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Tacit Knowledge in Music Therapy, Part 2
by Carol Ann Blank, MMT, MT-BC

In this blog post, I’ll share with you some of my thoughts about tacit knowledge and its importance in music therapy clinical decision making with parent-child dyads.  From my previous blog post, tacit knowledge is a form of knowing that is considered correct, but lacks a rubric under which it would be deemed to be correct (Gascoigne & Thorton, 2014).  For example, I know that using shape drums is the correct choice of interventions for this client right now, and I know that the mallet with a built-handle is the correct mallet to use, but I don’t have a body of knowledge at the ready to justify my choice.  It takes a little bit of time and reflection to understand the why behind the what–why did I choose this drum/mallet/song combination for this client today?  Somehow I intuited it. We intuit the decisions we make in our work every day.

Kern (2010) set out some guidelines for music therapists serving the early childhood population to evaluate information in their ongoing quest to provide quality, evidence based services to their clients and families. Evidence based practice includes the published literature, clinician judgment, and other contextual factors (culture, race, ethnicity, values, religion) of the therapist and client.  Yes, you read that properly—clinician judgment is one of the three pillars of evidence based practice.

It turns out that we aren’t the only profession to struggle with tacit knowledge and intuition.  Sternberg and Horvath (1999) talk about tacit knowledge in professional teaching practice.  They write about intuitive conceptions:  those thoughts that lead us to make decisions in certain ways and prevent us from making other decisions.  Intuitive conceptions are powerful forces in our thinking in with hidden roots.  These intuitive conceptions become patterns of thoughts that are sometimes based on faulty or oversimplified reasoning that resist modification.  This last phrase brought me up short—it means that tacit knowledge could be based in faulty facts.  All the more reason to bring it to light.

My tacit knowledge lives in my assumptions of what are appropriate music therapy interventions for a young child.  I have to bring them to light in order to ensure that I am performing my role as the music therapist for that dyad ethically and with the best integrity possible.  I chose the shape drums and the mallet with the built up handle because I know that the sound of the shape drums was not as full and overwhelming as the other drums available to us that day.  The built up handle also had a weighted head making it possible for the child to hit the relatively small surface area of the triangle drum head with greater accuracy using gravity. I weighed the potential for my fingers to be struck by the mallet against the possibility of being witness to the child’s smiles and vocalizations indicating pleasure from hitting the drum while I sang “Play the Drum” (Music Together Drum Collection), and I chose to risk my fingers.  I made a good choice.

Gascoigne, N. and T. Thorton (2014). Tacit Knowledge. New York, Routledge.

Kern, P. (2010). “Evidence-based practice in early childhood music therapy: A decision-making process.” Music Therapy Perspectives 28(2): 116-123.

Sternberg, R. J. and J. A. Horvath (1999). Tacit Knowledge in Professional Practice : Researcher and Practitioner Perspectives. Mahwah, N.J., Psychology Press.

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