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Keeping music alive in online Music Therapy

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Transitioning from providing in person sessions to online sessions was a humbling experience. In the early online sessions, I often felt my client and I were dancing around the elephant in the room - how do we continue to interact musically?

In the last post, we explored using turn-taking and action songs to 'work around' the time lag in online sessions. This time, I'd like to talk about some ways to 'work with' the screen sharing function of online meeting softwares and 'work towards' having cooperative musical experience with my clients in online sessions.


Emoji 'map' for music-making

Emoji chart

This emoji chart was initially created as a tool to 'check in' with how my clients feel at the beginning of each online session. I'd share the emoji chart using the shared screen function and invite my clients to circle how they feel as I do the same. Some children would circle lots of different, sometimes contradicting, emojis at the same time, others would only ever choose the happy face even when it's not congruent with how they feel. However, more often, children would circle an emoji and ask me 'what does it mean?'

This is where music came in. Perhaps music can say what words can't say. I encouraged my clients to create 'jingles' for their chosen emojis. Remarkably, some children were able to verbalise that what a specific emotion means or feels to them after playing music, i.e. 'surprised is a quiet and the suddenly loud kind of feeling' and 'excitement is an always buzzing fast feeling'.

From there, different clients have their own playful way of using music in relation to their emotions. Some developed a 'guess my feeling' game, where they played music, and then asked me to guess how they felt on the day. Others would circle all the emojis they associated with specific events, improvise as we talked through the events. Through the music, my clients were able to identify how they feel at different point of the events, i.e. 'first I was annoyed, then I got angry, and then I broke the toy, which made me feel guilty afterwards.'

This emoji chart became not only a way to 'check in' with my clients, but also a tool to facilitate them to explore and express their emotions through musical improvisation. It's very easy to use. All you need to do is to put together an emoji chart (or download mine) and learn how to share your screen and how to annotate using your chosen virtual meeting software.

Emoji x 16 diagonal
Download PDF • 632KB

Technical difficulty: ★☆☆☆☆


Creating visual score using shared whiteboard

Visual score

When online sessions first came along, I had numerous conversations with fellow Music Therapists about how Arts Psychotherapists get to continue to use their medium on the shared whiteboard and that our medium, music, is tied to the time element. (In other words, we were feeling sorry for ourselves.) In one of those conversations, a fellow Music Therapist and I decided to see what it would be like to add a timeline on the whiteboard and create a visual music score together. We played the music according to the score and have a 'post-game' discussion afterwards.

This worked well in both group and individual sessions with clients with social-behavioural challenges who are working on relating with others. The process of creating a visual score together requires creativity, negotiation and communication skills. Playing together according to the score requires discipline and respect for each other's music. Talking about the experience afterwards encourages clients to reflect on how it feels to collaborate with others and learn from the experience. We can even save and revisit the visual score in the next session. Most of my clients appreciate having the visual score as a tangible reflection of their experience of the music in previous sessions.

This is fast becoming one of my clients' favourite way of making music online. Visual scores are easy to create. However, I'd recommend anyone interested in using it to test the different features of the annotation tap of your virtual meeting software with a friend or a colleague before using it with clients so the technical difficulties don't eat into your session time.

Technical difficulty: ★★☆☆☆


Song production using GarageBand

GarageBand soundtracks panel

GarageBand (iPad version) is equipped with a range of virtual instruments that respond to tapping and sliding motions on the screen, which makes it accessible for clients with limited mobility. Other interactive virtual music apps available on phones and tablets include Keezy Drummer and MindHarp etc. These virtual instruments have been useful for clients who don't have any 'traditional' musical instruments at home. Virtual instruments may feel less amateurish than using pots and pans (even though pots and pans are just as effective!).

In addition to the virtual instruments, GarageBand also has a large library of sound loops and a recording function, which users can use to create their own soundtracks. This came in handy in online sessions with older children and adolescents who are motivated by sound technology. GarageBand does not have a two-way real time editing function. However, therapists can share their GarageBand screen on the virtual meeting software and clients can indicate their choice by annotating on the screen, providing opportunities for cooperations. Clients can also write their own lyrics and record it over their chosen tracks, and then edit the tracks to create their own song. It can be a very gratifying experience for clients who struggle with self-confidence.

It does require a lot of juggling on the therapist's part. You need to be confident in creating soundtracks using GarageBand to begin with. You also need to know how to project your iPad/iPhone screen on the device you call your clients on. (I'll do a follow up post with a step-by-step guide on using it on Zoom later.) However, once you sort out the technical difficulties, it can be an effective resource for you and your clients.

Technical difficulty: ★★★★☆


What is your experience in engaging with music online during lockdown? Have you discovered new ways of playing music? Tell us about your experience!

*No images, examples and quotes featured in this post are from confidential therapy sessions.


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