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Improvisation – Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students

Br2004_040Wigram, Tony (2004). Improvisation – Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students. London and New York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (237 pp + CD)

Reviewed by Dr Thomas Wosch, University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg, Germany

The new publication of Tony Wigram on improvisation is a unique and excellent book of didactics for music therapy academic education, involving the systematization (and “quantification”) of music therapy procedures with a focus of improvisation, and of a Meta methodology of improvisation – especially in music therapy dyad work. While it could be considered first of all as a tutor for students and educators, it is also designed for clinicians to help develop more improvisation skills. As such, it is a handbook of improvisation for clinical practice, to develop more sensitivity to musical material, and to learn a very useful assessment and indication perspective into improvisation as an intervention. To explain this, I will review its didactic role, the aspect of systemization, and the meta level of method.

Didactics 1

In the last decade music therapy publications have been very concerned with music therapy research, foundation texts, connecting and discussing different approaches of music therapy, and last but not least a huge number of books focussing on reports from clinical practice in the various individual fields of music therapy. Wigram was busy in these fields too (Heal & Wigram, 1993; Wigram et al 1995; Wigram & Dileo, 1997; Wigram & De Backer 1999a, 1999b; Wigram et al 2002). After these projects mainly on the Meta level, a very detailed subject of music therapy is now the focus of his newly released book – a methods and techniques tutor on improvisation. This is a unique contribution in an area which hardly represented at this time in music therapy publications. It is the field of didactics of academic education in music therapy. The achievement of this book underlines the increasing identification with and professionalism of the academic subject of music therapy, by the writing and publishing of a separate tutor about a specific area of music therapy method. The strong tradition, which Wigram follows, is this of Kenneth Bruscia, who published first in 1987 his theoretical book about improvisational models of music therapy (Bruscia 1987). However, this was first of all a book about systems and theories of improvisational models of music therapy, situated on a Meta level, and not a tutor about improvisation and about the didactics of learning music therapy improvisation skills, which Wigram offers here. Wigram’s book also underlines through its existence, and especially by what is written at the end of chapter 1, the very important difference between musical improvisation and clinical improvisation. This difference is also very important for separating music education from academic music therapy education. Beside this the book is still keeping the focus on the client AND the music material. Nevertheless, some of its chapters can offer, from the perspective of music therapy, some very important input to music education, and especially to elementary music education. It can also offer much as a contribution to the art of improvisation – e.g. are there any styles in which one could improvise besides the styles of composition tutors, which offer security to the musician. This is a question much discussed in current musicology and in different music practices such as free jazz.

Didactics 2

With a huge amount of experience both in the use of clinical improvisation in clinical practice, and in the academic teaching of improvisation on music therapy programmes Wigram connects the very detailed steps of learning music therapy improvisation skills with the clinical issues in the use of improvisation. The first “in music” steps of the didactics start in chapter 3 with musical techniques in improvisation. This starts at a very simple level with one note, then two note improvisation, developing afterwards to pulsed and non pulsed improvisation. It is very impressive and of course creative as to what can be done with only one note and through all the other foundational musical levels. It really guides and starts a process of becoming curious about all the possibilities someone can try to explore. This is also the character of all the chapters of the book. There are a lot of examples and systematizations, but these ‘frameworks’ don’t require fulfilment, or an end result. They start the pathway along which someone can create his own patterns and become sensitive to all music structures. Even when they are so much at an elementary level, they are also unusual and unique, just as a client offers in music therapy. Based on these elementary steps, and based on this very “in music” level (which could be very interesting also for elementary music education), music therapy methods are introduced, which use all the systematized musical techniques of clinical improvisation. These methods describe the relationship of the “in music” material or the “in music” interaction between client and therapist, through methods such as mirroring, matching, and others. These methods are described from a very close (dependent) “in music” relationship to separation. Also these methods teach a very high sensitivity to differences of “in music” items of an improvisation between client and therapist. This means that these systematizations (and quantifications of the music material closely connected to the music itself) are not situated far away from music material, such as might be the case with associations, as they can be found in the music material itself. They also develop one’s own improvisation skills to a very high degree of flexibility, and expand the limited possibilities of someone who has only some rigid patterns for improvisation and can’t respond to all the needs of the client. These methods are differentiated into six different types, all of which can be observed in the process of one improvisation. The relevance of micro processes (Wosch 2002) in one (clinical) improvisation becomes very important here and gains a very large and necessary space in this book. After these methods of clinical improvisation advanced therapeutic methods, different types of transitions and thematic improvisations are introduced. In particular, Advanced Methods and Thematic Improvisation are based more on classical music skills, such as extemporization (for example of a song) or frameworking (for example in a Spanish or Jazz style). However, they don’t actually require a classical music improvisation framework. They are indicated, and this is also described, for use in very important therapeutic situations, such as offering security for a client, e.g. with acute schizophrenic disorder or with dementia. The chapter of transitions, also involving a very detailed systematization of the method is, for the reviewer, the core and essence of this book, which will be addressed further below under the topic “the threat”.

