I am an oboist. I play guitar and sing everyday in music therapy, and I play piano frequently in music therapy and for my own enjoyment, but my major instrument, the voice of my musical self, is the oboe. For this reason, I find the oboe to be a great tool in music therapy.
To graduate from a music therapy program and be board-certified, music therapists must have functional skills on guitar, piano, voice and percussion. These tend to be the most frequently used instruments in music therapy for their versatility in playing a wide-ranging repertoire for a wide range of interventions, but this does not discount the value of other instruments in particular therapeutic contexts.
For one, music therapists may have the most technical skill and developed musicality on their primary instrument, which gives them more versatility for music-making. In my case, I am most comfortable improvising melodies in various modes and styles on the oboe because of the years I’ve spent playing scales. (Who knew how useful that would be?) In fact, the oboe was my gateway to becoming more comfortable with improvisation on all of my other instruments.
Part of the value of orchestral instruments also lies in the unique sound they bring to the usual music in a music therapy session. For one, music therapists can use their orchestral instruments to play orchestral music, which can appeal to clients who prefer classical music. I have played orchestral excerpts and oboe solos with hospice and older adult clients to great success, even with clients who prefer or played other orchestral instruments.
Each instrument’s unique characteristics also make it useful for different situations. The oboe has a piercing tone quality that can carry over the music of an entire group of percussion players. I have used the oboe to lead drum circles for this reason. The range of the oboe also aligns nicely with the human vocal range, and the tone quality is similar to that of the human voice, so the oboe can precede or accompany singing. Other orchestral instruments are valuable in other ways. Some instruments, like the cello or the tuba, grab clients’ attention by their sheer physical presence. Other instruments, like the flute and the clarinet, allow the music therapist to move around the room and interact with clients while they play. Still other instruments, like the violin/fiddle or saxophone, suggest particular musical styles (i.e. bluegrass or jazz), which can inspire different types of music-making with clients.
So, what special instruments do you see or use in your music therapy groups? Why do these work for your clients? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences!