Some Helpful Advice for Passing the Music Therapy Board Exam

After 5 long years of pursuit, I am now Katelyn Farris, MT-BC. Man that feels great to say! I am absolutely thrilled to now have an undergrad  degree and a national board-certification that says I am fully qualified to practice music therapy. For students and interns who are working toward the same goal, I promise you that few things in life top this feeling.

With that being said, I had never been so worried about an exam in my life. I have always been one of those people who does well on exams, especially when I study. However, the fact that this particular exam would affect the course of my entire career carried such a heavy weight on my usual ability to be at ease about standardized tests. When you want something so bad you can taste it, you’re paralyzed with fear at the thought of possibly not attaining that certain something. To make matters worse, there is no clear-cut way to tell you exactly what will be on your CBMT exam. I’m not going to lie to you: this exam is hard.

Fortunately there are many resources to help you pass this very important test. The online practice exam, old notes from music therapy classes, textbooks, and internship/practicum experiences are all valuable materials to help you pass with flying colors. I am also very fortunate to have some awesome music therapy peers who support each other in these challenging times! My friend and classmate Nicole Ribet (who also passed her board exam!) sent me this list of tips she wrote for taking the CBMT which I found extremely helpful:

Tips for taking the CBMT via Nicole D. Ribet, MT-BC

  1. Take the test as soon as you finish your internship. – The valuable information you learn on your internship (assessments, documentation, and interventions) is fresh in your head.
  2. Study your material. The New Music Therapist’s Handbook by Suzanne Hanser is very helpful and has valuable information that pertains to everything on the test. The Scope of Practice is also valuable information as well as the Code of Ethics.
  3. Know your terminology. Know the difference between OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE. Know the difference between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy. Know what an IEP is and how it will pertain to music therapy. Know what IDEA is and how it relates to Music Therapy.
  4. Everything you do in your classes COUNTS! All those term papers, research projects, practicums, journal articles; they will be on the test. Trust yourself, you did the work it will pay.
  5. Study your MUSIC THEORY. Know your guitar chords, know what I,IV, V chords are and how they relate in music. Know your 6 and 6/4 inversions and how it relates to music. Know what cadences are and when to properly use them. Know what the difference in Baroque, Classical, ect.
  6. Know your GUITAR. Know what the individual string notes are and what they would be if you tuned to an open G chord ect. Know how to read guitar chords written out on a chart. If you don’t know your chord structures see #5.
  7. Read through Music Therapy VIGNETTES. Familiarize yourself with different music therapy scenarios and pay attention to not only the clients/patients but also what the music therapist does.
  8. Take a Practice Test. This helps you to not only be familiar with the types of questions you will see but also give you an idea of what your weaknesses are and what you need to brush up on. There is a practice online test you can buy through CBMT or if you are lucky like me, your internship supervisor will have one for you. You will also get a CBMT handbook on the website that will prepare you for how to take the test with tips and what you need when you arrive at the testing site.
  9. Do NOT Stress. Do not look at this exam as the end all be all to your career. Worst-case scenario, you fail and have to take it again. No one will DIE because you failed. I suggest no studying the night before or the day of the test. You need a good night’s sleep and do something relaxing the morning of the test. Go into your test refreshed, calm, and relaxed.
  10. Take your TIME. Arrive to the testing sight early and do not rush through the questions. Pace yourself and do not struggle with the hard questions (you have the option to mark questions and come back to them.) Do not change your answers, more than likely your ‘first answer’ is correct. You will also get a piece of scratch paper during the test that will be turned in. (I used mine for the Music Theory questions).

Final Thought – If you made it this far to take your CBMT, you were a strong student. You will do GREAT!

Nicole and me on graduation day at William Carey University. We did It!

Nicole and me on graduation day at William Carey University. We did It!

