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

br2006_070Wigram, Tony (2004). Improvisation – Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

My immediate impression when first glancing at this book was, “how fitting” that it be about music improvisation. To me, the cover itself seems to symbolically say a lot about the improvisational process. The deep blue color of the book feels like the unchartered waters and endless possibilities of learning, teaching and clinically applying improvisation. The bright orange bass clef “locates,” and places the music somewhere unknown, while the bass indicates that no matter how creative and free we are in the process of improvising, a foundation must be built in order to effectively teach and utilize improvisation. Finally, the imperfect clef expresses that in order to be a great clinical improviser and teacher of improvisation, we must let go of the need to be perfect, and embrace the imperfections of living in the musical moments of our clients and students.

The foreword, written by Dr. Kenneth Bruscia, author of Improvisational Models of Music Therapy (1987), takes us through the history of improvisation in music therapy, discussing the pioneers who have led to the making of this book. He states that Wigram’s present text is a landmark publication in that it: 1) extricates improvisation training from models of music therapy; 2) meets the needs of musicians who may be beginning pianists; 3) considers improvisation on different instruments; and 4) incorporates musical and clinical techniques for group as well as individual sessions.

As a Nordoff-Robbins music therapist practicing for ten years, I have come to see the importance and effectiveness of clinical improvisation. As a former student of improvisation I can recall the difficulties-technical, emotional, and psychological-inherent in learning how to improvise. And as a college educator, I struggle everyday to figure out how to teach something that is so difficult and complex.

Professor Wigram has discovered a way of meeting the needs of the clinician, student, and educator on the subject of improvisation in this 237-page book. Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, this easy-to-read “guide” to improvisation comes with a compact disc (CD) containing 66 audio clips. The clips include: improvisation exercises on multiple instruments, examples for developing musical and clinical techniques, example for creating rhythmic and melodic themes, and examples depicting the use of various idioms and musical styles such as classical, baroque, and jazz. In addition, the author includes written transcriptions and an easy to follow guide of all the CD examples.

Before going into greater detail on the content of the book, an overview of the book may be helpful. Chapter 1 describes the origins and foundations of improvising, and also points out some of the pitfalls and patterns that learners and educators encounter when learning and teaching improvisation. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss concepts and techniques of musical (not clinical) improvisation. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss creating and building musical themes and transitions in improvisation while relating it to the clinical setting. Chapters 4 and 5 begin to “tie” in the material from chapters 2, 3, 6 and 7, and provide basic and advanced levels of clinical applications and techniques. Chapter 8 discusses improvisation in group therapy, introducing group dynamics and roles. Finally, chapter 9 introduces the reader to methods of analyzing music.

Based on Prof. Wigram’s extensive clinical and teaching experience, this book’s intent is to provide the musician with a practical “how to” guide of how to develop musical skills in order to be able to improvise.

Addressing all levels of musicians, the author, throughout the text, clearly shows empathy for the inexperienced improviser, and displays an understanding that the new improviser, regardless of musical skills, “will undoubtedly feel vulnerable right from the beginning” (p. 27). He sites David Schwartz’s study on the process of learning and teaching improvisation, citing the defenses and insecurities that people may have when learning improvisation. In addition, he points out the responsibility that the instructor must accept, and the self-awareness that is required to teach improvisation.

I felt an immediate connection with the author’s writing style and choice of words, and appreciated his level of understanding of what the student and teacher may be experiencing. I immediately began to recall my days as a student and saying, “Yes that was me!” In addition, as a teacher, it widened my sense of what my students may be going through in their learning process of improvisation.

“Improvisation is most effective and creative where a simple idea is repeated, varied, extended and creatively expanded” (p. 40).

Simplicity and creativity lie at the heart of clinical improvisation. As Wigram shows us throughout his book, emphasis needs to be placed on how the music is played, conveyed and delivered (It’s not what you play, it’s how you play). It’s my feeling, as a teacher and clinical supervisor that students of clinical improvisation become easily discouraged because they feel that they need to be a “master” musician. These feelings of inadequacy may prevent them from being free and creative in the musical moment. On the contrary, other students who are accomplished musicians, may tend to over-play, getting caught up with wanting to impress; and in the interim losing focus and the intent of the music making.

