April – Service Trips in Music Therapy

Good Evening Folks,

        This month on the blog, we will be exploring service projects with music therapy!  I had the privilege to speak with Amy Dunlap, MM, MT-BC about her experiences travelling abroad while practicing as a music therapist.

        Amy is a master’s level music therapist who completed her studies at Ohio University (Athens, OH) for both her undergraduate and graduate degree.  Amy currently works at Central Ohio Music Therapy, and has been there for three years.  At this time, she is also teaching as an adjunct at Ohio University.

        When asked about how she became involved in music therapy service trips, Amy shared that from a young age she was “exposed to different cultures in an intimate way.”  Amy’s family hosted exchange students in their house, and this awareness fostered to her desire to travel.  “I always thought I would study abroad,” Amy said, “but with (the rigor of) music therapy courses, it wasn’t feasible.”  Over the summer between her sophomore and junior year, Amy traveled with the Jamaica Field Service Project for an 11 day trip.

        The following summer, between Amy’s junior and senior year at OU, she wrote a grant through the university and received money to travel to Ghana.  Using her knowledge of music therapy and the experience she had the previous summer, Amy helped set up a program at a special needs school.  Using a sustainable model, Amy spent two months working with the teachers.  The grant allowed for instruments to be purchased and left at the school.  Amy brought some instruments from the United States, and planned to buy some instruments in Ghana to support the local economy.

        In 2015, Amy had the opportunity to return and while there studied the functions of music culture in Ghana for 6 weeks.  During this time, Amy travelled with Ghanaian drumming and dance groups.  “It was an immersive experience,” Amy said.  “It’s so fascinating, once you uncover one layer, you see 100 more layers.”  This trip also enabled Amy to return to the special needs school and see how the program was.  Hearing about Amy’s work led me to wonder if she had published any findings from this work?  “I’ve spoken about it at conference, but have not published yet,” Amy replied.

Our conversation naturally turned towards the profession, and the clinical use of cultural instruments.  Amidst these topics, Amy shared, “our field calls us to be able to work with anyone from any cultural background.”  Amy continued, “Your mindset is very important.  Are you thinking of yourself as a person with all the answers, or an inquisitive contributor to the human experience?  I argue that a good way to think about therapy is helping people to find their inner resources so that they don’t need a music therapist anymore.”

As Amy has travelled and worked as a music therapist abroad, she has gleaned a wide variety of experiences.  When asked about her growth as a music therapist, Amy shared, “I contribute a lot of my growth to my experiences abroad.”  In finding and immersing herself in new experiences that made herself uncomfortable, Amy reaped new knowledge that may not have been otherwise garnered.  This was not only true for her therapeutic skills, but musical skills.  Amy reported that her musical flexibility increased through hearing meters, timbres, and harmonies that were unfamiliar—and then practicing them!  “I also learned a lot about music therapy from people who aren’t ‘Musicians’” Amy disclosed.  “Learning from people who use music naturally in how they operate in daily life assists in clinical flexibility and resourcefulness.”

In preparation for her trip, Amy spoke to professors, and even phone calls to other music therapy professionals.  Amy also learned the “Akan” language so that she had a basic understanding of the language in Ghana.  “The more I talked to people, talking about what I wanted, the more resources became available to me,” Amy revealed.  “Talk to people (with whom) you have a thread of connection—this will help you develop your ideas quickly and in ways you didn’t expect.”  As Amy continued to be interested in learning about Ghana, she became more aware of other opportunities on OU’s campus.  She later joined an African drumming ensemble on campus.  “In a way, I kind of made my own opportunities.  This kind of thing doesn’t really happen if you don’t work really hard.”


If you’re thinking of travelling for a service trip, Amy has some preparation tips!

  1. Do a lot of research!  Immerse yourself in the culture you’ll be participating in.
    1. Learn the language (even just a few common phrases helps a lot!)
    2. “When you get there, even if you know a few little things, the people there are accepting and gracious of what you’ve already learned about their culture.”
    3. Research the music, learn the music, listen to the music.  Understand common genres in the culture.
  2. Be a smart traveler!
    1. Really do your homework:
      1. How do I access my money?
      2. Do I need health insurance?
    2. Make copies of your passport at home and have them on you, and leave one at home
    3. Be aware, especially if you haven’t traveled before.
    4. Groups are a good way to learn about travelling; if travelling alone, make contact with someone there first.
  3. Be prepared for the experience
    1. Will instruments be there? (Yes Jamaica Field Service Project)
    2. Do I need to bring instruments?
      1. Research, “What are common instruments in ________”
    3. “When travelling to other countries—what is (already) there that I can support?”


If this interview has piqued your curiosity, Amy has some advice: “If you’re interested in this kind of service trip, or personal expansion kind of travel—start planning!  Take a week, 2 weeks, and just go.  Make it happen!”

  • The Jamaica Field Service Project
    • Typically 12 music therapy students on each trip
    • Students work alongside MT-BC’s in rural Jamaica
    • 3 music therapy trips/year
      • you need to apply a year in advance
    • Supervising MT-BC’s are “top notch!”
      • Typically alumni of the program
      • Have experience living and working abroad
  • Music Therapy without Borders
    • Amy has heard good things, but hasn’t explored this organization at this time.
  •  Some Universities organize service trips (and you don’t necessarily need to go to that specific university to travel with them!)
    • World Federation of Music Therapy
    • World Congress of Music Therapy
    • Talk to your professors, reach out to your connections and see what you can learn!


Lastly, Amy has shared with us her top 6 songs

  1. Nyabinghi (Rastafarian drum beat)
  2. Kponlogo (common West African drum patterns)
  3. If I Had the Wings of a Dove
  4. Obwisana
  5. Improvisational drumming experiences
  6. Nonsense syllable songs

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