Today I present a brief interview with Keith Botello, an accomplished music therapist and percussionist whom I have had the distinct pleasure of knowing for many years.   Keith and I originally (although briefly) met during our time at the University of North Texas, where we both were studying areas of percussion/jazz performance at the time.  Eventually we both ended up at different university music therapy programs, each unaware that the other was on a similar personal and career path.  We later re-met as students at a Southwestern regional music therapy conference, served together as student representatives for the region, and we have kept in contact ever since.

Keith is an accomplished musician/percussionist, and a music therapist with unique and diverse experiences to share.  The following transcript is derived from an interview that was conducted in January of 2012.

Bill: Could you tell us a little bit about your personal history with music, and subsequently, with music therapy?

Keith: I always knew I would go to college and major in music. However, after a couple of semesters majoring in music performance at the University of North Texas, I decided to switch my major to psychology and play in bands on the side. I heard about music therapy from a friend of mine and was offered a scholarship to study music therapy at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After completing an internship at the Colmery O’Neil Veteran’s Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, I moved back to Dallas where I began working professionally as a music therapist while pursuing a master’s degree in music therapy at Southern Methodist University.

Are there any particular musical directions you appear to be heading in right now, percussion-related or otherwise?

I am so grateful to be living in New Orleans.  This is a city with a very rich musical heritage and culture.  It’s been said that the music in New Orleans is like a gumbo of varying musical styles, cultures and traditions. Lately, I have had the opportunity to play with different local musicians and appreciate their musical experience as I reflect on my own.  I find that it’s a matter of incorporating various experiences.  This is the case when you’re working with fellow musicians and tends to be the case when working fellow therapists and physicians.  While working in child and adolescent psychiatry, I am continuing to put together my own music therapy gumbo, if you will.

Speaking of incorporating various experiences, you’ve done quite a bit of work integrating both behavioral and humanistic approaches to therapy. Can you discuss some of this work, both as related to your research endeavors and your clinical practice?

For my graduate thesis I developed an assessment process for adults in marriage counseling. It was called: “The Music Therapy Assessment of Automatic Thoughts” (MTAAT). This assessment involves the use of improvised music to bring to light automatic thoughts and core beliefs couples have about their relationship and each other. It is a cognitive behavioral process that assists couples in improving their communication by helping them to become more aware of maladaptive thought patterns and beliefs after they take turns improvising music for one another.

Honestly, I don’t know if I have been integrating behavioral and humanistic approaches to therapy and I wonder if it’s possible in a purist sense. To be a therapist implies that you are a humanist to some degree.  If I have to apply labels, I’d say that I consider myself as a humanist who has worked in a variety of behavior-focused settings. I view a change in behavior as a person’s choice once they have achieved a degree of self-actualization and insight into their emotional and cognitive processes.

Humanism, to me, involves emphasizing a person’s strengths, following their lead and recognizing the importance of the therapeutic relationship. However, in my experience, there is some grey area when it comes to working in special education settings where the goals are behavioral and determined by that child’s Individual Education Plan.  So, when working in that setting, I tended to gravitate toward occupational and speech related goals where the focus could be more on initiation and reciprocation. This allowed for the child-centered therapy process to remain the same and for behavioral goals to be met in a way that reflected a child’s interests and genuine motivation.  In the pediatric medical setting, I often co-treated with occupational therapists so that I could continue assisting the child with psychosocial needs while helping them achieve occupational-related behaviors.  In child and adolescent psychiatry, it could seem as though integration is occurring, but I think this is a result of a setting where behavioral limits have to be intact.  To a degree, it depends on how you define terms.  That being said, I still consider my music therapy process as humanistic, person-centered and education focused.

I think that you offer an important point here about the personalizing of one’s approach to therapy. I would assume that one’s philosophical orientation, like music, is largely a personal meaning based upon one’s experiences and relationships with(in) the framework(s), rather than an ideal form. I would also assume that one who views/labels himself or herself as a “purist” in a particular camp would probably not be interested in pursuing an integration of various approaches. This, to me, is certainly a valid perspective amongst many valid perspectives.

Can you describe the instrumentation you used in your study, and why you chose that instrumentation?

I chose to use three drums tuned in intervals of fourths and three cymbals of distinct character and timbre. Each participant used a pair of medium yarn mallets as implements.  The reason I chose drums and cymbals is because I needed instruments that are relatively easy for a novice to draw a good quality of sound from and I felt that these instruments could best reflect a conversation. Being a percussionist myself, I acknowledge my own bias. As you well know, drums have a long history as being instruments that various cultures and rhythmic traditions ascribe to the human voice. My experience in African and Indian drumming heavily influenced my judgment when choosing drums and cymbals. It seemed to work anyway!

Would you mind describing the traditions regarding drum and voice from your perspective?

Well, the drum could be considered first telephone.  There are West African cultures that used the drum to send messages back and forth to one another from one village to the next.  There are also different drum ensemble rhythms that conveyed whether or not a tribe was coming for war or coming in peace. The dondo, or “talking drum” was refined to such a degree that it directly mimicked the rhythm and prosody of speech rhythms and vocal inflections within the Akan tribe, for instance. Similarly, in India, the solkattu counting system utilizes syllables rather than numbers to indicate rhythm, meter and subdivision.  One of things that make the Indian method so interesting is that the syllables are synonymous with the sounds created on the drum (like a mridangam and tabla).  So, you eliminate the steps of ascribing numbers to syllables, then to sounds on the drum.  Essentially, language and drumming are all one in the same.

