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Body Percussion in Virtual Music Therapy

by Jordan Tenpas, MT-BC

One of my favorite parts of being a music therapist is playing instruments with my clients. I like thinking of creative ways instrument play can work towards our goals and getting to be creative with my clients while they try something new. With transitioning to teletherapy, however, I can’t use instruments like I used to. Most clients don’t have a big stash of instruments they can pull out for teletherapy sessions, so I’ve had to come up with creative new ways to address objectives. One method in particular has become used regularly in my teletherapy sessions: body percussion.

Body percussion interventions were rare in my sessions before COVID-19. I figured that since I had all sorts of instruments, I might as well use them! And to me, instruments are key in making active music-making a blast. Truthfully, I was a little afraid of taking away all the extra stuff and worried that clients wouldn’t buy into body percussion. But after several weeks of successfully clapping, snapping, and stomping in virtual sessions, I can confidently say body percussion is super versatile and absolutely rules! So if you’re feeling stuck looking for new ways to address existing objectives or just skeptical about bringing body percussion into your sessions in general, here are some ideas for how to incorporate it into your sessions.

A close up of fingers snapping.

Physical Goals

By definition, body percussion requires movement, making it the perfect medium for addressing physical goals. Body percussion also makes noise, which allows clients to receive tactile and auditory feedback which lets them contribute to actually making the music instead of more passively listening and moving along with it. A great way to structure body percussion to target physical skills is to play a recording or sing an a cappella version of your client’s preferred music. Then, by using different body parts to make different sounds, the therapist is able to model and instruct clients through the movement experience. Here are some ideas:

  • Improving endurance: Therapist models different movements and sounds to allow the client to move for the designated duration. By tapping and making noise along with the therapist, the experience feels more like making music and less like a workout.
  • Improving range of motion: Clapping and/or stepping is the name of the game with this one. The therapist can model different ways of clapping (holding one arm up/forward/to the side and bringing another arm to meet it, swinging arms all the way back and then clapping in the front, etc.) or stepping (stomping in place, stomping to the front, and stomping to the sides) and allowing the client to copy their movements. If a caretaker is present with the client, they can provide additional modeling, physical assistance or you can adapt and have the client reach towards the caretaker in making the music.
  • Improving fine motor skills: Tapping fingers on different parts of the body can make different sounds. Playing softer music to encourage quieter sounds and making a game out of tapping fingers can allow the client to work on improving fine motor skills in their hands.

Social Goals

Music-making is an inherently social activity. At the most basic, there’s a music-maker and a listener, and it can expand to have many music-makers and many listeners. Body percussion can be used like any instrumental improvisation would be used in a session. The therapist and client can collaborate and make music together, which can have great effects on social skills. Here are some ideas:

  • Turn-taking: The client and therapist take turns making a short body percussion song before passing it to the other party. By waiting for the other person to finish and responding to their song, you’re working on skills that can be transferred over to conversation.
  • Mirroring: Playing a mirroring game and having the therapist and client follow each other while performing different body percussion sounds allows for practicing skills in attending to another person and responding to what they do
  • Building rapport and having fun: Give yourself and your client time to be creative and improvise a body percussion song together. Use your bodies as instruments and engage in an improvisation where you play together, give each other times to shine and solo, and respond to what the other party is doing.

Cognitive Goals

Music making requires cognitive effort. Body percussion allows clients to make music with no additional supplies. Using the body as an instrument allows the therapist to create music experiences that also provide a cognitive challenge for their clients. While body percussion is a great way to address cognitive goals with clients, I’ve found that many clients need an introductory session or two to get used to using body percussion in this way before being successful in the cognitive interventions. Plan for a bit of body percussion exploration time before adding the cognitive component. Here are some ideas:

  • Improve working memory: The therapist models a sequence of body percussion sounds for the client (clap-clap-stomp, stomp-clap-snap, pat lap-clap-stomp, etc.) and has the client repeat the pattern back to the therapist. Adapt sequence to have as many parts as appropriate for the client (2-part: stomp-clap, 3-part: clap-snap-tap, 4-part: stomp-stomp-clap-clap, etc.)
  • Improve attention to task: The therapist creates a body percussion rhythmic pattern and has the client join them in playing that pattern. Think “We Will Rock You,” but adapted to appropriately challenge your client. Increase difficulty by changing up the pattern or singing/chanting along with the rhythm. If using this experience in a teletherapy session, remember there will be a slight lag. Hold strong to your own pattern and listen closely for client’s successfully playing along with you.
  • Music skill building: Teaching the client music basics and/or challenging rhythmic patterns through body percussion. Designate different body parts to different rhythmic values (I use clapping for quarter notes, tapping shoulders for eighth notes, and patting my lap for sixteenths). Use lots of repetition to get those concepts down and then mix them up for a challenge.

Body percussion is a great, low-material option for addressing a variety of goals. It lends itself to the virtual music-making of teletherapy or being a quick and easy addition to a session. I hope this post has given you some ideas of ways you can incorporate body percussion into your next session.

Chime in!

How are you using body percussion in your sessions? Let us know in the comments below!

Jordan Tenpas, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified


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