These tips helped me so much during my preparations for the board exam. After taking and passing the test myself, here are a few bits of wisdom I would like to add:

  • Mark any answers you are unsure about. If you are willing to bet money on your answer being correct, don’t mark it and don’t return to it. Use your time at the end only to check if you actually GAVE an answer, otherwise don’t dwell and move on.
  • When I had questions that I couldn’t decide between two different answers, I used my scratch piece of paper to write the question number and my alternate answer. When I came back to the question, I analyzed all the information given in the question’s scenario, then chose either to change or keep my answer.
  • When in doubt, client needs ALWAYS come first. Choose answers accordingly.
  • Draw a mini-guitar with string numbering (remember that string 1 is the smallest string closest to the floor!) and the notes for standard tuning. This helped me with guitar theory questions.
  • You can use the restroom anytime during the exam, so don’t be afraid to drink coffee if it helps you with brain power! On the flip side: if coffee only makes you jittery and impairs your brain function, avoid caffeine before the exam. However, DO eat breakfast that includes a good balance of protein, omega-3 fats, and whole carbs.
  • The primary materials I used to study were the practice exam my internship director gave me, The New Music Therapist’s Handbook by Suzanne Hanser, and the CBMT Scope of Practice as a guideline. I also had a music therapy study guide book that I found useful, and I know there are some out there on the market that are more up-to date, so that may be a worthy investment on your part.
  • IT IS NEVER TOO EARLY TO START STUDYING (I’m looking at you, freshmen)! All that you do in your undergrad studies and internship culminates to this one board exam. Soak in as much knowledge as you can and apply all that knowledge in your practicums, research studies, and internships. Attend conference sessions geared toward passing your board exam and PAY ATTENTION!
  • Bring some earplugs and a light jacket to the exam, just in case.

When all is said and done, you can take the test again. It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t pass the first time. In the end, you WILL be a music therapist if you want to be.  Take the practice exam, study as much as possible, get a good nights rest, eat a good breakfast, show up early and relaxed, and know that you are going to rock that exam! I hope this help you on your journey to becoming a music therapist and happy exam-ing!

Nicole rolls out her private practice, Ribet Rhythms Music Therapy Services, PLLC,  in Gulfport, MS this September. For more information, check out their Facebook page here.

What are your biggest exam fears? Anything you would like to add? Feel free to comment or email me at You can also connect with me via Twitter at @KatelynFarrisMT.


Burnout: Don’t Think It Won’t Happen To You

Music therapy is exciting, invigorating, …

Music therapy is also, at times, exhausting.

Constantly advocating, pushing for contracts, searching for jobs that in any way relate to your degree and experience are just a few of the challenges that music therapists face. Whoever said this job was easy: I seriously urge you to step into our shoes.

Not so long ago, I scoffed at the idea of self-care being important in music therapy. At conferences I never chose to go to a session on self-care, thinking pah! I know how to take care of myself, thank you! Oh, how pride cometh before the fall.

Within the past month-and-a-half, a number of stressors have caused me to feel a heavy burden that I haven’t felt in a very long time. One minute you think you have everything under control and things are going great, then the next minute life throws you too many curve balls to handle. I feel like the entire month of May, I was a huge walking bundle of stress and nerves. The pressure of a research project, a full case-load, the job hunt, grad school applications, and studying for the GRE and music therapy certification simultaneously seemed to all weigh in on me at once. Add a few worries from my personal life to the plate and you’ve got a recipe for an extremely spazzed-out intern!

Month 5 of internship is the month that you realize you’re about to leave to graduate. I can’t remember the specific day or moment it sank in that the “real world” was just a few months away, but when it hit me, I seemed to spiral into a decent of stress and anxiety. The funny thing about stress is that it makes you act crazy and you will have no idea why you are doing crazy things, thus reinforcing the idea that you are, in fact, going crazy. When you ignore the warning signs of stress, it WILL appear in your life in sneaky little ways. My eating patterns suffered; one day all I wanted to eat/drink was protein shakes, then the next day I wanted to inhale an entire cake. I also would find myself spacing out and spending 3 hours in Kroger, returning with nothing but a bag of cat food and herbal tea. When you find yourself so stressed that any moment of peace and normality comes as a surprise, it’s time to make self-care a priority.