In all these chapters the reader can not only read about the methods, but can also hear examples on the CD and see examples in notated forms in the book. The piano is often used for the focus of these examples, however a lot of other instruments, such as xylophones and drums, are also used, and the reviewer did successfully try out the methods with these other instruments with most of the examples. The steps in musical techniques up to here go from elementary simplicity to high complexity in the music material itself, as one moves from chapter to chapter. As in every learning process, it is also suggested here that first of all everybody needs to (and should) go into this systematic approach, and to train in it. Afterwards one should follow the next step of ‘forgetting it’ while still having a secure inner knowledge and competence in it, which will develop itself more and more. After these chapters there is one chapter that follows regarding methods and techniques of group improvisations and suggestions for applications of improvisation in the course of the sessions.


In the last paragraph the most used word was systematization. In the ‘soft’ field of clinical improvisation some points of view exist which conclude, that “in music” material no systematization is possible in this field. Only the meanings of the client, associations and graphs of these improvisations can describe clinical improvisations. The evidence for another position is found in this book. Notes can be transcribed from clinical improvisations, but it is a lot of work and it needs musical dictation and notation skills at a good level. These notes are the first step in a quantification of music material of clinical improvisations, which is not bound by this type of notation system for classic styles or other existing frameworks. In that way one can very clearly distinguish and demonstrate therapeutic methods, e.g. matching or containing. On a micro level it can distinguish, in a time span of two seconds, matching that occurs in rhythm, melody, loudness or harmony from containing on another level. This allows the possibility for very detailed analysis which, at this time, is not offered by any other system of visualisation and conservation of clinical improvisation for learning and discussing “in music” items of clinical improvisations. It is something like the ‘naked body’ as a picture of a clinical improvisation. This Meta level is also a foundational level that is context free from the Western approaches of music therapy and, as such, can function as a tool for all the very different models of music therapy. In the culmination of this foundational level that includes musical techniques and therapeutic methods, a Meta level of improvisation can be found, which is very connected to the music material of clinical improvisation itself (see also Wosch 2002), and is relevant for different approaches of music therapy. The interpretations and consequences for therapeutic procedures can afterwards be determined at a secondary level by the approaches and fields of applications. For the purpose of analysing music material from clinical improvisations, chapter 9 offers two specific methods (both quantitative and qualitative), which can offer very important benefits and provide factual information for music therapy assessment. By the way, some of the systematizations were very familiar to the reviewer from the German master of systematization of therapeutic methods Christoph Schwabe, especially from his Active group music therapy for adults (1983 / 1997), e.g. “objective emotional representation (OER)” and “subjective emotional representation (SER)” (Wigram, p. 158) and “representation of object related situations” and “representation of subject related situations” (Schwabe, 1997, p. 110).

