Baby steps: naming different experiences in music improvisation


Like many children I was restless: eager to explore the world, and energized to seek out each new discovery that awaited me. I have an image of myself as a young girl, almost a dreamlike vision. My body is well lit, though surrounded in a darkness that seems infinite. I am running without direction. But when I hear the sound of a piano I stop. I stand still. I listen. I am inspired. I begin to move to the music. I begin to move with the music. I begin to play with the music, bringing my own brand and style to the table, making, something completely new, yet completely familiar to me as well even though I have never heard it before in my life. I am improvising. I am living. I am loving.

Barbara Hesser talks about improvisation with music, describing it as the “free play of our consciousness as it draws, writes, paints and plays the raw material emerging from our unconscious.” Although improvisation seems to be spontaneous, it stems from calculated decisions being made from deep within a person’s inner-mind. Hesser continues by writing that “The music comes from our deepest being and is fully and originally [a manifestation of] who we are” (p. 4). This is a joy and a love that I have come to hold dear to me, and one which I am passionate about sharing with others.

Throughout my time in NYU’s Music Therapy program I have spent my time training, engaging in fieldwork and developing during my internships in a variety of psychiatric settings, working with both adolescence and adult populations. I have often questioned myself and the validity of my decision to dedicate my life to music therapy, and so it naturally follows that I would like to use this paper to explore and to reflect on my personal memories, challenges I have faced at NYU, and experiences that I have shared with my clients. I hope that, through this lens, I will be able to provide insight into the ideas that I have come to believe, explanations for the music therapy principles that have rung the truest when I have applied them in my own clinical work, and discussion for why I use the music therapy techniques I do, justifying some of them on an intuitive basis and others on academic research, music therapy literature and various classes provided through NYU’s Music Therapy program.

Music has played an important role in my life ever since I was a young child. My mother is a bayan player and almost every day I would dance to bayan’s polka and sing along with my mom and grandmother as they sang different folk songs. Some of the songs they sang were humorous, some of them were happy, and some of them were sad, but no matter what the context was, I felt that the musical experience allowed me to connect with my family members on a deeper level then I might have otherwise been able to express. Even when I was too young adequately talk about emotions that the music conveyed, I was able to both experience and participate completely when my family sang and danced, sheaparding me into a safe and accepting space.

I was the youngest in my family – I grew up around my parents, older brother, and grandparents – and each member in my family had different qualities to their voice and individual ways of expressing themselves, and yet, even though mine was a soft, high pitch voice among strong and deep ones, I felt that there was no difference between me and my other family members as long as we were all singing together. I was experiencing same continuum of emotions as everyone else was at that particular moment. I was myself but not by myself. My being was connected to other beings.

Like in many cultures, every ceremony in my country, whether it is a birthday, a wedding, a funeral, an agricultural celebration, or a seasons celebration, is celebrated with a number of rituals. In my home country, each of these rituals has a particular kind of music associated with it so that if one were to walk out on the street, based only on the music they were hearing, that person would be able to know what kind of event was taking place. For example, with funerals and the associated music, the sounds that are usually played while a mourning family walks after the coffin towards the cemetery bring about the feelings of grief and sadness to any person who hears it, making them aware for that moment that someone has died. In my country we have many cultural tendencies such as being strong, staying well-composed, holding in emotions, and being present for others when such an event in a family takes a place. These tendencies, however, do not allow people to channel their emotions and experience their grieving process fully. Through my personal experiences with these kinds of ceremonies I found that music brought out strong emotions in me and my family members and therefore served as an outlet for our coping. I remember feeling the music so strongly that I wanted the music to stop because it was bringing out painful feelings of loss that were impossible to mask.

I have many musical memories my childhood. I stayed in a country house in a village during each summer and remember singing with people while sitting at the bench in the center of the village. Every evening you could find farmers, their wives, their children and their grandchildren sitting out in front of their houses. Each day, without fail, someone would start a song – usually it will be one of grandparents – while the kids played games. The song and the music would develop as other family members and neighbors would chime in. Slowly, the evening would turn into a singing festival, and each person would have a chance to start their own song, yet still, anyone who wanted to could sing along. Some songs would sound happy, some songs would sound sad, some songs would have irony, and others would tell history – but again, no matter what the song, the singing brought about a strong sense of community and support. For every person and every member, any song was welcomed.

