Taking the Healing Power of Music Therapy to Everyone 

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is not a path and leave a trail.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fundamental success means having the opportunity in everyday life to do the very best one can. There can be times in one’s life when visions indeed become realities. These times do not happen by merely wishing for them. They require work, but, more importantly, they require the development of a perspective that situates people in the mainstream of emerging trends, empowering them as agents of change. The ability to grow from each step is the most important advice I can offer as a music therapist, mentor, internship director, entrepreneur, and leader.

My Brother Ronnie and Music Therapy

Born in Hoven, South Dakota, in 1952, I was the oldest of six children. I grew up with the responsibilities of the eldest child on a farm, and my family instilled work expectation and ethic early on. I shared my first five years of education in a one-room schoolhouse with 13 students in eight grades. My high school years, in a school of 99 students, gave me opportunities to be involved in a dizzying array of activities. Pulled toward music, I played clarinet and cymbals in the marching band and oboe in the concert band. When I started at Northern State College in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1970, I couldn’t decide whether to major in languages, math, or music.

My youngest brother, Ronnie, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. I was devastated during my freshman year when he passed away, only 8 years old, with complications from pneumonia. I felt so helpless. I knew I would do something with children who had disabilities, in Ronnie’s honor, though I did not know how, what, where, or when. When a visiting Arizona professor mentioned there was a career in music therapy, I knew instantly what I wanted to do.

I earned my music therapy equivalency and master’s degree in music education at the University of Kansas in 1976. Although I wanted an internship working with children, I was accepted at Norristown State Hospital, which served adult psychiatric patients. I was so disappointed I did not get accepted at a facility for children with disabilities. A new law in 1975 had a major impact on children with disabilities and the profession of music therapy. This change led me to accept a new position in Dubuque, Iowa as an itinerant music therapist and music educator. I served children in self-contained special education programs and taught music to children in grades 1-6 with special education students mainstreamed into arts and PE programs … the first program like this in the state.

Off to San Diego

In the fall of 1980, I decided to go back to graduate school to work towards another master’s degree in rehabilitative counseling at the University of Iowa; however, I discovered rehabilitative counseling was not a good fit for me. One thing led to another, and I found myself with a teaching assistantship working towards a doctorate in music therapy. When I finished my doctoral work and it was time for me to move, I sold everything I had, stored my books with a friend, and packed up my car. With two friends willing to visit San Diego and $100 to my name, we headed west to California.

After a week in San Diego, somehow, I registered my business, MusicWorx of California. I was now in business! Although my first few years in San Diego were a struggle, in my heart, I knew I was in the right place. There were only three or four other music therapists in town at the time, and only a handful of music therapists across the country that owned a music therapy practice. I learned lessons, obtained skills, and acquired business savvy through six part-time jobs in real estate, telemarketing, direct sales, and multi-level marketing. As I faced new challenges, I harnessed all the skills and knowledge I had fostered throughout my life (right down to taking leadership in high school activities) and applied them to my entrepreneurial goal of setting up a private practice.

What I did not realize, at the time, was that I was underestimating my obstacles, defining my vision, and mentally bypassing the barriers. Deep down, I believed the greater San Diego area was a huge opportunity for music therapy waiting to happen. Keeping the vision in focus is not as easy as it may sound, however. Although there were times when I went off track, made mistakes, and temporarily lost sight of my vision, my dream always remained intact. When you get knocked down, it can be really hard to get up, and setbacks occasionally challenged my self-confidence. I was surviving one day at a time, and it was unbelievably challenging.

From Volunteer to Leadership

AdobeStock_54630562The summer of 1991 was a huge turning point. Just as I was ready to give up, I received an unexpected phone call from a hospice volunteer coordinator. She said, “I have no idea where I got your name or why I am calling you right now, but we are looking for a music therapy volunteer.” My mouth dropped. Because I was desperate for income, I did not think I could afford to volunteer, but I paused and said, “Let me think about it.” Upon reflection, it dawned on me this might be divine intervention. I called her back and agreed to volunteer. The same week, seemingly out of the blue, I received a call from the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT), asking if I would volunteer as local chair for the national conference. That summer was all about volunteer work: giving, rather than being self-absorbed in what I did not have, and learning lessons about living from my hospice patients. The pathway from the NAMT volunteer work led me to serving in leadership positions and eventually serving as president of the NAMT.

In 1996, I was part of a small group of six leaders who formulated a proposal to bring together the two music therapy organizations in the U.S. in a historic unification signing ceremony. I wrote: “Our mission will be complete when every person who can benefit from music therapy, irrespective of economic status, severity of disability or ethnic background has access to it. Let us celebrate as we weave a strong tapestry of traditions, diversity and unity.”