Meta method of improvisation and the real threat

Even if this tutor about improvisation is relevant for different models of improvisational music therapy, it has an own inner logic. Wigram is directly influenced by different traditions and approaches in music therapy, by Juliette Alvin (1975), Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins (1977), and by Mary Priestley (1994). As a student of music therapy Wigram was a student of Juliette Alvin (which would be incredible e.g. for a lot of German music students to get a recommendation going to music therapy educators). This historical context connects different approaches of music therapy in Wigram’s improvisational biography in clinical practice and in academic teaching. Finally there are chapters about transference and counter transference beside chapters of the above mentioned creative musical techniques, living apart yet together in this book. From the first chapter flexibility is the most important issue in all chapters. Going from pulsed to non pulsed, from tonal to atonal – there are no limits in the concepts and potentials for learning clinical improvisation in this book. Step by step this idea is broadened in all the “in music” chapters. In particular, this is the challenge of this tutor, by starting every time with the needs of the client. In the chapter on Transitions this element, the music element of time, the element of a steady change within time, even in one single improvisation or one motif of it, becomes the basis of the ‘core’ of clinical improvisation. At the end of the book Wigram focuses this idea into the following credo: Against self-critique, perfection and other ‘prisons’ of the human being Wigram drives the music therapy principle of improvisation through the importance of transitions: “Break out of prison! Find your own music, create, explore, enjoy!” (Wigram, p. 228). Also Bruscia writes in the foreword of this book about this core, which he describes as a central theme of music therapy; “. therapy is about finding preferred alternatives that clients have not been able to discover on their own . Improvisation is the very essence of therapy” (Bruscia in Wigram, p. 18). In the end the essence of improvisation, which Wigram describes with his systematization of transitions in clinical improvisations, can be the essence of clinical improvisation on the level of the “naked” clinical improvisation and its “in music” material. Consequentially, this book is on the one hand a tutor about clinical improvisation, while on the other hand it offers one perspective of general music therapy micro (and macro) processes in clinical improvisations. With its very important issue of systematization of those processes this tutor is, in the end, the very successful result of a systematized flexibility, which is necessary in music therapy for its centre – the client – AND for its scientific and professional needs. The metaphor for this therapeutic process Wigram describes with sonata form (Wigram, p. 204-6), and with this demonstrates a strong connection to the European or Western history of culture, which becomes more and more popular all over the world.


The book is very much influenced by European or Western culture. However, the clients are touched by it too. Even world-wide pop music, which attracts the attention of a majority of the world wide population and so most of music therapy clients, is based on the Classical European or Western music of the 19th century. Its rhythmical ideas, scales and other frames, such as sonata form, influenced this music very much (Schwabe 1999), and also because there are ideas about a general meaning through sonata form. But if we Europeans play a pentatonic scale we don’t feel the specific differences which exist in different pentatonic scales, and as a consequence we can’t follow the differences in Arab maqam(s), of Indian raga(s) and other culture influenced music frames. Also the basic idea of transitions from the point of view of the reviewer is very much similar to Creative music therapy, influenced by a music based music therapy. But with its “in music” perspective it touches indeed a core of different music therapy approaches. Finally the examples on CD and in notes are not the same. On the one hand it can offer more examples explaining all systematizations and encouraging readers to try ideas out on the piano and on other instruments. On the other hand it could be for the reader of the book a more related to see and listen to the examples if they were the same. However to transcribe the audio examples into the book would have added many more pages.


Improvisation. Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students is a very important, useful, and at this time unique and necessary book for academic music therapy education and for music therapy clinical practice. It offers a unique systematization in learning clinical improvisation without danger of being confined within a fixed music frame, and is relevant for therapists working in all clinical fields. It also offers learning sensibly for “in music” micro processes of a client’s and a music therapist’s play of clinical improvisations in clinical practice of music therapy. The subject (and author) index is also a very helpful tool, and should be in every music therapy book.


Alvin, J. (1975). Music Therapy. Revised edition. London: John Claire Books.

Bruscia, K. (1987). Improvisational Models of Music Therapy. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Heal, M. & Wigram, T. (1993). Music Therapy in Health and Education. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Nordoff, P. & Robbins, C. (1977). Creative Music Therapy. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Priestley, M. (1994). Essays on Analytical Music Therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Schwabe, C. (1983 / 1997). Aktive Gruppenmusiktherapie für erwachsene Patienten. Leipzig: VEB Georg Thieme / Weida: Akademie für angewandte Musiktherapie Crossen.

Schwabe, C. (1999). Regulative Musiktherapie. Weida: Akademie für angewandte Musiktherapie Crossen.

Wigram, T. & Saperston, B., & West, R. (1995). The Art and Science of Music Therapy: A Handbook. London and Toronto: Harwood Academic Publications.

Wigram, T. & Dileo, C. (1997). Music, Vibrations and Health. Pipersville, PA: Jeffrey Books.

Wigram, T. & De Backer, J. (1999a). Clinical Applications of Music Therapy in Developmental Disability, Paediatrics and Neurology. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wigram, T. & De Backer, J. (1999b). Clinical Applications of Music Therapy in Psychiatry. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wigram, T. & Nygaard Pedersen, I. & Bonde, L.O. (2002). A Comprehensive Guide to Music Therapy: Theory, Clinical Practice, Research and Training. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wosch, T. (2002). Emotionale Mikroprozesse musikalischer Interaktionen. Eine Einzelfallanalyse zur Untersuchung musiktherapeutischer Improvisationen. Münster, New York, Munich and Berlin: Waxmann.

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