Master of Occupational Therapy student Nich Riveland turns a passion for music into a career of service to others.
There was a time in Fortuna, N.D., native Nicholas (Nich) Riveland’s life when he expected to be neither living in the Red River Valley nor considering turning his love of music into a career.
When an epilepsy diagnosis for one of his siblings in 1990 upended his parents’ best laid plans, though, and his sister was sent regularly to Minneapolis for care, Nich eventually found himself on the road from oil country, where his family owned a farm, to the flood plain.
As it turns out, the family’s move to eastern North Dakota, and Larimore specifically where his father took a job, changed not only the course of Nich’s and his family’s lives, but their relationship to music.
“For a while there, some of the physicians were telling my parents that they didn’t think she’d perform very well in school,” Nich said from the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences lobby, recalling those difficult early days and explaining how music literally transformed his sister’s—and then his—future. “So, they homeschooled her for a few years and signed her up for music classes. Piano lessons. They saw all the cognitive and social benefits that came from those lessons almost immediately.”
His sister not only survived the diagnosis, but thrived, he said, becoming both a straight “A” student, who no longer needs anti-seizure medications, and a talented musician to boot.
“So, after that she just signed us all up for piano lessons,” Nich said of his mother Robin.
And the family never looked back.
“Heavy metal drummer”
Nich’s love of music exploded after that, and he learned not only piano but a variety of stringed instruments, including violin, guitar, and mandolin.
Graduating from the high school in Thompson, N.D., in 2008, he imagined making a career of music—but was also interested in health care, given his family’s experience.
Enter the University of North Dakota, which at the time felt simultaneously right and wrong for the former farm kid.
“It didn’t click—I wasn’t real motivated,” Nich confessed of his initial attempts at majoring in pre-medicine and, later, physical therapy a decade ago. “College felt sort of foreign to me then. Coming from a smaller community I felt like a small fish in a really big sea. I didn’t feel connected, didn’t have rapport with teachers like I was used to.”
So did the musician take some time away from college to collect his thoughts and try music for real.
In addition to teaching violin to students of all ages at Arioso Music Academy in Grand Forks, a music education school founded by his mother, Nich also began playing mandolin and “fiddle” in a travelling Americana band called Free Candy, playing some originals and covers by, among other groups, Avett Brothers and the Black Keys in regional clubs—and opening for heavy metal cover band Hairball in Fargo.
The time away from school to play in a travelling band, teach budding musicians, and assess his own professional path made all the difference.
One evening, the spouse of Nich’s drummer, a pediatric occupational therapist, chatted him up on the profession during those gap years, convincing him that it was an option worth considering—one which would allow him to incorporate music into a more lucrative gig.
“She told me I’d be good at that [type of work]. I looked into it and she was right,” Nich smiled, appreciating the irony that he was being pushed back into a health career via music.
And almost overnight, it seemed, everything clicked. Finally.
“When I first started getting into the profession and had my first pre-occupational therapy class, I started drawing those parallels between teaching children an instrument and having an interaction with a client in a one-on-one way,” Nich continued. “There were so many parallels. It felt like I had been sort of doing this work for a while. It’s a relatively new health profession, but I love the directions you can go with it—and now I’m finally learning the theory behind the sort of ‘teaching’ I was doing [as a music instructor].”
“On the road again”
Three years after returning to UND to pursue a Master of Occupational Therapy degree, then, Nich is both a new dad and on the cusp of a fieldwork experience in Idaho, where he and his spouse do expect to live for a time after graduation in May 2020.
And although he’s not set on a particular specialization within the profession, he acknowledges affinities for both the pediatric and geriatric populations.
“Every setting has its pros and cons, of course, but the setting that will benefit me most is one that will give me time to really plan interventions and think about the whole person in front of me and engage with them,” said Nich, who likes to build rapport with clients and claims he hasn’t experienced a therapy environment he didn’t enjoy. “My original aspiration was kids. I’ve had experience with both children and the geriatric population. I lived with my grandma for a while, so I feel I connect with older adults too. So, it’ll probably be one of those populations.”
That said, he’s had UND faculty encourage him to consider teaching and research too.
“I’ve been going to school on and off since 2008,” he replied, at the suggestion that he stay in higher ed, “so I’m feeling confident and competent in starting an entry-level practice and want some experience working. But I’m open to furthering my education—I’ve enjoyed my experiences here at UND.”
Besides, Nich added, he needs to take as much time as possible to be present for his newborn daughter, if for no other reason than to manipulate her musical tastes.
“That’s one of the most exciting aspects of [being a father] is that I can influence her music choices, at least to a certain extent,” he laughed, explaining too how he and his wife bought their daughter a onesie with a guitar on it to accompany the rock-history-for-babies book his drummer gifted them. “And hopefully as she grows up we’ll have a good enough relationship where she won’t end up hating all those influences.”
Get rhythm (when you get the blues)
Wherever Nich ends up, he’s confident that he will continue to incorporate music into his clients’ therapeutic regimen.
“No matter what happens in my professional journey I want to incorporate my lifelong passion for music into my therapy practice however I can,” he said, admitting to having considered studying music therapy. “Thinking about the creativity that stems from being an artist—that’s important for me in whatever I do. And that’s one reason I was drawn to occupational therapy. The profession really promotes using your creative powers for therapeutic reasons.”
The scholarly literature tends to support such a bias, of course. Dozens of studies have demonstrated the therapeutic effect music has on persons with any number of physical, psychological, and neurological conditions, as former UND Writers Conference participant Oliver Sacks, among other writers, documents in Musicophilia.
“It’s a powerful tool, one that has allowed me to adapt to the profession,” concluded Nich. “Music has been part of my life forever, and it always felt like a therapeutic part of me.”