Making Art as Connection and Hope in the Pandemic

As a musician I usually play music with friends, in venues, church worship music and inside peoples houses. This has just not been possible during the pandemic. Instead many friends have turned to playing online, facebook live and zoom have all provided an alternative means of making music together. The latency of online music making has been embraced by some, and considered disruptive by others. Early on in the pandemic I realised that playing music in my small home would just not suite me. I had the neighbours to consider, and when I joined in online it only served to highlight my isolation living alone. With what was usually an intense connected activity, music became for me personally, a stark reminder of what was missing.

However … Being a good improviser I decided to turn to the art materials.

Each week when friends gave their musical offering online in church or through performances … I would draw.

This was practical – no loud sounds to disturb the neighbours, and it I felt it provided an enhanced sense of connectivity and enlivening. My drawings are very much like the music I improvise, quick, colourful, full of graphic shapes, tempo and rhythm. I felt they expressed what I would offer musically if I were together with others in the room – the drawings were sounds in visual form. The joy of these was that they could then be shared online, as visual response to and with the music. The drawings expressed my Christian faith journey, the emotional highs and lows of lock down and the yearning to see others. Most of all the combined interaction with the art materials and the music of friends kept alive a spark of creativity and hope.

‘Lights in the dark’ February 2021 Becs White

‘Be who you are called to be’ … fibre pens March 2021 – Becs White

Hope Rainbow – March 2020 Becs White

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Improvisation and Spring Beginnings

In the UK we are beginning to emerge from the dark winter, Covid vaccinations are going ahead and we look towards the government’s ‘road plan’ for negotiating our way through the next six months. It is apparent that this has coincided with Spring, new shoots emerging and a different light in the air. I’ve noticed that many creative friends are also beginning to emerge, and starting to consider new projects, ways of being or re-connecting with their art. I’m no exception, for the past year I deliberately put the creative work aside, having Covid myself and struggling with long Covid, periods of fatigue and tiredness, it has felt like a long hibernation.

There is something about spring and a different light that brings re-birth, regeneration. The Italian word for spring is premavera – literally translated as ‘truefirst’, there is a fresh beginning. The celtic Christian David Adams who lived and worked on Holy Island in Northumbria for many years, writes about the natural ebb and flow and seasons of our lives, he describes the spring as ‘the incoming tide’, a time when, ‘the beginning of things … where the world will flood up with newness each day, we will be offered change and the challenge of change’ (Adam, 2010, p.3).

This is where improvisation in the arts can offer up experiences of change and challenge. The nature of improvisation is to give opportunities for choice, the musician -the artist is presented with a choice, the blank page, the still air. Making choices, whether in life or art (or a mixture of the two) is never easy, it can provoke anxiety and challenge. However, it is only through making those deliberate choices, the first mark, the initial sound that change can occur. This is why the arts are so important and speak to this present moment in our history. It’s up to us to make the first sound, the first dab of the bush as we emerge from this hard and difficult period of our lives. Perhaps we can improvise something new, a truefirst, a fresh beginning rather than falling into old patterns and way of being?

References

Adam, D. (2003) Tides and Seasons: Modern prayers in the Celtic Tradition. London: SPCK.

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Rebooting the Blog

I began the process of writing up the PhD thesis in October 2018, its taken a very long time to complete, unexpected delays, dyslexia -writing always takes twice as long with dyslexia, Covid -very unexpected, new job -yeah! And computer break-downs – boo!

I thought I had finished the first draft in June 2020, but no no … then again in December 2020. Now, finally as I write it is due to go to the proofreader on the 22nd February 2021. It’s like any long project, it takes time, and as a wise friend said, ‘it will happen in its own time’. I’m kind of glad it wasn’t submitted last year, I’ve had more time to think on the findings and to grow as a researcher.

I’m starting up this blog again, giving it a spring clean, with updated photos and new projects in the pipeline.

New creative blogging activity emerging … watch this space ….

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How do you Teach Improvisation in Music Therapy?

A question that has perplexed me for many years, and an area I am working on is –  how do you teach improvisation?

And further more –  how do you teach improvisation in music therapy?

Scanning the literature … There are many approaches, often courses follow idiosyncratic teaching styles of individual tutors, for example Kratus (1991) created a course on free improvisation with levels of learning – exploration, process, product, fluid, structural and styles and Ford (1995) who thought about learning outcomes as improved collective decision making, enhanced communication or sustained concentration. In the world of music therapy teaching has focused the building of both technical and relational skills (Nordoff and Robbins, 2007, Wigram 2004), or breaking down into the elements (melody, harmony, timbre), (Alvin, 1966; Bunt and Stige, 2014).

Through my PhD research and a collaborative book I am currently working on, I have begun to think about the usefulness of teaching improvisation through themes.

Themes that arise out of improvisation itself, such as:

Risk

Role

Choice

Identity

It seems to me, taking our starting place as the components of improvisation, it is then possible include all the relevant material you might need to teach, like the role of the elements of music, use of intervals, instruments, music as social and relational or contextual role play of music therapy scenarios.

The next question is what areas of learning and teaching does the music in music therapy cover? I am thinking about it in terms of domains of learning … relational, technical and expressive, cultural and heritage etc.

I am in the middle of writing up my PhD, and hope to expand on some of these ideas in the near future

… so … watch … this … space!

Becky White copyright 9th March 2019.

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References

Alvin, J. (1966) Music Therapy. London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd.

Bunt, L. and Stige, B. (2014) Music Therapy: An art beyond words. (2nd ed). London: Routledge.

Ford, C.C. (1995) Free collective improvisation in higher education. British Journal of Music Education, 12 (2), pp. 103-112.

Nordoff, P., and Robbins, C. (2007) Creative music therapy: A Guide to Fostering Clinical Musicianship. (2nd Ed). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Kratus, J. (1991) Growing with Improvisation. Music Educators Journal. 78 (4), pp. 35-40.

Wigram, T. (2004) Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

 

 

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Life Lessons for Musicianship on the Beach

It’s holiday time and heading down to the South Coast of England is a must, especially with the current heat wave we are experiencing. I grew up on the South Coast, it is very much like returning home, the smells, the sounds and feel of the sand between toes.

Wandering along the shoreline, I was reminded of childhood play. Growing up not far from the waters edge, the sea and the shore was a childhood playground. A child’s eye is one that notices small details and is curious. I remember I was curious about razor clams, still in their shells, long and white and squidgey, curious about the dried sea pods which crackled underfoot and the slimy black sea rocks that made you slip and splash into pools. The sea was a family business, dad loved the sea, he was never more happy than when floating in cold salty water, for his ‘daily dip’ with his wrinkled toes wriggling and sticking out.

It occurred to me, the shore and salty water was both playground and classroom, and dad the tutor. He taught me the valuable lesson of how to notice, how to stop still, with your eyes closed and feel the air and listen, how to look and look at the different multi-coloured pebbles on the sand. Under the tutorage of dad I would spend hours looking for the ellusive stone with a hole in it, the ‘magic stone’. If you were lucky you even found one that glittered with geological promise. Through the act of searching, he taught me how to look at everything, in small detail, to appreciate the beauty of the dried crab shell, or the smell of the black sea weed. I explored and explored, until the knowledge of the different kinds of sands, the taste of the water, became embodied within me, and as an adult I can conjure it up at a moments notice.

This sandy, gritty playground, was full of exploration and play. My dad taught me the value of noticing, of taking time, of being mindful (before mindfulness was a thing). I never appreciated it at the time, but his lessons were the best, and far better than anything I learnt from books or at school. As a musician, I aim to apply those lessons in life and musicality,  to explore, to notice, to be mindful, to be playful, to embody the sounds. It is these aspects of musicianship that I believe are crucial to making music, to being IN music –  if you like. He is not around today, but thank you dad for the lessons.

