Allyson Clifton on Music and Messiness


Allyson Clifton is a practicing music therapist who currently provides services to the Cincinnati and southeastern Indiana areas with a private practice called Keys for Success. There, she works with children and adolescents with developmental disabilities, helping them to set and accomplish goals and improve their quality of life through the art of music.

The recent grad of Ohio University is also a good friend of mine, and she and her French bulldog pup, Frida, sat down with me to talk about finding herself – as a new professional, a musician, an adult, a nomad returning to her hometown, and most importantly, as a woman.

Interview by Kayla Blanton. Photography by Kali Robinson Rothwell.

We’re gonna start with an easy question. Describe yourself in three words.

Rough. Around. Edges? [Laughs.]

Is that your final answer?

I would say… um, melancholic – something along those lines – empathetic, and passionate.

I had a lot of powerful women as friends, and I learned so much from them.

I can relate. So, kind of along those lines, how do you think you’ve become the woman you are today?

From examples of women in my life – not necessarily teaching me what to do, but sometimes even learning what not to do. I know college had a huge influence on the woman that I am today. I had a lot of powerful women as friends, and I learned so much from them. Not even just women, but really all the intelligent, driven, genuine people who were placed in my life throughout college.

So, you went to college for music therapy.

I did!

And how did you choose that path? What led you to it?

This is a question I get a lot, so I kind of have almost a rehearsed answer. But to keep it simple, I did a career project freshman year of high school and I Googled “careers in music.” I knew I wanted to do something in music, but I wasn’t interested in performing, and I wasn’t necessarily interested in going into music education. The first website that came up was New York University’s music therapy program. I thought it would be too good to be true that something like music therapy existed.

Senior year of high school I took AP psychology, and I was so interested in psychology. I found that music therapy was the perfect fusion of psychology and music. It was kind of the best of both worlds. Ever since then, I knew it was what I wanted to do. But I will say, at the time I found out about music therapy, I still didn’t have a solid understanding of what it was. And of course that’s only developed over the years.


Has there ever been a moment, or multiple moments, where you were with a client or talking with a peer, and it just kind of clicked? Like, “This is it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

I definitely have those moments every day in my work. That may sound a little cheesy or cliché, but I really have those moments every day. I would say, in my current position, one that has really stuck with me is: We have seasonal concerts, and I was able to prepare my clients for their spring concert. Seeing them succeeding and flourishing in a performance setting, and seeing their parents watch them succeed in a performance setting where they may have not had that opportunity before really made an impact on me. And being up there with them on stage and working on our group dance… I just had a little moment where I said, “This is meant to be.”

Most people find their meaning through their work, and I certainly have days where, you know, I question what I’m doing like a twenty-something does, but there are just too many moments where I feel that this is really what I’m meant to do. That let me know I’m in the right place right now.

Wow. So can we backtrack a little bit and talk about what music therapy actually is, technically?

That was my most commonly asked question at bars in college. [Laughs.] “What’s your major?”

And I’d say, “Music therapy!”

And they’d say, “What’s that? What do you plan to do with it?” So we call it a little bit of an elevator speech. And we’re constantly advocating, because there’s so much miseducation out there about what the field actually is and who can actually practice music therapy. To break it down, music therapy uses music as a tool to help clients achieve non-musical goals. We’re essentially like any other therapy, but we’re using music as our tool to motivate others, to reach specific goals, and to improve quality of life.

What kind of unique responses have you seen from music therapy that other therapies may not have been able to accomplish?

This is a tough one, because music therapists really recognize the value in collaboration with other complementary therapies, so I don’t necessarily wanna say, “Music was better for this client than this therapy.” So I’ll word it as: I have a client who struggled with staying motivated in speech therapy, and in music therapy, she has made certain mouth sounds that her mom has not heard her make in speech therapy. That is not at all minimizing the value of speech therapy; it’s just proving how important it is to collaborate with other therapists, because music is so motivating. Like, you probably listen to music while you work out or while you’re studying, trying to get work done, because it’s motivating. And it’s fun. Some people don’t even realize they’re doing work in music therapy, but they’re actually working toward goals. But to them it’s just enjoying the music.

