Sunday, June 7, 2015

Three Ways to Approach Learning Music Therapy Improvisation

There are many different definitions and descriptions of clinical music improvisation. In a nutshell, it refers to the process of the music therapist and client(s) relating to each other through spontaneous music-making with a clinical intention. According to Bruscia (1998), there are four primary methods of music therapy: 1) Composition, 2) Re-creative, 3) Receptive (Listening), and 4) Improvisation. Some music therapists may use improvisation in their work, but it may not be central to their work in the same way it may be for a music therapist trained in the Nordoff-Robbins music therapy approach.

At Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the Master of Arts in Music Therapy program features an Advanced Improvisation and Composition course (taught by Dr. Alan Turry) and the undergraduate and equivalency music therapy programs also include clinical improvisation within the curriculum taught by music therapy faculty who have taken classes with Dr. Turry. The premise is that at the foundation of being a music therapist, we are musicians first. And, in order to utilize this wonderful modality effectively in a clinical setting, we need to be well-versed in how to improvise to be able to adapt music to the emotional environment of the individual or group (in addition to using music in other ways, per our  Professional Competencies). That being said, improvising can create unwelcome stress and anxiety among students (and professionals!) because it feels like venturing into the unknown, especially when learning. So, here are three ways to help music therapy students and professionals approach the process of learning how to improvise in a clinical setting.

SMWC music therapy students in improvisation class
Photo Credit: Sharon Boyle
1. Stay connected to your own music.
This seems so basic, but it is essential. Many times, music therapists (and students) lose touch with the very essence of why they pursued music as a career in the first place. We play music every day with clients (sometimes the same songs repeatedly) and soon music is something we only do as part of our job, disconnecting from it in our personal lives. When was the last time you sat down to learn a song you loved just to learn it--not just a song that can be used in a session? Learn a song that you enjoy and sing/play just for your own enjoyment.

2. Stop worrying about perfect, and start working to be authentic.
While we are taught about "striving for perfection" as musicians, it is important to understand that music therapy is about being real. Yes, we want to bring our best music offering to the table as a music therapist, but the most important aspect is being true to the moment, to the feeling, to what the client needs. We need to be genuine and our true selves, and sometimes that means that the music will not be "perfect". But, the music can still be meaningful. Judgment can stop us from even beginning the music process, and this also means keeping it from the client. If we worry so much about getting the music "perfect" in a session, then we may miss the opportunity to connect with a client through the music.

Photo Credit: Jillian Storm
3. Listen, listen, listen!
In order to be able to play in different styles of music, we must have heard it! It is so important to listen to all kinds of music and different artists as music therapists. First, it allows us to expand our awareness of different music which then expands what we can offer to our clients. Second, learning to listen to music helps us remember that music is meaningful to us...we can gain something from it as well as bringing it to our clients! Finally, the art of listening to music doesn't stay outside the session. We need to learn to intently listen to each client's music. When we listen, we can better respond and help engage with the client in a meaningful way within the music itself. We also can listen to be witness to their creative process, not just listen to respond.

So, put the fear aside and allow yourself the joy of creating music spontaneously! Work with music in this way on your own and then connect with others in group music improvisation. When you are able to experience the wonder of improvising musically, you can then carry this to others.


Bruscia, K. (1998). Defining music therapy, 2nd edition. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona.
Blog Author (Sharon R. Boyle)
For more information about the SMWC Undergraduate Music Therapy and Music Therapy Equivalency-Campus programs, contact:
Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC ( 

For more information about the SMWC Master of Arts in Music Therapy program, contact:
Dr. Tracy Richardson, MT-BC (                                                 
For more information about the SMWC Music Therapy Equivalency-Distance (MTED) program, contact: 
Larisa McHugh, MA, MT-BC (