In music therapy I have often used improvised music to try to help others build self-esteem and a strong sense of self. Reflecting back what they play, offering supportive harmonies and a focused listening ear.
This week reading a research study of life long learning in musicians (Smilde, 2010) I was not surprised to find that playing improvised music is one of the key components to building a strong sense of self for musicians. The study found that musicians who had incorporated improvisational practice into their musical life were less likely to suffer anxiety and stage fright problems during their career. Taking part in improvisation provides an opportunity for musicians to take ownership of their own music, explore their own creativity and so become more acutely aware of who they are in music. This can only lead to increased confidence when playing the music of others. Sansom (2007) writes that taking part in improvisation means a musician explores the tension between what they can already play and what they can create in the moment, between the conscious and subconscious, its a natural way to extend creativity and so extend musical self knowledge.
The responses of music students learning to improvise fascinates me, and its been wonderful over the past couple of years to have played a small part in some students journeys. Seeing students develop and expand in their confidence, as they start to improvise is a joy. There should always be an incentive to improvise, to discover your own music, to know your own musical self. How else are you going to play the music of other people, if you don’t know what your own music is?
Sansom, M.J. (2007) Improvisation & Identity: A Qualitative Study. Critical Studies in Improvisation/E’tudes critiques en improvisation, 3(1). Available at:<http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/48>. [Accessed 28th July 2014].
Smilde, R. (2010) Lifelong and lifewide learning from a biographical perspective: transformation and transition when coping with performance anxiety. International Journal of Community Music, 3(2), pp.185 – 202.
Last week I purchased a 1970’s schools text book called ‘Sound and Silence’, by John Paynter and Peter Aston. With delight I received it through the post, it only cost three pounds and had been discarded from an old school library.
John Paynter was a pioneer of music education who worked at York University from 1982 – 1994. He believed in the ability of all children to create their own music, and that the experience of improvising and composing should come before the experience of listening to recorded music. Paynter and Aston saw the music teacher as a musical facilitator, letting children discover their own music rather than following a pre-determined path. Sound and Silence, contains a wealth of ideas for launching into improvisation, using poetry, visual arts, photography (by the late John Stevens) and patterns in nature. The book was considered controversial at the time, and today it would have the same status. Much of Paynters ideas influenced the syllabus creation of the new music GCSC in the late 1980’s.
It has been with a spark of joy that I have recognized in the work of Paynter my learning at GSCE. I took part in the very first GSCE year in 1988 and remember two years filled with wild group improvisations at the piano, recording compositions on a multi-track recorder and learning about graphic scores. For anybody wanting to refresh their improvisational skills or needing new ideas for composition, Sound and Silence is well worth a read, although written for school children in 1970 it has relevance for performers, music therapists and community musicians today.
I recently announced to friends and family that I was going to embark on a doctorate in ‘free improvisation’ at the University of the West of England. Since then, a number of musical friends, old and new, have expressed a curiosity about what exactly it is I intend to do.
At the moment (two months before the course officially starts) I am hoping to investigate the stories of music students and professional musicians who are learning, and have learnt, and continue to learn to improvise (its not something that you ever get to complete). I am curious about other musicians stories, I want to find out what happened to them when they started to improvise, where it was and when. I’m wondering about how the process of learning to improvise effects (or affects) musicians who haven’t explored it before. If the experience of learning to improvise changes them in some way. I’m interested in the value of learning to improvise for musicians, if it has any usefulness for musicianship, and quality of musical communication. Hopefully, some of these questions will be answered, or not , through interviews and careful analysis. I hope to interview musicians from three different disciplines, music therapy, community music and contemporary music performance.
At this point in time, my project is very much forming and taking shape, I’m very excited to be working with music therapy colleagues Leslie Bunt and Cathy Warner at UWE, and will keep you posted on developments.
I had recently had the privilege of swimming in a beautiful pool in the Greek Island of Kefalonia. The water was clear and there was not a cloud in the sky. I was alone in the pool apart from some swallows that periodically came to drink the water. As I lay back in the middle of the pool, floating, swallows swooped down, staying on the wing and taking short gulps. They came so close I could feel the vibrations of their feathers on my skin. Their colours were heightened, blue, black, red and a reflection of the brightest aqua on their breasts. It shall be an enduring image and the sight took my breath away.
I am often inspired by birds, and swallows have featured regularly. Another past encounter with swallows on a retreat in Glastonbury also spoke in an enduring way. The swallows swooped low over the abbey fields and I felt they communicated the promise of having a heart of freedom, even when life has thrown tough events in your path. That promise of freedom has stayed with me, and I was reminded of it again last week in the beautiful pool.
Today, I swam with the swallows, bird watching in the pool, a flash of blue and red, dipped down over my head, and a close encounter, filled my heart with joy at the beauty of these little birds.