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A Guide to Writing & Presenting in Music Therapy

Aigen, Kenneth (2003). A Guide to Writing & Presenting in Music Therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona, Publishers (122 pages).
Reviewed by Brynjulf Stige, Sogn og Fjordane University College, Norway.


Professional Communication

br2005_051A Guide to Writing & Presenting in Music Therapy is written by one of the more experienced professional communicators in the field. Ken Aigen has produced an interesting text which stimulates reflections not “only” on what it means to communicate professionally but also on what it means to be professional. Generally, the book is well-written. Writing and presenting are activities, and I suppose we could compare books about writing and presenting to books about say playing an instrument. If not done with a realistic appraisal of the limitations of the written word, readers may experience the text as distracting and off the point compared to the critical processes of learning through observing, doing, dialoguing, and reflecting. If done with modesty and understanding, books – such as the one written by Aigen – may stimulate dialogue and reflection, and thus be of relevance for the observing and doing.

In the preface, Aigen clarifies the stance he takes that professional communications are not purely informational. Apart from the fact that they could also be inspirational, he underlines that professional communications are a kind of advocacy: Writers and presenters have agendas; they try to convince their audiences about the value of certain concepts, principles, descriptions, or interpretations. Aigen then proceeds by describing his own programme:

My agenda in the present publication is a simple one: to advance the level of understanding and practice in the profession of music therapy by assisting music therapists in the formulation of their professional communications (from the preface).
In the book, Ken Aigen clearly positions himself as a qualitative researcher working in the Nordoff-Robbins tradition, and this background colours the argument more than once. Readers could therefore argue that there are several agendas involved, in addition to the one described above. Even though this could be slightly disconcerting at points, I do not feel that this reduces the appeal or value of the book, since there is consistency between the stance Aigen is taking and the text he is delivering, and since he is forthcoming about his ideas and affiliations.

“What do you want to say?” “How do you want to say it?” According to the first paragraph of the preface, these are the two main questions in the book. At first, I thought of this as a somewhat disappointing opening, since I believe that reflexivity in professional communication includes awareness not only on what and how, but on why, when, where, and to whom as well. In reading the different chapters, however, I discovered that most of these other aspects were not neglected but integrated into the arguments of various chapters.

The book consists of eight chapters, which are easy to read and all relatively short. Still, the text covers a broad range of themes and topics, such as “aesthetic concerns, in writing,” “computer aids,” “confidentiality, “constructs, as a writing device,” “forms of clinical practice,” “knowledge claims of publications,” “literary forms,” “motivations for writing and presenting,” and “scholarly standards.” These examples are taken from the index of the book, and throughout the text the author engages in giving quite concrete and practical advice, for instance in relation to the necessity of including indexes in books, which he discusses in Chapter 4:

It is absolutely essential to include an index in almost any book intended for a professional, scholarly audience. . An index is an invaluable guide for a professional seeking all of the relevant material on a particular idea or issue in music therapy. The function of an index in scholarly books is as important as is that of a table of contents and its absence seriously limits its utility for researchers and authors and ensures that it will appear less in future citations than would otherwise be the case (p. 74).
Having talked about the preface and the index of the book; let me briefly outline aspects of the eight main chapters in between these outer sections:

Chapter 1 clarifies what Aigen considers central types of professional communications. He concentrates on three types; theoretical and conceptual expositions, clinical case studies, and descriptions of forms of practice. This is of course not a comprehensive list, and he explicitly states that his guide does not directly address issues specific to research reports. The rationale for excluding such reports – central as they are in the development of a profession – is that they have requirements that are specific to different institutions and research traditions. He argues, however, that his guide will be of indirect relevance also in the development of research reports, since some standards and conventions may be shared across traditions. After these introductory caveats and clarifications, Aigen continues the first chapter by presenting taxonomies on types of theory, types of theoretical models, and forms of clinical practice, integrating these with some general but practical advice on type of language. At this stage in the reading process, I was still worried that the what- and how-questions mentioned in the preface would dominate the book too much, but later chapters turned out to include other important aspects as well.

The second chapter – about common areas of concern for writing and presenting – discusses issues such as agendas and motivations of writers and presenters. The chapter gives a nice overview of some possible motivations, such as “clarify one’s own thinking,” “gain professional esteem and recognition,” “influence the evolution of the profession and discipline,” “educate colleagues,” “share experience,” and “meet extrinsic requirements.” Aspects of these motivations are elaborated, and comments and advice given, including pleas to the profession, such as the following: “Because there are so few tangible or material benefits from the time we spend in preparing communications it is essential that we learn to provide recognition to each other” (p. 26). The discussion of motivations is summed up with a discussion of what Aigen considers the most important of them all; the motivation to enhance the quality of service to clients. The rest of this chapter is then focused upon the topic of differentiating between a topic and a focus.

Chapter 3 discusses differences between writing and presenting, from the perspectives of practical considerations (such as time) and scholarly considerations (such as differences in knowledge claims). The fourth chapter then focuses upon writing, where he elucidates some different text genres (forms of publication in say professional journals). In this chapter Aigen also clarifies aspects of his own motivation for writing the book:

Some of us are music therapists because of a preference for musical expression over verbal expression. As a result, verbal expression becomes an undeveloped area of professional expertise. This leaves the public portrait of the profession to those music therapists more comfortable with words, something that can lead to a limited representation of the profession. A complete portrait of the profession requires the presence of all voices in our publications and conference presentations. And it is this desire for a more representative literature base and conference program that is one of the prime motivations I have had in putting this publication together (pp. 40-41).
Before reading this sequence, I had been asking myself: For whom is the book? The target group is not specified directly, and I had made up my mind that it was probably most suitable for students and beginning clinicians, preparing themselves for their first publications and conference presentations. This is an important audience. Aigen’s comment adds a dimension to this, as I think he is right in claiming that there is much valuable but unreported work going on in music therapy and that this renders the portrait of the profession somewhat limited and biased.

