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Improvisation and Music Therapy

by Tiana Malone Malone.Tiana@MacPhail.org

When one thinks of musical improvisation, one undoubtedly thinks of jazz piano fingersand/or blues. My father played drums in an amateur blues band, so for me improvisation meant that moment in the song when everyone got a turn to "solo"; to shine and create their own interpretation of that piece of music, while the rest of the band supported them. I would listen to the array of melodies and rhythms the musicians in that band would create, based on a catchy tune (Knock on Wood was a favorite). Each solo was unique; each was special, and no performance was ever exactly the same as the last, though the underpinnings of the songs always remained constant.

As a music therapist, I use improvisation with many of my clients. I work with a vast array of unique individuals, many of whom have challenges "outside the norm". I work with individuals with brain damage, individuals with developmental disorders, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders; challenges that most of us can hardly imagine living with day to day.  For my clients, improvisation can be an invaluable tool for addressing their goals in music therapy, and tapping into their own moments of meaningful creative expression. They don't necessarily have to know how to read music, they can just dive in and create. For some, improvisation may be playing a simple rhythm on the drum, for others, it can mean complex blues riffs on the piano. Improvising can give them a sense of accomplishment and mastery, a sense of individuality, an outlet for creative expression, a way to communication their thoughts and feelings without words, and a way to interact with another person on a deeper level.

One of the many challenges I've faced as a music therapist, is how to bring some of these musical moments home to my clients. Some of my clients also take adapted lessons, which involves at home practicing. Sending home sheet music or charts to play is one way, but this is still reading music on a page, which often does not meet the needs of my clients. (Most don't have a trained musician on hand at home to improvise with either, but wouldn't that be nice!)

The integration of videos and audio recordings has been invaluable to my teaching, as well as my music therapy practice. Recently, I have begun making piano improv tracks and uploading them to YouTube for my students and their families to use at home. These tracks are usually simple, repetitive chord progressions in traditional improv styles: 12-bar blues, 4 chord jazz style progression using 7th chords, a simple I-IV-V-I using an Alberti bass for "Mozart" improv. Usually I play them on the piano, record them with my Snowball mic or, in a pinch, my iPhone, and upload them to YouTube. These same progressions are used as a basis for joint, call and response style improvisations in my music therapy sessions. The videos allow the opportunity to try these same things out at home, without having me present to play along. These kinds of backing tracks can be made quickly, and could be made more complex or simple as needed. The addition of a click track, or drum beat to a jazz improv could be helpful (GarageBand would make this relatively easy).

Though these tracks are no substitute for the interpersonal connections made through live, in the moment improvisation, they are a way to bring some of these moments outside of the studio, and into the student's homes.

Photo Credit: "Piano Fingers" by seriousbri; CC-BY 2.0

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