Healing notes: SPU’s music therapy program celebrates 10 years

Illustration by Michelle Thompson

Across the country, a special group of Seattle Pacific University alumni work with people in hospitals, senior living homes, memory care facilities, schools, prisons, and private practices. They help their patients work toward mental and physical healing — through music.

They are the alumni of SPU’s music therapy program, the first and only music therapy program in Washington state. In celebration of the program’s 10th anniversary, music therapy alumni, current students, and professionals connected to the program were invited back to campus for two days in October to reconnect and, of course, to make music.

Music Therapy Program Director Carlene Brown believes the strength of the campus and alumni community sets SPU’s music therapy program apart. “One cannot overstate the value of [the community],” she said. “This is a competitive program with small cohorts. The challenge and purpose of the program experience bonds students, whether they attended SPU at the same time or 10 years apart. Everyone at the anniversary event was so excited to see each other.”

The past decade has seen the music therapy field grow. In 2012, approximately 40 board-certified music therapists worked in the region; today, there are more than 100 in Washington state. Employment opportunities have also grown as employers in a variety of care settings recognize the value of music therapy. For example, Aegis Living, a network of assisted living facilities on the West Coast, reports that 11 out of their 17 care facilities now employ full-time music therapists. 

SPU’s music therapy program is the first and only music therapy program in Washington state.

Brown also reports a rise in the number of adult students who come to SPU to change careers and become music therapists. “These are individuals who always felt they had this calling, but didn’t know how to frame it in a program,” she said. “Having freshmen and professional adults taking the same classes has been incredibly rewarding.”

A research-based program, the music therapy courses emphasize viewing each patient as a whole person. Students put their coursework in action right away, starting clinical experience in the Seattle area during their freshman year. “We also emphasize using your gifts in service of others and connect that to our spiritual responsibilities of loving God and one another,” said Brown. “In the classroom, at work, and at events like this, we take time to reflect on why and for whom we’re doing this work.”

To open the anniversary weekend, attendees brought their instruments of choice for a Friday evening session of music-making in Nickerson Studios. 

The next day, guest speakers included Jennifer Geiger, former president of the American Music Therapy Association, and Deforia Lane, one of the nation’s leading music therapists. (Lane’s book on faith and music therapy is read by students entering SPU’s program.) Saturday evening, the Seattle Symphony hosted SPU leadership, faculty, and staff at the Octave 9 performance space in downtown Seattle.

Seventy percent of the program’s alumni attended the event, some traveling from as far as Boston. In a profession that is sometimes isolating (music therapists are often the only therapist of their kind in their facility of employment), gatherings like this can be especially encouraging and valuable. “It was a chance for our alumni to come together, but also a rare opportunity to bring together so many music therapists to share ideas, collaborate, and support one another,” said Brown. 

“Returning to SPU was so special to me as I was able to catch up with, learn from, and be refreshed by my colleagues,” said Addison Breier ’18, music therapist at Continuum of Colorado, who traveled from that state to attend the reunion. “This time with fellow music therapists reminded me of why I do what I do, as I was inspired by and fed off of the passion others had for the work we are doing.” 

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