Engaging Clients through Improvised Music
Part I: Definition, Approach and Readings
The CBMT Certification Domains include many music-related skills needed to work effectively. These include the ability to adapt music, use creativity and flexibility, and utilize improvisation. If you are a musician who has studied classical music, playing only from the page, or if you are a therapist currently playing songs in sessions but feel limited in how you can use them, we’ll look at ways in which you can take the next steps in creative freedom.
Experience shows that music therapists can engage and support clients strive toward greater expression, musical participation, and relationship through our ability to create music spontaneously. Improvising or adapting music that relates closely to a client’s efforts, mood, or preferences can play a significant role in a music therapy process.
Gary Ansdell writes in Music for Life that relationship comes when the client “…experiences a relationship between his playing and the music of the therapist. He hears himself being heard and responds to his being responded to.”(p.29) As we embark on this course, keep in mind that everything discussed is in the context of therapy, human relationship, and music making in the service of the needs and goals of your client(s).
What is Improvisation?
The term improvisation has many meanings and, likely, many associations for each of you. Here are some typical definitions:
“Something that is improvised, in particular a piece of music, drama, etc. created spontaneously or without preparation.”— Oxford Living Dictionary
These definitions seem reasonable; all refer to the spontaneous creation of something new. Yet, each seems to simplify the origins of improvisation, stating that it is “not practiced”, is “without preparation”, and is “not learned or prepared before.”
In reality, without the prior development of your musical craft, creating music, especially compositionally and clinically-based, would be quite difficult! Realize that the musical skills you already possess, along with your ability to be spontaneous in other areas of your life, will enable you to adapt or improvise new music.
A fourth definition, found in the article “Improvisation” from Grove Music Online may be more relevant and reflective of the range of what can occur during improvisation in music therapy sessions:
What is Improvisation in Music Therapy?
In my approach, improvisation refers to music crafted and played in response to the client, in pursuit of goals and to support the ongoing process in each session. The focus is on communication, interaction and relating purposefully through music. The term Clinical Composition is often used to address this clinically-directed music making.
Improvised music may take the form of:
Creating and developing new musical themes, songs and compositions->Compositional (Clinical) Improvisation
Extending and elaborating on pre-composed music (any genre, style, music therapy repertoire, etc.)
Compositional improvisation is based on the sense that form in music is vital. Form organizes the music we make and the way in which it is received by the client. Form can be based on any, or a combination of, the following ideas:
A rhythmic figure or groove
Tonality (major, minor, various modes),
specific musical style
Often there is repetition which helps us develop a sense of relationship to the music. Importantly, when we improvise, we can use form to organize ourselves and our musical creations.
What Compositional Improvisation is NOT:
Music making that lacks a clinical focus, i.e., free-wheeling or self-gratifying music making
Music that lacks any structure or organization
Important: I want to emphasize that I am speaking in a general sense here. Some clients will benefit by an intentional loosening of musical structure at times.
In the section entitled Preparation of a Session", Bruscia writes:
This initial choice sets the stage for a musical path that follows predictably or with creative contrasts and surprise.
Know your musical craft
Working with Pre-Composed Music Improvisationally