Making Sense of Self: An Autoethnographic Study of Identity Formation for Adolescents in Music Therapy

“Tell me about yourself.” 

Have you been in an interview and been asked this question? Or heard it on a first date?

In college we rehearsed our answers to this in a business class. We perfected our answers to fit in the space of an elevator ride to best sell ourselves. What in your past has made you who you are? Your likes, your dislikes, your experiences? What would you name as the most important events that have formed your identity? How would you define your sense of self?

In this study by Allison Echard (of my alma mater, Shenandoah University!), the author analyzes her work with three adolescents with developmental disabilities as they use music to define and expand their identities. What happens when the goals of music therapy transition from skills-based (learning colors, identifying emotions, learning an instrument, expanding social skills) to exploring and shaping the self? 

I’ve written before on the COMT blog about an autoethnographic study, a self-study of the author, an analysis of their own work and growth. See that post here. Echard not only reports on her client’s growth over the years of music therapy, but how she has adapted her own work and how it will affect her career as a music therapist going forward.

During the first session/assessment, when discussing goals and objectives, a parent of one of Echard’s clients says, “I just want her to be happy.” The author has to examine her approach of music implementation. She can measure speech progression, and fine motor growth, but how can one measure happiness? By shifting the focus of music therapy sessions onto quality of life and expansion of self, during the transitory time of adolescence, both the clients and the therapist felt more deeply seen and known. The author quotes Abrams (2018) saying that “being a person is not simply to function in a particular way – it is to matter – that is, to be about something, to make meaning, to have purpose, to be engaged in projects, and to care” (p. 3). 

Breakthroughs with each client come, when the therapist leaves space for the client to be themselves and work together as co-pilots in the music. The author concludes, “the language of music is a unique soundspace through which to access the self and find meaning, purpose and significance of our lives.”

By Kristen Lynn Pugh, MT-BC

Abrams, B. (2018). Understanding humanistic dimensions of music therapy: Editorial introduction. Music Therapy Perspectives, 36(2), 139–143. doi:10.1093/mtp/ miy019