Part III. Video Excerpt & CommentarY

Christian and I collaborate on the piano.

Christian and I collaborate on the piano.

Meet Christian, a delightful, active 5-year-old boy with whom I worked (along with co-therapist David Marcus), in weekly 30-minute individual music therapy sessions. His parents have generously given me permission to share this excerpt.

Christian is a naturally vocal child, with a rich repertoire of sound making. Diagnosed on the autism spectrum, he was essentially non-verbal at the time. As music therapy began, he immediately showed the potential for being engaged in interactive music-making though vocal play. He was responsive to melodic phrases, rests, and harmonies that evoked his involvement for short periods of time.

His interest in exploring a variety of instruments, including the wind chimes, tambourine, drum and cymbal, grew over time. Also drawn to the piano, he would play in brief but purposeful ways.  He often expressed his connection to music physically through movement.

Therapy goals included:

  1. To sustain his engagement with a variety of instruments and voice
  2. To play and sing interactively, in relationship with his therapists
  3. To use music as a vehicle for communication and expression of a range of emotions
  4. To develop impulse control; play in an organized basic beat, in a variety of tempos and dynamics

{Notice how developmental goals can be embedded within musical goals.}

Much of the music in sessions was improvised based on Christian’s initiatives. Working within a client-centered, humanistic approach, I welcomed his interests and worked to incorporate and build on his responses. Certain ideas were transcribed, developed and brought back to sessions, becoming part of a repertoire I offered each week. I also played pre-composed songs, at times moving fluidly between improvised and pre-composed music.

Description of Video Excerpt from Session 28

After a review of his recent sessions, I decided to introduce the composition “Beat the Drum Once” by Herbert Levin and Gail Levin (See Example 1 in Musical Examples & Analyses section).

I assessed that at this point in therapy we could challenge him to enter into a musical activity in which there was a specific part for him to play.  I also sensed that the clarity and directness of the music would evoke his attention and draw him into activity.  However, experience also told me that it would take time to do so.

Here, in his 28th session, Christian is moving around the room (as he often did) as I begin playing the song.The co-therapist carries a hand drum and mallet, modeling the beat at times and gently urging him to play. Christian is unfamiliar with the song, but with repetition, we see the beginnings of participation. The piece is played flexibly and there are moments of improvisation.

Please note: There are several moments in which his back is to the camera. At one point he has picked up 3 mallets, and later, holds a tambourine.

View Excerpt

View the excerpt more than once. Listen closely to Christian’s sounds which often are in tune with the melody notes. Observe his changing actions as you focus on the musical content.

Note when:

1) The music adheres more closely to the published song.

2) There are variations of tempo, dynamics and register.

3) Improvisational sections are created.

4) The song ends, and there is an improvised "appreciation" for his efforts.

5) At the end of the excerpt, the music becomes more legato and light in texture to create a transition away from the directness of the music and activity.

It is not unusual that, the first time a composition is introduced, a client may ignore or reject it. With experience, you’ll find that repetition and consistency over time can lead the client to develop a real interest and fondness for participating.


Course Conclusion


My hope is that your understanding of the value of composition in music therapy has grown, and that you have a new perspective on the ways in which we can integrate improvisation and composition within our work. Be flexible when offering any music to a client in sessions. Be aware of how you play and sing. Be prepared to change based on your knowledge of your clients’ needs as well as what is happening in the moment. Be willing to make variations. A composition is often perceived as a fixed entity and, especially when in print, appears in a set form.  But any live musical process involves action. The term “musicing” coined by music educator David Elliott, implies the action of making music, and is one to which music therapists have been drawn.


What then is involved in musicing for therapy? In introducing any song or instrumental composition into a therapy situation, the approach needs to be open, receptive and adaptable.  Although practitioners are aiming to realize a piece of music that is structurally predetermined, there needs to be an improvisational attitude in the way the therapist approaches and involves the clients. Not only do therapists need to know the music, they also need to be ready to adapt dynamics and tempo, to pause as necessary, to fit the musicing of the moment to the involvement of the clients. In this way, the music becomes individualized to the particular group or person with whom the therapist is working.  The intention is to draw clients into the piece in such a way that they are motivated to make it their own.
— More Themes for Therapy, p.7