Data-Driven Compassion

Nicole O’Malley, Assistant Clinical Professor of Music Therapy

Nicole O’Malley, director of URI’s music therapy program, holds in her hands a three-ring binder—the mammoth kind that can hold a ream of paper: material evidence of a program (and a philosophy) decades in the development.

Now in its second year, URI’s music therapy program has 12 students—and growing interest.

O’Malley is a bit awed by it all. Creating the music therapy program was not something she’d planned or even had interest in—initially. She didn’t want to be a teacher; she was already running a nonprofit, Hands in Harmony, managing her clinical practice, and raising two young children. A few years earlier, she’d written the standards for state laws concerning the certification of music therapy practitioners. She had enough to keep her busy.

But consulting on a program for URI led to an invitation to implement the five-year program in 2019 and then, at the urging of department chair Mark Conley, to teach a class. And it took just the one class for O’Malley to make a startling discovery. “Watching my students grow, seeing those aha! moments—I loved it.”

“You can be compassionate and caring and data focused and scientific.”

In URI’s undergraduate music therapy program, students learn to use therapies that help improve the sensorimotor, cognitive, language, emotional, and/or social functioning of their clients. It is the only music therapy program in New England to offer on-campus clinical training for students, who complete 1,200 hours of clinical training to prepare for national board certification.

Music therapists are in high demand. They work in hospitals, schools, long-term care facilities, and neurorehabilitation centers. They are employed by psychiatric practices and community centers.

O’Malley prizes preparedness and thoughtfulness and holds her students to the rigorous standards she sets for herself as a practitioner.

“In the first five years of my career, I had to spend a lot of time in court advocating for clients. To prepare, I would dig into the literature and make sure my data was solid,” says O’Malley. “I’d create reports and develop standards so high that they couldn’t be disputed in court. I believe we should teach our students how to meet those standards.”

O’Malley also wants her students clear-eyed about the challenges therapists face. When students begin their clinical hours in their sophomore year, it’s an emotional experience. “I tell them, ‘You’re going to laugh and you’re going to cry.’ In my practice,” she says, “I’ve seen thousands of people; sometimes what they’ve been through is so horrific that you take a piece of it with you forever. A lot of the work I’m doing with the sophomores concerns how to handle challenging situations and how to be strong clinicians in the face of such heavy work.”

Every experience—and emotion—is on-the-job training, says O’Malley. And all contribute to cultivating fortitude, resilience, and self-awareness. “You need to be able to access feelings and emotions; you have to have deep empathy. You can be compassionate and caring and data-focused and scientific,” O’Malley says.

“Evidence and emotion drive me. That’s the way I teach.” •

—Marybeth Reilly-McGreen

Photo: Nora Lewis