What kinds of populations have you worked with?

I’ve worked with children and adults with developmental disabilities. I’ve worked with early childhood – so like a preschool classroom that was integrated with typically functioning and developmental disabilities. I’ve worked with older adults in a nursing home setting. I have worked with adult psych populations, and I worked in a medical setting, as well, at the general med-surg unit of a hospital local to Ohio University. So I’ve had a nice range of experiences. The one that was probably most valuable to me thus far was my internship – I interned in West Palm Beach at Trustbridge Hospice. Working in hospice was never something that I necessarily thought or saw myself doing, but once I did it, it was truly life changing.


How beneficial is music therapy for older adults in that setting?

When you hear one of the songs you listened to in middle school, it immediately takes you back to some really vivid memories of that time, because of that music. It’s truly so beneficial to older adults – I actually have served older adults with dementia and Alzheimer's. They would have moments of lucidity while I was singing songs that they listened to in their early 20s and in their adolescence. To be able to provide that meaningful experience for families who may have not seen their loved ones lucid for several months, maybe even years…

But it’s also important to throw in that music therapy is not magic, and not everyone is a candidate.

Well, I feel like, even through conversations that you and I have had, there are people who have a hard time taking music therapy seriously, in that it’s still a growing profession. Right?

Right. So many people don’t know what it is. And it’s completely evidence-based, so we’re constantly advocating for ourselves, and there are a lot of music therapists doing research out there.

I actually had a math teacher in high school who laughed at me when I told him I was going to do music therapy, so I certainly have felt the effects of the miseducation around music therapy, and the lack of awareness about what exactly it is. But the only way to combat that is advocacy. I’ve been doing a little bit of community presenting to try to spread awareness about what exactly [music therapy] is, and what populations we can work with, and how to know if someone would benefit, or what we could do for someone’s child. Advocating is the best way to combat that, and also research. Like I mentioned, we’re an evidenced-based field, so we’re constantly reading current literature about the effectiveness of music therapy and what interventions to use.

What does being back in Cincinnati mean to you?

Cincinnati has always given me that warm, fuzzy feeling. Truly. As soon as I come around the bend on the highway and I see the Cincinnati skyline, it just gives me that warm feeling. But that feeling of home, you come to find, is generally associated with people, rather than places. I have such a huge support system here. My whole family is here. I think that because of that, I’m so strongly rooted here – because of the family and the friends and the community I built here growing up. It’s also just a really cool city. I was telling someone earlier that I’m still learning so much about it every day. It seems like you could never run out of neighborhoods to explore and different things to find. So despite living in Florida for six months and living in Athens for college, Cincinnati truly always does feel like home. There’s such a strong feeling of comfort associated with being here. But that’s a tricky one.


Well, here’s another tricky one for you: What musicians inspire you most?

A few months ago, I would’ve told you Kanye West. [Laughs.]

[Laughs harder.] That’s making the cut for sure.

But, as far as musicians, I’ve always been partial to John Mayer. I think he’s an incredible songwriter, really, purely from a musician’s point of view. He is also an incredible guitarist. He really holds his own. Also Justin Vernon, who is Bon Iver. Just the level of intricacy in his production, and the care, the raw passion and grit that he puts into every song, every track that he produces, everything he creates. Everything he creates is something that I wish I could be…

I love the band Sylvan Esso. I just got to see them at Bonnaroo. Amelia, in Sylvan Esso, she’s probably one of my favorite female singers. I also love Francis and the Lights. He’s another one of those genius producers that sometimes collaborates with Justin Vernon.

