Music Therapy at SUNY New Paltz: The Benefits of Rhythm

For Kathleen Murphy, music therapy isn’t simply her profession. It’s a rewarding form of treatment that brings her unforgettable memory and has had a positive impact on many clients she’s worked with.

“Our goal is to help improve people’s quality of life and to help them know more about who they are and why they’re experiencing what they’re experiencing,” she said.

Murphy, the director of SUNY New Paltz’s music therapy program, described the therapeutic practice as “using music in the same way anybody would. Listening, composing, improvising, performing, but we use it to address specific health related goals in the broad sense.” 

Some areas of health or wellness that music therapy can be used for includes motor skills, communicating, cognitive skills, emotional health and spiritual health. The list goes on, however. Murphy said she has experience working with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and recovering addicts.

New Paltz’s masters degree program incorporates some of these elements into their curriculum. According to Murphy, the degree focuses on “music at a supportive and rehabilitative level, managing pain, relaxation, excitement therapy and dealing with trauma.”

The strong program has allegedly been offered at New Paltz since 1974, according to an alumni that Murphy spoke with recently, but she is still working on finding official documentation to corroborate the claim. If proven to be true, next year would be the program’s 50th year at New Paltz.

As the program presumably approaches its 50th anniversary, the Music Therapy Student Association has been hosting a slew of events to increase their presence on campus and become more connected to the New Paltz community. 

Some of these experiences include drum circles and open mic nights. These events are organized by students, for students and occur once a month. The association is also involved off-campus, with their presence in Recovery Fest, an event facilitated by the Town of New Paltz that honors the journeys of recovering drug addicts.

A more recent event the association held was their Second Annual Alumni Weekend, which took place on Oct. 21-22 and saw presentations from alumni Matthew Royes, Caroline Greco and Elisa Parker discussing their work. Continuing education courses are also offered to alumni.

Looking to the future of the program, Murphy has big plans, starting with bringing back an undergraduate degree in music therapy to New Paltz. The degree was discontinued in the mid-2000s following the enactment of the Mental Health Practitioners Law, which established general provisions for the professions of marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, creative arts therapy and psychoanalysis.

“I think that the former director thought it would be more beneficial just to get a master’s degree and not worry about the bachelor’s degree,” Murphy said.

She is optimistic the degree can be brought back, however. “There is legislation pending that will bring back a different license for music therapy, so music therapists could be licensed as music therapists, not as creative on service licenses either,” she said.  

Senate Bill S21A was introduced to the New York State Senate in 2021 and aims to “establish a system for licensing professional and clinical music therapists to ensure music therapy is performed by qualified professionals” and “create clear definitions for the practice of professional and clinical music therapy, identify requirements for a professional license and specify requirements for continuing competency.”

“I think that will bring a lot more people back into the field again,” expressed Murphy. “When we’re talking about skill development and rehabilitation, people with undergraduate degrees can do that, and because our faculty are all very experienced, the undergraduate degree is basically a master’s degree.”

Music therapy has surged in popularity in recent years, with a report from a global market intelligence organization, SkyQuest, claiming that 50% of businesses in music therapy are less than five years old, with a 17% increase in job openings for music therapists between 2018 and 2022.

“Over 40 years ago, there were probably only 30 universities that offered a music therapy degree, maybe two or three that had master’s degrees. Now there are almost 90 colleges and universities across the country that have undergraduate degrees and then probably 30 or 35 that have masters degrees,” Murphy stated.

While the increase is definitely noteworthy, it’s still a very small number of schools that offer programs in music therapy. “There are 10,000 counselors in the state of Ohio. There’s 12,000 board certified music therapists in the whole country, so we’re small, but we’re growing,” she said.

Demonstrating how music therapy has grown, Murphy spoke about her experiences working in a variety of fields as a music therapist. “When I was in Evansville, I worked in the NICU and sometimes the nurse would call to say, ‘I hope you’re free after you come over because it’s time for me to feed this baby and I need that rhythm.’ If I’m working with a baby in the NICU who’s having trouble coordinating their circuits…they’re doing things so slow so they can’t get any food in, I start playing with them. I match their tempo and I slowly change it to what should be: a normal, soft rhythm.”

She also worked in hospice, where she described helping people transition into the afterlife. “I was working with someone who had not communicated with anyone for several days, so I went in with her husband of 63 years and I asked the husband what their favorite song was. It was Amazing Grace. So again, I watched the woman’s breathing and I started strumming my guitar in the same tempo as her breathing, I started singing and asked the husband to join with me. The woman opened her eyes, reached out her hand and said ‘I love you’ and died a few hours later.”

“I think it just shows the power and why we’re not icing on the cake. You have a cake for some people. For that man, we were the cake. One more moment with his wife,” Murphy said.

The Music Therapy Student Association will be hosting several events in the near future, including a drum circle on Nov. 16 from 3-4 p.m. in SUB 62/63 and a Friendsgiving Potluck on Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. in the Shepard Recital Hall at College Hall. To keep up with the department’s activities, you can follow them on Instagram:    @sunynpmusictherapy. 

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