Category Archives: Music

Vocal Improvisation

The human voice is known to be one of the most versatile, communicative, readily available and expressive instruments we have.

Ever since K became our lecturer this semester, she has been emphasizing on the power of the human voice and singing, making me realize that we should not underestimate its potential for therapeutic use and communication. In placements, E has also been a wonderful role model, applying various vocal and piano improvisational techniques for me to learn from.

This week, she said my next step would be to improvise on the piano AND vocally at the same time, which is particularly useful for communicating with clients like A.

At the moment, its like asking me to write with both hands at the same time. I would not be able to do both simultaneously, but if I hold on to one and concentrate on the other, something of compromised quality might come out.

I admitted to E that vocal expression is not my strongest area. I’ve always been happy to be in the background, to accompany instrumentalists and vocalists, to play in a group, to musically support, not lead. All these mindsets have been challenged ever since I stepped into therapy – in a good way. But vocal improvisation and expression has remained an area I still lack confidence in. E agreed, understanding as a pianist herself that we like to “hide behind the piano” (spot on). Her reply to my saying that I tend to think too much when I’m not confident touched me greatly: “I think you’re musical enough to just tune into the tonality, even if you don’t know what key it’s in… I don’t say this to everybody.”

I was reminded of what R said earlier this year about the elusive quality of musicality as well, and suddenly my mammoth was temporarily silenced. 2 professional therapists seem to imply the same thing – that I need to have more trust and confidence in my own abilities, work on projection, and apply them in a functional way. They must see something I don’t, or maybe not as clearly.

I am thankful to have wonderful supervisors to point out what I cannot see in myself, practical experiences to apply what I learn, the space to be less than perfect and improve from where I am.
This week’s practice regime will work on improvising pianistically and vocally at the same time, with as little mammoth presence as possible:)

The Future of Healthcare

We had an interesting lecture on this week, as our lecturer had just returned from a neuroscience conference in which she presented her research findings on the positive healing effects of choral singing on the brain on people with depression.
During our lecture, she expressed her views with much conviction: “The drug companies are losing their grip on healthcare. Too much money, too many side effects. Researchers are increasingly finding that everything is linked to the brain. If we can change the brain, we can change the body. And WE have an amazing tool to change the brain with – Music!”
Following which she danced around the room and got us to sing songs in different keys, arrangements, dynamics and tempos, and analyze the neuropsychological effects of what we did.

“I Can’t Work With Normal Kids Anymore”

Imagine my relief, when I blurted this line out, and Y, a wonderful therapist whom I greatly respect and adore, echoed my sentiments and told me that she could totally understand.

“I used to get so frustrated with normal kids as well”, she said. “I’d look at them and think – you have everything you’ll ever need and yet you are not cherishing it. There are kids who have so little, born disabled… and yet they are trying so hard” (I almost started tearing when I heard her say that).

“Yes! I felt that way even before I came here, and now I feel that even more strongly.”

R, who was nearby, also agreed, saying that once you’ve gotten a taste of therapeutic work, it’s hard to go back to whatever we were doing, because it will naturally seem so much more meaningless (he was from the corporate world, imagine that!).

And indeed, I do feel that most of the things I’ve done before has been pretty meaningless. Not all, but most.

Because when you’ve seen how a non-verbal person can communicate through singing and smiling, when you’ve seen a so-called intellectually disabled young woman reach out and give you a high-five in the middle of our drumming improvisation, when you’ve felt the hands of a 4-year old with autism stretch out and hold your arm and bring your fingers to the piano, laughing as she plays the piano through your hands, and then reach out to touch your hair and say your name in a loud clear voice… How can one go back?

How can I go back to the system where days are spent rushing through syllabus, where fancy lesson packages are prepared with no time to carry them out, where obedience and silence are order of the day, where countless events and excursions and enrichment activities are carried out not because they are truly beneficial, but because KPIs need to be met, because portfolios need to be beefed up, because people need to look good on paper.

I just want to pull my hair in despair when I think about it.

As much as I am living in the present and getting the most I can out of this amazing experience, I know that this too shall pass. And then… what?

The Takers and Sound

Reading some articles in this book recently has made me more thoughtful about the way we perceive sound. I recall watching a TED talk by Evelyn Glennie some years ago, in which she speaks about how our ears are simply one way through which we perceive sound – in actual fact our entire body can be developed to become a natural resonator, allowing us a more full experience of sound. This approach is used with Deaf and hearing-impaired children as described in the book, with very encouraging and positive results. Just the simple act of being able to listen opens the door to so many other areas of development: self-awareness, self-perception, physical awareness, communication, acquisition of language, etc.


I also recently read this book:

Put two seemingly unrelated books together, and this thought emerged:

Even our culture of sound has become overridden by Taker Culture!


What used to be was that music and sound was part of everyday life. If people wanted music, they simply made music. No wait – they did not have the need to WANT music. Sound was simply part of their landscape, their living, their breathing. They took part in the creation of it, as natural as their breathing was a part of them.There was no divide between performers and audiences, players and listeners. Music was Life. For example, we know that many native African tribal cultures (example of leaver cultures) do not have a separate word for Music. To them, it is in inseparable from life and living.

But taker culture has taken it apart, like all other things thought as unrelated to production. In taker culture, sound and music has been transformed into a commodity, an industry, a product, and in some instances, a tool. And to gain full control over this tool and resource, technology has been developed so that takers can use sound at their whim and fancy.

Soundbites to win votes. Hypnotic beats to lure people into clubs. Catchy choruses to entice shoppers to buy more things in the malls. Jingles to make a product look attractive.