As I grew older, I had repeated opportunities to perform at a variety of locations and for a variety of occasions. I performed at orphan houses, military bases, houses for children and adults who were mentally or physically ill, industrial factories, etc. Before these concerts, I made it a tradition to chose a list of the songs that I would like to sing and before I would walk out into the room to perform, I would stand behind the curtains and watch people as they found their seats in the hall.  When I performed, I always sang with an open heart, just as I would have done when I sang with my family. I would often notice people being tangibly affected by the music: at times tears would come to their eyes, or they would look as if they were reliving a bygone memory, or they might smile openly or clap fully. I often felt that the music was either taking my audience somewhere, or bringing them more completely into the present. By the look on their faces I could see when songs had a special meaning for them.

As I alluded to earlier, the piano has always called to me. There is something about the sound of its strings that draws me in. It possesses sounds that have particular qualities that I have not seen or felt from anything else. The first time I got to touch a piano, it was a broken specimen. Half of the keys were broken but yet, the depth and the clarity of different tones resonated with every bone in my body. More that anything I wanted to learn how to play it so that I could listen and feel it over and over again. That evening I came home and I asked my parents to take me to musical school so that I could take piano lessons. I was going to learn how to play this new and inspiring instrument. I think back on my childhood anticipation, one that was a familiar precedent to new experiences and presume that it is the same experience that we have all had at some point, and that our clients must also experience when they come to us. I remember each day, anxiously awaiting my first class where I would be allowed to play.

My first experience at my lesson however, was quite different than I had expected and was, for me, a new brand of music. The joy and fulfillment that I had been anticipating was not to come immediately. I was not allowed to touch the instrument, instead I was simply given a piece of paper with piano keys drawn on it. My teacher, who seemed cold and uncaring told me, “You are not suppose to play piano unless you proved it that you are serious about it.” I was puzzled, confused and a little scared. The teacher continued, “These are the notes you have to memorize. You must know them so well that if someone were to wake you up in the middle of the night you would be able to tell which note was where without mistake. You are dismissed now.”

As my lessons went on I learned more about what this new brand of music entailed. Instead of always feeling accepted as I had with my family, I began to worry about mistakes as they were always swiftly followed by physical punishment. Instead of glowing in the excitement of learning something new, I began to fear each new twist as it only invited a higher probability for mishap. My love of music, the piano, and playful creativity was replaced with fear, shame, and guilt. Instead of loving classical music and the exercises that I was told would help me grow, I only began to hate them. I stopped wanting to play the piano and began to reject my own sense of self. I believed that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to participate in my music lessons anymore.

Happily, I found an escape from the draconian rule of my teacher in improvisation. I was told to practice piano for one hour each day.  My grandparents were strict about enforcing this in as much as they could but did not know classical music and so when they were left to monitor whether or not I was practice according to the curriculum all they could tell was whether or not I was playing the piano. Instead of practicing the pieces that I was told to play for my lessons, I took those opportunities to improvise. I would play all the melodies that I wished I were able to learn and play with my teacher, I would improvise according to my mood, and I would mirror the feelings of the weather. As time passed by, I felt bad at times that I did not have the same piano skills as some of the other students in my school did and knew that I should have practiced, but I also felt that what I was doing was good too. The music that I played had meaning for me and any time I would play an improvisation I would find myself, a real me. It is through this experience with music that I bring my own flavor of music therapy to the table. I do not want to be the rigid teacher who turns music into a lifeless act of iterations. I want to give my clients the same kind of music that I had growing up and that I have learned to cultivate over the years: a brand of music that inspires creativity, connects a person to the world, and brings them love.

I will discuss several personal examples to describe the basic music therapy principles that I have relied on when working with clients. First, I strongly believe that through music, a client can experience and sense support, acceptance, and belonging, while simultaneously being a part of the music-making process. The clients I happened to work with were often from a very disturbed population and often needed constant sedation, were chronically anxious, agitated, or paranoid, and it was by playing the music together that they seemed to be able to reach into their inner being, bypassing emotional and physical walls of defenses to create a resonating experience with other human beings. Sometimes music brought about emotions like withdrawal, frustration, avoidance, curiosity, self-expression, and resistance. I believed that it was the therapist’s role to accompany the client’s emotional transitions with an empathetic presence through various structural and open forms of improvisation that may have smoothed the transitional experience and modeled “up-healing” qualities of self-acceptance, self-presence, and self-awareness.