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Learning to Improvise Music: A PhD Project

Learning to Improvise The Music of Music Therapy: Freedom and Transformations

This week I am attending the Italian Music Therapy Conference in Trapani, Sicily. The Italian Association of Professional Music Therapists (AIM) is hosting the general assembly of the European Music Therapy Confederation (EMTC). The focus of the conference  is ‘the music of music therapy’, thus my research topic –  investigating how musicians and music therapists learn to improvise is very appropriate.

The phenomenological arts based study, involving 10 music therapy and postgraduate music students, looks into the lived experience of learning to improvise. Through a series of interviews and improvisations with my participants, I have investigated their first, special and current experiences in improvised music.

An important aspect of the project has been actually making music and improvising with my participants, which has given a richness and depth of quality to the data which words alone could not convey. Out of each improvisation I have created hand-drawn visual interpretations or graphic scores. These scores have been sent back to the participants, with the audio recording, for additional comments, creating new data. I intend to show some extracts of these scores in Trapani (see example below):

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Participant 8 / Minute 3 / Purple shapes – Participant plays the Double Bass / Green shapes – Researcher plays the melodica.

The score above reads clockwise, the shapes are overlapping to show sounds occupy the same temporal space. It was created through free-drawing and then building a repertoire of shapes to donate different textures and musical events. Participants responses to the scores have been varied, with some adding many more extra comments, and others simply sending the score back with no further comments.

Learning to improvise can be construed as a misnomer, ‘how can you learn to improvise?’ But it can be thought about as a process in music which engenders social, cognitive, emotional and physical engagement (Rose, 2017). It is a complex  multi-layered process.

I will be presenting a poster looking at the theme of freedom and transformations, which has been particularly prevalent in the PhD data analysed so far (using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis). Participants have described learning to improvise (in music in general and in music therapy) as: eliciting feelings of personal freedom; as a means of relating to music more creatively; transforming their view of music or helping them to increase in social confidence. One student described to me their struggle to ‘re-learn’ improvisation skills on a music therapy course, and how improvisation in music therapy had challenged their pre-conceptions.  A particular quote that stands out, is that of a participant relating to his first experiences in improvising on placement in music therapy, as alike to ‘giving away the freedom’. He had experienced feelings of personal freedom and liberation when he had first began to improvise, then when he played with clients he felt as if he was ‘giving away the freedom’. I am very curious about this phrase, and as I enter into the next stage of my PhD, shall continue to wonder and ponder on its meaning.

It is clear that improvisation in music is not straight forward, but involves many layers, and suggests different ways of being in music. I hope to uncover the understanding of some of these layers as the PhD project progresses.

 

 

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Italian Music Therapy Conference

Learning to Improvise The Music of Music Therapy: Freedom and Transformations

This week I am attending the Italian Music Therapy Conference in Trapani, Sicily. The Italian Association of Professional Music Therapists (AIM) is hosting the general assembly of the European Music Therapy Confederation (EMTC). The focus of the conference  is ‘the music of music therapy’, thus my research topic –  investigating how musicians and music therapists learn to improvise is very appropriate.

The phenomenological arts based study, involving 10 music therapy and postgraduate music students, looks into the lived experience of learning to improvise. Through a series of interviews and improvisations with my participants, I have investigated their first, special and current experiences in improvised music.

An important aspect of the project has been actually making music and improvising with my participants, which has given a richness and depth of quality to the data which words alone could not convey. Out of each improvisation I have created hand-drawn visual interpretations or graphic scores. These scores have been sent back to the participants, with the audio recording, for additional comments, creating new data. I intend to show some extracts of these scores in Trapani (see example below):

IMG_3264

Participant 8 / Minute 3 / Purple shapes – Participant plays the Double Bass / Green shapes – Researcher plays the melodica.

The score above reads clockwise, the shapes are overlapping to show sounds occupy the same temporal space. It was created through free-drawing and then building a repertoire of shapes to donate different textures and musical events. Participants responses to the scores have been varied, with some adding many more extra comments, and others simply sending the score back with no further comments.

Learning to improvise can be construed as a misnomer, ‘how can you learn to improvise?’ But it can be thought about as a process in music which engenders social, cognitive, emotional and physical engagement (Rose, 2017). It is a complex  multi-layered process.

I will be presenting a poster looking at the theme of freedom and transformations, which has been particularly prevalent in the PhD data analysed so far (using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis). Participants have described learning to improvise (in music in general and in music therapy) as: eliciting feelings of personal freedom; as a means of relating to music more creatively; transforming their view of music or helping them to increase in social confidence. One student described to me their struggle to ‘re-learn’ improvisation skills on a music therapy course, and how improvisation in music therapy had challenged their pre-conceptions.  A particular quote that stands out, is that of a participant relating to his first experiences in improvising on placement in music therapy, as alike to ‘giving away the freedom’. He had experienced feelings of personal freedom and liberation when he had first began to improvise, then when he played with clients he felt as if he was ‘giving away the freedom’. I am very curious about this phrase, and as I enter into the next stage of my PhD, shall continue to wonder and ponder on its meaning.

It is clear that improvisation in music is not straight forward, but involves many layers, and suggests different ways of being in music. I hope to uncover the understanding of some of these layers as the PhD project progresses.

 

 

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The Use of the Treble Recorder in Music Therapy

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This week I am excited to present guest blogger Elizabeth Coombes on the use of the treble recorder in music therapy.

Elizabeth Coombes is the Course Leader of the MA Music Therapy at the University of South Wales.  She qualified as a music therapist in 2000, after working for some years as a community musician.  She has worked with a wide range of client groups, and still manages to keep up clinical work with young people with Learning Disabilities, End of Life Care and Asylumseeking families.  She is also on the Advisory Panel of Musica s Therapy International, and works on projects supporting their work in Palestine and the UK. Elizabeth writes:

‘Oh what great and heavenly contemplation is in this trifling thing…’ (Fludd, 1617)

‘I’ve been recommending my students read Becky’s blog; I’m certainly finding food for thought in the series of posts written about the instruments we use in our work.

Nicky Haire wrote recently about bringing one’s musical history into a session, including an embodied knowing of our instrument. This has spurred me on to write about my relationship with the recorder, the first instrument I learned to play when I was around 8 years old. I remember the sheer thrill of being inducted into the mysteries of learning to read music; all those little symbols and signs translated miraculously into sound!   And it was such a great feeling showing I could finger B, A and G, holding the descant recorder aloft with 30 other children, vying for teacher to see us.

My parents bought me a wooden descant recorder and my own copies of books 1 and 2 of a ‘How to Play the Recorder’ book. I spent hours in my bedroom, working my way through these.   Then in the final year of Primary School I was given a treble recorder by the music teacher, and this brought fresh challenges. It wasn’t until many years later, while working on a music therapy project in Palestine that I was to realise the potential of this instrument in music therapy.

In the Tudor era, the recorder was beloved of kings and common folk alike, with Henry VIII supposedly having 76 recorders of varying types in his collection. Every home had a least one recorder enthusiast, and the sound of these instruments in their many forms was a popular way of providing home entertainment. Much recorder music was marked ‘ad tabulam’, meaning it could be played ‘at the table’ accompanying mealtimes with its dulcet tones. By the late 17th century, though, it had reached its heyday, and subsequently was sidelined by the more brilliant and flamboyant-sounding flute.

For me, part of the charm of the recorder, and particularly the treble, is its inherent simplicity. A wooden pipe with fingerholes, and with many recorders having no keys to manipulate, it is deceptively easy to play. It can have a tone that is mellow, evoking the countryside, or bright and birdlike with a silvery ethereal sound. When used in Renaissance theatre music it often heralded the appearance of a magical being, or something out of the ordinary happening. In my view, then, the treble recorder can add something very special to the musical experience that can be offered in music therapy.

