Meeting Your Client’s Needs

By Kalani • July 21st, 2011

I'm often asked, by both my DCM students and others who visit the website, how to best serve a specific population. The most common question goes something like: "I have a community music event next week with school-age children (or corporate, or elderly, etc.). What types of activities do you recommend?"

As community music leaders and guides, our #1 goal is to provide a high quality music-based experience for our clients - no matter who they are. They could be children, elders, business professionals, or family members. The occasion could be a regular meeting, such as a class or conference, or something more exotic, like a special retreat or celebration.

The key to forming an effective community music program is to know your clients, understand their specific needs and goals, and have many ways to help them reach those goals.

Knowing your Clients

Your first goal is to become familiar with your clients, which means gaining as much first-hand experience as possible. You probably already have a lot of experience with certain populations already, and you probably remember what it was like to be a child - hopefully! You may have less experience with populations such as business executives or people with special needs.

If you don't have first-hand experience with the population you are serving, gaining some knowledge and understanding of who they are is important. Without specialized knowledge, you can end up taking them down a path that is more about you than it is about them, and in the worst-case, they could become disinterested or even have anxiety during the experience.

A few ways to find out about a population include:

  • Researching online (website, forums and/or newsgroups)
  • Interviewing people within the population
  • Books, magazines, and other media

Sometimes the right way to help your client is to refer them to someone with experience. There's a saying that goes something like: "Take the gig, then figure out how to do the gig." While we all want to earn a living and learn new things, "learning on the job" may not be the best way to serve your client. If you're not familiar with a particular population and you aren't 100% confident in your abilities to deliver a high-quality service, there are a couple things you can do. 1) Work with someone who is trained and experienced with the population. 2) Refer the job to someone who you know will provide an excellent service. Sometimes turning down a job is the right thing to do - and it can save you and your client a lot of anxiety!

Use the time between jobs to do your homework, get additional training, and build your skill set and experience.

Your Client's Needs and Goals

The first question I usually ask a client is: "What is your goal for the program?" In other words: What does your client want to see happen as a result of the community music experience? Why are they requesting your services? It's not just so they can play instruments, although this is part of the picture. They also want to see some positive change, something that has more to do with their way of being, rather than simply what they do.

We sometimes talk about this in terms of reaching "non-musical goals." These can include things like increasing socialization, building community, increasing peer support, lowering anxiety levels, sharing information, brain storming, working together, celebrating something, etc. In order to design an effective program and outcome, your client's goals must become your goals. It's not enough to present a musical experience - You have to understand what it means for them to reach their non-musical goals.

Reaching goals involves identifying specific objectives and figuring out creative ways to reach those through community music. This is covered in detail during DCM courses and is an essential component within the DCM approach.

The other main area to consider is your client's specific needs. Many populations have specific needs that are unique. It might be physical, such as is the case with most elderly clients. It might be cognitive, such as in the case with persons with intellectual disabilities. It may be an emotional need, such as in the case where your clients might be honoring someone who recently passed away.

Finding out about your client's needs gives you the information you need to effectively design a program that is not only custom tailored to help them reach their goals, it's also appropriate for their culture and physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs. This information is often gleaned through asking questions and guiding your client to help you better understand how you can help them.

Having Many Ways to Help

Designing a DCM program includes choosing the right types of experiences for the right reasons. Each type of experience, whether it's a drum circle, traditional drumming, dancing, singing, composing, playing a rhythm game, etc. has it's own unique characteristics that bring out different aspects of people's personalities and challenge the participants in different ways. We make choices about what types of experiences to include in our program based on the client's needs. Having many tools (types of experiences) under your belt is essential to providing quality services. The opposite of this approach would be providing one basic type of service for all your clients. As my friend recently stated: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." To steer clear of the 'one-size-fits-all approach,'  work to increase your skills so you can deliver all types of musical experiences.

If the client's wish to socialize and exchange information, we might include more singing and collaborative experiences, such as working together to create a short musical piece or instrument sculpture in small groups. We might then share our small group experiences with the larger group.

If the goals are more about unity and feeling supported, we might have a drum circle or guided interactive drumming experience where the focus is on creating a supportive environment for self-expression within a community music making format. The fear of performance or having to do a solo is often mitigated by the large numbers of players in a drum circle, for example.

If the goals are more educational in nature, we might focus on singing songs that provide information or that talk about a specific topic. We might include a segment that asks participants to write some lyrics or develop a message that is conveyed through the music (cooperation). We can also help shape those lyrics and messages into a larger group message that could become a theme song for the group as a whole.

If the goals or more physical in nature, we can present movement and dance experiences to help them connect, feel, share, and express. Working from individual to partner, then to small group and large group experiences offers clients with ways to express themselves and work together on multiple levels (cooperation). Group dancing provides a safe environment, much like guided interactive drumming, in that it's about unity and being a synchronized group, rather than having to do solos or come up with a lot of original ideas. The physical aspects of movement have many benefits that can enhance any community music experience.

Having many ways to help is part of being a DCM Leader. Designing a program that includes many different types of experiences can help everyone find a way to be involved that fits their personal needs and personality (inclusion). Even if your main focus is presenting drum circles or sing-alongs, adding in other types of experiences can open up potential that would otherwise remain untapped. Keep in mind that music making is about rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, form, and other elements. Musical experiences can include singing, dancing/moving, and related arts, such as drawing, art making, poetry, journaling, community and individual art projects, etc.


DCM Leaders have many available resources to help their clients reach their goals in ways that are appropriate for their needs. By increasing your personal knowledge and skills in a variety of areas, you're better able to serve all types of populations - no matter who they are or what they want to accomplish. The journey begins with you - and it ends with your client.

This has been a brief look at program design. There's a lot more to discuss, but I hope this helps.

- Kalani



By Patricia Molla on July 22nd, 2011 at 9:29 am

Kalani, very interesting and generously.
Love your work.

Many Thanks Kalani!!

I am very nervous about the whole process of starting to work with the Boys and Girls Club. However, having this article and all the other ideas I have attained from DCM is making me a lot calmer. I heard a quote one time that has helped me through lots of firsts. “It’s ok to have butterflies, as long as you get them to fly in formation.”


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