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):

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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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?

violin-illustration-in-black-and-white_72147495381

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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Is The Melodica Useful for Music Therapy?

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It’s a strange instrument, this little plastic blown keyboard, with the metal reeds inside. But I have become rather fond of it over the years. First discovered when I began working as a music therapist in the year 2001, it has accompanied me on my journey and had many different forms.

The melodica was originally designed by Hohner as an educational tool in the 1950s. The instrument comes in all sorts of sizes, soprano, alto, short keyboard, long keyboard , buttons, short plastic mouth pieces, long curly mouth-pieces that look rather odd. My favourite melodica has to be the rare ‘bass’ instrument I found covered in dust in a school cupboard. It had a low, wide frequency, which was lush and rich. I coveted that melodica, but sadly had to leave it behind when I left the school. I hope someone else used it.

In music therapy there can be a real advantage to being mobile, being able to move around with your client or to easily carry your instrument. The melodica provides this, the beauty of it is you can even dance, following the movements of the child you are working with. Often it has been my instrument of choice when I have had to go out to the playground or work in a school hall way. It is an instrument which is easy to play, and easy to carry (but you have to practice not looking at the keys as you play).

However, the real useful  aspect of the melodica is its reedy, harsh, strident  tone quality, akin to an accordion. This makes it an excellent instrument for gaining attention, or bringing a hypo-responsive withdrawn child into a musical relationship. You can sit in front of a child, give them eye contact and play. The tone, combined with physical gestures and body movements can enable social interaction between yourself and a child. However, be warned, the tone is not for everyone. Some clients find it overwhelming, or too harsh and can’t tolerant its metal sounds. It is an instrument to be used with due care and consideration, but can be very effective.

 

 

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Is the Trombone Useful for Music Therapy?

 

The trombone is a uniquely flexible and useful instrument for music therapy.

My very first encounter with music therapy, largely involved the trombone. I was on a music therapy under-graduate placement working at a large UK hospital institution. In a group for people with learning disabilities, I vividly remember opening the trombone case and immediately attracting the focused attention of older women. She had a background in the salvation army and made a bee line for the instrument. She wanted to touch it, for me to play it. The introduction of this instrument had a powerful effect on her, week after week she would sit close to me, and want to put her head in the bell as I played. For this women, the instrument was associated with her life history, with something positive, although she was unable to articulate and tell us what this was. It was expressed in her actions and how she related to both me and the instrument. I was nineteen at the time, and for a teenager it was a very overwhelming and profound experience.

Over the years I have used the trombone in different guises. It is an impact instrument, both visually and sonically. It can be used to gain attention or create an exciting event within a session. The slow opening of the case and putting together of the piping, can be done with anticipation. As any trombonist can witness, it is an extremely versatile and flexible instrument. The trombone is not restricted to the western tonal system, if a child is vocalising ‘off key’ you can easily join them in micro-tones, and the vocal nature of the timbre makes it excellent for matching or mirroring voices. However, it can easily dominate a session situation, because it is a large presence instrument. It could overpower others music, and needs to be used with the utmost sensitivity and care.

I often use low, soft breathy notes to create a holding effect under a group’s music, sometimes it is possible to obtain an almost imperceptible sound which can be felt and just heard. Breathing or speaking into the instrument amplifies sounds. In contrast volume and timbre of the trombone can cut through chaotic group sounds. I have experienced children holding onto the slide as it has been played, putting their head in the bell, holding onto the tuning bolt.

The children that remain in my mind who have responded to the trombone, have often been children who are very-very withdrawn, have disabilities which mean they are extremely isolated or find it difficult to relate. It is with these children that the instrument has come into its own. I have used it to create connection, to create interaction and interest, which has been difficult to make previously.  It is these sorts of experiences, working especially with these children that has convinced me that the trombone is a gem of a instrument (to be used with care and consideration) in music therapy.

 

 

 

 

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Is the Bass Guitar useful for Music Therapy?

bass at the bear

Redwood Acoustic Bass

I first thought about learning to play the bass guitar in the mid-nineties. A friend played a Warwick fretless, and the sound entranced and enthralled me. It had a similar quality to the trombone (which I already played) with the ease of timbre, flexibility and freedom of tonality. In 2002 I bought a Dean Fretless (a heavy metal instrument) and Calsbro 50 Watt amp. The dean had a beautiful, deep lush sound and I spent evening after evening investigating its mellow tones, I was hooked.