Chapter 5 is about the live presentation of music therapy material, where Aigen underlines that “as a presenter, you can do more than just present information: you can provide a vicarious experience in order to give the audience a glimpse of the experiential knowledge that informs your concepts” (p. 75). Later, he adds to this, claiming: “In general, most presenters do not take the best advantage of session material, paying insufficient attention to the extent to which the practice of music therapy is an experiential medium” (p. 77). Subsequently, he presents the reader with practical advice about how to organize and balance presentations, about presentation formats, and about computer-assisted presentations.

The sixth chapter I found especially helpful. It includes a discussion of presentational devices, such as graphic presentational devices and various narrative devices such as personal context, constructs, themes, critical incidents, and literary forms. The chapter concludes with a brief but illuminating presentation of the idea of layering, that is; “the intermingling of different voices, stances, epistemological positions, and sources of information in a single communication in order to create a more complete portrait of a phenomenon or milieu of study” (p. 99).

The two final chapters are more practical in their focus. Chapter 7 gives a description of various media for presenting clinical material, such as verbal presentation, audio recordings, and video recordings, while the last chapters gives guidelines about the verbal descriptions accompanying audio and video recordings. While, as the author admits, some of the technical information given in these chapters will be outdated relatively soon due to the rapid development of audio, video, and computing technology, I find these chapters important, as they address some challenges of communication that are specific for the music therapy profession:

As music therapists we have verbally encoded explicit knowledge that guides our actions and we also have musical knowledge that cannot necessarily be transmitted verbally. This is not knowledge about music but musical knowledge which becomes instantiated in our musical actions. One of the ways that implicit learning can take place is through exposure to the musical interactions that comprise music therapy sessions. As we consciously internalize guidelines to practice we simultaneously take in musical forms of knowledge through recordings (p. 102).
This quote reveals many of the strengths of this book: Ken Aigen links practical concerns of communication to the most important questions of the identity of the profession, and he does this in a generous and informed way. The author is well-read, and in the pages of this little book, he provides a wide ranging discussion of pleasures and problems in writing and presenting in music therapy.

The brevity of the book is part of its strength and part of its limitation. The format makes the text more accessible for the practicing music therapist, which I understand is the reader that Ken Aigen has had in mind. At the same time, the format forces the author to skip some discussions which I believe are important for music therapy, such as the role and function of language in scholarly work. Clarity – clear thought and clear expression – is the ideal given in this book. This is a well established and almost taken for granted ideal in many traditions and it has a great appeal to many scholars (including me). Text-oriented qualitative researchers have, however, illuminated how “obscurity”( strange and complex language) at times may nurture critical reflections. Peculiar or artistic language could point to the situated and therefore limited character of any argument (Sørbø, 2002, p. 268). Even though Aigen acknowledges the value of literary forms, the brief format he has chosen does not allow for discussion of questions like these.

One of the points Ken Aigen makes about writing is that ideas become “available publicly for the use of all music therapists so that it can be used in dialogue for the advancement of the profession” (p. 36). This perspective on professional communication, focusing on the dialogue among professionals, is in my view very important, but could have been expanded to include communication with broader audiences. I would, for instance, suggest that his book would have been even better if it had also included advice and reflections on public professional communications such as radio and television appearances and columns in newspapers and magazines, as these are important ways in which professionals interact with the societies they belong to. Notwithstanding this limitation, I think Aigen’s book is important in that in brings professional issues into the music therapy literature.

Most books in music therapy are about music therapy practice, directly or indirectly (through presentation of theories and research that may inform practice). Aigen’s book is of a different type; it is about the profession itself and the activities that maintain and develop it. Other books of this type include the texts by Bruscia and Maranto’s (1987) on music therapy education, Wheeler (ed.) (1995) on research, Dileo (2000) on ethics, and Forinash (2001) on supervision. It could be taken as a sign of the maturation and development of the profession that books covering issues such as these are now available. Ken Aigen’s book is a pertinent addition to this group of texts, and will hopefully be used by future writers and presenters in music therapy.

One notable characteristic of the books referred to here are that they are all from the US (mostly from the east coast, in fact). Since professional responsibilities are situated and include responsibilities in relation to broader audiences, communities, and societies, I hope that music therapists from other countries and continents will not only read and learn from the American texts, but also feel stimulated to produce new texts on these matters, developed from a diversity of contexts.

Bruscia, Kenneth & Cheryl Dileo Maranto (Eds.)(1987). Perspectives on Music Therapy Education and Training. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Esther Boyer College of Music.

Dileo, Cheryl (2000). Ethical Thinking in Music Therapy. Cherry Hill, NJ: Jeffrey Books.

Forinash, Michele (Ed.) (2001). Music Therapy Supervision. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Sørbø, Jan Inge (2002). Hans Skjervheim – ein intellektuell biografi [Hans Skjervheim – An Intellectual Biography]. Oslo, Norway: Samlaget.

Wheeler, Barbara (Ed.) (1995). Music Therapy Research. Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives. Phoenixville, PA: Barcelona Publishers.

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