It’s a cold winter day. You’re bundled up in front of your computer, sipping on a steaming cup of coffee when an advertisement for service work pops up. You see this tanned music therapist smiling at a young child as they strum a guitar. The ad is filled with bright colors and palm trees. You can envision yourself there, playing guitar with kids during the day and sipping on a fruity cocktail at the beach in the evening. What could be better than traveling to a tropical location and sharing your talents as a music therapist? It’s a vacation and a music therapy learning experience all wrapped up into one.

When I was a sophomore, I made the wonderful decision to participate in the Jamaican Field Service Project (JAFSP). I had always wanted to study abroad. I love warm, tropical climates and being at the beach. And, like many music therapists, I chose to enter this profession to help others. JAFSP offered it all- a study abroad experience in a beautiful place that would look great on my resume. Those 10 days in Jamaica were an amazing, life-changing experience for me. I loved learning from and networking with music therapy students and professionals from across the country. We learned traditional drumming patterns and Jamaican folk music. I became much more confident in my group leading abilities. I grew as a music therapy student. I loved my experience so much that I participated in the JAFSP the following summer.

This seems like a stellar review, right? Well, yes and no. I personally believe that the JAFSP is a great organization, but upon reflection I realize that my motivations for participating were questionable. As music therapists and future music therapists, we have an ethical responsibility to prioritize the needs of our clients. I realize now that my priorities were entirely about my needs – to grow as a music therapist, to network, to have a nice vacation, to learn about a new culture, etc. My clients’ needs were a regrettable afterthought. Fortunately, JAFSP requires students to learn about the culture and music before engaging with the local population and hires experienced music therapists to supervise students and professionals throughout the trip.

My goal is not to criticize JAFSP or other music therapy service projects, but to challenge anyone interested in participating in such projects to embark in thorough self-reflection. Research has shown that the volunteer tourism industry can cause negative and harmful effects on local communities if volunteers are not operating in a respectful and responsible fashion. If your priorities (like mine) focus primarily on self-growth and enjoyment, I challenge you to consider how your participation will affect the local community. We need to seek out learning opportunities, but we cannot do so at the expense of our clients.

Outside of the music therapy community, the voluntourism industry has come under fire. If you do a brief google search, you will find many articles calling volunteer tourism into question because of the ethical issues posed by these trips. Unfortunately, some organizations prioritize the needs and wishes of their consumers (the volunteers) over the needs of the local population. The volunteer tourism industry has also been criticized for placing volunteers into positions of power, recreating colonial hierarchies and undermining the local population (Luh Sin, 2008). These are all very relevant points that should be explored before participating in any music therapy or other volunteer service trip. In fact, you may decide that volunteer service trips are not for you – and that’s ok too!

If you do decide to participate in a service trip this summer, do your research and choose an organization that prioritizes the community’s needs. Don’t be afraid to reach out to international music therapists to inquire about ethical concerns. Prepare yourself by learning culturally relevant music. Most importantly, reflect on your own motivations and actively seek supervision throughout the process to protect your clients and meet their needs.

Krystine Smith is a Marine Corps veteran and Board Certified Music Therapist who works with the veteran population in Miami, FL. Krystine graduated from the University of Miami and is currently pursuing her Masters of Arts in Music Therapy at Saint Mary of the Woods College.

As leaders in healthcare, the care and protection of our clients should be the WHY behind everything we do. Want to learn more about what a competent, compassionate, and culturally-sensitive practice looks like? Check out our Ethics and Human Rights course by Natasha Thomas, PhD, MT-BC. It fulfills the ethics requirement! Here’s what’s you’ll take away:

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  • Be a witness to deep exploration of how our cultural background impacts the service to our clients, so that your clients may feel even more honored and understood.

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