Almost twenty years ago, Amber Weldon-Stephens established a successful music therapy program in a large school-district with ten music therapists on staff and a long-standing music therapy internship. Suddenly, that program faces significant cuts in staff and services. And Amber’s interns find themselves looking at an uncertain future. Amber takes just 8 minutes to describe some specific steps she is taking to meet these challenges head-on rather than buckling under the cuts.

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Real-Life Examples of Meeting Challenges Head-On
Amber Weldon-Stephens, EdS, MT-BC

NOTE: We thank Amber’s intern, Katie Garner,  for helping produce the audio segment.

While still a music therapy intern 20 years ago, I realized I loved my job because I could clearly see that music therapy was a valuable and integral part of each student’s day.  My ultimate career goal was to work in a public school setting so music therapy could impact more students with special needs. To my surprise and delight, I was offered a job in a neighboring public school system before I even finished my internship. But I only held on to my dream job for one month. Several weeks before school was to start, funds were cut unexpectedly and the new music therapy program was pushed aside. The only option I was given was to teach as a general music specialist at an elementary school 120 miles from my house!

Rather than giving up, I kept my music therapy career goal in mind, feeling confident I could eventually make this work. I went back to my alma mater to get my music education certification and began working as a general music specialist teaching 750 students a week. Fortunately, after a few turns in the road, I was able to begin the music therapy program just one year later. That new music therapy program began19 years ago, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. We now have 10 music therapists on staff serving over 50 schools with students ranging in ages from 3-21 with an array of abilities and disabilities. Additionally, we have trained over 45 music therapy interns in the past 10 years.  I am pleased to know that our program provides music therapy of the highest quality to so many students.

Looking back, I realize the experiences of the past 20 years have taught me to have patience, to take advantage of the opportunities as they arose, and to keep my ultimate career goal firmly in front of my eyes. I need a big dose of that patience and persistence now. After almost two decades of providing top quality music therapy services, we are suddenly facing huge challenges.

With the turn of the economic status in our state, the public school system is making huge cuts in their budget for the remainder of this year, and even larger cuts for next year. Our music therapy program is safe for now, but therapy positions are in jeopardy. Instead of cutting any one program, the “powers-that-be” decided to cut all part-time employees for the following school year. Three of our ten music therapists work 60%, 80% and 90% contracts. Since they were not full-time employees, these top-notch therapists have been told that they will not be rehired for the following school year. The two full-time positions that these three music therapists were splitting are still in place, but may well be filled by music educators who have not taken one class in music therapy. The school system has a surplus of music teachers, due to a new regulation increasing the size of music education classes. The county has the mistaken notion they can put any music teacher into a music therapy position. GOOD GRIEF!

My eyes have certainly been opened through this turn of events. Among other things, we are implementing three strategies in an effort to keep everyone in place and to keep the music therapy program intact.

Strategy #1. I am working with the school personnel department, making certain the contract line includes the requirement of a Board Certified Music Therapist – an MT-BC credential for all our positions. Our program has grown through the years due to the fact that all ten of us hold dual certification in music education as well as music therapy. But, because it has not been necessary to specifically state the need for the MT-BC credential in the past, the new contracts only list the requirement of state certification in music education. This oversight needs immediate attention!

Strategy #2. In spite of threatened cuts in music therapy staff, we have decided to move forward boldly with a proposal for a new program for severely emotionally and behaviorally disordered high school students. These students must earn two high school credits in fine arts in order to graduate from high school. With the pending music therapy staff cuts, implementation of this program will spread the remaining staff members very thin. But, we feel strongly about the need for quality services by trained professionals to these challenged students. And we realize that becoming an integral part of the program by putting our foot in the door will pay off in the long run as the administration sees the value of having board-certified music therapists serve the youngsters.

Strategy #3. I always do my best to help place, create, or look for opportunities for my interns in the job arena. The current economic climate makes that difficult. One intern is moving forward with proposals to two school systems, but he has decided to add some insurance by diversifying his skills. He is looking into pursuing an advanced degree as well as certification in programs such as “Music Together” and “Kindermusik.” I am working with another intern on a proposal for getting her foot in the door of the largest school system in the state. Rather than a full-time staff position, she is proposing music therapy services provided on a contract or “cluster” basis.

Needless to say, these challenges are opening my eyes and teaching me some new lessons. Based on experiences during the last few months, I’d like to share these thoughts with my fellow music therapists around the country.
1. Music therapy makes a big difference in the lives of many students with disabilities in the public schools.
2. I firmly believe that we have only begun to tap the potential for impacting the lives of these students, their teachers, and their families through music therapy.
3. Music therapists cannot assume everyone recognizes the positive impact of music therapy.
4. Music therapists cannot just sit back, expecting someone to knock on the door and hand them new programs, new contracts, or new staff positions on a silver platter.
5. Music therapists must continue to think out of the box in order to create new opportunities.
6. Music therapists must continue to propose innovative programs as they see opportunities to enrich the educational experience of students with special needs.
7. When a program is rejected or not funded, we need to avoid wasting time and energy (and goodwill) by whining or blaming others. Instead, we need to look at the project closely, develop a workable alternative, and resubmit the proposal.
8. We need to expand the scope of music therapy services. Consider contacting not only special education departments, but also music education departments as well as parents who are willing to pay for music therapy for their youngster.
9. Build your value. If certification in related areas helps get a staff position, go for it.
10. Think out of the box. Be patient. Don’t give up. Persistence eventually results in a strong music therapy program that makes a real difference in the lives of many students.

I am Amber Weldon-Stephens, EdS, MT-BC. I work for a large school system in Georgia as department chair as well as internship director. I also teach part-time at Kennesaw State University. You can contact me at stephensa@fultonschools.org. I wish you all the best as you face the challenges of what lies ahead, and as you create opportunities beyond your wildest dreams!

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