Center for Music Therapy to Partner with Underserved Communities in Berklee's Backyard

The center's inaugural clinical director, Cynthia Koskela, shares her vision for the initiative and her own path to music therapy.

June 29, 2022

Berklee's Music Therapy Department has long been a hub of research, training, and innovation in the field. Music therapy majors have access to world-class training from leading experts, and through the Music and Health Institute, they can participate in and learn from the latest research and innovative therapeutic approaches. With the creation of the new Center for Music Therapy, the department aims to help deliver life-changing music therapy services throughout Berklee's own backyard and to give music therapy students practical, hands-on training in the process.

Cynthia Koskela

Cynthia Koskela, inaugural clinical director of Berklee's Center for Music Therapy

Designed to serve as a training ground for students in the major, the center will focus on delivering music therapy services to under-resourced communities in the Greater Boston area. Leading this new initiative is Cynthia Koskela, the center's inaugural clinical director. A 2013 graduate of Berklee's music therapy undergraduate program, Koskela returns to Berklee with years of leadership experience in music therapy and a graduate degree in human development and psychology from Harvard University. She will be responsible for working with local healthcare and community organizations to develop and expand music therapy services and training that strengthens communities, promotes social change, and improves quality of life, with a particular focus on communities that are often overlooked and underserved.

We spoke to Koskela about her own path to music therapy and her vision for the new Center for Music Therapy. Read the full conversation below.

You studied music therapy at Berklee. What first drew you to this field?

Yes, I completed a dual degree in music therapy and professional music. My primary instrument is the trumpet and I come from a family of mariachi musicians in Mexico. I identify as a first-generation Mexican American. Throughout my life, mariachi, corrido, and other traditional Mexican music genres have been a source of emotional expression for my family. Listening to and playing mariachi music in particular greatly influenced my identity development throughout my adolescence. Through playing and listening to mariachi music, I learned self-advocacy and began to understand my cultural wealth as a first-generation immigrant. Therefore, the therapeutic use of music, specifically culture-centered music, always interested me.

As a student at Berklee, I was first drawn to the music therapy field during my second year. Every summer we would visit family members in Mexico. During this summer I witnessed the transformative power of music with my grandmother, who had late-stage Alzheimer’s. I was spending time with her and decided to sing her favorite religious song, “Alabaré.” As I was singing, my grandmother’s eyes lit up, she started clapping and singing. She then suddenly remembered my father's name, smiled and gave him a big hug. After witnessing this beautiful effect music had on my grandmother’s memory, I decided to become a music therapist and expand the use of this therapy specifically for BIPOC communities.

Could you say a bit about the path you've taken in the decade since you graduated in 2013 and how it led you back to Berklee as the clinical director of the new Center for Music Therapy?

After graduating I began working as a music therapist in early intervention in the Boston metro area for several years. During this time, I became very frustrated with health and wellness inequities for families I worked with and the limited access to quality music therapy services for BIPOC communities. I wanted to learn more about how to become a child advocate and expand strength-based music therapy services for diverse communities. This led me to graduate school at Harvard University, and I graduated with a master’s in human development and psychology with a focus on child advocacy. Upon graduating, I decided to continue to advocate for the expansion of music therapy in various healthcare and school organizations in the greater Boston area. It was through this advocacy that I developed the first music therapy program for Esperanza Academy, a nonprofit school for middle school girls in Lawrence.

Several years later, the Center for Music Therapy was created and I now have an opportunity to expand this advocacy and foster the development of music therapy programs that target health disparities as its inaugural clinical director.

My approach to music therapy is collective healing through community and culturally centered music therapy services. Music plays a key role in connecting communities and provides an outlet for healing through this connection.

— Cynthia Koskela, clinical director of the Center for Music Therapy

Tell me about your own approach to music therapy. In your view, what role can it play in the health and well-being of a person or a community?

My approach to music therapy is collective healing through community and culturally centered music therapy services. Music plays a key role in connecting communities and provides an outlet for healing through this connection. This strength-based approach meets participants where they are and utilizes an individual's cultural and social wealth in the healing process. I believe this approach to be critical in the health and well-being of a person or community and in the advancement of equity in music therapy practices, as it is not based on a deficit healthcare model. This approach utilizes a community's cultural wealth, such as the use of music for emotional expression and community connection, as a source of empowerment and healing. I also prioritize community partnership and collaboration in the implementation of services to address and advocate for equity in health and wellness practices.

What kinds of experiences are you hoping the center will provide for music therapy students at Berklee?

My hope is that the center will support students in developing practical skills in music therapy program development and implementation of social justice practices in music therapy. This includes providing critical learning experiences and advocacy skills for students centered around the innovation of music therapy services for the health-related needs of typically marginalized communities both nationally and globally.

How do you see the Center for Music Therapy serving the Greater Boston community?

I see the Center for Music Therapy being a resource for social justice–centered music therapy, community music, and research that address health inequities for schools and healthcare institutions.

How would you like to see this program grow? Are there particular initiatives or partnerships you're envisioning for the center's future?

I would like to see this program grow through collaborative partnerships that target the inclusive use of music and music therapy–informed practices, focusing on the overall physical, social, and emotional health of children, adolescents, and adults in our collective communities. This includes collaboration with various departments at Berklee and local educational institutions to develop resources on the ongoing need for unbiased healthcare and the use of music as a wellness tool for diverse communities. Essentially, focusing on the advancement of equity and justice in healthcare.