In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part nine of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here.
If you’ve been keeping up with this series, I’m sure you’re getting the point now:
Music therapists don’t just stand up, strum, and sing.
When we do live music in clinical sessions, we aim to relate to and interact with our clients through the music, based on their needs and goals in that moment. Sometimes, our clients are mostly listening, in what we call receptive music experiences. But other times, clients become more active participants in the music-making:
#9. Adding Instruments
One key way that people can become more actively involved in musicking together is by playing instruments. As do most music therapists, I carry around bags of rhythm instruments in my car, and I always have a drum or shaker or two with me when I see a client. I don’t always use instruments, however, and this aspect of live music is not as simple as handing out the instruments and asking folks to play.
It takes clinical skill to choose when and how to invite people to play instruments.
Here are some questions I ask myself:
1. Is this respectful and age-appropriate?
For some clients, playing an instrument may be a rewarding way to contribute to the music, but for others, it may feel childish. Much of this has to do with the instruments we use and how we frame the music experience.
In my practice, I use the highest-quality, most ethnically-appropriate instruments I can. So, I might bring in tambourines and frame drums with mallets, then support participants musically as they find the beat to an Elvis Presley song.
By contrast, if you hand someone a cheap plastic maraca and urge them in a high-pitched, preschool-teacher voice to “shake it, Mary, shake it!” – that may feel demeaning or childish. Then again, pairing cheap plastic maracas with virgin maracas at your Cinco de Mayo party may be just the right kind of fun. (See – these decisions take forethought!)
2. Is this musically-enhancing or distracting?
Sometimes, playing an instrument enhances a client’s engagement in the music, allowing them to play an important role in the music even if they can’t or don’t want to sing along. But sometimes the instrument causes a distraction.
Having too many instruments, or participants who struggle with finding the beat, can turn the whole session into more noise than music. Or, someone may be engaged by playing a drum for a song or two, but then feel too tired to keep playing. The music therapist may decide to use fewer or different instruments, to have fewer people play at one time, or to give people permission to listen for a while rather than play.
3. How can I support their music-making best?
Beyond deciding when and with whom to use instruments, the music therapist also has to determine how best to support a client’s music-making experience. Are we going for exploration of various instruments? Syncing rhythms across a group? Playing in parts, like a small ensemble? Targeting particular physical needs? Pointing back to a verbal discussion? (P.S. These musical decisions can point back to creative, social, cognitive, physical, and emotional goals, respectively.)
Always considering what the client’s needs or goals happen to be, music therapists are deliberate in choosing when and how to use instruments in live music-making experiences with clients.