Music therapists serving as activists

Music can have incredible healing affects on patients including improved motor skills (Photo curtesy of Rebecca Gildea)
Music therapy can often bring people together of different backgrounds (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gildea)

By David Cifarelli

Music therapy is a field of diverse perspectives and experiences, but not in racial, gender or socioeconomic identities.

“We are majority female, cis-identified and we are majority white and we are definitely majority middle to upper class women,” says Rebecca Gildea, a board-certified music therapist who works for a private practice in New Hampshire. She says the music therapy’s greatest issues result from the influence of the medical and psychological fields. “What I have noticed about the field is that they keep trying to seek validation through a system that is perpetuating racism that is perpetuating oppression.”

Gildea says all therapists should possess a certain set of values that speak to reflexivity in their practices. She also says therapists should have “a sense for social justice [and] a drive to change the systems that we work in.”

Many music therapists consider social activism to be a large component of their profession. From representing marginalized groups, music therapists are aware of the various injustices these people face. The Black Lives Matter movement has shown how music and activism align.

“Music has always been an important part of protests,” says Deborah Gromack. She attended many protests and even served as a peacekeeper during the 1970s and 1980s before becoming a music therapist.

Gromack says music has always deepened the level of insight and understanding around a shared cause. “That’s always been a part of it,” she says, “There’s always an underlying subtext or message in music that’s extremely powerful. It can sway the masses; it can incite peace and can incite violence into insight.”

The therapist says the level of violence in today’s protests exceeds the amount she witnessed in past decades. Gromack says this mostly resulted from a large-scale bystander effect surrounding unjustifiable murders of African Americans.

Annette Whitehead-Pleaux has conducted many open conversations about cultural identities in music therapy (Photo courtesy of Annette Whitehead-Pleaux)

“There’s a lot of rage around that,” she says, “and I think that also the hopelessness and helplessness that a lot of folks feel universally because of COVID spilled out into the protests.” Gromack says these factors generated a “perfect storm,” making it difficult for individuals to manage their emotions.

“Since I was 19, I started working on queer issues and have worked on various things around access to healthcare and Black Lives Matter,” says Annette Whitehead-Pleaux, a music therapist and active researcher. For the past 10 years, the therapist’s work has mostly focused on cultural responsiveness and social justice issues.

“I’ve been engaging audiences, learning from lots of different people in different venues about what’s going on right now.” Whitehead-Pleaux says that music therapists should be more educated around cultural responsiveness and humility. This will allow therapists to work with them in a way that retains their cultural identity.

Gromack has seen a number of injustices in her work. She has often had to advocate for a client and say “‘Look, this person was not being treated correctly.’” By doing this, therapists develop a deeper relationship with their clients and find better ways of satisfying their needs.

“When I work at the Charles River Center, I have people who are in houses together all day,” Gromack says, “and they’re living together and they may not get along. They may not like each other, and they may be different ages and they come from different backgrounds.”

Music is a powerful and effective way to reach individuals who come from different backgrounds, Gromack says. “Some of my clients speak Russian, and I’ve had to learn how to accommodate.” Gromack speaks Spanish and Polish and has also learned songs in Swedish, French and Italian. She says the best way to reach a client is by knowing their background.

“Ask questions,” she says, “look in their chart, if you can. Ask their family members, ask other staff members who work with them on a frequent basis. Ask the client, ask somebody who lives in their house,” she says.

Music therapists assist individuals feel empowered themselves as well as develop a sense of belonging (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gildea)

“You have to have some sort of economic standing to be a music therapist,” says Erin Williams, a board-certified music therapist who works with at-risk children at Foundations Behavioral Health in Doylestown, Penn. The economic barriers of becoming a music therapist result in the field’s non-diverse nature, she says. “You have to undergo all of this schooling and take a test that costs a lot of money.” She adds that this is a privilege mostly available to white people.

“To me music therapy and activism are directly related.” Gromack gained notable experience as a civil rights activist. After working with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Gromack and a close friend founded their own housing discrimination project in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

“People were being discriminated against based on their sexual preference or their racial status, their economic status,” Gromack says, “They were being refused housing, because the landlord didn’t want somebody who was on section eight for example, they wanted a white working-class couple.”

