Over the past 10–15 years, there have been an increasing number of scholarly publications that address a broad range of cultural considerations in music therapy (e.g., Hadley, 2013; Hadley & Yancy, 2011; Kenny, 2006; Pavlicevic & Cripps, 2015; Stige, 2002; Uhlig, 2006). However, few publications provide clinically focused information on how music therapists can respectfully and skillfully navigate the complexities of engaging in music experiences with clients whose cultures and personal histories are markedly different from their own. These complexities go well beyond learning songs in different languages, studying traditional or indigenous instruments, or gaining in-depth practical and theoretical understanding of the musical elements that define particular musical cultures, genres, or styles. Although all of these skills and knowledge can be very helpful, they do not ensure that the therapist has a genuine understanding of how music is conceptualized or understood within a given culture, nor how a client’s own musical identity has formed within a particular cultural context. If all music therapy encounters are in fact cross-cultural, as Hadley and Norris (2016) propose, achieving even a basic level of multicultural musical competence seems like quite a daunting task. The four articles contained in this special-focus volume of Music Therapy Perspectives all suggest that multicultural musical competence is not only possible, but also a necessary component of music therapy practice. However, it is not a competency that can ultimately be achieved, per se, but rather a way of practicing that requires ongoing re-conceptualization according to each clinical case/client, music therapist, therapeutic relationship, and social-political-cultural-musical context.
The first article, “Musical Multicultural Competency: The First Step” (Susan Hadley and Marisol Norris), aptly sets the stage for this volume. It provides a concise yet comprehensive overview on relevant foundational topics such as multicultural themes, competencies, and ethical codes in music therapy; multicultural counseling theory; and the role of cultural identity in shaping therapeutic relationship. The authors discuss how an almost exclusive focus on Western musical genres has influenced the training, practice, and profession of music therapy, leaving some therapists unable to recognize the potential therapeutic value of unfamiliar cultural musical forms. However, before music therapists can begin the important task of gaining multicultural musical competencies, Hadley and Norris believe strongly that they must first engage in transformational unlearning and learning processes (e.g., reflection-based and multicultural engagement strategies). By doing so, they gain essential insight into the significant impact that various points of power, oppression, and privilege have had on the ways in which they understand themselves and others, and the ways in which they interact with others. I would also suggest that if “our involvement with music…serve[s] important developmental tasks related to the sense of self and identity” (Ruud, 2010, p. 50), reflective self-inquiry strategies aimed at examining one’s own musical identity could also be included as part of this first step. Not only would this help music therapists move beyond their own socially and culturally constructed tastes and assumptions about music, but it would also help them facilitate more authentic cross-cultural music therapy processes for clients (Ansdell, 2003; Ruud, 1997; Yehuda, 2013).
The need for music therapists to be reflexive and grounded in their own authenticity is further reinforced in “Exploring the Discourse in Hip Hop and Implications for Music Therapy Practice” (Michael Viega). An increasing number of music therapists are working within marginalized communities where rap and Hip Hop are an essential means of culturally informed artistic expression. However, for various reasons, many clinicians are uncomfortable with and/or lack genuine understanding of the genre. Furthermore, Viega emphasizes the necessity for deeper discourse about Hip Hop culture given how its ethos and artistic elements (refinitions) are so well aligned with various theoretical frameworks utilized in clinical music therapy (e.g., music centered, resource oriented, culture centered, feminist, humanistic, and developmental). Although gaining competencies in the historical, cultural, and musical components of Hip Hop is essential, music therapists can achieve understanding of the genre and support its authentic realization in therapy contexts only through their own ongoing engagement in transformational self-reflective processes. Viega’s article not only makes an important contribution to the scholarly discourse on this topic, it is also genuine and personal in tone, thereby serving as a model of reflexivity in and of itself.
The final two articles, “Shira Chadasha: A New Song for an Old Community” (Nir Sadovnik) and “Multiculturally Focused Medical Music Psychotherapy and Affirming Identity to Facilitate Optimal Coping During Hospitalization” (John Mondanaro), are clinical case studies that reveal how musical multicultural competence can unfold and/or manifest in unique ways within complex “real-life” music therapy contexts. In the first case study, Sadovnik eloquently describes a music therapy process that took place with three Chasidic adolescents within the context of a special-needs yeshiva in New York. He outlines challenges he experienced working within a highly self-segregated cultural community, but ultimately realized that being an “outsider” also facilitated a genuine sense of empathy for his clients, who also had the experience of not being fully accepted by their greater community. He describes not only how he came to understand the meaning and uses of music within their culture, but also how he was able to sensitively incorporate aspects of traditional music therapy theoretical approaches (e.g., creative music therapy, community music therapy, resource-oriented music therapy) as well as “universal” aspects of music in ways that suited both the needs of the clients and the beliefs of their cultural community.
As a music therapist working in the New York metro area healthcare system for over 15 years, Mondanaro has borne witness to the marginalization, objectification, and de-personalization that inevitably occurs in hospital contexts. Music, as an expression of culture and identity, has the potential to ameliorate the negative impacts of these experiences. More specifically, Mondanaro believes that a multiculturally focused medical music psychotherapy approach, informed by family systems and self-affirmation theory, is well suited to supporting individuals from culturally diverse populations who are facing the multifaceted threat of illness. He outlines the culturally informed use of music within this approach by presenting five distinct cases involving individuals from Romani, Orthodox Jewish, African American, Chinese, and Latino cultural backgrounds.
As one can see from the breadth, depth, and diversity of these four articles, multicultural musical competence is not a stagnant or rigid concept, but rather an ongoing process; a multifaceted evolving way of being toward which all music therapists must continuously strive. Even though all of these articles contain practical considerations and suggestions, none of them can outline exactly how one can achieve multicultural musical competence in one’s own practice. It is each music therapist’s responsibility to re-conceptualize and apply this information according to their own personal and cultural situations. However, it is my hope that this special focus will help promote reflexivity, stimulate further dialogue, clarify some issues and concepts, inspire clinicians to make links with their own practice, and finally, underscore the integral role that multicultural musical competence plays in music therapy clinical practice at large.