March Interview with Dr. Barbara Dunn, PhD, LICSW, MT-BC

Good Morning Friends,

Welcome to the month of March here on the Music Therapy Repertoire Challenge!  Our theme this month is Women’s History Month.  I’m delighted to say that we had the opportunity to interview Dr. Barbara Dunn, PhD, LICSW, MT-BC for this month!

Barbara’s journey has been wide and varied.  She began with a degree in voice and music therapy from Michigan State.  Barbara went on to achieve a masters degree in social work, and an interdisciplinary doctorate degree with a focus on Music and Conflict Transformation.  She also lived in New Zealand for a year to study ethnomusicology and social work.

Through her studies in ethnomusicology, Barbara found that the arts were a strong catalyst for change through community-based experiences within many cultures.  “As music therapists, we tend to focus on traditional healing modalities when look at other cultures. This fits with our medical model of service delivery.” Barbara said.  “This is limiting and encourages us to miss some important ways that music is viewed and used within another culture. A Systems approach to looking at communities and cultures different from our own gives a much broader scope. For music therapists, this would mean expanding the view to include how music is used within families and communities, in addition to traditional healing practices.” This knowledge has informed Barbara’s therapeutic practice to this day.  She continues to explore how music brings people together.

When Barbara returned to the states, she did some work as a medical social worker, but as she told me, “I missed music therapy.”  She then returned to music therapy engaging in a variety of contracted work positions. In 1995, Barbara worked at the Bailey-Boushay House (BBH) in Seattle. This was a specialized facility in Seattle that focused on work with people who had AIDS. It was a difficult time during the AIDS crisis where BBH was witnessing up to 12 deaths per month.  Eventually, Barbara submitted a program proposal to a community hospital, Whidbey General Hospital, and was accepted!  She had the freedom to build the program how she saw fit.  Barbara worked at Whidbey General for 11 years on the medical floor, post surgery, outpatient oncology, in rehab, and with the Home Health and Hospice program.  Over her career, Barbara has spent at least 20 years working with the chronically ill and those who are dying.

Three years ago, she resigned from that position at Whidbey General, and has been focusing on her private practice.  Barbara blends Psychotherapy with music therapy effectively bringing music in as a lifeline with cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.  Also, Barbara uses “music as a catalyst and a unifier” in conference settings.  For example, Barbara will be using music as a thread throughout a conference on Water and Community at the Whidbey Institute this March.

Not only does Barbara have a diverse clinical background, but Barbara is one of the Daughters of Harriet.  The Daughters of Harriet is a group of five music therapists (along with Lisa Jackert, Jodie Winnwalker, Robin Rio, and Maureen Hearn) who practice community singing, with a focus on chanting.  You may have heard of them while at National Conference, as they almost always lead a Chant Circle over the course of the conference weekend!

To begin talking about our monthly theme, I stated how music therapy as a profession was largely founded by, and is predominantly sustained by women.  I asked, “Do you think that is significant?”

Barbara noted that women tend to be under-represented at the top tiers of our profession. For example, the National Conference in St. Louis, commemorating 50 years of music therapy, Barbara recalled that the video made for the occasion interviewed and showed just as many men as women music therapists. Many women leaders were missing from that video. The Sears Lecture series that is part of our national conferences has brought in a majority of male speakers. When the history of music therapy is cited, it most often brings up the “fathers” of music therapy, not the “mothers.” Some of the women who laid the foundation for our profession (prior to WWII) are very rarely mentioned. This is notable because the music therapy profession is mostly comprised of women.

This tendency to have more men acknowledged for their contributions and at top leadership positions is not unique to music therapy. She also cited that the professions of education, social work, and nursing have a similar ratio of women professionals to men professionals. They also experience gender-biases in their professions.

Barbara informed me that Daughters of Harriet was started at a conference in Portland, OR.  Barbara had written a song about all the women foundresses of music therapy, including (Margaret Anderton and Harriet Seymour). “I wanted music therapists to know about these women!” Barbara declared.  That conference connected the Daughters of Harriet together, appreciating the importance of communal singing and chanting.

I then asked Barbara if there was a woman who influenced her practice as a music therapist, and how that person inspired her.  Barbara immediately responded that she was greatly influenced by her mother.  Her mother sang all the time, and provided unconditional support.  When asked if there was a music therapist informed her practice, Barbara named Deforia Lane and Carol Bitcon.  “They make me feel good about the profession,” Barbara stated.  Both music therapists engender kindness, intelligence, and egalitarianism.

We then turned the conversation back to Harriet Seymour and her influence on the group, The Daughters of Harriet, and ultimately Ms. Seymour’s continued relevance today.  I asked Barbara, “Why did you choose Harriet Ayer Seymour specifically as the woman to inspire your vocal group?” Barbara informed me that Harriet was a visionary of her time.  Harriet Seymour worked as a music therapist in hospitals, wrote books on the subject of music therapy (you can find some on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!), and she was a part of, “The New Thought Movement. New Thought was a Utopian, philosophical movement that eventually melding into the Unity Church. Harriet would lead large chant circles at these churches encouraging everyone to sing, or perhaps close their eyes and focus on a specific positive thought while she played music.” Daughters of Harriet is carrying on the singing and music traditions in the name of Harriet Seymour, and other women who came before us.

This month is a time to look to the strong women in our profession, and all of the great work that they have done to advance music therapy.  I am challenging myself to learn more about women who shaped music therapy, women like Margaret Anderton, Harriet Seymour, Eva Augusta Vescelius, and others.  I’ll keep you all posted about what I learn throughout the month via my SOTW posts.  But I encourage you all to take some time to acknowledge those who have gone before us, and those who continue to pave the way!

If you’d like to learn more about Barbara, please feel free to check out her website at,

Barbara’s Top 10 Songs for Clinical Use are:
1.) Jana Stanfield – Doesn’t Mean I’m not Strong
2.) Jana Stanfield – If I Were Brave
3.) Holly Near – I Am Willing
4.) Debbie Friedman – Mi Shebeirach
5.) Brandi Carlile – Beginning to Feel the Years
6.) Barbara Dunn – At the End of the Day (from her YouTube Channel)
7.) Fred Small – Not In Our Town (also on Barbara’s YouTube Channel)
8.) Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel (for use with visualization)
9.) George Winston (for use with visualization)
10.) Guiding Light – Foy Vance


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