I try not to limit myself. Right now, I really like Travis Scott’s new album, “Astroworld.” I love hip hop. I’d say that’s probably the genre I listen to the most.

Why hip hop?

I first started listening to hip hop in middle school. I was really into Lil Wayne. I remember getting to high school and I was very innocent. And people would say, “You’re the most innocent person I know that listens to Lil Wayne.”

That’s interesting.

Yeah, it’s almost as if hip hop was associated with the opposite of innocence. And I just never considered it that way. Now I have a music degree, so I sat through so many performance labs; I’ve listened to so much jazz music, so much classical music. I’ve sang classical music, and I just have such a deep appreciation for the artistry of hip hop. I just think it’s so stripped down. It’s the human voice, basically, rapping is. If someone is freestyling, I just don’t think it gets much more raw than that. It’s like a direct reflection of what’s in your soul, what’s on your mind, and it’s poetry. I mean, some of these rappers’ flows truly catch me off guard. I’ve listened to some rap songs that really just made me gasp.

Like, they went there.

Yeah! Like, “Wow, that was so clever.” The more you listen to them, I like all the double entendres that are found in rap and hip hop, and I just think it’s the rawest form of artistry.

Which is interesting because you have the people who are like, “Oh, hip hop and rap are just ‘turn-up’ music.’”

Yeah. I mean, you have that Frank Ocean song that says something like, “You listen to the lyrics when you’re sad, and you listen to the music when you’re happy.” Or something along those lines. The music of hip hop can certainly get you hyped. And I do turn up to rap. [Laughs.] No doubt. But I’ve also sat down and listened to a new Frank Ocean C.D. or “Astroworld” from beginning to end. I think it can be both. I really do. Don’t sleep on hip hop.

That’s interesting, though, because, as an outsider looking at a music therapist with a violin and acoustic guitar, you may never guess that their favorite genres are hip hop and rap.

And for someone who has studied music, that should tell you something about hip hop. And I shouldn’t just say hip hop; I should say rap, because hip hop is an entire culture.

What do you hope for the future of music therapy? Do you hope that it’s less undervalued and misunderstood?

That really used to get to me. I used to care so much about people’s perception of me and of music therapy. It doesn’t quite get to me as much anymore. I think because I’m practicing and because I see the value it brings to clients’ lives. But for the future of music therapy and for future music therapists, I would love to see the elimination of the question, “What is music therapy?” I would love to quit having to explain it. I would love for it to be taken more seriously among other therapies, and be valued as an important part of treatment teams, and for them to realize, yes, we’re musicians, but we’re not performers. We’re also clinicians, and we have credentials, and we work hard to get there. I just hope that is recognized. I hope that everyone who is currently practicing in the field is doing their part to advocate.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

I’ll go with the most obvious one that everyone close to me knows. I consider Frida Kahlo a kindred spirit. My French bulldog is named Frida Pawhlo [laughs] after the artist. And I didn’t even know who Frida Kahlo was. I would see her in a picture and be like, “Oh yeah, there’s the unibrow artist,” which is what a lot of people know her as. But I actually was living by myself one summer in Athens, and I saw a movie about her in my “Suggested Movies” on Netflix. And – I think it’s Salma Hayek that plays her – so I watched that movie. I’m not sure if people feel that movie accurately represents her, but it inspired me to do my own personal research on Frida. I think the reason why I connect with her on such a deep, spiritual level is that she never tried to hide her messiness. She painted it. She had all of this heartache. She had such a hard life. Instead of trying to hide it or sugar coat it, she painted it. That was how she coped.

In short, what exactly was her story?