There is a positive side, yes. With the technology of recording, availability of speakers and music players, sound has definitely become more accessible. Popular music can connect people, even if they live halfway across the world from each other. Classical music lives on in CDs and box sets. Even the music of leaver cultures can become immortalized through recordings. And everything becomes so convenient – unlike our leaver ancestors, we do not need to physically produce the music – we can simply press a button and our devices do the work for us.

But… at what price?

I can’t help but feel that this convenience, this ready availability of sound and music around us… has dulled our senses.

We are so used to hearing music through speakers and headphones that we are less sensitive to the vibration of an acoustic instrument, less likely to become immersed in those subtle vibrations. We have forgotten the depth of connection possible when we sing or dance in a group, as we are so used to directing our attention to the performer on stage. We have become so convinced by Mother Culture that to make music needs “specialized training”, that we cannot imagine what it is like to live otherwise. To sing and dance uninhibitedly would be considered barbaric, a reminder of our leaver ancestors, and we don’t want to go down that road again, do we? So we shut ourselves in on this side of the divide, and continue to deny ourselves the full experience of sound, content to let our machines and devices do the job.

Ironically, it may be those who are denied the normal function of their ears who get to really experience the full subtlety and beauty of sound and all its layers of acoustics and vibrations.

Expression and Interaction

MQ is one of the new clients I saw for the first time this recent Tuesday. She has Tuberous Sclerosis – a condition I honestly have never heard of until last week. As there is no cure for this condition, the main therapeutic goals for her are simply expression and interaction.

At the start of the session and up till slightly after the mid-way point, MQ was showing apprehension about my presence, being resistant to changes and unfamiliar people. She refused to sit in the chair next to the piano when I was there, and at one point she even took my arm and gestured for me to stand further away so that she could have more physical space. While we complied with all these, E was constantly trying to re-introduce the physical proximity between us, trying to make MQ comfortable with me being near her.

At the start, while E and MQ improvised on the woodblocks, I was tapping on the xylophone, 2 meters away. Then E tried to introduce the wind chimes.

Picture Source

MQ resisted greatly to this, presumably because it sounded too clashing for her. But when E started to play a gentle piano accompaniment, and I softly tinkled the high notes, MQ stopped resisting and seemed to pause to listen.

Halfway into this exchange, E whispered to me to get the hand chimes, while she continued the piano accompaniment so as not to break MQ’s focus.

Picture Source

This was the instrument which MQ seemed to really identify with. I held 2 in my hands at first and played to her. She seemed to enjoy the sound and started swaying from side to side in wider motions. When E suggested to her that she take one and play it herself, MQ allowed me to hand her one, and allowed me to stand closer to her in the process. That was when things really started to take off. It was as if the instrument allowed MQ to unleash all the musical expression within her. With E still playing the comforting accompaniment on the piano, MQ was swaying more vigorously than ever, smiling, laughing, vocalizing. And… She had finally allowed me to stand face to face in front of her, without pushing me away!

We remained like this for the rest of the session – the 2 of us with a hand chime each, swaying together, smiling.. and E supporting with the piano.

E later commented that it is unusual for MQ to allow a totally new and unfamiliar person to stand that close to her within the time span of 1 session. No doubt the music helped to make her feel less threatened when confronted with change and unfamiliarity.

Expression and interaction – achieved – at least for this session.

Nod Of Approval

Recently thrown into the deep end again – 5 minutes before the adult intellectual disability group started, R said it’d be good if I could try leading the instruments improvisation segment on the piano. Up till this week, I had always been the co-therapist in this segment, trying to facilitate the individual clients’ playing and engagement while R had always been the one doing a fantastic job on the piano, creating music to match each client’s percussion instrument, their character, styles of playing, etc.

I had big shoes to fill.

Sensing my trepidation, R gave me some pointers –  Take more initiative here and there, anchor them with a steady pulse, sense the balance between leading and following, vary musical elements like dynamics and note registers to add more color to your playing…

“And don’t think too much, just think of it as having fun with them.”

Wise words.

Among this group is Ti – an amazingly musical non-verbal person, who intuitively anticipates musical phrases (Eg: He knows exactly when to come in), hums songs in perfect pitch, and grasps rhythm with surprising accuracy. Of all the clients in this group, I felt most excited, yet nervous about working with Ti, as I recognized his musical sensitivity and did not want to disappoint him.

We got off to a rocky start – he was hitting the snare and hi-hat with a rather irregular pulse, probably because I had yet to make a connection. Slowly, we established a steady beat. Then he started speeding up! I followed, bouncing chords off on the piano as quickly as he was bouncing his sticks off the snare and hi-hat. That was when I felt that a firm connection had been established. R then signaled for me to slow down, to see if Ti would pick it up on the change. He did – with R’s visual cues, Ti managed to match the new pulse with exact accuracy. Then, as if he knew that his turn was going to be over soon, Ti doubled the speed again, as if saying: “Alright, enough of the slow stuff. Let’s end with a bang!”

And that was what we did.

Ti’s carers were impressed with Ti and the music. R gave some encouraging praise, enough to make me feel good about myself. But what really made my day was Ti – when R turned to him and asked if he liked my music, Ti responded with an affirmative nod of his head.

I felt my heart swell with emotion when I saw that nod. I had not disappointed him. I had his nod of approval. His silent, non-verbal nod.

Reviewing the video recording, I hear and see many things I can improve on. But when I see that nod from Ti, I feel reassured. It not only implies his contentment with the experience, it is also a personal reassurance, that I’m on the right track and I’m improving in my clinical musicianship. And if I continue to work hard, I will get there.