Tonya Fisher, MT-BC is many things. She is a genealogy enthusiast, a rock fan (both the musical and geological variety), and a karaoke champion. And if that wasn’t enough, she is a wonderful music therapist! She loaned her powerful voice and presence to Earthtones after completing her internship with us last year, and we couldn’t be happier to have her on board.
What drew you to music therapy?
I wanted to find a career that would be rewarding for me, that helped other people, and yet allowed me to make music every day. For a long time I worked in the restaurant industry and was really dissatisfied with that. It was taking a toll on my mental health AND my physical health!
How did you become a music therapist?
I was actually complaining to my therapist in a session one day about how dissatisfied I was. We were listing the qualities that other people had remarked on in regards to me, things that I had noticed, what I love to do… and she’s the one who said, “Have you ever heard of music therapy? I think you would be perfect at it!”
So then I went and did an online search for music therapy to find out what it would take to be a music therapist. I saw that, in my own backyard, there was a program at Marylhurst. I applied, and I got in!
What population do you work with?
Mostly adults with developmental disabilities and memory care.
Do you have one population in particular that resonates with you?
I love them all but I think I love memory care the most. I’m also very interest in working in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), although I’ve only completed the first tier in certification*.
*In order to work with this very fragile population, music therapists must undergo a 3-tier certification training.
Tell us about a typical day for you.
A typical day will have probably 3-4 sessions, and I will be in my car a lot. Depending on my day, I’m probably in the car from noon to 6:30 PM driving to and from clients! I try to plan for a week in advance, then review my plan in the morning to make sure it’s fresh. I usually do something in the evening for self-care, either writing, singing a song, doing research…
Me: Research for self care?
Well in the evening sometimes I’ll look up something about a population I’m interested in. Like I said I want to keep it fresh, and not do the same things over and over.
After every session I jot down notes in the notebook I carry with me so I can remember the significant highlights and whether goals were met. Which makes it easier when you’re writing 15 quarterly reports!
What has surprised you the most about your work?
Just about every session I have I get to witness little minor miracles…some of them not so minor! I get to see clients with dementia who haven’t spoken in a length of time, suddenly open up and start singling. Or talking to me and having a conversation! Or persons with developmental disabilities who are nonverbal who suddenly starting singing the horn part to “I Feel Good!” [by James Brown] *She sings it and shimmies, before bursting out laughing*
Just, the happiness I have now. I can’t describe it. It’s not work, it’s magic!
Who has influenced you?
There is a myriad of female music therapists in the Portland that have influenced me. Jodi Winnwalker, Laura Beer, Chris Korb, Liska McNally, Emily Ross, Beth Rousseau, Jessica Western…
Another mentor of mine is [Earthtones music therapist] Ted Owen! He’s so laid back and had such good advice for me. He takes a “Let’s just see what’s gonna happen” approach.
There are a whole bunch of people that influenced me in the field. Then other times my own family experiences will come back, like the song that I sang with grandmother or my mom. I can use my familial knowledge of their generation to connect with my clients. They influenced me too!
Favorite genre of music?
I would say probably rhythm and blues.
What about your favorite song?
Right now it’s Build Me up Buttercup!
Any advice for someone who wants to become a music therapist?
A great way to see if this might be for you is to try a job shadow. I think if I would have had a chance to do that you’ll have a good idea of what you’re getting into. Get to know your music therapy community and learn what it is that we do. Read the AMTA scope of practice. Just do your research!
Make a list of your strengths, and build on them. Know yourself: your interaction style, how you deal with stress, etc! If music is a joyful experience for you then this will probably be a joyful job for you.
If you’re someone who has had life experience and considering going back to school, it’s doable. Don’t be afraid to go back and do this if the calling is there. Don’t let age hold you back! It’s never too late to bring the joy that you deserve into your life and help others.