Be a Successful Online Music (Therapy) Student: Tips and Tricks

by Madison Michel, MT-BC

Madison here, Heart and Harmony music therapist, internship director, and online music therapy graduate student. In light of many academic programs converting to all online programing for the duration of the semester due to COVID-19, I know that many music and music therapy students are thinking, “HOW ON EARTH ARE WE GOING TO DO THIS???” 

First off, your thoughts and worries are valid, music is a social experience, and being cut off from ensembles, clinical hours, and asking questions of your professors and classmates in person is going to be very challenging and the experience is not the same. That being said, there are VERY successful online music therapy programs out there. I have been a graduate music therapy student with Colorado State University’s online program for a little over a year while I have continued to work as a music therapist. 

When I made the choice to elect for an online program, rather than in person, I knew that there would be very different challenges involved. I want to share with you some ways I have found success working through my online degree. 

1. Give your professors grace and ask for clarifications

More than likely, teaching completely online is as new to your professors as it is to you; there will be growing pains. They are going to test running a variety of different methods to find what’s most successful for their course. Most online music therapy programs that I know of are master’s level, so while they can draw from the wisdom of their education colleagues who have been teaching online for a while like my CSU professors, online undergraduate music therapy programming is not something that has been done on a large scale.

Keep this in mind, and when things aren’t clear, ask for clarifications. They can’t fix things you’re frustrated with if they don’t know you are frustrated.

2. Set yourself up for success

a. Establish a daily routine and workspace. Sleeping in and/or not setting routine because you are at home can be a dangerous game (been there). Establish a separate workspace or two from your home activity space. I work in my office room, but also go out and work in my sunroom because I enjoy a little background noise from the outdoors while I work.

b. Set boundaries for yourself. I don’t know about you, but I get distracted, so I preset hours that my phone will be on airplane mode while I work and set specific hours where I am not allowed to access my television, social media, etc, and stick to them (mostly). I ask Alexa to set timers for me sometimes when I am especially distractible. On the same note, it’s important to turn off school mode and move into at-home relaxation mode. School and home get muddled when you are doing school from home, so it’s important to intentionally separate your time and put that schoolwork down. I am still working on this one myself!

c. Long and short term planning. There is sometimes a misconception that online work is easy. I would argue that it takes much more self-discipline than the same work would in a school setting because it is mostly independent. Keep yourself on track using a planner (if you don’t have one, buy one), and give yourself long-term “big picture” to-do lists and short term “I can do it today” to-do lists. It’s just not feasible to get everything done in a day, and staring too long at your big picture assignments is a recipe for overwhelm and anxiety. You don’t have that day to day check-in you’d have with in-person classes, so you need to do it for yourself. Each day when you check-in, think: what can I feasibly get done today to move me towards my big picture goal? Make a list and get to work! I like to color-code mine based on priority.

3. Technology is beautiful; use it effectively

a. Understand the platform. Whether it be Blackboard, Canvas, Google Drive, etc, make sure you take some time to explore and better understand your online learning platform/s. This will save you some growing pains.

b. Editing videos. I use iMovie on my phone to successfully edit and put together clinical and musical excerpts, and I do not consider myself remotely good with technology. If you have an iPhone you already have access to this tech, so you can easily edit what you want to submit. 

c. Sharing and reviewing videos. If you don’t have a YouTube account, I suggest you download the app. Even if you are using another platform to share musical video content in class, you can change your settings to unlisted on youtube so no one can see the video unless you send them the link. This way you are saving storage space for yourself and have access to review and receive feedback from your peers on music and/or clinical skills you are working on before submitting for grades. Many of my professors give us options to use the video platform that works for us for clinical submissions. Private link sharing on YouTube has been a very successful method for me; however, this might not be ethically appropriate if you are working live with clients. Always ask for clarification.  

d. Online lectures. Online lectures are actually a really wonderful thing because you can rewind and re-listen. Take advantage of this. Do active listening like you would be sitting in class, then put it on in the background while you do other tasks – you’d be amazed how this repetition helps you become more familiar with the material.

e. Video and phone conference calls. In my program, we have used Zoom for video conferencing with multiple people to complete group projects. No matter if you use Zoom or something else in your program, I recommend making an agenda for your meeting so that group members can work individually on delegated tasks in a shared outline before the meeting so that the meeting functions as an efficient brainstorming and planning session. I’ve had success when my groups used Google Docs so that we could all access and edit the document. Each group member used a different colored font, and we put our names up top in that color so we could easily see who was contributing what ideas/information in our documents.

4. Vary your study methods

a. Take study breaks: If you were on campus, you would be going to a class, then walking to your next class. Give yourself a breather and go walk around your back yard or apartment complex once in a while.

b. Mobile studying: One big advantage of doing online work is that you are more mobile. Do you ever get to the point where you just can’t read anymore? I sure do. How can you reinforce that information in a different way? One method I like to do is record myself reading through and explaining notes on a voice memo, and then put some headphones in and listen to that info while I exercise, walk my dog, or complete household chores.  Explaining material helps you understand where you need to focus more energy and is what I would call active studying. Repetition in different sensory mediums is just going to strengthen those connections and understanding – what I’d call passive studying.

5. Musicing

When you are in music school, there is music all around you all the time. So much so, you might not notice the difference until you don’t have that passive music all around. It’s important to take some time to be in music without it being school-related. Take a couple of minutes to improvise on an instrument of choice or jam with a friend or family member to give yourself that experience. 

6. Give yourself grace

Adjusting to this learning style is going to take some time. You might find that this learning method is harder for you than in-person learning, and that’s ok. Take a deep breath, put it down for a minute, practice self care, and get back to it later. You can do it!

Madison Michel, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified

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