Adolescents are one of the most important populations served by music therapists. A teenager’s relationship to music holds immense therapeutic value, but can also be a tricky one to navigate. I find my own work with adolescents to be both rewarding and challenging. Serving a sensitive and impressionable generation is a privilege not to be taken lightly.
One resource that has helped my practice and understanding of music therapy with teens is the book Adolescents, Music, and Music Therapy: Methods and Techniques for Clinicians, Educators and Students, by Dr. Katrina Skewes McFerran. As a music therapist, researcher, and educator, Dr. McFerran specializes in treating young people and has a breadth of knowledge to share about supporting adolescents with music therapy.
Can you share your story of how you came to specialize in music therapy with adolescents?
I honestly think it was the music that was the biggest draw card. I have always been a pop music fan, and once it clicked that it would be possible to learn more of my favorite songs as a part of my work, I was enthusiastic. That includes both contemporary pop, and classic hits that are still well known to young people. Of course, this combined with opportunities that presented – I was the youngest professional in my workplace (a community based hospice care service) and so it was natural that I would be involved in providing bereavement care for children and teenagers. That led me to my PhD topic, which was exploring the experience of music therapy for bereaved teenagers, this time in schools. A lot of things lined up to support this interest, but there was so little literature describing this kind of practice that I felt it was necessary to study it further myself.
What makes an adolescent’s relationship to music unique and/or important?
I think it is the combination of time and intense emotions. Teenagers listen to more music than any other generation. In addition, they are experiencing hormonal triggers for the first time, and for some young people, this can be a very emotional experience. Combined with their desire to focus more on their peers than family, and to share in activities that help them identify with one another, it all seems to point to music really. Suvi Saarikallio (see Laiho, 2004) wrote a great article in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy that summarises the literature on this topic.
What are some of your favorite music therapy interventions to facilitate with adolescents struggling with depression?
Like all music therapists, I would need to get to know the young person/people before we could decide how we might use music. So I am purposefully avoiding the word ‘intervention’ because I favor collaborative, mutually agreed therapy processes over expert-determined practices. I am also placing the individual and their context as a more powerful influence over the potential of therapy than their diagnosis, since people deal with illness in different ways, and depending on the support networks they have available to them. All that said, I do seem to use song writing more often than anything else. The combination of original words and music seems to serve many teenagers well, and they can choose which they place more emphasis on – it may be essentially an electronic piece with a lyric riff, or it might be a whole narrative with a simple song structure sitting underneath it. I wrote a whole book about this, called Adolescents, Music and Music Therapy (2010) if you’d like to read more about it.
Client preferred music is an important element in music therapy. What do you do when a client’s preferred music contains offensive or aggressive content?
This is a part of my practice that has changed a great deal in the past ten years, based on some research I have done on the topic, and will continue to do. I used to adopt a Humanist approach, and to positively revere individual choices without question. I have argued frequently that it is critical for young people to express their identity through their music choices, and that they should not be judged for those choices. However, I have more recently adopted a more critical approach, where I push more to understand the connections that young people have with music. I have discovered that some young people use music to ruminate and that the process can be largely unconscious. This demands that the therapist consider a more psychodynamic lens, and to explore the projections that may be present. This is just as likely to occur with a pop song as it is with a metal piece, but it makes sense that people use music to reinforce and strengthen the pathological aspects of their psyche, as much as it can be a potential resource to support positive growth. Just look at what Hitler did with music. Randi Rolvsjord’s Resource Oriented Music Therapy (2010) provides some fantastic explanations that balance more traditional humanistic and psychodynamic practices.
When working with a teenager who is resistant to treatment or extremely guarded, how do you approach him or her?
With deep respect, and removing my own need to prove myself as a therapist. Andrew Malekoff (Malekoff, 2014), a social worker, beautifully describes this as leaving your ego at the door. I truly believe that adolescents know when people are truly available to them. They are surrounded by peers who are experimenting with different roles and trying on different ways of being in the world, that they sniff inauthenticity. So I try and see what I can do for the young person. And sometimes, it’s nothing – they’re just not ready. But I always start by asking ‘So, what kind of music are you in to?’ That’s a good beginning for most relationships.
What is the most rewarding part of your role as a music therapist working with adolescents in mental health settings?
I used to like the sheer honesty of young people and the faith they had in music. It meant that they would share themselves authentically and I really enjoy mutually authentic relationships. These days, as a researcher and a teacher, I enjoy listening to their perspectives about music, why and when it helps, and what we could do better. Although sometimes I challenge their blind faith in music (McFerran & Saarikallio, 2013).
What is the most challenging part of your role as a music therapist working with adolescents in mental health settings? And how do you deal with these challenges?
When they have to go back into home situations that are damaging and that they are too young to leave. That breaks my heart.
What have you learned from your clients?
That music is more powerful when you are having the worst time of your life. That music can be your best friend and your worst enemy, so sometimes you need help to work on your relationship with music.
What do you love about music?
That it provides opportunities to explore new dimensions of self and to discover capacities and emotions that were previously hidden. Music affords energy, understanding and connection – so it creates ideal conditions for therapeutic encounters.
Laiho, S. (2004). The psychological functions of music in adolescence. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 13(1), 47-63.
Malekoff, A. (2014). Group work with adolescents (2nd ed.). New York: Guildford Press.
McFerran, K. S. (2010). Adolescents, Music and Music Therapy: Methods and Techniques for Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
McFerran, K. S., & Saarikallio, S. (2013). Depending on music to make me feel better: Who is responsible for the ways young people appropriate music for health benefits. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(1), 89-97. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2013.11.007
Rolvsjord, R. (2010). Resource Oriented Music Therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.