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Vermittlungen...Musically Speaking -On Improvisation Teaching within Music Therapy Training

br2002_020Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen and Eckhard Weymann (Eds.)(2001) EINBLICKE – Beiträge zur Musiktherapie,
Heft 12,
. Herausgeben vom Berufsverband der Musikterapeutinnen und Musikterapeuten in Deutschlande e V.

Reviewed by Trygve Aasgaard.

The First European Symposium on Improvisation Teaching within Music Therapy Training took place in the rooms of the Musikhochschule Hamburg, in 1998, a little more than a decade after Kenneth Bruscia published his comprehensive guide of over 25 models of improvisational therapy. Both events were major landmarks in the history of music therapy – a history where both method and theory of musical improvisation has become increasingly multi-sided and developed. “Musical improvisation” is a major subject in music therapy curricula around the world; this emphasis does however necessitate an ongoing discussion about its theoretical framework and didactic and practical implications. Not the least it is importance for European music therapists to study training approaches in “their neighbourhoods”. Language barriers are certainly obstacles for a free flow of information: when reading this document, I ask myself how many British/American/Nordic (etc) music therapists whose curiosity of keeping in touch with German trends is weakened because of difficulties with the language. Too bad!

This issue of Vermittlungen (“mediations”) contains ten contributions from the symposium plus an introductory
chapter by the editors – the chapters have either arisen from the lecture manuscripts or have been written specifically for this publication. Six chapters are written in German and five in English, all have summaries in English/German. The short introductory chapter by the editors (printed in both languages) is actually a very fine presentation some of the major themes with quotations by the contributors in a column alongside the main
text. The rest of the 130 page book is a stimulating blend of “facts” and “fiction” and of philosophical and practical thinking. On the factual side we can read presentations of “improvisation” within music therapy studies in Europe (Hamburg University, Vienna University, Aalborg University, Fachhochschule Heidelberg). Weymann argues that the challenge with “improvisation” is that it “is no matter-of-course, rather a provocation”. It is probably true that the subject of “improvisation” did not gain a foothold at the same time in the various training curricula, at least in Germany. “Improvisation” was, however, a major subject at the music therapy training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, from the very start (1968) and also an important part of the first Norwegian training programme (1978).

Both the individual presentations by the editors refer to former avant-garde composers such as Stockhausen, Cage and Ligeti and how they have influenced today’s improvisational approaches. Weymann also mentions Free-Jazz as a source of inspiration for didactic music work shops: because this jazz form is characterised by “spontaneity and an immediacy without any prerequisites, the integration of ethnic stylistic as well as jazzy ‘swinging’ playing elements”. After having been involved in free jazz and spontaneous music for a number of years, I have started to believe that conventions (good or bad) will easily mark any “style” after a time. How much spontaneity is it at all possible to teach students?

Susanne Metzner discusses the relationship of improvisation instruction and personal therapy. She assumes that improvisation instruction is always connected with personal experiences and self awareness as practicing music
is influenced by wishes, fears and conflicts. Metzner relates this idea to D. W. Winnicott’s term potential space, “an intermediate region between fantasy and reality developing between two or more objects and which is
mutually experienced”. All forms of succeeding psychotherapy as well as all forms of musicking (indeed: “playing”) may be thought of as going on in this open area where something new and creative can develop. Providing the necessary conditions that facilitate the development of “potential space” must thus be a major concern in music therapy trainings as well as in many therapeutic settings.

I appreciate Metzner’s three equally important foci of instrumental improvisation: 1) Improvisation in connection with didactics and methodology in therapy; 2) Improvisation as a personal attitude; 3) Improvisation as artistic action. While the first aspect focuses curricula and principles that of course can be discussed ad infinitum, it is the second and third foci that are really challenging. Just mentioning “personal attitude” brings us directly to the tricky part of improvisation instruction: it is difficult to teach students to liberate their own “homo ludens” – it is probably
here the world inspiration represents all (?) the teacher can do. It had been interesting to find out more about to what degree “personal improvisatory attitude” develops or changes in the individual student during a training course (I’m not sure what she thinks of this). In order to obtain “playful awareness and responsiveness” (to quote Metzner) in improvisatory communication, is one necessary prerequisite to incorporate a certain relaxed and laid-back
attitude to what might happen musically.

Metzner’s third focus is the artistic production of the musical material. She claims that even if technical know-how is an advantage, is it more important “[…] that one is able to establish a connection between subjective
feeling and musical idiom. This encompasses, among other things, the ability to place both what is happening musically and therapeutically into the socio-cultural context”. I want to add that for many of our clients it
is perhaps the artistic product component of their improvisations that is more valued than the process element. This is strongly related to the performance side of our clients’ musicing; an element that luckily has been better understood and appreciated the last years. When listening to clinical improvisations (or any kind of interplay) between music therapist and patient(s), it is so nice experiencing therapists who are able, with simple means, to create a musical context “lifting” the session to simply… sounding good. And this is very different from a dominating music therapist!