In Chapters 2 and 3, the author discusses and displays simple and basic musical exercises. This section exemplifies that effective improvisation derives from simplicity. Hence, the starting point of the book begins with just a series of exercises of playing, listening and experiencing 1 note, then 2 notes, then 3 and 4 note improvisations. This is followed by improvising on one chord, with just one hand and eventually introducing melody. These simple exercises gradually build upon one another throughout the book, taking the musician through a systematic approach, using previous materials as building blocks for what’s to come.

For me, this teaching approach, using simple exercises and building on them does several things. It creates a structure for the musician, creating boundaries for him/her to play within. It reacquaints the musician with his/her instrument. It provides the starting point of any improvisation, one note! It highlights the misconception that most trained musicians have regarding improvisation, that is, that good improvisation does not need to be complex. And, it brings into the musician’s awareness, the use and importance of applying musical elements-things that are so often taken for granted or forgotten in clinical improvisation by new improvisers.

Rediscovering musical elements seemed to be a reoccurring theme of the book. However, one element that I would have liked to be included is the use of pedal while playing piano. I feel that that the concept of applying the pedal with clinical intent is something that really challenges new piano improvisers, regardless of how skilled they are; in fact at times, the pedal can become a crutch.

“.it is very easy for music to become stuck, blocked, repetitive and unchanging. The process of improvisation can result in the client and/ or therapist going round in musical circles. Transitions are the antidote to a lack of movement and change, both in music making and in therapy work” (p. 139).

Being able to “move” and shift the music is a vital skill in the process of clinical improvisation. “Moving” the music, on some level means that you are moving the client into different musical experiences. If our goal as clinical improvisers is to engage and offer the client musical experiences in order to facilitate clinical goals, making transitions, moving the music while being able to manipulate musical elements is imperative. If the therapist is musically “stuck,” where does that leave the client? Can we as therapists expect the client to go to musical places that we have not? Being able to “move” and shift music provides the student improviser with flexibility; Wigram provides terrific, easy to understand ideas and examples of how to develop this skill.

In Chapter 6, leading into the importance of developing musical transitions, Wigram discusses the familiar voices that all improvisers have encountered at some point or another in their improvising careers: “How can I move the music?” “I don’t know where to go musically,” “I’m bored,” and “The client is bored.” He explains how transitions help move not only the client, but also the music being created by therapist and client. He states, “A transition can be a simple process of changing one small aspect of the musical material” (p.140). He brings back into the musician’s consciousness the importance of being aware of musical elements. He shows the musician, that by simply changing and manipulating the elements such as dynamics, rhythm, tempo, and/or tonality one can create a musical transition. In addition, he includes exercises to help develop transition skills, such as choosing a favorite piece of music and change just one musical element, or improvise on the piano using only the black keys (pentatonic) and place the accents on different beats, then try reestablishing the meter by going back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4. These exercises help the musician to revisit familiar music and begin to experience and perceive it differently. This is an important concept in clinical improvisation as the therapist needs to be musically flexible and have the ability to shift and manipulate familiar music to meet the client’s “in the moment musical needs.” It brings to mind, one of my favorite jazz musicians, John Coltrane when I listen to him play “Favorite Things.” Coltrane introduces the simple melody to the listener, and then intuitively leaves the familiar and takes the listener into an unknown improvisation. What makes the piece so incredible is his decision making of when to change the music and when to bring it back to the familiar.

“Those sounds, sometimes coming in phrases, melodic contours or rhythmic patterns, are themes which are the material with which we begin our musical engagement” (p. 161).

The three most important things in clinical improvisation are: listen, listen, and listen. By listening to our clients’ music, it can provide us with a point of where to begin or bring an improvisation. The author brings the reader/musician into the world understanding, distinguishing and responding to sounds, in order to maintain musical flow and avoid “stuckness.”

Chapter 7 centers on thematic improvisation and the multiple ways that the therapist can musically respond to the client while analyzing and understanding the content of the musical theme. Leading into the clinical application of themes, he reminds the musician to be aware of the usual patterns that the therapist may get “stuck” in when improvising a theme. For example: “don’t” get stuck in a particular key, rhythm, tempo, dynamic, or a particular playing style (p.164).

