Karen Wacks

Professor

"Over the years teaching at Berklee, I have learned to appreciate the need for expanded cultural competency. Last year I traveled with eight students to Kenya. We worked in orphanages and met musicians from all over; we had master classes and learned about music from an East African context. I began to see that certainly the practice and theory of music therapy can be generalized to different areas, but what that trip really highlighted was the shared exchange and collective global connection. We had something to offer but also a lot to learn. The way music is used in Africa is a wonderful model for music therapy. We look at the elements of music—call and response, polyrhythm—and we look at community and how music is used to bring a community together. That's what we do in music therapy. So it was really great to reconnect with those roots. We as therapists end up working in hospitals and nursing homes with such a diverse group, so it's imperative that we begin to expand our own understanding of how music in other cultures is being used."

"What we learn at Berklee is improvisation, and what we learn in music therapy is how to meet a client or patient in the moment. We say we are prepared to be unprepared. You need to rely on yourself, on the music. There were times in Africa when students would just be paired up spontaneously with children. In one orphanage there were two Berklee students who were working with a group of adolescent girls doing songwriting, and they wrote a song about Mother Nature and their lives. For some of the little kids, it was very interactive, singing songs, teaching songs, learning songs. It was life-affirming and life-changing."

"Any musician at Berklee—whether you're a therapist, performer, or educator—can learn to use their music for compassion. It can be customized for a child in a hospital, or it can be broader, where you're working with thousands of people at a concert. But how can you begin to really use your music to think of another person, to step outside of your own personal needs and issues, to be there? It just takes a little bit of awareness. What's different about what we do is that we learn to customize our music to meet the needs of an individual or a group, but anybody can get it. It's about consciously thinking about another person and how you can help."

Career Highlights

 

  • B.A., Northeastern University
  • Ed.M., Harvard University
  • Pianist and French horn player
  • Clinical training coordinator for the Music Therapy Department at Berklee (internship and practicum placements)
  • Cochair, Faculty Coalition for Music and Activism
  • Coauthor, book and manual,
  • Board-certified music therapist
  • Licensed mental health counselor, Massachusetts
  • Former president, New England Region, American Music Therapy Association
  • Cofounder, Massachusetts Music Therapy Alliance
  • Produced television documentaries with NAK Production Associates: In a Perfect WorldThe Artist’s Way at Work, and The Art and Science of Music Therapy at Berklee
  • Member, Berklee Faculty Brass Ensemble and local community orchestras
  • Member, Berklee Women’s Network (founder of second iteration)