What Sound Does a Cat Make in Cantonese?

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Image of music therapist Dr. Tamar Hadar

In this presentation, I wish to examine the notion of translation and question the need for an interpreter in music therapy settings. Through reflecting on a therapeutic relationship between myself, an Israeli music therapist working in the US, and a Chinese American family (two parents, a grandmother, and their 2-year-old infant, with increased likelihood of Autism), I wish to ponder the losses and gains of establishing a relationship that refrains from using a dominant verbal language (represented by an interpreter).

Embracing the absence of any verbal and cultural monopoly, this work will present a plural lingual approach, and show how it provides an opportunity for non-English speaking clients to walk their first steps in an unfamiliar world. Additionally, I will explore two parallel processes that took place in the therapeutic encounter: the first, relating to the family’s capacity to contain their infant’s minimal verbal state; and the second, relating to my own endeavor to communicate with the family, as a non-native English speaker, and as an “immigrant music therapist”. All around the globe, music therapists are working with culturally diverse populations, in many cases with clients with whom they do not share a common first language. Nevertheless, it is yet unclear what might be an appropriate and culturally sensitive strategy when the therapist does not speak their clients’ first language.

Though research provides convincing arguments for including an interpreter in different multicultural contexts, a question regarding instances when clients might have a basic understanding of the formal spoken language, or when the therapeutic goals do not rely solely on verbal communication, remains open. Existing literature seems to lack a clear definition of the goals and objectives for including an interpreter in the therapeutic encounter, and not enough data has been consolidated yet to illustrate what might serve as contraindication(s) for including an interpreter in therapy settings in general as well as in music therapy.

I will present four vignettes from a therapeutic relationship I had with a Chinese American family. The vignettes were taken from various stages of the therapeutic relationship and captured moments in which the lingual component or its absence bared significance for the families’ experience, and perhaps reflect on a broader meaning regarding the use of language in MT, in a multi-lingual context. I hope that my reflections will provide insight regarding lingual plurality in a multicultural context, in music therapy.

Learner Objectives

The following objectives will be addressed: 3. 1. a: Develop a therapeutic relationship by: being fully present, authentic, and respectful. 3.1. b.: building trust and rapport. 2.D.9: Consider the client’s age, culture, language, music background, and preferences when designing music therapy experiences.


Tamar Hadar, Ph.D., is a music therapist working with children with developmental challenges, and their families. A lecturer at Western Glilee College, and a postdoc at Haifa University, Israel.