In 1998, I began a private practice music therapy internship. Directing an internship program is one of the biggest highlights of my music therapy career. I thoroughly enjoy mentoring and training the next generation of music therapists and bridging their education and internship experiences into their careers. I am proud to say that this year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the internship and 30th year of MusicWorx being in business. We have had over 150 students come through the MusicWorx internship. In our analysis, we have found 75% still work in the field of music therapy, and 58% of our alumni own their own business.

I grew MusicWorx one day at a time, one contract at a time, identifying, and then seizing opportunities as they come along. As the famous old song states, written and recorded by Ringo Starr, “It don’t come easy,” but persistence pays. Keep talking to people every day through networking, meetings, and presentations, always planting those seeds. My mantra, “If you keep throwing mud against the wall, some of it will stick.”

Resounding Joy

Then one day in church we were saying a prayer for someone who was having hip surgery. The first thought I had was, “Who is going to go visit her?” This led me to thinking about all those people who are homebound, shut-in, and for whom there aren’t enough music therapists in the world to meet their needs.

Could volunteers be trained to provide social, musical visits with isolated older adults? This was the question I asked myself when I was inspired to expand the reach of the music therapy profession to develop partnerships in the community. With a little over 5,000 Board-Certified music therapists in the U.S. at the time, and the long process of education, internship, and testing that qualifies

therapists to work with any population, could musically-inclined volunteers be trained on specific strategies? Could they transform what might otherwise be performance into something social, stimulating, and magical for older adults isolated at home or coping with feelings of depression in care facilities?

The answer is a resounding yes. I began Resounding Joy in 2004 with the dream of making music wellness accessible to as many individuals as possible. With the help of incredible volunteers and my experience of running MusicWorx, we’ve grown the Resounding Joy to serve individuals coast to coast, primarily here in San Diego County. Once focused solely on volunteer training, now Resounding Joy gives the healing power of music to over 8,000 contacts every year.

My staff of professional, Board-certified music therapists and music therapy clinical interns provides high-quality music therapy services through four programs:

  • The inaugural program, Mindful Music, empowers and engages older adults through the rewarding Joy Giver training model.
  • Born from a successful merger in 2010, Healing Notes supports children in medical care.
  • Sound Minds, established in 2008, facilitates youth development and bonding, particularly for teen parents and their preschool-age children.
  • Semper Sound, begun in 2010 with support from the Semper Fi Fund, assists military service member rehabilitation and transition.

My team continues to focus on our mission of using therapeutic and recreational music programs to improve the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of individuals and communities. We want to continue to create, nurture, and maintain an environment of growth and unlimited potential for those around us. It has and continues to be an extraordinary journey, and I am proud to say, “I work as a music therapist.” I’m just getting started.

Reflections on the Journey

In thinking about the pathway of my life, I feel that my unique combination of business, marketing, and clinical background has given me the skills to provide the kind of leadership the profession needed to capitalize on opportunities and prepare music therapists for the marketplace. And most importantly, the legacy of my little brother, Ronnie, lives on in the work we do. Because of his inspiration and love for music, we have reached tens of thousands of clients throughout the years. Resounding Joy’s “Ronnie’s Fund” not only honors him, but also more importantly, defrays the cost of providing at-home music therapy services to families of children who are homebound due to incapacitating illness or physical disability. My path hasn’t always taken easy or expected turns, but I am so fulfilled and honored that every day I get to serve others while doing something I love. Music therapists are among the most energetic, talented, bright, creative, dedicated, and compassionate people I know, and it has been amazing to be part of so much growth and change in our field. I was honored to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. I thank my colleagues for entrusting me with such an honor.

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09c Barbara Reuer headshotBarbara Reuer, PhD, internationally known for her expertise in music-centered wellness and music therapy, is Founder/CEO of MusicWorxInc. and Resounding Joy Inc., both located in San Diego, CA. To find out more about these organizations, to donate, or to volunteer, please visit resoundingjoyinc.org and musicworxinc.com. Barbara has more than 40 years of clinical experience in schools, convalescent facilities, retirement homes, hospices, medical and psychiatric hospitals, corrections facilities, substance abuse and eating disorders programs, health spas, as well as teaching at community colleges and universities. Major areas of Dr. Reuer’s professional involvement are in music therapy and job development in San Diego County, including an international music therapy internship program. In addition to her clinical work, she provides workshops and seminars (wellness, community building, stress management and pain management) nationally and internationally for health care professionals, educators and corporate clients. She has authored and coauthored several books and articles. Barbara has been recognized in the Lifetime network show, New Attitudes, and the UCSDTV Health Matters: Music and the Mind. Dr. Reuer is a 2008 Southern California Cancer Pain Initiative Awardee for excellence in pain management. She has served as President of the National Association for Music Therapy and is recipient of the American Music Therapy Association’s national Professional Practice Award in 2000 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, the highest award for professional contribution in the field of music therapy.