The pair developed a testing program as a housing discrimination project. Couples from different races were sent into a property and Gromack observed which couple the landlord would be more inclined to rent the space to. “We needed evidence to be able to prosecute and to take the person to court for violating someone’s civil rights,” Gromack says. However, a direct tie with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would propel Gromack to pursue a career in music therapy.

HUD would often host musical benefits and fundraisers. While singing back-up for one of the bands, Gromack saw how music brought together people of all different cultural backgrounds. “That’s why I started to look into music therapy because I realized that it was another way to become socially active in a very mindful way.”

Gildea says she thinks that most people are examining social justice issues, but the music therapy field is not doing as much as a whole. Thus, she has used her own work to serve as an activist. By utilizing a feminist and queer-centered approach, Gildea focuses on “empowering those people to find that sense of identity if they haven’t already.”

The therapist says LGBTQ individuals experience a lot of harmful relationships and experiences. “We learn these patterns of relationships that continue to be harmful for us,” Gildea says, “that patterning tells us what we feel like we’re worth and what we feel like we deserve.” Her approach involves breaking down these patterns and empowering patients to live the life they want to live.

Over a decade ago, Whitehead-Pleaux enlisted the help of a few colleagues to create the best practices for LGBTQ individuals in music therapy. The group called itself Team Rainbow and published a book on suggestions for the best practices for LGBTQ concerns in the field. Team Rainbow then presented its findings at the National Music Therapy Conference.

“Students and interns in that said until they saw this presentation, they thought that they were the only queer person in music therapy,” Whitehead-Pleaux describes, “and we all saw people’s tears saying this and listened to these words and we’re like, ‘oh my god, we have to do something else.’”

Incorporating different approaches and being cultural aware of biases are inherent to the work music therapists conduct (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gildea)

Team Rainbow has continued its work both collectively and individually. The group recently created a Facebook page for queer music therapists. “We never thought we were the only voice of queer people,” Whitehead-Pleaux says, “so we feel like we can now go back to figuring out what we’re going to do next.”

Williams emphasizes the fact that black music therapists should be receiving more support at this time. “I think the board really hasn’t done a great job at addressing our black music therapists’ concerns.”  The American Music Therapy Association has released a few statements in regard to racial oppression and injustices, but the interim president has not been very vocal about helping resolve these issues.

The predominately white organization is known for not being heavily involved in cultural matters. Williams thinks the board needs to bring the community together so they can “help to combat this issue.” She adds that if the board does not respond more appropriately, music therapists from minority backgrounds will leave the field.

“You’re going to make these people turn away from our field and that’s such a shame,” she says, “I think diversity only betters us and betters our field.” With the potential of more casualties resulting from future protests and murders, Williams hopes the board “will develop more of a voice and provide more resources.”

Gromack believes music can serve as a stimulating factor during protests. “I really wish that with Black Lives Matter and the things that are happening right now, and massive protests across the United States, that there was more training in nonviolent resistance,” she says, “There are so many reasons to be angry but I wish music was more of a part of it.”

Williams says a community can get involved by reading books, donating to causes and signing petitions. She is part of a worldwide Facebook group called “Music Therapists Unite” that brings awareness to social justice issues. There are even Asian, LGBTQ and Black music therapy networks.

Williams adds that music therapists can listen to their black family members, friends and colleagues about their struggles to help find solutions. “I believe it’s my job to listen to them and to help them in the best ways that I can,” she concludes.

Whitehead-Pleaux has seen music therapists advocating for these issues by highlighting works of black authors, therapists and researchers on social media. The therapist also noticed that white people are turning out for protests more than ever. “I hope that the field will continue to engage in this dialogue.”

About David Cifarelli 4 Articles
David Cifarelli is an aspiring music journalist with a passion for community-based stories. He finalized his concept of music therapy and the healing power of music in order to showcase how the art form can effectively drive change in everyday lives.