In 2011 I travelled to Palestine to work on a skillsharing project with teachers and social workers. I was taken to a small special needs school where some 20 children were ushered in to a room in which I had been ensconced. I was told it was their ‘rest time’, and that usually music from Youtube was played while the children lay on cushions. Could I play something for them? I had no idea of how I could play culturally authentic music on the treble recorder, but pushed these concerns to one side and focussed on making music in the moment for them. I allowed myself to feel the atmosphere in the room and see the children lying there on the cushions at my feet, some peeking at me, some more obediently closing their eyes in response to the teachers’ commands. Slowly and with growing confidence I explored the sounds of the recorder. I used some of the lower notes to provide a more containing space. Higher brighter sounds were added to the simple, clear melody. One child moved up against my leg and pressed himself against me, looking up at me with big eyes, drinking in the sound. It seemed as though there was a synchronisation of breath and feeling in the room for the few minutes the music lasted.

Ever since that day, I have never been without my treble recorder in a music therapy session. It isn’t always appropriate to use it, but it is ever present. It’s an instrument on which I know I can be congruent and authentic, as Luke Annesley discussed in his post in this series, and that is something that is vital to a music therapists therapeutic skillset’.

 

 

 

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‘Finding a voice’: The saxophone in music therapy.

 

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This month I am very excited to introduce Luke Annesley as a guest, to the series on the use of instruments in music therapy. Luke is a jazz saxophone player and music therapist. He works for Oxleas Music Therapy Service (with children and young people). He has a quartet with trumpet player Jim Howard called ‘Moonscape’ (you can find some of their music at https://soundcloud.com/user-931488122 ) and he plays with The John Wilson Orchestra. He also produces and presents the BAMT podcast ‘Music Therapy Conversations’. and frequently lectures at GSMD. Luke also has a blog site found at https://www.jazztoad.blogspot.co.uk. Luke writes:

In jazz, the saxophone puts you out front, ‘expressing yourself’, carrying the melody, getting all the glory, putting across your individuality, your musical personality. For this you have to develop a ‘personal sound’. A ‘good tone’ is not enough. Being a jazz saxophone player is a journey of self-discovery, in which your relationship to the tradition must be addressed, followed by the integration of stylistic influences, leading to a mythical moment when you ‘find your voice’. Paradoxically, the great saxophone players in jazz, Pres, Hawk, Bird, Trane, Rollins, Getz, Wayne Shorter, were/are great musical personalities, who seem to be expressing something beyond the instrument, and beyond themselves. There’s a weight of expectation on the saxophone that perhaps is not carried, in the same way, on rhythm section instruments, but then I would say that. On the other hand, you also have to play for the band, which sometimes means playing 2nd alto.

Recently I went to hear the great alto player Geoff Simkins play at The Vortex in Dalston. He plays with unstinting inventiveness, all the time, while connecting to the tradition, playing melodically, lyrically, recalling at times Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond, or Ornette Coleman, but always being himself. He was playing with a group of younger musicians (Tom Ollendorff on guitar, Connor Chapman on bass, James Maddren on drums), all at the top of their game and fully ‘up-to-date’ in their approach. There was no discernable musical generation gap. But there’s not the remotest hint of Geoff striving to be hip, or being a ‘daring innovator’. There’s no ‘image’ or agenda. He’s just playing, with total honesty and commitment, and playing really really well. I realised that it’s not really about striving to ‘find your voice’. Who you are will come through, probably, but, in any case, who cares? As a listener, I just want to hear the music clearly.

In music therapy, for me, using the saxophone always has a question mark attached. Very often there’s an internal dialogue along the lines of ‘Obviously the saxophone wouldn’t be appropriate in this context. Or would it?’ The starting point is not to play, because it might overwhelm the client, or I might tip towards satisfying my own musical needs, or it’ll just be too loud. But if I lose my connection to the saxophone in music therapy sessions then I do, in a sense, lose my connection to my musical self. It’s my main conduit, if I’m really expressing something, and what’s the point in playing, either performatively or ‘clinically’, if you’re not going to express something?

