If you are like me, you have a very small amount of knowledge about music therapy. I had heard the term thrown around for a while, but never explored it further. There have been numerous studies done on the positive correlations between listening to music and brain health, and after speaking with music therapist Kyle Fleming, it became apparent that music therapy is something that should be accessible to everyone.

Kyle Fleming is a board-certified music therapist and founder of Fleming Music Therapy in Champaign-Urbana. I had the opportunity to sit down over Zoom with Fleming to discuss all things music therapy and how anyone of any background can benefit. 

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Are you from the area? Do you play music? How did you get into music therapy?

Kyle Fleming: I was born and raised in southwest Minnesota. I was always really involved in music as a kid. I was in the band, choir, and orchestra from middle school through high school, and just really involved in that sort of stuff. When I started thinking about what I wanted to do for a career, I knew I wanted something that had to do with music. My mom was a social worker so I knew I wanted to do something in the social work realm. I just happened to learn about music therapy my junior year of high school. I had an opportunity to shadow a music therapist who worked in a memory care unit in South Dakota, which was about an hour away. So I shadowed her, really enjoyed seeing that in action, and kind of decided at that point that it was something that I wanted to do. 

SP: That’s awesome that you learned about music therapy in high school. One of the reasons I wanted to chat with you is that I feel like music therapy is still this gray area for myself, and most likely others as well. I think people hear the idea of music therapy and think —okay, I can listen to music at home and work through it myself. Is there a scientific difference between playing music, listening to music, and going to music therapy?

Fleming: One of my favorite things about music therapy is that it depends on how you use the music. There are great outcomes that you can have, specifically in mental health and addiction treatment by listening to music and talking about it, and exploring the artist and exploring the music. I really like improvising and playing music with people, being in music together just to promote that self expression. But then there's also so many different ways to engage in music. There's an approach called guided imagery and music, which is like a musical exploration of your psyche: you listen to instrumental music and talk about how it makes you feel and what sort of thoughts or sensations that come while listening.  You can also do this with music and art by having music on in the background and free associating with colored pencils, markers, or crayons. You just kind of hear something in the music, it makes you think or sense something, and then talking through that and really digging under the layers.

SP: What if I am not a musician? Can I still partake in music therapy? Who can benefit from it?

Fleming: Absolutely. I use a resource-oriented or strengths-based approach, so anybody who comes to work with me, they don't have to be a musician. I go through our assessment, I figure out what you like, what you can do, and then tailor our interventions and our approaches so that it fits those strengths. So if you can keep a steady beat, we might do a lot of drumming. Or if you just prefer to listen to music, we can do a lot of music exploration like that as well. 

Music therapy is considered a “cradle to grave” treatment approach, because it can be effective from premature infancy all the way to end of life care. I focus specifically on mental health because I’ve found that music is a great way to connect with thoughts and emotions and to create a space where we can talk about those things without judgement.

SP: Right now you work mainly with children and adolescents. Is that right?

Fleming: Yeah. I've been doing mostly community events and guest speaking. So I'm ramping up to be able to take on some private clients soon, hoping to focus on children and adolescents. I also have a meeting with a local hospice agency soon and would like to offer support groups related to emotional wellness needs like grief. 

SP: I know it mainly depends on each individual client, but how does the therapy method change from children to adults or people in hospice?

Fleming: My whole goal is to connect with people, to have that relationship. If I'm working in a trauma-informed lens, it's all about that relationship and having that steady connection, and I think that runs the lifespan. Having a safe connection with a kid is no different than someone who's in their 80s. No different than a young adult in a hospital setting. Once you have that connection, you can create this space where it's okay to be vulnerable, and it's okay to explore. And that looks different depending on age group, but I think just having that connection, and building that community is just so crucial, and so important. Music is such a great way to do that.

SP: When might someone see a music therapist versus a traditional therapist?