Rosemarie Tüpker’s contribution is a multi-faceted and challenging examination of the concepts of music as presented in musicology, music education and music therapy. If, she asks, “improvisation” has its own concept of music, is this affirmative or critical?, and performs thereafter a critical, and at times even entertaining, exploration of two musicological dissertations and a book on instrumental education for adult students. She finds that the two musicologists’ treatment of music as an autonomous object has little value in music therapy where the interpersonal/interactive aspect of music is central. From this point she studies new tendencies of understanding “music”. She quotes e.g. the German scholars Jobst Fricke and Christian Kaden and Edward Said, Jerusalem/New York, who, from very different positions, emphasize that music cannot be extracted from its social and cultural environment. A bridge from this stance to contemporary music therapy is found in Gary Ansdell’s excellent article, “Musical elaborations. What has New Musicology to say to Music Therapy, (British Journal of Music
Therapy, 11(2), 1997). Tüpker has worked out several, more or less, illustrative tables (in German and English) comparing old and new trends. She seems to envisage a new concept of music in music therapy, and concludes
the interesting article by opening for further discussion. Applying these new ideas of “what is music” to the music therapy clinic does not just transfer the focus from the “opus” to the musical interaction between patient and therapist, but forces through considering music therapy in much wider (and more complex) environmental/ecological contexts than what has been common till now. I feel that not everyone will be equally happy with this altered perspective…

Martin Deuter’s presentation of “Polaritätsverhältnisse” (polarity conditions) is thorough and systematic. The text is said to be a draft for a research project, and the author forwards two questions: “How do we find our way through an improvisation”? How can we put up ways of describing that help us understand what exactly happens in the act of improvisation”? It is always a challenge “translating” musical language(s) to e.g. psychological terms, as Deuter does. I believe his suggested terminology might prove to be a good guide for analysing improvisatory processes when this is considered to be valuable. Not the least will this benefit our students.

Musical parameter concepts are also one of Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen’s concerns in his article, “Clinical Improvisation And The Universe of Musical Idioms”. The author discusses the relativity of musical idioms and points
to the endeavours in the new and experimental music to again connect music to everyday life and make it accessible for everybody. Bergstrøm-Nielsen is a specialist on “intuitive music” and “graphic notation” (amongst others) and teaches at the five-year full time study in music therapy at Aalborg University, Denmark. I had hoped to see some examples of his mind-opening graphic scores in this article, but instead we get a theoretical outline of how e.g. John Cage’s philosophy of liberating the sounds (Happy new ears!) and the interest for improvisation in performance practice by contemporary composers (well, since the 1960ies?) also encourage the use of free improvisation in “active music therapy”. Bergstrøm-Nielsen argues that the parameter exercises have practical implications as to better memorizing, faster reactions and increased consciousness about one’s own habits. It is difficult to disagree with his favourite saying: “the musician is the most important instrument”!

If we want to understand major trends in European approaches to improvisation in music therapy the pioneer of Austrian music therapy, Professor A. Schmölz, cannot be overlooked. Elena Fitzthum, from the Vienna Music Therapy Education, gives an interesting account of the Schmölz tradition emphasizing “musical tuning in” and “the musical dialogue”. Verbal interventions are the tools of psychologists and psychiatrist – not of the music therapist. Musical interventions do not compete with other forms of therapy, but offer a different means of communication. The described music therapy techniques are (of course) psychotherapeutically oriented; social roles and environmental relations are indeed not at the forefront here. But we can all learn something from Schmölz’s way of assisting groups of students to be “tuned in”, through 20 minutes of common improvisation before the proper group sessions started.

The usefulness of this little book on improvisation is strengthened by accounts of how the improvisation curriculum is organised within training courses in music therapy. Thomas Keemss and Thomas Buchhaupt write about
how improvisation is being taught from the first to the eight term of study within the M.D.-education at the Fachhochschule Heidelberg. Both Frank Grootaers, Linz, and Hannah Vieth-Fleischhauer, Bonn, present case vignettes illustrating different themes: the question is if improvisation and interpretations of improvisations shall be treated as a unity and the relatedness of theory and practice within the Integrative Music Therapy Education. In group work we see individual processes interwoven in group processes. Exchanging experiences may help participants to acquire meaning from mutual responses from fellow improvisers.

I recommend the reader of this issue of Einblicke to leave Brynjulf Stige’s contribution until the other articles are digested. Stige, a name frequently encountered in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, takes his readers “up” and “out” with a row of illuminating references that are far from standard in music therapy texts (John Dewy, Pablo Picasso, Glenn Gould, Mikhail Bakhtin and Edgar Allen Poe etc.). His article, “Polyphonic Voices. Aesthetic Aspects of Music Therapy Improvisations”, discusses hitherto uncommon topics in music therapy theory: the concepts “polyphonic dialogue” (Bakhtin) and “aesthetic practice” (Wittgenstein) and is a critique of essentialism. Rosemarie Tüpker presents the “New Musicology”, in this little book, and starts a discussion about implications for music therapy. Stige takes over the baton and presents an original piece of reflection demonstrating that music (therapy) cannot be detached from the web of culture it is spun into. His contribution is a revised and shortened version of an article, “Aesthetic Practices in Music Therapy” in Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 7(2), 1998. Can we say that Stige develops ideas of music and identity and performed health (earlier forwarded by Even Ruud and David
Aldridge) to the realm of improvisation? As far as I can judge does this article indicate a way forward and an extended context for further studies of improvisation. But improvisus (Latin) means “unforeseen”; we cannot
know for sure what will happen next…

Editors note: A free electronic version of the book is also available from: http://hjem.get2net.dk/intuitive/vermittlungen/

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