I remember the moment I was accepted into graduate school. And I remember what I did immediately after- I went online and looked over the curriculum of the Master of Arts in Music Therapy program at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College with fierce anticipation. I looked at this list many times before, but it suddenly transformed into a list of courses I was actually going take. Of all the courses, the one I was most excited about was called MU584: Music Psychotherapy. I took the class in the spring of 2014, and it lived up to my high expectations. I am now a better music therapist because of it.
Dr. Yasmine Iliya was my music psychotherapy professor and is a music therapist and licensed creative arts therapist in New York City. In this interview, Yasmine shares her knowledge of music psychotherapy along with her experiences in combining the art of psychotherapy with the power of music to help people with mental illnesses, grief, and homelessness.
What is music psychotherapy, and what makes it a unique approach for treating people with mental health challenges?
I define music psychotherapy as the use of music in a psychotherapeutic relationship to achieve psychosocial and emotional outcomes, such as developing insight, self-expression, and self-esteem. It makes a unique approach for treating people with mental health challenges because these are often the very improvements they are seeking. Traditional psychotherapy may leave clients feeling stuck, because perhaps the level of expression or insight did not get deep enough, or all the time spent talking keeps the therapy and progress on a cognitive rather than somatic level. The arts, and music in particular, can provide opportunities for progress that are deeper, more creative, and more somatic. Music can also be a motivating factor, so that people who may not seek other psychotherapy modalities are more open to working and playing in music. I have been working in a psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn for almost six years, and I find that music has the additional benefit of providing socialization for people with severe and persistent mental illness, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sometimes my clients may struggle with interpersonally connecting with others due to paranoia and disorganized thinking, but we can sit and play music all together, which is really unique. In talking, cognitively-oriented groups, those clients may instead remain disconnected, isolative, and withdrawn. I believe that every human being deserves the opportunity to connect, because we are all always seeking that feeling of love. We all just want to be heard and seen, and I often remind myself that music psychotherapy is doing just that most of the time.
How did you become a music therapist, and what kind of training did you go through in order to practice music psychotherapy?
The story goes that I first heard of music therapy through random google searches a few months after graduating college! I had never heard of music therapy prior to landing on the AMTA website and realizing that this was my destiny. It felt like I had been utilizing music therapy in some capacity for myself for most of my life, and I could not believe a helping profession existed where I could use music as a tool for healing. My undergraduate studies at Tufts were in Biological Psychology, and although I sang and played flute in several ensembles, I needed to learn piano, guitar, and music theory in order to become a music therapist. I worked full-time in cancer research for a couple of years in New York City while preparing to apply to New York University’s graduate music therapy program. Thankfully, after all that preparation, I was accepted and did my music therapy training there. After I graduated NYU, I did Diane Austin’s 2-year advanced vocal psychotherapy training. That kind of training was necessary to practice music psychotherapy. Supervision and experience are also key elements of ongoing training. Recently, I obtained an advanced certification from the Association of Death Education and Counseling. As a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement), I had to demonstrate many hours of education and research in this field, and take an exam determining my competencies as a grief therapist.
How can music influence the therapeutic process when working with people who are experiencing grief?
As part of my doctoral studies at Lesley University, I studied music’s influence on the therapeutic process when working with people who are experiencing grief. Music holds tremendous potential for grieving individuals, as it can intrinsically help facilitate the expression of emotions, which is a necessary component of grieving according to J. William Worden. I used music to help facilitate and maintain a connection between the grieving individual and the deceased person, based on new theory and research emerging in the field of thanatology. The intervention I created and studied asks individuals to improvisationally sing to their deceased loved one, and then sing back to themselves from the role of the deceased person. It has some elements of Gestalt therapy and drama therapy, and is highly influenced by Diane Austin’s method. In addition to eliciting emotion, this imaginal dialogue has the potential to allow for resolution of unresolved issues (i.e., exchanging apologies and forgiveness) and can help people move forward in their grief. I think it’s important to also add that grief is commonly overlooked and misunderstood by clinicians. Grief is not sadness, anxiety, nor trauma; it is a unique experience that can overlap with those other experiences, but needs to be understood and addressed all on its own. One of my music therapy studies with bereaved adults with mental illness will be published soon in Death Studies journal. People with mental illness have drastically higher rates of prolonged, complicated grief than people without mental illness, and this needs to be addressed by mental health professionals. Prolonged grief puts people at greater risk of suicide, cancer, and poor quality of life, overall.
You have also done work with people with mental illnesses who are homeless. How did you use music therapy when working with them? How did they respond?
I loved working with men with mental illness who are homeless. This was during my internship with Noah Shapiro, an incredible music therapist, at the largest and most well-known men’s shelter in New York City. It was a beautiful and enriching experience. Noah taught me to trust myself as a musician and to trust the process of therapy. Therefore, I used mostly improvisational methods. I played flute in the groups, and our improvisations would often continue for 30 minutes or more. I also explored the use of the voice, and wrote an article in Music Therapy Perspectives about those interventions and experiences. The men were very open and willing to try all my vocal improvisational methods! We just played using our voices. One of my clients sang about how getting a state ID helped him feel like he had an identity, and I remember feeling very moved by that. An identity! Aren’t we all searching for who we are? I felt like it was about more than just the ID card, but that he was healing and finding himself in the process of therapy, and that was a beautiful process to witness.
What is the most challenging part of your role as a music psychotherapist?
The most challenging part of my role as a music psychotherapist is being patient when people are not ready to move forward in their process. There are good reasons for these defense mechanisms; they were developed to protect us and help keep us safe. But, I often ask people, are these mechanisms still serving you? Many times the answer may seem clear to me, but the person is just not ready, and that’s what matters. Patience is key in those moments. Robert Neimeyer, a wonderful grief therapist and researcher, talks about the intersection of “Need Street” and “Readiness Boulevard.” People need to be ready to risk letting go of those mechanisms in order to really try and live healthier, more insightful lives.
What is the most rewarding part of your role as a music psychotherapist?
I think the most rewarding part of my role as a music psychotherapist is developing intimate relationships with people. The trust and connection that develops with individuals and groups within a psychotherapeutic relationship is a true privilege for me. I am often struck by the willingness and courage people have to open up, be vulnerable, and trust me. From that, I have the additional privilege of watching people unfold, grow, and gain beautiful insights about themselves. It’s an honor.
What do you love about music?
I love many things about music, but mostly I love the way music can symbolically communicate emotion. I am thinking about the philosopher Susanne Langer and her thoughts on music and symbolism. Music is incredibly powerful, and for me, the way it can help us feel and express joy, pain, and sorrow is why I love it. I also love how music is universal; it is listened to, played, enjoyed, and ritualized all over the world. It is within all of us. I love the impermanence of music, too. When we play or sing without a recording device, the magic happens in the moment, and then it’s over. That reminds me to live in the moment. Music is abstract and difficult to describe using words, which I also love. We need to feel it to understand it, and that is a welcome gift. Lastly, I am grateful to music for helping me survive many difficult times in my life, and for giving me wonderful moments of connection, joy, and love with so many people in my life.
What I love about you is YOU.
For more information on Yasmine Iliya PhD, MT-BC, LCAT, FT please visit newyorkcreativepsychotherapy.com.