Just a Song Sunday: Focus on Improvisation

I admit it.

I did it. I spent an entire week improvising things during sessions.

During (almost) every session, I picked up the guitar and sang something new and never to be replicated with the clients sitting in front of me. We sang about things we liked, about moving our bodies, about what we were talking about, and about nothing at all. We incorporated sounds - both silly and functional, went between major and minor modes, and just made music.

I love improvising and don't do it quite enough when I get into times of stress. It's silly, but I actually have to remember to improvise during those times when I start to feel that I am not effective in helping my clients reach their personal goals and objectives. I think it should be a natural response by now, but I tend to get more and more into planning things out rather than using my tool to make music that is based on what is happening right there in the session. When I do remember, I improvise and am reminded of what a powerful experience it can be to make up music that has never been experienced before.

I came to a level of comfort with improvisation through a long path. My first experiences were with my junior high band director who taught me about improvisation within the context of jazz band. Since he spent most of his time trying to humiliate me (making me "strong"), improvisation became something that I dreaded. As soon as the word came up during my music therapy education, I started having the same anxiety that started in junior high.

As soon as someone would say, "improvise," my brain would turn to mush. All the music theory that I knew leaked out of my ears, and the result was music that had no theory or inspiration behind it. I thought that I couldn't improvise. That was it. All done.

My internship director and supervising music therapists changed that.

They noticed this anxious reaction and then reframed the word "improvisation" for me forever.

Please note - these words are as close to the conversation that happened as I can remember. It may not have been exactly this, but the thought and sentiment is the same...

"Improvisation is nothing to be afraid of. You've finished theory, so now there are no rules. Just use your music to reflect what a client is doing in the session."


No rules? Really? I could stray from the strict formula of my junior high band director, theory professors, and music therapy professors and just play anything? I didn't believe it at first, but I tried it.

Shedding my own fear of improvisation took some time, but I did it. I was able to become comfortable with making music in the moment with the people in the moment with me. I know the power of music shaped to the experience and the situation - I've felt it.

So, how do I do this? I quash all thoughts of improvisation failure (yep, they are still there even after all these years), and just start to play music. I make decisions about how to shape the music. Here's an approximation of the thought process that goes on in my head during the first moments of musicking.

How's the group doing?

Is there anyone who is standing out in my attention?
Why is that person so noticeable?

How can I get that person back into the group using music?

I'll start playing at this tempo - volume - meter - pitch - key - etc.

Start singing - use the names of the person I noticed in the lyrics to help draw their attention to the music.

Change the music - one element at a time - to pull in the attention and interaction of others in the group.
Does the change work? If not, go back. If so, good!
Keep changing things until almost everyone is in the musical groove.

Incorporate all responses from clients into the music experience - sounds, movements, etc.

Keep in mind that most of this happens in the first 30 seconds of starting an improvisation, but also keeps happening throughout the therapeutic music experience.

I can link thoughts to changes in the music when asked to do so by administrators and interns, but most of the time, no one asks why the music changed during a session. I think most people don't even notice that we start at 90 beats per minute and end up at 70 beats per minute. That we start at a volume of mezzo-piano and end up at a volume of forte. That we start with a simple melody and harmonic pattern and end up with complex melodies, counter melodies, and harmonic patterns. 

I think this is the power of a music therapist versus a musician - we not only know the music, but we know how to shape that music to the clients that are in front of us. We can change that music to fit clients, and we know what we are doing with the music. I can directly relate changes in musical elements to changes in the behaviors of my clients. I know that a decrease in tantrum behaviors can be linked to changes in the musical environment during moments of music therapy crisis. I can be both responsive and directive when it comes to interacting with my clients during music therapy experiences.

I wonder how I can keep this important tool at the forefront of my therapeutic brain. Maybe a word wall across from the group session would help me put down the session plan and improvise. I will see.

Happy Sunday, all!


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