Music Therapy with Mexican Communities

In keeping with our multicultural theme from last month, we have decided to explore some aspects of Music Therapy work with Hispanic communities, specifically Mexican.

Shannon Balcom, MT-BC has been a professional Music Therapist for 4 years, all the while working with Hospice agencies in San Diego (which is a great place to learn about Mexican culture due to proximity).  Shannon shared with me many anecdotes about her experiences as well as things to keep in mind when working with this population.

The first and obvious challenge is a language barrier. Though most Americans have studied Spanish at some point during their educational career, few of us possess the linguistic skills required to facilitate a therapeutic relationship at the drop of a hat. In Shannon’s experiences with Hospice settings, patients are frequently elderly family members who rely heavily on their native language to communicate.
The first thing to do in this situation is to find a translator to bridge the misconnections. Shannon has had positive experiences using a translator or another member of the treatment team who can facilitate communication until she is able to get into a comfortable rhythm with the patient.

Secondly, take these first couple sessions with the translator to be learning, not only phrases in their language, but details about their life and who they are as a person. From there, develop your treatment plan and how you will use music to lead the communication.
Last month, Becky stressed the importance of not jumping into a cultural context ignorant of their language, their music, social trends, etc. That is DEFINITELY important! Do your research! However, in some cases (such as Hospice) you may not always have adequate time to prepare before treatment is needed.
I asked Shannon if music can serve as a sufficient means of therapeutic communication when there is a language barrier. “Yes, absolutely. It can be very easy to connect with your patients through music. Whether that is their favorite song, or just a song or style of music that they recognize.”

Musical considerations: 

Especially if there is a language barrier, it is important to be using the most appropriate music for your clients. Do not fall into the habit of playing the same songs with the same style for all your patients. Now, realistically, most people do not have the time or the technical skills to learn Classical Guitar or Mariachi music or the many other specific styles of music in Mexican Culture. However, just taking a few of these extra steps could make a world of difference to your quality of treatment.

  • Use traditional Mexican chord progressions when Improvising
  • Pluck simple melodies on guitar which resembles classical guitar playing (again keeping those traditional chord progressions in mind)
  • Play hymns which use melodies familiar both to Americans and Mexicans
  • Use video/sound recordings of known classical guitar players


Multigenerational settings:

“Often there are large family groups that are present in Mexican culture. There was a cancer patient I saw who the whole family was present in the session, including kids and grandkids, so there is a balance between playing music meaningful for the patient and then engaging the family as well” Shannon described to me her observations of multigenerational differences and the younger generation of Mexicans being raised in America  “Often there are requests for modern American music from the kids. They tend to be hesitant speaking their native language, and I get the sense there probably is pressure at school to speak English to fit in.”

In light of this observation, I inquired: what parts of Mexican culture seem most beloved and cherished to the younger generation? “American it is much less family oriented, people are much more disconnected. Mexicans do a great job establishing close family ties. The kids seem to be very grateful for that familial community.”

How can we as MTs be instrumental in the blending of Mexican culture into America?
“One thing that I try to do is if you have a group setting, incorporate other cultural music into the session (even if there is not someone present who is from that culture). As you’re exposed to beautiful parts of that culture you learn to love it and blend it into your community. Challenge yourself to keep learning music and challenge yourself to try new styles. If you are moving to a place with a high population of a certain culture, do your research and learn how to use their music in meaningful ways.”


Repertoire List

  1. Cielito Lindo
  2. Gracias a la vida
  3. Que serra serra – spanish version
  4. Sabor a mi
  5. La Feria de las Flores
  6. Mexico lindo
  7. Besame mucho
  8. De Colores
  9. Amorsito Corazon

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