“Burnout” is very much a real thing that many music therapists, interns, and students experience sometimes. I have learned that not only is it normal to feel this way, but it is perfectly alright to take a rest and do something about it. If you don’t treat it, either your body will tell you to take a rest by becoming sick, your professional work will suffer, or a combination of both. In light of the recent discovery that I am shockingly not SuperGirl, here are my tips and ways to recouperate from the dreaded burnout:

1. Exercise, and do something you absolutely love.

I absolutely believe that we were meant to be active, no exceptions. I could go on and on about the benefits of exercise. It’s tough to make exercise a priority, especially with important deadlines and other job-related duties. But for me, physical activity gives me an outlet to unwind and makes me feel so much stronger. A good jog also gives me time to shut out the world for an hour or two and listen to the music that I want to listen to (SUPER important for any music-driven person).

2. Give yourself a treat.

Everybody has their vices/ guilty pleasures. My indulgences: a well-crafted cupcake, a few hours of Big Bang Theory, and retail therapy (aka window shopping). Just remember not to go overboard.

No money? Treat yourself to the gift of time. Spend the day with no forms of communication such as your cellphone or social media. Clear your mind. Just breathing is a gift in itself.

3. Get just the right amount of sleep.

I suggest no less than 7 hours and no more than 9. The older you get, the more necessary and luxurious a good night’s sleep becomes. In addition to quantity, consider the quality of your snoozing as well. Pop a melatonin supplement, listen to whatever calms you the most (Chuck Wild, a fan, silence, ect.), and sink into some soft, comfy sheets 30 minutes or more before you want to begin to fall asleep. Reward yourself for a hard day’s work and recharge your batteries for tomorrow’s work.

4. Take a short trip anywhere.

One day I crossed the state line to Tennessee just to chill in a different Starbucks. The adventure and change of scenery was a breath of fresh air. So find a local park you’ve never visited, go see a movie solo, or bum the couches of some good friends.

5. Make time for friends and family.

This is especially important if you haven’t seen them in a while. Your friends and family are the ears you need to vent to and the shoulders you need to cry on. Sometimes it’s possible to be so busy that you forget you miss them until you see their faces or hear their voices. I got the luxury of going home two weekends in a row. I got to meet my newborn nephew in person, have a family cook out, attend my niece’s 1st birthday party, lay out by the pool, go to my favorite Mexican restaurant, and hang out with some of my friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. I came back feeling refreshed and ready to take on my internship.

6. Listen to or practice only your absolute favorite music for a day.

Give yourself permission to be completely selfish in what you listen/jam out to. Revisit the music that was so powerful that it inspired you to pursue music therapy in the first place. The mustard seed that starts a career in music therapy is the music that inspires, motivates, and changes us. What is yours?

7. Don’t forget to eat well!

Bad diets will cause more stress in the long run than if you let yourself go and get the oh-so-convenient cheeseburger and fries. That my-jeans-are-too-tight-but-I-have-no-time/money-to-buy-more feeling is THE worst. You’ll thank yourself later if you eat your fruits and veggies today.

8. Do not compromise your spirituality.

If you do not consider yourself a spiritual person, this of course does not apply. However, I urge you to prioritize the god of your understanding. For me, it is Jesus Christ. Jesus’ two biggest commandments are to first love our God above all things, then love others as you love yourself. When I find myself putting myself or other priorities above that, I find myself getting out of sorts and really struggling. We are also taught that we don’t have to carry our burdens, because our future is already secure. When I allow that truth to sink-in, I have so much peace, which in turn allows me to better follow His commandment of loving others. There is so much truth in the phrase “Let go and let God.”

9. Laugh and make others laugh. It is the best medicine, after all!

On that note, I leave you with my favorite scene from Big Bang Theory. Bazinga!



Below I have provided links to some awesome blog posts concerning the topic of burnout in music therapy: