Help! I’m Not a Music Therapist and I Want a Vibrant Music Program

Help! I’m Not a Music Therapist and I Want a Vibrant Music Program post page

Online Dementia Journal

By Online Dementia JournalMay 15th, 2019

Help! I’m Not a Music Therapist and I Want a Vibrant Music Program

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by Mary Sue Wilkinson, Founder of Singing Heart to Heart 


You’re not a music therapist? You know the value of music but you’re not sure how to get started? Maybe you are comfortable singing and maybe you’re not. I’m here to tell you that you too can provide music experiences that help the people you care for connect, find joy, and awaken memories. Yes, it takes a little thought and some support. But I think you’re up to it. I truly believe that you too can use music to improve the lives of the people you care for. 

To be clear, I have the utmost respect for music therapists and I hope you are lucky enough to work with one. They are a rich resource and one you would be wise to utilize. But the reality is, there aren’t that many to go around and there are only rare occasions where a music therapist is a full-time staff member who is able to bring music into the daily lives of residents. 

And here’s the thing…

The goal is to bring music into the daily lives of residents.

So, that’s where you come in. Not as a replacement for a certified therapist. But as a daily provider of music experiences. 

You are starting out with a big advantage over a music therapist who visits once a week. Yes, you read that right. And I know most therapists would agree. Why? Because you spend so much time with the people you care for. You know them. You know what time of day or what activity is challenging for them. You may have access to their family members. This is huge! If you pay attention to what you already know, and maybe ask a few questions, it will immediately help you not only choose the right songs but also make decisions about when music can be helpful throughout the day.

Let’s break it down with a few simple suggestions to get you started. Follow the suggestions below that most resemble your comfort level. 

Is this you? I’m not a pro, but I’m pretty comfortable singing. 

  • How do you choose the right songs to sing? Think about what you know. For example: Did Marvin live on a farm? Try Old McDonald. Is Sue a retired music teacher? Try Zip a Dee Do Dah. Did Bob serve in the military? Try God Bless America. You get the idea. What seems to resonate with the people you care for? Ask family members and residents. 
  • Keep a list of easy and simple sing-along songs that you are comfortable singing. Base your list on your observations and what you know about their personal preferences. Share your list in the staff area or even hang a little sign outside someone’s door saying “Joe’s favorite songs are…”
  • Keep a few songs in your back pocket. These are your go to songs that you can use over and over as the need arises. One song may be soothing (Let Me Call You Sweetheart) one may be energizing (I’ve Been Working on the Railroad) and one may be engaging and serve to distract (Take Me Out to the Ball Game). These are just ideas. Again, use what you know about the people you care for to choose your own back pocket songs. 
  • Get a little dramatic. Pretend you are in a musical and break into song! This may seem silly to you. But if you’ve ever seen a musical such as the Sound of Music or, more recently, Frozen, you know how music affects our emotions. It’s such an easy way to brighten the mood for everyone. Singing does not have to be part of a planned activity. Is the sun shining today? Belt out Oh What a Beautiful Morning or You Are My Sunshine. Are you helping someone walk down the hall? Start humming Sentimental Journey.
  • Just sing the chorus. Let yourself off the hook. You can’t be expected to know the words to hundreds of songs. Singing just the chorus of a song like You Are My Sunshine or Home on the Range will do just fine. 
  • Keep it short and sweet. If you’re up for planning a music session, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. A ten-minute singing session several times a day might be better than one longer sing along. 

Is this you? I’m not comfortable singing – at all! But I want to use music.

(This list also applies to people who like to sing.) 

  • Give singing a try. I actually believe that most people really can sing. Unfortunately, too many people have been told by someone else that they should not sing. If that is you, I would encourage you to try it out in a safe place, privately when no other staff can hear you. Perhaps you sing just the chorus or hum a song as you are assisting a resident in their room.  Or maybe, you quietly join in singing along with someone else.  
  • Use recorded music. YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, and other online music services are your new best friends. Use them to make playlists and to bring music into the day-to-day lives of the residents. Once you learn how to choose music (more on that in a bit) you can use that information to build either a group or a personalized song list. If technology scares you even more than singing in front of people, don’t fret. Just ask a staff member to help. 
  • Your smart phone or tablet and a wireless speaker give you music on the go. Get a small wireless speaker and you instantly have a music experience wherever you go. Try to get one that has decent sound quality. I use Bose, but there are many others. 
  • Choosing the right music is not as hard as it may seem. You may already know that it is the music of our youth that we retain and that seems to spark memories and joy. Below are several resources you can turn to for help. 
  • Get a record player and some albums. Records are making a comeback and you can often find older records at thrift shops or even garage sales. Family members may have saved the records of your residents and would be willing to bring them in. Spread some records out on a table for a small group (or an individual) and talk about the musicians, the cover art etc. Then choose songs to play. 
  • Adding movement is a great way to enhance the use of recorded music. Clapping along, marching in place while seated, kicking out one leg and then the other… Keep it simple and demonstrate enthusiastically so people can follow your lead. Watch the short video in the Resource Library on my website to learn how to add movement to My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean. 
  • Isn’t playing music in the background enough? The simple answer is…no. It’s not wrong, but the goal of using music more intentionally is to connect and increase engagement.  Background music can be pleasant, comforting, and enjoyable, if you choose music that appeals to the people you care for. It may or may not be a good idea to include music as background when you are doing another activity such as painting or drawing. For some people it will be a distraction. For others it may be pleasing. You’ll have to observe and use your own judgment on this. 

Want to learn more? Follow these links for more resources. 

Sign up here to receive weekly emails from Mary Sue with advice and inspiration about how to use music in care. 

My book Songs You Know by Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care includes my CD and a download of 18 easy songs you can sing along with. It also has an easy to follow 15-Minute Music Plan and planning sheets for using music with different GEMS States. And bonus! It has a contribution from Teepa. Buy the book here on Teepa’s website. (Note: This book is also available on Amazon, however if you purchase it there it does not include a physical CD – only the download of the songs.) 

The Songs You Know by Heart CD can be purchased here. (Note: this is the same CD that comes with the book. And I highly recommend you get the book.) 

The Singing Heart to Heart Resource Library includes song guides to help you choose music, training videos and much more. Take a look here. 

I’m Mary Sue. I grew up in Iowa in a musical family and I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. I got my first guitar when I was twelve years old. My mom saved up green stamps to buy it for me. (Thanks mom!) 

I’m the founder of Singing Heart to Heart and the Young at Heart Music Program. My passion for singing with elders started when I sang for my father-in-law who had dementia. He had lost all language but when I sang the hymns he knew and loved, he could sing every word. Perfect pitch. He even added harmony.

I quickly learned what research is now documenting. Music is a powerful tool to help us connect, find joy, and spark memories. Especially for people living with dementia. I've seen this first hand. I lead over 400 singing and music experiences for seniors each year.

I’m a career educator, a certified music teacher, an experienced speaker and trainer, and a professional musician. I’m also the author of Songs You Know by Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care. Teepa Snow endorses my book and my work.


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