In American jazz music, we use “scat” singing to convey musical information, but it is not as universal and the actual syllables are not as concrete.  I guess this a reflection of the freedom in jazz music where there is a rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structure, but how you approach your “scat” is a reflection of your degree of musical freedom within that structure.  A great example is the jazz ride cymbal beat.  Some drummers play it as “ding, da ding”.  Others play it as “splang-a-lang”.  Clark Terry once told me that he heard the jazz ride as “boom, tink-te-boom”.  It depends on the perspective of the musician and how they personalize the swing rhythm.


Can you describe, in relation to your work and orientation, any particular weaknesses or limitations as related to behavioral considerations you’ve employed (if such exist)?  Likewise with humanistic considerations (if such exist)?

When I work with music therapy students, I always emphasize genuineness of approach.  I think what matters most is how well your views as a therapist are integrated within your music.  Being integrated musically also means, to me, that you as a person are integrated within your therapy approach.  Who you are as a person and who you are musically go hand in hand, and these aspects must be in alignment.  I think limitations appear when these things don’t line up.  It takes time to develop.

Certainly, one’s authenticity and personal integrity will play a role in their development.  What options and opportunities do you feel a university setting might offer to foster such?

I think university programs have their own way of addressing this issue.  In my experience, it is helpful when universities initiate and maintain regular communication with practicum and internship supervisors.  That way, the student can gain consistent guidance while integrating the intra and inter-musical processes involved in their burgeoning experience.

As a percussionist, and as a therapist who has studied and practiced within the Creative Music Therapy framework, can you describe how you view the present and or future role of percussion instruments within that framework?

I would like to begin answering this question by giving my regards to Clive Robbins.  He had such an amazing spirit.  I believe that his spirit is alive in those who continue to read his work and with those who knew him personally.  My last conversation with him was about music therapy in general.  One of the things I found remarkable was that he never used the terms “creative music therapy”, “improvisation”, or “approach” to distinguish his work, he just used the term “music therapy”.

Through research and experience, I came to realize that Nordoff and Robbins never discussed their work for the sake of creating a particular methodology.  They were more like what the Christian tradition refers to as “witnesses”; they had seen the light and were passionate about sharing their experience and insight into music as therapy.  So, I think using the term “framework” is accurate in that “Creative Music Therapy” is a way of concentrating on a vision of music and people.

Paul Nordoff approached using percussion instruments in a manner that was reflective of his experience and knowledge as a composer.  His approach toward drum muffling and the mallets that Clive would make were for carrying out their music therapy ideals.  The Creative Music Therapy framework continues to be interpreted by students and professionals of diverse ethnic and musical backgrounds.  It makes sense that the role of percussion will reflect those perspectives.

When working at the Center for Discovery and The Rebecca Center for Music Therapy, the use of percussion instruments in my sessions reflected my knowledge and background.  Decisions on the types of percussion instruments and implements (sticks and mallets) to use and whether or not to use percussion instruments exclusively were made because that is what made sense to me and my co-therapists at that time.  I was able to apply Nordoff and Robbins concepts on various hand drums and the drum kit after doing a lot of meditation on the sounds I could elicit from a single membrane/surface.  I also reflected a great deal on the use of polyrhythm and meter along with various traditional dance rhythms and gave attention to what those types of things could mean in an archetypal sense.  Of course, I still consider these things while working in the child and adolescent behavioral health setting.

I had a friend who used the marimba in her sessions at the Nordoff and Robbins Center at NYU.  So, I think the use of percussion in “Creative Music Therapy” will continue to expand as long as there is creative freedom to do so.  Of course, this is the case for “music therapy” as a whole.

Any artists/songs currently in your car or home stereo rotation right now?

WWOZ and WTUL are two great local radio stations here in New Orleans.  Along with that, I have been listening to a lot of early rhythm and blues.  Something about this city makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time.  The old buildings, story book architecture, corner markets, small seafood shops and funky bars; for me it’s about been about getting a connection to what soul music is really all about.

I was at Apple Barrel the night Coco Robicheaux passed away. He died there earlier that day while getting ready for a gig that was to take place later that evening. So, while to listening to classic American music, I have been getting a feel for his legacy by listening to his music and by being fortunate enough to play with musicians that knew him personally.  He seems to have been so genuine.  He is certainly missed down on Frenchman Street.

Has your growth as a music therapist affected the way you take in music?

I find that the “music therapy” brain never really turns off.  However, being able to explain the music making process in great detail has nothing to do with how well you actually play music.  In my experience, the more I analyze the music making process, the more difficult it becomes to actually make music that I find satisfying.  When it comes to listening to and taking in performances, all I can really say is that I “listen” more and have become less critical.  This may be attributed to my growth as a person but then again, who I am as a person, therapist and musician are all intertwined.

Any final thoughts as we finish up the interview?

I just feel so fortunate to have found this profession.  I aim for the next ten years to be even more rewarding.  New Orleans is a great city.  I hope to be calling it home for a while.