runs concurrently to ensure that every session benefits the child.”
“I make house calls, often travelling on the busy roads of Kuala Lumpur to make music with my clients,” explains Teh when asked about her job scope as a music therapist.
The arduous but fulfilling journey
“Although my journey as a music therapist has seen its fair share of challenges, it has been wonderful so far. When I first started, many people advised that it will take time for my career to take off, but that’s not entirely true! The fact is there is a huge demand for music therapists, but we don’t have enough of them in Malaysia to meet those demands.”
“I hold on to my No. 1 principle as a therapist – which is to see the abilities and not the disabilities. This helps me see the strength in the child and what they are able to do. From there, I use that ability to work on the areas they find challenging.”
“The response from parents to music therapy has been very encouraging. What’s vital is constant communication between the therapist and parents.”
“I try to create awareness among parents about music therapy and share with them why I do what I do. By them observing a session, they understand more about my work,” says Teh.
Finding purpose in music
“I strive to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the children in every therapy session. Having supportive parents who believe in what I’m doing for their children is what keeps me going.”
“I work with a family-centred approach whereby I invite parents to be part of the music therapy experience. This allows them to take back what they’ve observed during the session and practise it with their children at home.”
“What I enjoy the most about my work is the opportunity to touch young lives and families through music. In Yohan’s case, for example, it was such a joy to help this young boy with severe cerebral palsy discover his voice.”
“This was a boy who couldn’t speak, with limbs all curled up when I first saw him. After 36 music therapy sessions, his mum reported that Yohan has been responding well to questions and instructions.”
“He is now motivated to join in conversations at the dinner table, even singing before he goes to bed,” recalls Teh about one of her most memorable moments as a music therapist.
Teh is currently involved with Project Tune Your Mood™, an innovative project created by Dr Carmen Cheong-Clinch in Australia to engage with young people and youth through music. Teh is pioneering this collaborative project in Malaysia.
According to Teh, those who aspire to become a music therapist need to possess a high sense of empathy and compassion towards people, not sympathy or pity.
It is not a glamourous job like a musician entertaining an audience on stage. In contrast, the work of a music therapist is not a very widely known one, as many of its work goes unseen by the masses.
Nonetheless, this noble job greatly impacts and inspires people in its behind-the-scenes work.