Meet the Team: Donna Polen, LCAT, MT-BC

Welcome back to Roman Music Therapy Services’ Meet the Team interviews! Through this series, we will be introducing you to each member of our team, from Music Therapist to Programmatic Specialist, from Administrative Team to our Faculty Supervisor. This is for you to get to know our team, inside and out! Today, we have Donna Polen.

What is your role on the team and how long have you been with RMTS?

I started with RMTS in January 2022 as a Faculty Supervisor. In December 2022, I agreed to take on the role of Internship Director so that RMTS could reactivate their AMTA National Roster Internship. We hustled and were thrilled to receive approval from the Association Internship Approval Committee on February 9, 2023!

What university or college did you go to? What was your primary instrument?

I was in the first graduating class at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Piano is my primary instrument; I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old.

How did your undergraduate experience help to shape you into who you are today?

My academic program provided me with a broad view of clinical populations and settings and opened my eyes to a lot of psychological orientations. The biggest impact, however, was the wisdom of my professor, Connie Willeford, in guiding me to the right internship program, where I learned foundational concepts and skills based on the Nordoff-Robbins model of Creative Music Therapy. This is where I was able to channel my lifelong love of the piano into my desire to help people with challenges uncover their true potentials.

What are your StrengthsFinder strengths and how do they play a part in the work you do?

My themes are Learner, Connectedness, Achiever, Strategic, and Relator.

I think the theme of Learner is probably universal for all therapists to some degree – every new client we work with is a new lesson for us in humanity, and clinical curiosity is – in my opinion – the hallmark of a good therapist. The process of learning (about clients, about music, about ANYTHING) is so important, and I believe that parallels the clinical process.

For Connectedness, I’ve been told in the past that in a lot of my service (to AMTA and other organizations) I’ve been able to unite people with different perspectives in a way that results in outcomes that serve the greater good, so that seems to relate closely with a lot of the descriptors for Connectedness. The Achiever strength is something I sort of struggle with; it sounds so … so DRIVEN. I think I *am* driven in a lot of ways, but with my focus on the PROCESS and not the product. I will admit that I wish I was a bit more comfortable with just sitting around and chilling sometimes, but … there you have it.

As far as the Strategic strength, I’ve never really thought of myself in that way so I was surprised at that one! However, I *do* believe strongly in the importance of identifying patterns – in music, in behavior, in communication – and using that to help inform practice and process, whether it’s clinical process, training and supervision, relationships, systems – whatever is in front of me! Finally, I believe the strength of Relator serves me well as a therapist. While the StrengthsFinder emphasizes the importance of deep friendships in this theme (and my friendships are like oxygen for me), I hope that this strength also manifests in my work with everyone on the team at RMTS and, through them, to everyone they serve in their work. I strive to bring all of these strengths to my work at RMTS!

What drew you to music therapy?

I always knew I wanted to do something with music. When I was 16, my piano teacher interrupted me during a lesson and asked me if I was going to college and what I would study. After eliminating ALL music options (i.e., teaching, conducting, composition, etc.), he asked me what else I would study. I said ‘psychology’ and he bellowed out “Music therapy!” I didn’t know what music therapy was (there was no such thing as the internet or googling something), but I knew it was what I was meant to do. I still know that.

What is the most rewarding part of the work?

This is an interesting question for me at this point in my career. After 41 years as a full-time clinician who also did supervision and training, I’m now a full-time supervisor and trainer who also does some clinical work – but not enough. I have always thrived on working with students and young therapists, learning as much from them as I hope they learn from me. My work at RMTS is providing me with the opportunity to work with compassionate clinicians and soon with interns as well. I find every meeting – whether it’s individual supervision, small group supervision, M3, remote observations, and the occasional but sweet in-person times at conferences or when I travel to Wakefield – to be exciting! I love the exchange of ideas and hearing different perspectives on how to arrive at the same destination.

What are your favorite song(s) to play in sessions?

Is this a trick question? (laughs) It depends: on the client and the moment. Honestly, I can’t answer this! And I don’t always use songs – the music is often improvised. Some clients have distinct themes, or styles, and others work with different idioms all the time.

How have you surprised yourself since joining this team?

I had no idea where things were going to go when I first joined this team. But I knew I liked it. This career path was a huge surprise, honestly! And this job has pushed me toward wanting to be in human services and being mission-driven.

What is your proudest moment within your music therapy journey so far?

There are MANY! Rather than share specific or stories, I think I can distill it all down to those moments when a client succeeds in achieving something for the first time, *recognizes* their own achievement, and celebrates themselves! It’s such a gift to be able to share those moments.

Favorite books, shows, movies, or podcasts?

I mostly read for information (think MT journals, books, etc.) but when I have time for escape-reading I enjoy biographies (I guess that’s still information) and historical novels. Also anything by George Bernard Shaw. With TV, it’s similar – I’m a news junkie, but I’ve been known to binge watch “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Cesar Millan: Better Human Better Dog.” Movies – too many to mention!

What do you do outside of work?

What’s that? (laughs) Seriously, I love to walk, visit with family and friends, go out to hear live music (especially jazz and Latin), try new restaurants, and do absolutely nothing at all on any sand near salt water (I’m surrounded by lakes – no salt in evidence).

Which Mr. Men/Little Miss character are you?

Apparently, I am Little Miss Busy. Big surprise.

What’s your coffee order?

Nothing fancy – hazelnut cream and some sweetener – but it’s GOT to be HOT!!!

What would be the title of your memoir?

Together, in Music, We Can.

Three words to describe your job?

Stimulating. Surprising. Satisfying.

Advice for current music therapy students and/or future interns?

I attended an exhibit on creativity in NYC in 1980. It had a huge impact on me at a time when I was just beginning my professional practice of music therapy. It was through this exhibit that I first became familiar with the brilliant American artist, Romare Bearden. His collage work has been compared to jazz improvisation, and his comments on art and music were powerful to me. Phrases such as, “You sing on the canvas. You improvise – you find the rhythm and catch it good, and structure as you go along – then the song is you.” and “Well, it is like jazz; you do this and then you improvise.”

Another Bearden quote is one that I often share with students and interns: “The artist has to be something like a whale swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.” I believe, as musician therapists, we need to do this. In our listening, in our reading, in our engagement with colleagues, and especially in our work with clients – take it all in!