Jessica Leza, MA, MT-BC is a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) in Texas. She has a master's degree in music therapy from Texas Woman's University (TWU) and more than five years experience working as a music therapist in special education in Texas public school districts. When she's not playing music with her students, she can be found canoeing down the local greenbelt or raising Indian runner ducks.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as a music therapist? Was it something that always interested you?
I came to the music therapy field after already having earned a bachelor's degree in music composition and spending many years working in a variety of occupations, from teaching business English at an engineering university in Xiangtan, China, to starting my own catering business and freelancing as a photographer.
Ultimately, I always found myself most comfortable with people relegated to the fringes of society — people who are mentally ill, neurodivergent, or struggling with issues like trauma and homelessness — and I was often taking on the role of an informal healer, providing peer support to those in my community struggling with issues like suicide and addiction. Eventually, I decided that if I was going to help my mentally ill friends and myself, I should acquire formal training.
The final straw was reading "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sacks. I realized that I could apply my musical talents in a way that helped people — people like myself and my friends. Within a day of finishing the book, I had applied to the graduate program at Texas Woman's University.
What did your educational journey look like? What degrees and certificates have you earned for your current position?
I earned a bachelor of music in music composition from the University of North Texas (UNT). At that point, I was barely aware that music therapy existed as a field. Around five years after graduating, I returned to Denton, Texas, this time to attend Texas Woman's University — one of the first universities in the United States to offer a music therapy degree, and the oldest continuously running music therapy degree program in Texas. After three years of study, I received a master of arts in music therapy.
In addition to traditional coursework, I completed a clinical practicum as a student music therapist under supervision of a board-certified music therapist, I wrote and defended a professional paper (a content analysis of the use of music to treat acute pain in adults), and completed a six-month, 1,040-hour internship at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
After completing the internship, music therapy students are eligible to take the board certification exam — a formal written exam taken at a special testing center — and I did this a few months after finishing my internship, prior to finishing my thesis.
After becoming a MT-BC, I have maintained my certification by taking additional training and education courses. Music therapists are required to complete at least 100 hours of continuing education, including an intensive, in-person training to become certified in an advanced method of MT known as Neurologic Music Therapy, an evidence-based set of techniques often used in rehabilitation or as a treatment approach for people with neurological concerns such as Parkinson's or stroke.
A music therapist can also become certified in working with neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) patients or may continue their education by becoming a Fellow for the Association of Music and Imagery (FAMI) or a Nordoff-Robbins music therapist (NRMT), or [by earning] other specializations in areas like hospice and palliative care. I have also continued my education to maintain certification by taking courses taught by fellow MTs at regional and national conferences and by taking courses online.
In what ways did your undergraduate studies differ from your graduate studies?
I earned a bachelor's degree in music composition at the University of North Texas — one of the most competitive and intensive public music programs in the US. While the fundamental music courses at TWU and UNT are very similar, the atmosphere was very different.
UNT is a large music school that occupied five buildings on campus, dedicated to hundreds of music students with very high-level skills. One could easily encounter virtuosos in the classrooms, as both one's teachers and classmates, and this can mean that every day a student is confronted by their own weaknesses as a musician. The high expectations were sometimes difficult to live up to, but the results provided me not only with the music skills I needed to be a therapist, but also the psychological toughness needed to succeed in a course of study that many people fall away from.
After my experience at UNT, TWU was a much more relaxed atmosphere with a significantly smaller music school and a higher concentration of women. The obstacles I overcame as a student at UNT had a huge impact on my experience as a music therapy student at TWU. I often saw my peers struggling emotionally when they received negative feedback after a performance; in contrast, my experience at UNT allowed me to be able to process constructive criticism without becoming emotionally involved in feelings of rejection.
Potential MT students should be ready to navigate this situation, as being able to approach MT studies with a sense of humility and the ability to learn from feedback will be invaluable help in completing your education and being successful as a professional.
What advice would you give to students who are considering pursuing a career in music therapy?
Potential MT students should give careful analysis to their financial resources and goals. When applying for a program, ask about internships available in the region. To complete a degree and be eligible to sit for the MT-BC exam, students must complete a 1,040-hour internship. Students who are unable to relocate to a new city for six months to work at a full-time job that probably will not pay may struggle to find or be accepted to a local internship.
In addition, local internships may not be in a setting that a student is interested in. Plan ahead. Very few internships offer fair pay, and an intern has limited ability to take on a paying job while completing the demands of a full-time job as a music therapy intern.Potential MT students should also consider their financial goals post-graduation. While MTs are able to make a living in the field, many struggle to find a job with sufficient hours or a sufficient pay rate, and many people leave the field for other work. The field is growing every day and in many places, such as the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex in north Texas, there are many jobs as well as opportunities for music therapists to hang a shingle and start their own private practices and small businesses. In other areas, finding or making work as an MT may be much more difficult.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
I am able to use the skills and talents I have cultivated to make a living, and I can focus on improving someone's quality of life rather than trying to sell them something.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
This is a job that turns on its head the traditional view of "challenging work environments." Therapists live in the world of "challenging aspects" on a daily basis, for if someone were not experiencing challenges, they would not be in therapy. Our clients may be actively hallucinating during a session, they may soil themselves, they may have emotional outbursts or say and do inappropriate things.
I, personally, feel quite at home with the strange behaviors and thoughts of my clients. What causes me — and many other therapists — a more complex challenge is when our clients are truly in an extreme state of distress due to factors that are not under the control of the MT, and things escalate to dangerous episodes of self-injury or aggression. Therapists can be traumatized by those things that happen in therapy, or we can be vicariously traumatized by sitting with clients who have experienced severe aversive experiences.
This is why many therapists seek out therapy for themselves, or otherwise engage in a carefully planned program of self-care and supervision.
What are some of the necessary skills or qualities someone pursuing a career in music therapy must have?
Music therapists need a foundation of strong music skills, including the ability to read music, play an instrument, including voice and guitar, and participate and succeed in college-level music courses. Music therapy programs will provide training to address many of these skills, and by the time a student graduates they will be proficient in guitar, piano, voice, and percussion, at a minimum.
Music therapists also need therapeutic skills. Many of these are taught through coursework and clinical practicums, but there are some fundamental therapeutic characteristics that cannot be taught: an authentic and genuine care for the client, and a comfort being around the people who travel through therapy. Music therapy clients may do and say unusual things, and a student wishing to be an MT needs to be comfortable with a wide variety of people. When you feel comfortable around other people's strangeness, they can feel comfortable around you, and this is part of the foundation of the therapeutic relationship.
Any final thoughts for us?
Music therapists serve clients of every demographic, but not every demographic is equitably represented amongst those practicing. Straight, white, cisgendered, abled, Christian women with traditional family status make up the vast majority of MTs, but the field is actively pursuing efforts to diversify, as this will better serve our clients.
There is a growing culture within the MT field of embracing diversity, and these issues are now being heavily represented in our professional conferences as we seek to support students and young professionals from backgrounds that differ from the majority. Students of color, LGBT+ students, neurodivergent students, and those who may feel excluded from other healthcare professions should know that they have a place within the MT community, and that the MT community is actively working to make our field accessible to a diverse group of clinicians.