Each music therapist has their own story to tell of how they entered the profession. And, each music therapist brings a unique combination of skills, talents, strengths, interests, and inspiration to their practice. In this interview, Ellen Whealton shares her remarkable journey into music therapy and how she incorporates wellness, meditation, imagery, and essential oils into her practice.
You have a unique and wonderful combination of having Master’s in Transpersonal Counseling and being a board-certified music therapist. What lead you to pursue a career in music therapy?
Thank you! I’m so appreciative of my degree, which is an MA in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology with an Emphasis in Music Therapy. Through this unique program, I was able to take traditional course-work in psychology and music therapy while simultaneously learning about mindfulness, meditation practices and how to support different states of consciousness. And because this program bridged spirituality with modern psychology and music therapy, it also fit with what lead me to become a music therapist in the first place.
When I was twelve, I woke from a coma to music. It was then that I decided that I would dedicate my life to helping people through music. But it was more than just waking up to music, because something profound happened before I even opened my eyes. Before I woke, I found myself in a place that was full of all-encompassing love. A love that completely surrounded me, blanketed me. I remember it so vividly. I also remember incredibly unique and beautiful music, lights, bright colors and a feeling of absolute connection and completeness.
There were guides with me in this place and they asked me if I’d like to stay with them or return to live my life on Earth. In that moment of choice, I could see the path laid out before me, and realized that there was much more that I could do on Earth. I could also see that the paths of my family members would be shifted if I did not return to Earth. I also realized what a gift I was being given. In a moment of overwhelming gratitude, I made the choice to live my life on Earth and leave that place of love and connection. I felt a surge of appreciation rush through my body and though I knew they expected nothing of me, I made a pledge to my guides. I promised help heal people with music and be grateful for every day.
And after that beautiful moment, everything went dark. However, in the darkness was a colorful musical staff. I could clearly see the notes moving along the staff. (Interestingly, there was a different color for each pitch.) I watched the notes move along the staff, but could not hear the music. In time, the staff dissipated into darkness and I could hear the music very faintly. I tuned into the sound and allowed it to become louder and louder until it filled my mind. That is when I opened my eyes. No one was there with me. Just the music playing at my bedside in an ICU room. I had no memory of anything before my accident but I remembered my near-death experience. It is still one of the most vivid memories I have.
I didn’t even know about music therapy then. I didn’t hear about it until seven years later when I was in college, but when I learned about it I knew that is what I was meant to do.
Can you share your story of how you came to specialize in wellness and music therapy?
It all started when I was studying for my masters at Naropa. When I learned about the incredible benefits that come from meditation and mindfulness and how they can be used with music therapy techniques, I was sold! I started to think more about how thoughts can shape our experience of the world and how emotions can be held in the body. This fascination between the mind/body connection inspired me to pursue training in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music as well as Holotropic Breathwork. When I graduated and began my career in music therapy, I used mindfulness techniques and much of this training in my work. Over the next few years, I sought out more training. I started collaborating with a very talented somatic psychotherapist, attended workshops and trainings about vibration and the body, and began to review my music and imagery training.
Can you describe some of the wellness practices that support emotional health that you integrate into your music therapy practice?
I absolutely LOVE to incorporate new ideas and approaches in my practice to support emotional health. I always use music and imagery as part of my practice, but about a year ago I started to incorporate essential oils into my work as well. They have been such a great addition to my practice. I have also been collaborating more and more. Because of these collaborations, I’ve been able to incorporate reiki, mandalas, progressive muscle relaxation, somatic experiencing, visualization scripts using color and light, massage, energetic psychology approaches, meditation techniques, and more into my public workshops. Collaborations are fun and really build me up as a practitioner. They’ve also been a great way to build my practice.
How do you incorporate essential oils with music therapy to support your client’s mental health goals?
When it is deemed appropriate, I pair emotional release exercises with Young Living’s essential oils. This can be done many different ways. My favorite way to begin is to ask my client to share an intention for the session. I then suggest several oils based on the emotional and spiritual properties that best match their intention. We reflect on the intention and I lead them through a quick visualization exercise inviting them to imagine the positive manifestation of their intention as they deeply inhale the aroma of the chosen oil. I do this while playing an instrumental drone or low-pitched drum, allowing the vibration and/or rhythm to move them deeper into the experience.
I continue the process of playing along as I lead them through deep breathing exercises and meditation instruction. My goal is to help them move more into that place of introspection and connection. Soon after, I prepare them for the music and imagery experience. During the music and imagery experience, I often invite them to imagine their oil of intention. Imagining that it surrounds them as they journey through the imagery and music.
How do you personally use essential oils for self-care to support your role as a music therapist?
I am constantly teaching myself about essential oils and emotions and have learned that there are oils and blends that help with anything from relaxation to PTSD. It may sound strange, but I stay up late at night reading studies and researching the properties of the oils. I am fascinated with how well they’ve helped me in my personal life so I naturally want to share them with others.
In my personal life, I use Young Living’s essential oils multiple times a day. To explain it best, I’ll walk you through my day. This morning, I woke up to help my three children get ready for school so I was dragging a bit. I diffused cedarwood, tangerine and lemon to create an uplifting atmosphere and wake myself up. (My son has attention issues so the cedarwood is KEY to our diffusing routine.) I then washed my face and used a toner of geranium, melrose and frankincense. I rolled a little lavender on the back of my neck to destress and by that time it was time to see clients and schedule meetings. After sessions, my throat got a little scratchy so I sprayed my throat with my thieves, lemon, peppermint concoction. Tonight, I will clean the space with thieves and will diffuse again for focus during paperwork (and homework time for my kids).
And that’s not even half of it! I put a little frankincense on the roof of my mouth if I get headaches, roll peppermint on the back of my neck and shoulders for minor aches….the list goes on!
What is the most challenging part of your role as a music therapist?
As a music therapist, my biggest challenge it’s probably time management. Between three children, a busy practice and my constant desire to keep learning and growing, I hardly ever slow down. I’ve made it a goal over the past few years to build time in for relaxation and fun. I’ve learned that I need to have these things on the calendar or I will not follow through. I’ve also learned to slow down and use every opportunity to breathe deeply, take in the moment and give GRATITUDE for life.
What is the most rewarding part of your role as a music therapist?
I believe that the most powerful shifts come from within. These shifts are not something that we get from other people or something that we can buy. As a music therapist, I want to provide a musical experience that will help people connect to that place of knowing. That place within their own body and soul where they can find clarity and insight for their journey forward in life. When I’m able to hold space for them, remain present, and witness beautiful moments of connecting to that place, my heart is full. When I listen to them reflect on what they’ve learned about themselves through music and imagery, there are no words for how wonderful it feels. To me, moments like these are the most rewarding part of being a music therapist.
I have also treasured the time that I have spent teaching music therapists about how to incorporate music assisted imagery into their practices. I love sharing my approach and helping others find ways to use it to support their careers. I look forward to hearing about the creative ways people are using music and imagery.
What do you love about music?
Music will always be magical to me. It brought me out of a coma at a young age. It was my lifeline as I recovered from that injury. It lifts me up on a bad day and connects to my core as nothing else can do. It soothes my little one’s tears when words won’t help. It is what all encompassing love feels and sounds like.
For more information on Ellen Whealton, MA, MT-BC, visit wellnessmusictherapy.com
Contact Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on Young Living’s essential oils.