If the client is able to show what they feel using any form of music to help them overcome anxiety, frustration, fear, and resistance while they engaged with others in the music making process while simultaneously finding themselves in a safe environment, I believe that the goal of the group is achieved. When the group is collectively able to cultivate a safe environment each client may take a solo part in the music, a truly empowering part of group music making. An opportunity for a solo may be therapeutic for the client because they are being listened to and heard, they are accepted in the music, and they may be musically recognized through musical techniques like mirroring, grounding, call and response, free improvisation, etc.

In particular, for clients who were potentially traumatized, music making can provide an alternative reality of a safe environment where it is possible to identify things that elicit negative emotions, anxieties, and fears. In addition to safe environments, music making can provide a social support structure that can enhance positive emotions and trust to help individuals move forward with the healing process in a healthy and meaningful way. Music therapy techniques like improvisation, singing, vocalizing, and playing with others on various instruments may open the possibilities for the client to express tension and internal conflicts that were blocking them from coping with and processing a traumatic event.

Music and music making can become an indicator in addition to being a healing force within the group setting, manifesting the theme of the client’s emotional and physical being. For example, the quality of the music being made could give insight into the current feelings of the client, not being able to play can be related to not being able to rest and feeling tired, or not wanting to play with therapist could be related to the outside experience with the staff members on the unit etc. 

In a shared musical environment therapists may participate by adding in musical accompaniment, where music is created consciously by the therapist to provide musical tension and release created by different intervals, musical idioms, and patterns. Clients can be proactive about using musical expression to narrow the gap between bodily and emotional sensations.  

Rhythm can also provide a sense of safety for a client. A client might seek structure and predictability that are sometimes vital for the beginning of therapeutic process and/or may be able to regulate his breathing and to entrain the bodily process to the rhythm to gain bodily awareness. Depending on each client’s individual emotional and physical needs, therapists should be conscious to provide attainable musical challenges for the client. For example, allowing for pauses and taking more time, waiting for the client to play the drum, and keeping rhythm and song structures as flexible as possible, working only to maintain a constant musical interaction between the therapist and the client.

Music can inspire clients to seek different levels of depth with their improvisations as well. Perhaps a client is looking for a metaphorical cave to hide in, or a field to run through, or a quiet place far from anything familiar where they can experience grief. The therapist should make efforts to choose music that brings the client to the place where they can feel reassured that they are accepted at any level.  

Additionally, music can both create and reflect a sense of identity. By carefully listening to the music that clients are making and listening to, therapists can learn about what clients are identifying with and feeling connected to. When clients come into sessions with music, therapists should be sensitive to the cultural differences in the music and help model recognition and acceptance for the entire group.

Finally, it is becoming increasingly important to stay open to the use of some technology during the music therapy session. As one example I will discuss some experience I’ve had with the use of microphones in the group. In one of the groups I worked with, there was one client who always kept to herself, and always seemed to prefer playing a supportive role in the music and, when everyone else was singing, I would always have a difficult time hearing her voice. However, it was not that the client was too shy or did not want to be heard, it was just that she needed a little bit of amplification in order to shine. When she took the microphone, the group experienced the client’s the deep voice and her singing was expressive and sensitive. The volume was adjusted specially for her and had helped her to experience her voice with clarity. She admitted that she had never heard herself before and once she had, the client opened the group up to a new level of self-expression and self-awareness.

My experiences at NYU continue to take me on journeys of learning and self exploration. Even writing this paper has helped me understand more about myself, and thinking about where I have come from musically has, indeed, shed some light on where I have taken my music therapy practice. Writing about the principles that guide my therapy have not only given me space to reflect and examine myself, but have also helped me to realized how much I value my future in this profession. In my mind’s eye I am still that little girl, excited and energized, running along amongst infinite darkness – a darkness that calls out for exploration and illumination. But now, as opposed to before, I am running to the beat of music, a love, a passion, and a way of living that I hope to share with as many people as I can.


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