In addition to describing themes based on rhythm and melody, Wigram incorporates musical techniques and therapeutic methods explained in earlier chapters explaining ways on creating clinical themes. He closes chapter 7 by explaining the rationale and utilization of space in improvisations, stating, “sounds have more of an impact when emerging from pauses or periods of silence” (pg. 177). I would have liked to have seen more written on this subject, especially from the perspective of the student improviser. It has been my experience as an educator that students have a very difficult time incorporating spaces or silences in their music. I have found that their relationship to “silence” is something that usually requires self-exploration. Questions that I frequently ask myself are: Why may silence be difficult for the student improviser? Why may silence be difficult for the client? During improvisations, who is the first to break the silence and why?

“.it is more typical that improvisational music making occurs, and within that music making intuitive judgments about therapeutic method are made based on the here-and-now experience” (pg. 81).

Organizing musical ideas as it pertains to client goals and clinical techniques is what distinguishes clinical improvisation from musical improvisation. Clinically directed improvised music has a clinical intent that requires the therapist to make in-the-moment musical decisions based on client needs.
Chapters 4 and 5 focus on basic and advanced levels of therapeutic methods in clinical improvisation, including how to create musical frameworks within various musical styles and idioms. Demonstrated in the chapters are methods and techniques deriving from the music therapy literature dating back to Bruscia’s 64 “clinical techniques, from Improvisational Models of Music Therapy (1987), while origins on extemporizing and frame-working can be found in Nordoff and Robbins’ Creative Music Therapy, (1977), Robbins and Robbins’ Healing Heritage (1999), and Aigen’s Playin’ in the Band (2002).

Coming from an existential/humanistic perspective, Wigram focuses on defining and providing musical examples and exercises of several empathetic techniques such as mirroring, matching, and imitating. The audio excerpts help to illustrate each technique, portraying the therapist on the piano and drum facilitating the client’s musical engagement on melodic and percussive instruments.

In addition, he offers two forms of musical dialogue between client and therapist, “turn-taking and continuous free-floating: making music in a continuous musical exchange” (p. 95). He reminds the musician to listen and watch for musical and gestural cues to help guide the musical dialogue. It has been my experience as an educator that most student improvisers fall into the trap of playing only what clients play, at times smothering the clients music, or making them feel self-conscious about what they are playing. This certainly relates to what the author points out earlier in the book, about being “stuck” musically. The “stuckness” becomes a safe place for new improvisers; however, it also becomes a “prison” of frustration. My feeling is that this derives from their lack of confidence and a shortage of ideas in the musical here-and-now while improvising, something that Wigram refers to in the early chapters.

“It is not appropriate to describe a client’s lack of response or limited musical production as ‘resistance’ or demonstrating psychological blocks’ when they may actually feel inadequate or uncomfortable with using instruments at all, particularly using them for free improvisation” (p. 183).

Clients feeling uncomfortably in regards to playing musical instruments are most likely to surface in group work than in individual work; as clients may feel self conscious in front of other group members. Therefore, as Wigram discusses, in his writing pertaining to group work, providing a clear structure may help clients to gradually feel more secure and willing to musically participate and engage with group members.

Chapter 8 introduces the reader to group improvisation, focusing on structure within musical activities and improvisations. This is a valuable concept when working with groups, particularly larger groups. Creating structure within activities helps the therapist manage the group, and develop cohesion and musical connectiveness. Although the author’s thoughts derive from just one population (working in a hospital setting for people with moderate to severe learning disabilities), I feel that the concepts can be generalized to a certain extent. In addition, for music therapy students, it provides them with concrete ideas and a basis for making musical connections in group work.

Chapter 8 begins by discussing rationale for interventions based on the needs of the client through assessment, goal planning, and evaluation. The author also discusses characteristics of how therapy groups may “play out.” Although generalizing characteristics of a therapy group and how they “play out” can be difficult due to the many complex variables, it can be a good “tool” for music therapy students; providing them with a framework of what to expect and how to plan.

Wigram guides the reader through the process of how “warming up” the group using structured exercises can introduce each participant to the music making process in a non-threatening way, while also introducing group dynamics. For example, he explains that the therapist may ask each member to choose an instrument that he/she likes the look of. He then may ask members to send musical messages to other members, and/or create musical self-portraits or portraits of others, facilitating the group dynamic (p.193).

