A Group Instrument Circle

Below, I'll be describing some typical activities that I would do with a music therapy group. Hopefully these descriptions will give you a little insight into what goes on in a music therapy session ... and if you happen to be a music therapist looking for ideas, then perhaps you'll find something useful here.



 

I'd like to preface this by saying that in practicing music therapy, my idea of what sounds "good" is quite different than the  conventional concept of what people may think sounds "good." To an outsider, the sound of a circle of people playing instruments that they have never been trained to play might sound like quite the discordant cacophony. In my early days of doing music therapy groups, sometimes staff would comment "I don't know how you can stand that sound!" Yet to me, I was hearing something quite different - a beautiful, pure expression through music. In that expression lies the beauty!


   Here's an example of a very simple instrument circle that I recently did with a group of 6 or 7 women during a music therapy session: ​
 


   The women were sitting in a circle holding the hand drums that each of them made in earlier sessions that we did.  After  having each person in turn describe how they decorated their drum, we played the drums together a little just to get the feeling of how they sounded.

   Next, I brought out a glockenspiel - a tinkly-sounding bell-like instrument that has metal bars layed out like the keys of the piano (it's an instrument you've probably seen in a marching band). After describing the instrument, I asked if someone would like to volunteer to be our leader - this person  would play the glockenspiel while the rest of the group played along with their drums.
   Before starting, I would ask the leader whether they would like to play on the black bars or the white bars of the glockenspiel. I would explain that if they stay on all black, or all white, then I can play along on the guitar in a way that will make it impossible for them to play a "wrong" note. If they play on the black notes, I play guitar in the key of F# Major or D# minor, and no matter what black notes they hit will blend nicely. If they choose to play on all white notes, I'll play some guitar chords in the key of C Major or A minor. Assure them that it is impossible for them to hit a "wrong" note.

   We've established that the person with the glockenspiel is the leader, so we're going to follow their lead: when they start, we start - when they stop, we stop - if they get quiet, we get quiet, etc.

   The leader starts ... and the magic begins - it is really awe-inspiring to hear the music that is created in a session like this!

 

   I play along on my guitar, doing my best to follow the leader's tempo, dynamics, etc., trying to match the feeling of their playing, while the rest of the group follows along with their instruments.

   Each person in the group would then get a chance to be the leader, and we would repeat the exercise as many times as  there are women who want to be the leader.


A few comments on this activity:


First, it's important to know that no one in the group ever has to do something that they don't want to do. If an atmosphere of safety, acceptance and cooperation is built, then usually, everyone wants a chance to participate in every part of the activity. Having a chance to be the leader in a group is a very empowering thing, so it is wonderful to see how the women enjoy this position - and enjoy being led by each other. Also, each person is given choices along the way - for example, choosing to play on the black or white bars on the glockenspiel.

Second, the activity is designed for the leader, particularly, to be able to create beautiful-sounding music on an instrument that they have never played, or perhaps even seen before. By sticking to all-black or all-white notes, they are guaranteed "success" - that is, creating music that they would be  pleased by. And if someone wanders off from the black or white notes, to my ears, and the ears of the others in the group, it stills sounds just as beautiful.