Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bag of Tricks


This blog is in response to the second challenge set by

An essential part of any improvising musicians tools is their ‘Bag of Tricks’. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, the nature of improvisation is rather like a kaleidoscope, lots of pieces of coloured glass and mirrors, when you move the kaleidoscope into a new position you get a different image each time. With improvised music, what often happens is the musician has a collection of musical objects such as riffs, melodies, and harmonic progressions, and they are constantly re-arranging this to get new music.

The idea of improvising musicians collecting musical objects has been documented by many authors, Berkowitz (2010) writes about musicians learning musical formulas; Berliner (1994) describes the various terms used by jazz musicians, ‘licks, tricks, pet patterns, crips and cliches’ and Pressing (2000) explores a cognitive model of improvisation and the musical referent. This process of collecting musical objects is essential to any improvising musicians or music therapists work. It can be done (to name a few) through a continual listening and learning, listening to recordings, going to performances, learning songs, learning harmonic progressions and learning rhythmic motives.

In clinical improvisation it is important to be as flexible as possible and have as much ‘in the bag’ as you can. When working with people it’s often best to use the assessment period to think about what music you might use. Then to go away and learn new material or even new instruments if you need to. I recall working with a child with profound and multiple learning disabilities, she was very particular about timbre, through facial expressions she showed that she disliked the accordion, piano and trombone. So I went away and learnt the tenor recorder, she demonstrated through a big smile that she liked it. In this way, I added the skill of playing the tenor recorded to my ‘bag of musical tricks’.

In performance, Jazz musicians demonstrate that they have a repertoire of musical motifs they constantly draw on. Berliner (2010) writes extensively about this process, how the jazz musician is always working on improving their recall and ability to put together the various phrases they have learnt. Through the combination of pre-learnt phrases they go through a process of creating new material (recombination). This putting together of old material and creating new, seems to be a key part of the nature of improvisation, and applies across modalities. For example in ‘The Singer of Tales’ Lord (1960) writes how in slavic oral poetry the poet constantly uses formulas and systems to create new compositions. The learning of new material can be implicit or explicit. In implicit learning, we can find that some music we were playing the previous night in a wind band, creeps into our improvisation with our client the next day, or we start playing music that sounds like the cd we have on in the car. In explicit learning we consciously work on our repertoire, going to a music workshop or playing along with a cd.

As music therapists and improvising musicians we need to bear in mind the importance of continually working on building up our ‘back of tricks’, drawing on older material we have learnt and also fishing for new material. That is why it’s so important to keep up our musical lives, going to concerts, listening to recordings and practicing at home.


Berkowitz, A.L. (2010) The Improvising Mind, Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berliner, P.F. (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Lord, A.B. (1960) The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Havard University Press.

Pressing, J. (2000) Improvisation: methods and models. In: Sloboda, J., ed. (2000) Generative Processes in Music. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, pp. 129-178.

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Can you practice improvisation?

bass at the bear

This blog is in response to the music therapy blog challenge set up by

Something students have asked is, ‘how can we practice improvisation? You can’t practice it’. The word ‘improvise’ comes from the Latin ‘improvises’ which means unforeseen. So how can you practice music which is unforeseen? Well, I suppose the answer to that is ‘you can’t’. However, you can practice for it, by preparing for what you might play, for what might be unforeseen.

In an ethnographic study of Jazz musicians, Berliner (1994) documents in detail how they prepare for improvisational performances. The musicians learn through imitating recordings of solos; learning phrases; learning scales, modes and harmonic language and a whole repertoire of standards. They develop a grounding in the language of jazz. They practice through imitating, taking musical phrases and transforming them into every possible permutation, knowing a tune in every key, knowing every rhythmic possibility. Once this practice has been done, the musician can then create their own music, find their own voice and play music which is new and unforeseen.

Music therapists who are learning to play improvised music may go through a similar process. Taking familiar songs, learning them in every key, taking musical phrases and turning them inside out, upside down and transforming them until new phrases are created. Music therapists need to practice improvisational skills, in order to provide a good musical experience for the people they are working with. Unfortunately there are no short cuts for this, its all about practice. In my own work as a music therapist I tend to keep up the practice of improvised music as part of the working day. So I will spend some time each day, learning a melody or playing something in a different key. I have also spent many hours at home listening to recordings and playing along. You can’t ever know what exactly you will play in a music therapy session, you can make a draft plan, but its important to react in the moment and change your music to meet the needs of the person. Berliner uses an interesting phrase, being ‘musically agile’ (p.94). This means being able to musically respond quickly, and sensitively to events, whether it’s a jazz performance or a music therapy session. It’s a bit like exercise, in order to be agile physically you have to keep exercising. So the same principle applies in music improvisation, in order to keep musically agile, you have to keep on practicing.


Berliner, P.F. (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

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Filed under Academic, jazz, music teaching, Music Therapy, Research Methods, Teaching improvisation