The More You Plan, The Better You Improvise
As a music therapist, I am trained in how to use musical improvisation in the moment to meet my client’s needs. And really, that’s one of the main things that sets a music therapist apart from a performer or educator–our training helps us be aware of needs and adjust our “plans” accordingly. I remember learning this principle of improvisation in my undergraduate work and seeing that it made a lot of sense, but found that it was hard to implement when I first started out. As time went on and I developed more diverse skills and learned more songs/instruments/techniques/etc, I found that I became more able to “improvise”. Funny how that works huh?
I recently attended a music therapy conference in which Jess Turner, a wonderful local music therapist in Davis County Utah, brought up the idea that the more we prepare, the more we can meet the needs of our clients in the moment. The basis behind that thought was that as our “toolbox” grows, we will have more options at our fingertips to use when a client presents certain needs and/or behaviors. Simply put, improvisation is not just acting on a whim, but it is utilizing previously attained skills in new settings and for new applications.
This is especially true when you consider instrument improvisation. I have played the piano since I was 8, and had teachers who helped me learn chords, scales, progressions, and all kinds of musical styles. Although I have not had formal lessons for several years (I want to take more!), I have continued to learn and develop my skills as a pianist, including accompaniment styles, chord substitutions, inversions, genres, motifs, and so forth. I’ve found in my years as a music therapist that the more I develop my skills as a musician, the more I am able to change my musical styles and output to meet the needs of my client in the moment. If I didn’t have this training and skill at my fingertips I would not be able to improvise the way I do in the moment. And what’s exciting to me is to realize how much more there is to learn, and how much more effective I will be if I continue to expand my skills and musicianship.
As a clinician I’ve spent the vast majority of my work with children with disabilities. When I first started working with this population I had a narrow range of songs and interventions, and I spent a lot of time looking up ideas to see what other therapists were doing. As time has progressed I developed a large repertoire of both original and pre-written songs and interventions that I can draw from and adjust to the needs of my clients. My initial planning and tedious preparation has now turned into a toolbox full of ideas on how to use music to address various goals. And again, it’s exciting to me how much more there is to learn out there–I am still fresh and open to trying new ideas and adding them to my box. This is especially true as I encounter clients who have unique needs that I have never before encountered and for whom I need to do additional research and learning.
So while this idea may seem counter-intuitive at first glance–that improvisation requires preparation–the truth is solid. If we limit ourselves to thinking that improvisation means knowing what to do in the moment without preparing for that moment, then we’re not only selling ourselves short, but withholding our clients from a wonderfully beneficial experience.
May your preparations be made with the intent to improvise!