She was born with all kinds of spine issues, and when she was 16 years old, she got in a trolley accident. She was impaled by a pole and it like, exited through her pelvic region. She was very intelligent, too. But after the accident, she was in a full body cast. And she started painting. That’s why she did so many self-portraits, because she would lay in bed and look at the mirror, and she would start practicing painting. That’s how she got so good at it. So physically, she had a lot of ailments, and then she met Diego Rivera, who was also an artist, and he, for lack of a better term, was a player. Basically everyone he painted, he would sleep with. He even slept with Frida’s sister at one point. And Frida, because of her injury and physical ailments, miscarried children, and was unable to ever carry a child to full term. There was just so much heartbreak in her life. But she painted it. She never tried to run away from it or hide it. She was just so resilient, and Diego was quoted as describing her as “a bomb with a bow wrapped around it.” And I just think that’s a lovely analogy for femininity and the power that can be inside of all of us.

So would you say that you take that mentality that she had facing her struggles and apply it to your life?

Lord, I wish I could. I wish that I could play music like she painted. Does that make sense? Of course I’m an accomplished musician because we have to be. I can play several instruments, but I don’t necessarily consider myself a great musician. But I think we could all take her life as an example and use it as a model for harnessing all of our heartache, and our joys, and successes and putting it toward something. She found her gift and she shared it with the world. I would say that kind of nears what I do with music therapy, because for so long, I sat on my musical talents. I wasn’t applying myself. But music therapy was my way to do that – my way to use music to help others and to share my gift.

What things have you done, intentionally, as a woman, to paint your own messiness?

I went through this little phase where I was like, “I’m not a feminist. It shouldn’t have to be feminism. Everyone should just be equal.” But that’s not realistic. In today’s climate, it’s just not realistic. So the first thing I really did to make a change was attending the Women’s March in D.C. back in January 2017. I went with a friend, and I was just so inspired by the whole day. I mean, it was a very emotional day. Being surrounded by men and women who are feminists. People get so mixed up that feminism is intimidating – “they want to be more than us” – but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone needs to be a feminist.

I feel like part of what we can do, what we all can do to paint our messiness, is to unapologetically be ourselves.

Yes. Absolutely.


And I feel like you’ve done that. That’s what I’ve always admired about you.

That authenticity is something I’ve always tried to capture. I would say I’ve always been very much myself – whether that’s struggling with depression and being vocal about it, going through phases of promiscuity, or just being vocal about my struggles and successes. Being honest. I would say if there’s one thing about myself, it’s that I have always been genuine. That’s gotten me into some trouble, because I wear my feelings on my sleeves. Because I’m passionate, I think I experience these emotions very intensely – so it’s either a really high high, or a really low low. But I think that’s one of the reasons why I relate to Frida so deeply because authenticity is very, very important to me. I don’t shave my armpits. I don’t shave my legs. Some would say that’s just a feminist trend, but I would love to emphasize that it’s about what’s most comfortable for you. If a girl shaves her legs because it’s comfortable, I’m all for it. If she shaves her armpits because that’s what’s comfortable for her, I’m all for it. Personally, my skin on my armpits is very sensitive, so it breaks out.

And you’re like, “Why the hell have I been doing this for so long?”

Yeah. It’s because that’s what we’ve been told to do. A memory that really sticks out to me: In sixth grade, I raised my hand up to stretch or something, and one of my friends grabbed my arm and pushed it down. And I hadn’t shaved in like, two days. Maybe there was like a 3 o’ clock shadow. [Laughs.] And she was like, “Oh my god girl, you need to shave.” And that just always resonated with me. Especially now, I look back on that and think, “The only reason that’s continuing is because someone told that girl, ‘You need to shave.’” You know? So if there’s one message I could say to girls in middle school, you don’t have to shave your armpits. You don’t have to shave your vagina. You don’t have to shave your legs, unless it’s what you feel most comfortable doing. But authenticity is more than just a shirt that says “Be Yourself.” It’s deeper than that. It’s about taking your life one day at a time.

I could’ve gone into business or maybe something more stable, something taken more seriously. I’m not very good at math, but what if I was like, an accountant or something? You know, that wouldn’t be true to me. So like, the Ally Clifton starter pack is like, be real.

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