POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

Review: Basic Verbal Skills for Music Therapists by Elizabeth Schwartz

Published on Jan 25, 2020 by Siobhán Nelligan

The growing body of music therapy literature has until now failed to provide a textbook which clearly delineates the role of verbalisation in music therapy practice. In Basic Verbal Skills for Music Therapists (2020), Elizabeth Schwartz has succeeded in filling this gap. This book, published by Barcelona Publishers, is a practical resource for music therapists seeking guidance on how to incorporate therapeutic verbal skills into their practice. The book presents a reasoned appraisal of the verbal skills necessary for efficacious music therapy practice and discusses the potential challenges inherent in developing such skills.

Through a combination of practical guidelines, reflexive exercises, and an evaluation of the existing literature, the author imparts a balanced perspective on the appropriate application of directive and non-directive language, with use of relevant examples.

Hence, this book will serve as an indispensable companion for the music therapy student or professional in developing their understanding of the purpose and application of verbal skills.

In Chapter 1, “Communication, Music, and Verbal Expression”, the author contemplates the meaning of the word “communication” and the various means that clients use to communicate, such as music, spoken language, gestures and physical actions. She considers the significance of different levels of communication and the musical qualities intrinsic to each. By proposing that verbal language is not the sole form of “communication” available to clients, she sets the tone for thoughtful discussion throughout the book of both the potential benefits and contraindications of verbalisation in music therapy practice.

Themes of professionalism, competence, responsibility, and ethics are prominent throughout the book, particularly in Chapters 2-7, where Schwartz explores levels of music therapy practice, the role of words as agents of change, client need, and constructs underpinning verbalisation. In Chapter 2, “Verbalization in Music Therapy Literature”, Schwartz provides a comprehensive and up-to-date review of the existing literature available on the topic of verbalisation in music therapy practice, while calling attention to a general lacuna of clinical resources and verbal skills training for music therapists. Chapter 3 proceeds to examine the professional and ethical guidelines that govern music therapists’ scope of practice.

The author entices the reader to consider the ways in which music therapy practice may overlap with the work of other professional disciplines, particularly in relation to the use of words and working with the voice.

While promoting a stimulating dialogue, much of Schwartz’s discussion relies on professional and regulatory bodies in the United States. Therefore, music therapists working outside the US must consider how the issues presented apply within the ethical guidelines of their respective countries.

Chapter 6, “Client Needs and Verbalization in Music Therapy”, places an emphasis on client wishes, addressing the importance of seeking consent to use spoken language as part of the music therapy process. In this chapter, Schwartz also details some of the potential contraindications to engaging in verbal exchanges with clients, highlighting verbal scenarios that some music therapists may be ill-prepared to handle. This section is particularly pertinent for early career professionals who may be inexperienced in the application of verbal techniques. Chapter 7, “Verbal Skills Basics for Music Therapists”, expands on issues related to professionalism by incorporating consideration of the client’s cognitive capacity, social and cultural identity, and communicative intent when determining which level of verbalisation might be appropriate.

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In Chapter 5, “Words and Music as Agents of Change”, Schwartz introduces four categories of verbalisation appropriate for music therapists who wish to integrate verbalisation into their practice in a more intentional manner: verbal framing, verbal exchanges, verbal interactions, and verbal interventions. These categories are listed in order of complexity, ranging from basic skills to more advanced skills which require further training.

The skills comprising each category are suitable for adaption with a variety of age groups and populations, making this a useful guide for music therapists working in numerous contexts.

Chapters 8-11 are dedicated to examining these four categories in greater depth within the context of fundamental therapeutic principles such as boundaries, empathy, and the therapeutic relationship. Within these chapters, the reader is presented with useful examples of phrases and statements that could be applied at different levels of practice. These “language templates” are presented under the assumption that therapists have the training and supervision necessary to process specific verbal content that arises in their practice. Similarly, clinical supervision is recommended as an appropriate avenue for reflecting on psychotherapeutic processes that are likely to be activated during spoken exchanges.

Each chapter ends with three categories of reflexive activities under the headings “Reflection”, “Repertoire” and “Rehearsal”; an assortment of writing exercises, reading material, and role-play scenarios which offer readers opportunities to synthesise their knowledge.

Presented at the conclusion of each chapter, these exercises are suitable for adaption within the classroom setting, making “Basic Verbal Skills for Music Therapists” a particularly useful resource for educators on music therapy training programmes.

These exercises may also assist professional music therapists to consolidate their existing knowledge while engaging in personal reflection or clinical supervision.

The book concludes with consideration to the ways in which music and language can complement each other within the music therapy context. In Chapter 12, “Understanding Words Through Music”, the author explores the musical qualities of spoken language in greater depth, drawing attention to the unique skillset music therapists bring to spoken exchanges. In Chapter 13, “Understanding Music Through Words”, Schwartz explores the spaces where words and music can coexist in music therapy, while discussing the importance of developing a common “language of music therapy” to support the overall development of the profession.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the consideration given to the musical qualities inherent in the voice. Through continued reminders of the musical elements of speech, readers are empowered to contemplate how their musicianship skills may enhance their capacity to attune to clients during spoken exchanges. Thus, this book may also be of benefit to anyone wishing to expand their understanding of the musical properties of communicative exchange. Supplemented with clinical supervision and relevant psychotherapeutic literature, Basic Verbal Skills for Music Therapists will serve as a valuable textbook for music therapy practitioners of varying levels of experience.

Siobhán Nelligan

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Siobhán Nelligan is a Music Therapist specialising with children and adolescents. She has a strong background in mental health, developmental disability and trauma-informed practice. She holds a BA (Hons) Psychology, MA Community Music, and an MA Music Therapy. Siobhán has extensive experience working with children and young people in a variety of contexts, including community settings, primary and post-primary schools, mental health services, palliative care, and residential care settings. She is skilled in the use of a wide range creative and play-based approaches in therapy. Siobhán currently works with children and young people in out-of-home care who have experienced complex developmental and relational trauma.