Fleming: I think what music therapy does well — and I'll include even other creative arts therapies, too, like art therapy, or drama therapy — I think what they do well is that they engage different aspects of the brain, and tap into different ways to communicate and express. I know in my personal therapy, I do really well talking things out with people. So I tend to see a traditional therapist because that's just how I process and that's just how I do things. But if somebody ever feels like they're stuck with that — they just tend to be saying the same things over and over and nothing really is progressing — sometimes it's helpful to have that different way of thinking and a different way of expression. 

One thing that I've been learning as I've tried to build an equitable and anti-oppressive practice is that, for many people of color, there is a lot of stigma about going to therapy, because oftentimes, "going to therapy" has meant "assimilating to whiteness." In my practice from the humanistic perspective, I tend to not give much weight to diagnoses and instead focus more on whatever issues my clients bring to me, and we work together on how best to resolve those issues. It's why one of my overall missions with Fleming Music Therapy is to bring mental and emotional wellness and healing to communities and people that are often ignored or actively harmed by therapy and the therapeutic process.

SP: I think that's a great point. I think there are people who feel a certain way, but they don't know why they feel a certain way or how to express it. They may not have the words for it, but the music could express it that way for them to some degree. What would you say is the worst or hardest part of being a music therapist?

Fleming: This is going to sound like a cop-out answer, but I think one of the worst parts of being a music therapist is that sometimes things are just so magical. That they only work in this specific moment that you feel like you want to recreate it. One of the stories that I always tell from when I worked at Cunningham Children’s Home is we had a kid who was just so, so severely abused and manipulated by his parents. He was just refusing to talk about it, refusing to do anything about it. So I brought in this song. It's called “Two Forms of Anger” by Brian Eno. It was supposed to be like a casual, free association thing, like listening to the music, writing down, drawing some pictures, whatever. As soon as the music started, he nonstop wrote a two page front and back letter to his mom just detailing all the ways that she hurt him and abused him and messed him up and said, “I don't trust you anymore, I want nothing to do with you.” It was just such a cathartic thing for him. It was like, “Oh, this can work with everybody.” So sometimes I want to recapture that magic. I just have to trust the process of like, it's going to happen when it's going to happen.

SP: What is the best part of being a music therapist?

Fleming: I think the best part is just seeing people reconnect with different aspects of themselves. And especially there are so many people that you talk to, who say, “Oh, I used to play piano as a kid and now I don't anymore,” or “I used to be in band, and then I had to quit.” Music was important enough at one point in their lives that they pursued it like that. So one thing that I think is really satisfying in music therapy is seeing that reconnection, seeing people discover something that maybe they lost or maybe they were trying to keep covered and keep repressed. Then just seeing the growth from that as well. But that young man, just seeing how he went from angry and bottling everything up to expressing himself and encouraging other people... - being able to be part of that transformation was just so meaningful to me, and it still gives me goosebumps every time we talk about it.

SP: I know you have a promotion coming up, do you want to talk about that?

Fleming: Currently, I'm offering a promotion for front line health care workers to receive one free music therapy session and, if they choose to continue with services, half-price sessions through the end of 2022. That can be individual, or a small group of people that want to meet, and just kind of do a support group like that, I'm more than happy to do that. 

I'm also happy to do info sessions and trainings. So if there are any other mental health professionals or community groups in town who want to learn more about music therapy. I am totally open to that.

In addition to my offer for front line health care workers and speaking/training opportunities, I offer equity based pricing to people from historically marginalized identities. More information about that can be found on my website, but in short, people are free to take advantage of discounted rates if they identify as a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled, someone from a low-income/low-resource background, or another marginalized identity. If they feel comfortable disclosing that when they reach out, we can work out a pricing structure and payment plan that works best for them.

SP: Where can people learn more about you or keep up with you?

Fleming: You can go to my website. I'm also on pretty much all of the socials under the same name. You can contact me through any of those, fill out the form on my website, or email me. I am more than happy to chat. 

To learn more about music therapy and Fleming Music Therapy, check out Kyle’s website, Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok.

Top image by Holly Birch Photography.