I am going to take the opportunity to discuss the intermingling of two topics I am quite passionate about, those obviously being percussion and therapy (primarily music therapy).  My intent here is to provide what I will refer to as a “new” indigenous perspective on percussion and therapy.  The combination of “new” and “indigenous” may seem ironic on the surface, perhaps even completely contradictory!

When I use the term indigenous, I am referring to indigenous percussion music traditions.  I am also referring to indigenous music therapy practice.   If we look at the ways which we have previously framed training music therapy students and professionals how to use percussion in therapy, we may find that we can better connect to our own development to our own practice….hence, a new indigenous approach!

What is our developing narrative about the use of percussion in therapy?

As of recent, the AMTA finalized the new professional competencies and advanced competencies. Both documents included a more detailed set of percussion-based skills than were noted in the previous professional competencies.  I was fortunate to have played a role in alerting AMTA to this vital need, and in collaborating with the other MTD trainers to submit a set of proposed competencies.  The task force assigned to the large task of establishing an overall competency framework did a fantastic job all around, and I appreciate the opportunity they took to hear the concerns of many AMTA members.  Regarding percussion skills, I believe the field has taken a step forward that will benefit future professionals.  It is at this point that we should consider how to move forward to best foster the development of these skill sets.  It is my belief that such will occur by first addressing the musical relationship on relevant instrumentation.

Within the past, and sometimes current, system of music therapy schooling, many students swam/swim within the milieu of the European classical tradition.  Music theory, aural training, music history, and instrumental practice are largely based within this milieu in order to prepare the students to communicate through a common musical language on their instruments, and some of the instruments they may commonly use in therapy (guitar, piano, autoharp).  This tradition is rightfully implemented, since the instruments we are discussing thus far were largely developed within the European/Western musical environment.

Many students of the past were also offered percussion classes that were also immersed in the classical European tradition, and they learned the musicality of the snare drum, marimba, timpani, and so on.   The students later became professionals, and their percussion skills were learned on instruments they could not afford, or fit in their cars, or find particularly playable by their clients.  In a recent informal survey of more than 70 music therapists, 73% stated that their university percussion training did not adequately prepare them for their field of work.

The instruments most commonly used in therapy, both according to said informal survey and according to a content analysis of 250 publications (as shown in the above chart), are drums (hand, frame, other), and auxiliary percussion.   This only makes sense, as world percussion and auxiliary instruments are affordable, mobile, adaptable, and progressively accessible for their clients.

At the same time, each of the instruments we commonly use also arises from a particular history, using particular sounds, techniques, and rhythms, directly related to its historical and cultural contexts.  The instruments arise from their own indigenous environments!

Interestingly,  many of these instruments were also historically being used in two other arenas, those being music education and the more recent recreational drumming movement.  In order to make their percussion use more substantiated and relevant, music therapists may have approached their work from the perspectives of “rhythm band instrumentation,” or “drum circle facilitation.”   A collaboration and dialogue ensued between music therapy and these other fields, developing new ideas as to how drums could possibly be made more accessible and useful for all, including those who were leading the groups.  Within recreational music-making trainings, the challenges of developing musical experience and percussion-based skill sets were often given second seat to more accessible conducting techniques and game ideas.

Why do we use guitar in music therapy?

Why do we learn how to play guitar in music therapy?

Djembe by Wula Drum

Within the world traditions of percussion, the drum is revered as an instrument of great musicality, capable of accompanying singing, movement, dance, work, play, ritual, and healing.  Various world traditions have developed systems of pitch relation and timbre that create a unique melodic and harmonic interplay amongst percussion instruments.  World percussion instruments are accompaniment instruments.  When we learn to play guitar, we learn how to play through the classical, popular, and folk traditions.  When we use a hand drum, such as a conga or a djembe, we have the opportunity to learn from the indigenous perspectives that respectively created the instruments.  There is no need to attempt to re-invent the wheel.  We begin to develop a musical relationship with the instrument in the same way we are expected to build a relationship with piano and with guitar; through study, practice, play, exposure to history, theory, and musical interaction.   Percussion may be the most utilized interactive instrumentation in our field.  Considering how often we collectively use percussion instruments in our work, does it not behoove us to seek to foster stronger musical relationships with them?

In a future post, I will begin discussing how the indigenous contexts of percussion and the indigenous contexts of music therapy (theory and research) can be linked together.