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The Spirit of Improvisation

This year members of our national association – the Canadian Association of Music Therapists – connected for our first ever online conference amidst the pandemic. The theme was: ‘Creating Space, Nurturing Potential.” The Opening Keynote Speaker – Bernadette Kutarna – noted that the irony of ‘creating space’ during the age of social distancing was not lost on her. This theme – explored initially with this opening keynote – had a profound impact on me – and in my own reflection on her presentation I wrote one phrase in large letters, circled, in my notebook – “serenity amidst slow change” with a large arrow pointing to the word “improvisation.”

The keynote itself was a reflection on Bernadette’s own experiences in music therapy with individuals experiencing times of shift, and/or processing complex trauma. Improvisation was described in this presentation as something to be employed as “part of the process; not an activity.”  While this might sound straightforward – it really resonated with me – and it felt like something I’d been trying to figure out how to articulate for a long time. It was as though for the first time I truly understood what it was about music therapists that made our contributions to the sphere of healthcare so profound and unique.

While improvisation can be understood as a technique employed frequently by music therapists in our work – the practice of music therapy itself operates in the spirit of improvisation at a fundamental level. This is perhaps because wellness, or healing – are not linear experiences. Musical expressions, at their essence, are also not linear. They begin in the spirit of spontaneity; a desire to express or create in the heat of a moment. Often structure comes later; but the moment music is born is always in this spirit of improvisation. The complex grief, isolation, general instability and trauma experienced by so many in our own community and around the globe in this moment has me thinking about what it means to approach clinical work always in the spirit of improvisation:

When improvising in clinical settings – music therapists are trained to carefully consider the following:

  • Match the client(s) volume, tempo, and rhythm to meet them where they are.
  • Pay careful attention to the sounds, rhythms or melodies produced by the client and using our skills to echo, respond, or expand.
  • Balance structure and stability with non-structure or even chaos – and understand that each has its place and purpose.
  • Take your time.

In music therapy – improvisation might look like playing instruments, spontaneous movement to music, creating soundtracks to stories, writing songs about what the client(s) are observing or feeling, creating images to music, or engaging in spontaneous vocalization or vocal play.

Improvisation or an improvisatory approach are frequently utilized in music therapy to promote the following:

  • Cognitive Flexibility
  • Listening
  • Communication
  • Self-regulation
  • Self-Expression
  • Interpersonal connection
  • Creativity
  • Problem-Solving

Many of these mechanisms, skills and experiences can be interrupted or impacted by mental illness, trauma, or stress. Many – if not all – of these same mechanisms, skills, and experiences are vital in managing the symptoms of mental health conditions and processing complex emotions or trauma or stress. Thus – regardless of the techniques employed by music therapists; whether creating instrumental music, songwriting, creating images to music, active music listening, movement to music, or music based counselling questions; music therapists have a profoundly unique role to play in addressing the impact of trauma and working with our clients to build or replenish their resilience.

Creating space, and nurturing potential – a flexible and witness oriented meeting in the moment with viable opportunities for self-expression not always dependent on the necessity of words. These qualities, steeped in the spirit of improvisation – make music therapy and music therapists perhaps especially well equipped to serve our communities in these times, and the times to come.

Written by: Jesse Dollimont, MTA