Just Make It Up!

You want me to improvise? Are you crazy? What do you mean I have to just make up notes? What if I sing the wrong one? I remember at my interview at Drexel, the music therapy director asked me if I had ever improvised, and I shook my head, cringing a little in embarrassment at my straight-laced classical music training. He assured me that by the end of the my two years in grad school, I would become an expert in improv. I replied cheerfully that I couldn’t wait to give it a try, even though in my head I was already doubting whether I was making the right choice by going to this school. Sure enough on the first day of orientation, the eleven of us new grad students sat in a circle and improvised on instruments. I was terrified of playing something wrong, of being seen as incompetent, of revealing my “uncool” classical background.

Fast forward two years and now I love to improvise. And I mean LOVE.

One of the main principles that music therapists value is the iso principle, meaning we, the therapists, meet clients where they are. To do this, we have to be ready to improvise at any moment. When working with preschoolers, you never know what mood they will be in, what they will say, how they will react. I improvise all the time, adding new lyrics to engage kids, switching up the style of music to calm down the kids, changing up verses to well known songs, honoring kids’ choices. For example, if a kid insists that there is a dinosaur on the bus during a sing-along of “Wheels on the Bus” (rather than the standard horn that goes beep or wipers that go swish),  you better be ready to improvise a new verse involving a dinosaur stomping on the bus. 

For me, improvising with little ones most often takes the form of changing lyrics or accompanying on the guitar or piano as the children play on various small percussion instruments. But sometimes you end up spontaneously writing a brand new song! On Tuesdays, I lead eight group music therapy sessions at a public preschool in New Jersey. One morning, I was sensing that my first group needed some stimulation and something different than our usual opening interventions. All 28 children had shaker eggs as per our usual routine, and so on the spot, I made up a song about noticing what color egg they had (red, yellow, green, or blue) and giving directions of who got to shake their eggs. I made up some lyrics, tried out a melody by following a familiar chord progression. In the second class, I tried it again, locking down a melody that worked well. By the third class, I added a few nuances and felt pretty confident. By the end of the day, the song was stuck in my head. Now it’s recorded! Check out “If You.. ” in My Music to listen to it.

egg shakers

If you have a red shaker, then lift it way up high (2x)  Way up high, to the sky (2x)

If you have a yellow shaker, then lift it way up high (2x)   Way up high, to the sky (2x) 

etc. etc.

Since then, I’ve used this song again with different variations. Once I passed out various instruments, such as tambourines, bells, drums to one group, and I sang “If you have a tambourine…” cuing those with tambourines to play. You could also change it to “If you are wearing red” or “If you like pizza.” So many options! And all of these options work toward the following goals:

  1. Increasing sustained attention – By ending on the dominant chord after each verse followed by some silence, I added a bit of tension while the kids wait and listen to what color I will sing next. In some classes, I made the pause even longer seeing how long they could pay attention, sit still, and wait for directions.
  2. Developing social skills such as direction following and impulse control – You have to listen! If your color is not called, then it is not your turn. Waiting is hard but it will be your turn soon, I promise! And then, you will get your turn to be special. Meanwhile, it’s your friend’s turn to be special. And by the way, I’m not telling you to do something; I’m singing it (twice even!) so I’m making it a musical game instead of an direct spoken order. You’re following directions without even realizing it.

The lyrics to this song are simple and so is the melody. But that’s the beauty of improv and a important lesson I had to learn. Improv can be simple. In fact it probably should be simple depending on your client. The purpose of improv should be used to engage your client(s) in music making, not to show off your own creativity or musical prowess.





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