The bass guitar soon became a staple part of my practice as a music therapist with children with special needs. It is a deceptively simple instrument, but like all things which look simple, it has a complex underlayer. You can do a lot with a little on the bass. Just sonically holding a group’s music, can involve playing a few long notes on the E string, underpinning whatever sounds. But in addition you can take the bass out of its traditional box and throw away the rule book. The bass has hidden talents which are untapped.

As music therapists we have an improvisatory approach to instruments. The bass is no exception, it can be used in a melodic role, playing soaring melodies or short riffs that provide musical glue between people. It can leave harmonies wide open,  playing two notes of a chord in a large register that spans opportunities for sounds between the notes. It can be a percussive instrument, twanging the strings, hitting the body. The timbre can be changed simply by placing your hand on different parts of the strings, the sound widens (becoming potentially double bass like) if you play on the neck, or narrows if you play by the bridge. You can hit, pluck, scratch your fingers over the strings, like a world within a bass world.

The instrument you choose might depend on the needs of the client you are working with. Use a large acoustic bass if you want to be independently mobile, have a child sit on it whilst you play, or run their hands over the strings. Or use an electric if you want the sounds to be more resounding, louder and enfolding.

All of this makes it a fascinating instrument to utilize as a music therapist. The sonic possibilities attend to the acute flexibility required. It has been an under-used instrument in music therapy, but one which has great possibilities and potential.

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Music Improvisation and Research Interviews

A question that arose during the recent progression viva was, ‘why use musical improvisation within phenomenological qualitative interviews?’

In my project I am combining semi-structured verbal interviews with improvisations, talking and also playing music with my participants. The examiner questioned why I should want to play spontaneous music with the interviewees, what was the point exactly?

?????????????

I pondered a bit, this was a good question, and something which I had not articulated before. What was the point of improvising with my participants? It seemed like such a natural and obvious thing to do, I had hardly questioned it before. I considered Langer’s (1942) philosophy, who described music as ‘modes of feeling’, as ‘presentational’ symbols of communication touching beyond the verbal, getting in-between spaces in our heads and hearts and making emotions audible.  Then I thought about explaining, when you improvise, it is like you come to acknowledge another intimately, you feel you know something about the inside of them, without the need for external information and etiquette (all the usual social questions such as; what work do you do or how old are you?). In my typical ‘mixed  media’ approach, I then fell onto Merleau Ponty’s philosophy of art (1964), in which he said that art is, ‘the inside of the outside and the outside of the inside’. A painting has the potential to literally expose and reveal a painter.

Kandinsky improvis 28

Kandinsky Improvisation 28 – What does this painting reveal?

So if music and art have the possibility to reveal ‘inside’, then my question is; why not improvise with research participants? There are more forms of communication than recorded and typed words, this is something we know strongly and personally as artists and musicians. It seems so important to use artistic skills in research to try to get to the core of the moment of connection and what is being expressed in the research encounter.

References:

Langer, S.K. (1942) Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. (3rd ed). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) Eye and Mind: The Primacy of Perception. USA: North Weston University Press.

 

 

 

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PhD as Improvised Mountain Walking

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 (Photo  – Reaching the top of the mountain Meeknoken on Averoy, West-Coast of Norway).

Taking the high road, taking the low road, the research map is not set but improvised, keep writing, wondering and climbing.

I am nearly half way through this PhD journey, it still excites me and requires an inordinate amount of determination to keep going. Having walked many mountains in Wales and Norway during my twenties, I often think of research like walking. The top of the mountain constantly looks closer than it is, there is always a point when you need to push yourself, it’s important to have provisions and to drink from cool mountain streams.

Having now completed seven interviews, transcriptions, graphic scores and analysis, the participant’s voices resound in my head, like musical leitmotifs. I can conjour up the sound of their voices in a moment. Their experiences fill my mind and I keep wondering where exactly this research is taking us. I feel I am finally starting to understand what the research journey is about; listening, wondering, going backwards and forwards, round in circles, letting the map change and being prepared for your knowledge and life view to expand.

I am sure in the future I will look back and see just how much this research journey is changing me personally. Curiously I find my creativity expanding, a new flexibility in my bass-playing fingers, and the art work more fluid and loose. As an accompaniment to this journey new songs have been written and art work bubbles away underneath. I hope to reach the top of the PhD ‘Meekknoken’ in a couple of years, but know rain, brambles, swarms of insects and unmarked paths are all the hazzards along the way!

 

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