By music therapist Dr Stella Compton Dickinson

Could a member of the armed forces re-train to work with music?

When a soldier joins the Household Cavalry he often has no prior experience with horses, but he learns to be a skilled rider who can perform in ceremonial duties.

So why not music?

If you are already in the Corps of Army Music or have played in an Army Band you could have the right life experience to become a music therapist.

Music Therapists work in hospitals, the community and in schools. A specialist area is in psychiatry, where male therapists are in short supply. This is especially so in locked hospitals where people with mental illnesses are treated having committed violent offences.

Some of the same qualities are needed in a music therapist as for soldiering.

Music Therapy is a tough self-developmental post-graduate training course that welcomes people with the right life experience. You need resilience, self-discipline and an ability to work in a team, but you need not have been to Music College. Add to that a willingness to learn, to write and embark on a self-developmental course along with some musically expressive competence, a flexible approach and good skill on a musical instrument.

Where to go?

You have to be a competent musician but you do not have to be a particularly good keyboard player to train at The Guildhall School of Music, Anglia Ruskin University or Roehampton University. If you are a good pianist find out more about the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy training course.

Music Therapists have to gain enough hours of clinical experience to apply for their health and care professions council registration, then they can work in the National Health Service. NHS work provides stability of income and the opportunity to pay into their very good pension scheme. This work is both rewarding and rigorous in helping patients towards recovery.

Music therapy is not recreational even though you play and create music to fit the mood of the patient; it involves understanding and working from a theoretical and psychological model. The training course provides you with this education. Like psychotherapy, there are different ways of achieving the treatment objective.

In forensic treatment, music therapy contributes to reducing the risks of violent and impulsive behaviours and therefore helps to reduce re-offending as patients become more able to socialise. Making up memorable music in a therapeutic group creates bonds that help the treatment effect to be sustained.

There are often autobiographical reasons why someone wants to be a music therapist: for example they may have experience of disabilities or impairments in their family or you may have a unique understanding of the fear of death from your military experience. It is important to be able to hold firm personal boundaries and to understand the impact of trauma and deprivation on the brain.

Just like the expression ‘Physician Heal Thyself ‘it is mandatory if you can get on to a music therapy-training course to have some personal therapy. Nor does experience of mental difficulties have to be an obstacle if you are motivated to look at yourself, and this can develop your empathic skills. You will be taught how to let go so that you can improvise and empathise with children or adults who have mental health problems.

N.B. Introductory days to find out more are available at all the training courses mentioned in this article.


Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a London-based Health and Care Profession council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered Cognitive Analytic Therapist and Supervisor. She is author of The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), and has her own private practice and twenty years’ experience in the National Health Service as a Clinician, Head of Arts Therapies and Clinical Research Lead her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research.