In his discussion on foundations of improvisation in group work (p. 194), he briefly talks about a “scheme of play rules” that he has created. The “scheme of play rules” outlines several structures of how the therapist may formulate an improvisation in order to focus the group to a limited area, while facilitating them to explore within the limits (Bruscia 1987, p.175). The scheme of play rules (theme criteria, structure of activity, medium of music making, style of music, and degree of directional control in the improvisation) correlate with general needs of the group members, which can be generalized in any group setting.

He concludes chapter 8 by discussing the structures of musical forms in improvisation and how it relates to the therapeutic relationship, stating that “the possible structures that emerge, or are deliberately created, in improvisation, can reflect and symbolize aspects of the therapeutic relationship” (p. 203). That being said, he additionally points out that because the therapeutic relationship is based on the musical experiences, countertransference and transference issues within the music making process need to be taken into consideration.

The book’s final chapter includes several approaches to analyzing pre-composed and improvisational music based on two questions: How can I describe this music? And, what is the function of the music? The author introduces Dr. Denise Erdonmez Grocke’s Structural Model for Music Analysis (SMMA). SMMA was created in order to find information regarding the structure of the music in a music program immediately prior to a pivotal moment in Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) (p. 210). Within the SMMA section, Wigram includes a brief vignette (phenomenological description) from Grocke’s work. Although I found the SMMA’s to be interesting and relevant to GIM, it was difficult for me link its relevance to the subject at hand. Maybe if the author would have incorporated an example of his own clinical work using the SMMA within clinical improvisation, the connection may have been more evident for me.

In addition to Grocke’s SMMA, Wigram formulated his own criteria of musical elements that may guide (Potentials in Stimulatory and Sedative Music) in selecting and describing music that can be generally described as relaxing or stimulating.

Thirdly, Wigram includes a concise and comprehensive description of a segment of Dr. Ken Brusicia’s complex Improvisation Assessment Profiles (IAPs), (Bruscia, 1987). The IAPs, which can be approached through a quantitative or qualitative lens, focus on analyzing simultaneous and successive relationships in each musical element as it unfolds. In addition, the author includes how he utilizes the IAPs in his work, providing guides, summary tables, and examples. In addition, he briefly explains an approach of statistically analyzing the IAPs.

The CD audio samples accompanied by musical transactions complement the book nicely. While listening and simultaneously playing along on guitar or piano, I began to see how these recording samples harmonize nicely with other important texts on the subject of clinical improvisation. CD example 1 – 14 is complimentary to Nordoff-Robbins’ approach as found in Healing Heritage (Robbins & Robbins, 1998), as they explore raw elements and tones of music. Examples 17 – 31 correspond nicely with Bruscia’s definitions of clinical techniques in Improvisational Models of Music Therapy (Bruscia, 1987), such as mirroring, matching and grounding. In addition, sound clips 41 – 54 connect and relate to what Aigen discusses in Play’in in the Band (2002) and Here We are in Music (1997), outlining clinical improvisation within musical styles and song structures.

It appears that the author was very cognizant of the sound production and performance quality of each excerpt. The CD appeared to be recorded in some kind of digital sound studio, at a high quality, using effects such as reverb and chorus to enhance the sounds.

The transcriptions provided were a great addition, acting as a guide to what was being played on the CD. Although I found slight errors in the musical transcriptions, I found them to be extraordinarily helpful when teaching students who may comprehend musical material better visually.

This book is a long awaited treasure on the subject of teaching, learning and applying improvisation. It fills a hole in the literature on the subject of improvisation because it provides a perspective of the student, teacher, and client. In addition, the musical context and instruction is applicable to musicians at all levels, from beginner to advanced. I would recommend this book to students, teachers of improvisation, clinicians, and musicians. Finally, here is a book that needs to be read with an instrument in hand!


Aigen, K. (1996). Being in Music: Foundations of Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Aigen, K. (1997). Here we are in Music: One Year with an Adolescent, Creative Music Therapy Group. Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Monograph Series #2. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Aigen, K. (2002). Playin’ in the Band. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

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

Nordoff, P. & Robbins, C. (1977). Creative Music Therapy. New York: John Day.

Robbins, C. & Robbins, C. (1998). Healing Heritage. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

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