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Vocal Improvisation in Music Therap ... Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy 3. LISTEN AND EXPERIMENT • Popular songs are known song forms, that provide intact chord progressions,

Mar 13, 2020




  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    Sharon R. Boyle

  • “Improvisation – the unplanned, spontaneous expression of music –

    allows for the opportunity to be creative and productive and to gain a

    sense of enhancement, even in the face of physical deterioration”

    (Turry & Turry, 1999, p. 167).

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    1. LISTEN –

    •  Listen to all styles of music and tune in to listening for the rhythm, phrasing, qualities of voices, and the various vocal expressions of feelings.

    •  Listen to the bass line, along with chord progression, until you can predict where the song is going with its progression. This helps guide how a melody fits in and should progress.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    2. KNOW YOUR VOICE – •  Sing. Vocalize. Vocally play. Only by doing these things often will you

    then be free to do so in a music therapy session. •  Explore your vocal range, discover how many different sounds you can

    produce. Own the fact that your voice is as unique as your fingerprint.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy


    •  Popular songs are known song forms, that provide intact chord progressions, and many allow space to improvise, but then return to the existing melody/song, creating safety and parameters for the experience.

    •  Start with a favorite song recording. After listening, allow yourself to try singing harmony by ear, particularly with the most known parts of the song (such as a chorus section). Move from harmony to “filling in” sounds in the spaces of music.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    LISTEN AND EXPERIMENT (continued)-

    •  Try call-and-response songs that are popular in social settings where the entire audience responds by filling in vocals, or finishing a phrase.

    •  Try looping the same chord progression repeatedly and then vocalize freely over it, or use specific phrases.

    •  Try not to ‘overthink’ or analyze what you are singing. Overthinking creates “blocks” to improvising. Listening is essential. Trust and allow your voice and ear to lead.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    LISTEN AND EXPERIMENT (continued)-

    •  Explore a scale within a chord structure. •  Choose one sound and express it in different ways using varied tones,

    rhythms, timbres, accents. •  Move from high rhythm activity to long phrasing or sustained tones •  Be playful (animal sounds, drop offs, glissandos, etc.).

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    LISTEN AND EXPERIMENT (continued)-

    •  If you become frustrated or are thinking too hard, then go back to the chorus or some known aspect of song.

    •  In order to improvise, you need to be listening. Not only during the act of improvisation, but as part of your routine.

    •  Listen to a variety of styles and genres, and try to develop your ear for predicting chord progressions and melodic lines.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    LISTEN AND EXPERIMENT (continued)-

    •  A looping and repetitive chord progression (does not have to be I-IV-V, just something that can loop).

    •  Typically a song with a very concrete and strong chorus. The chorus can become the “home base” as well as the structure for the vocal improvisation.

    •  Slower songs are easiest to start with, but upbeat songs can also be used.

    •  Look for simple song form (e.g. Refrain-Chorus-Refrain). •  If a song has a natural fade-out ending, this can be a great place to

    improvise or add some new vocal idea.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy


    •  Take opportunities to vocally improvise with others. Improvise with other music therapy students, or friends and family. Use a rhythmic phrase someone speaks and start singing based on the rhythm of the words. If someone expresses something like “Watch out!”, use the inflection and phrase to develop a vocal improvisation. Add a vocal bass line, or a melodic phrase, and encourage others to join in. Not only will your skills improve, but you’ll learn to find enjoyment in the spontaneity which will ultimately translate to your clients.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    IMPROVISE WITH OTHERS (continued)–

    ●  Play vocal games with others such as: ○  Shoop-dee-doo (50’s progression. Try C-am-F-G, triplet feel with a

    bass run leading back to tonic). ○  Swingin’ Pentatonic (E-D-C-A-G-A-C) ○  Vocal telephone (one person makes a sound, the next person varies

    it, and so on around a circle; or make it cumulative where each person adds a sound to the original one).

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    IMPROVISE WITH OTHERS (continued)–

    •  Partner songs (increase focus and ear by putting together two familiar songs simultaneously. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” + “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be”; “Swing Low” + “All Through the Night”; “I’ll Fly Away” + “Sweet By and By.”

    •  Salad Songs (e.g. one person chooses a favorite fruit, speak/chant/sing word of fruit using rhythm, accent, melodic elements, then each person adds on to combine sounds…).

    •  Create a song (spot song) using a phrase that pops up in conversation.

  • Vocal Improvisation in Music Therapy

    5. ACCEPT WHERE YOU ARE– •  This simply means that you will feel exposed or vulnerable, especially as

    you begin. Remember that vocal improvisation is not about a finished product or “perfection” (as it never is), but rather about becoming free with your voice – and ultimately, about being okay with whatever comes out. Eventually, enjoyment will come along with your ability to utilize this aspect into sessions as a music therapist, so send your inner judges and negative self-talk (Ristad, 1981) packing and just experience it.

    •  An important part of improvising across the board is just developing

    connection with your body, breath, and allowing yourself to take risks.

  • References

    Ristad, E. (1981). A soprano on her head: Right-side-up reflections on life and other performances. Moab, UT: Real People.

    Turry, A. & Turry, A. E. (1999). Creative song improvisations with children and adults with cancer. In C. Dileo (Ed.), Music therapy & medicine: Theoretical and clinical applications (pp. 167-178). Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.