And I’ve found it useful in surprising situations. Working in groups with under 5s, the saxophone can raise the bar. It might be a sound the children have never heard before. (‘Sleeping bunnies’ works well in the middle register, by the way, maybe written G or F.) Working with older children or young people, I often find the saxophone useful for improvising with drums. We can get into a free jazz/improvised music space, which can become an exciting musical dialogue. Or the saxophone can provide a clearer alternative to using my singing voice, which has a limited range. In an improvising group, it can be useful if I need to cut through the chaos, perhaps provide a melodic thread to suggest musical connections. I use it sparingly, but I couldn’t do without it. It’s the instrument on which I can be the most congruent, which I suppose is what ‘finding your voice’ might be about.

 

 

 

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Is the Violin Useful for Music Therapy?

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This week I am excited to share a guest blog post from music therapist and improvising musician Nicky Haire. Nicky works at NHS Lothian and is currently studying for a PhD in improvisation, music therapy and humour at The University of Edinburgh. Nicky is also the joint improvisation network co-ordinator (with myself) for the British Association of Music Therapy. Nicky writes:

I’ve really been enjoying Becky’s posts about using different instruments in music therapy. I play the violin and I’m a passionate advocate about using it in music therapy. But then, I’m a passionate advocate about using any instrument with which you have a profound relationship. I’m interested in the relationships we have with our instruments. We all bring our musical histories into sessions and that includes an embodied knowing of our instrument/s. I think understanding this relationship is important.

Like the other instruments Becky has been exploring, each has their own unique quality that brings different possibilities into a session. I enjoy the timbre of a violin, its tone and its musical versatility, but most of all I enjoy the act of playing it. I find that playing the violin can be a very physically affecting experience; it rests just above your heart and often, particular notes resonate physically. It is a seemingly fragile yet incredibly robust instrument and I enjoy that paradox which brings rich variety in therapeutic work. People I have worked with have often approached the violin with great respect, some excitement and a sense of discovery, clutching the bow tightly and opening their arms widely to receive it. I have seen people with dementia cradling a violin like a small child.

Some of the most important moments as a music therapist have been when I have connected with someone using my violin. I have written more about these, alongside other instrumentalists in the book ‘Flute, Accordion or Clarinet?’ edited by Amelia Oldfield, Jo Tomlinson and Dawn Loombe (2015). However, one example from more recent work with older people is striking.

During one particular group session we were slowly passing a tambourine round the loosely formed circle. I was following the tambourine with my violin and playing and interacting with whoever had it, at same time holding the experience of the group musically. I came to one woman, Jane, who was sitting stiffly in her wheelchair with her lips pressed together. She immediately put her hands out and indicated that she wanted to hold the violin. So I knelt down in front of her, gave her the bow and gently placed the violin on her shoulder while taking the weight of the scroll. She began to draw the bow across the open strings and after a short while I started to hum with her. Someone else in the group took this up vocally and it quickly became a recognisable song. The group’s singing was sensitive and respectful; it seemed to become a reciprocal experience with Jane leading the group and the group supporting her. When Jane stopped playing, she smiled and her neighbour commented: ‘that was lovely’. To experience that level of group cohesion and awareness, as shown by this comment, was exceptional in this particular group which could be very chaotic.

When the group came to an end, I was saying goodbye to everyone and I came to Jane. I mentioned the violin playing and she leaned in closely and said: ‘thank you for letting me try.’ This was the first time I had heard Jane speak.

The violin can offer much in music therapy. The shared playing of it offers opportunities that can quickly dispel an expert/non-expert dichotomy. I’ve found that this has enabled trust and given people, from young boys with autism and teenagers with emotional difficulties to older adults with dementia, a sense of empowerment.

Reference

Oldfield, A., Tomlinson, J., & Loombe, D. (eds.). (2015). Flute, accordion or clarinet? using the characteristics of our instruments in music therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

 

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