Improvised Music and Dance in Creative Christian Worship

At the weekend I took part in gathering of creative people at a worship event on the South Coast of England. The evening consisted of dancers, musicians, visual artists, poets, sound and technical crew and hospitality crew. The setting was a formal church hall, with a large canvas and paints set up in one corner and microphones and speakers at one end of the room.

The evening was facilitated by two leaders (who were also dancers), who oversaw the event and made verbal  suggestions and directions for the activities to move from one creative medium to another. They also made their own spiritual interpretations of what was happening in the worship and shared these with the creative artists. The event lasted four hours and had different timed  phases of activity which were pre-arranged, these were:

  • Songs and music led by first group of musicians
  • Songs and music led by second group of musicians
  • Drumming circle
  • Songs and music led by first group of musicians

The dance took place continuously in the centre of the room. I was working with the first group of musicians, playing the trombone. The group I was playing with were very old friends, and people I have known for  25 years, we occasionally work together at similar events  and are always amazed and encouraged at how the musical, social and spiritual connection between us happens despite the passage of time.

The main emphasis of the evening was improvisation, across the all the art forms. For the purposes of this blog I am going to focus on the music and dance expressions, but there were also visual arts, poetry and words which were utilised as part of the evening. Using music improvisation in Christian worship is part of a long historical tradition from the sacred organ improvisations of J.S Bach (Eric Barne Hill, 2014), to Scottish Psalm singing (Education Scotland, 2014) or the hymns and spirituals of the blues (History of Rock, 2014). Having an emphasis on improvisation did not mean that the evening was ad-hoc or unplanned. There is a very common misconception that if something is improvised it is totally spontaneously without pre-thought or planning. This evening had a pre-planned structure the musicians had songs which were pre-composed (and the dancers may also have had some pre-planned dances and equipment such as flags, banners and staffs). The group I was working with had a repertoire of songs that they had  prepared. The evening began with these songs, and they were used for a basis for improvisation. This is similar to the practice of playing the changes in jazz standards, or extemporising on a folk tune. The songs were sung in their entirety a couple of times, to let the people in the room familiarise  themselves with them, and then the guitarists and keyboardist played the chords again several times over, leaving aural space, to allow for other musical or creative events to happen. This method of opening up a song, is a tried and tested formula, used many times by the group over the years, and also a familiar way of creating music in many modern church settings in the UK (and around Europe and the USA as far as I am aware). In the church I attended as a teenager this technique was taught to the musicians and referred to as ‘creating a platform’, in my training as a music therapist it was called ‘frame working’ (Wigram, 2007), and in the study of group creativity it’s called using a ‘referent’ (Sawyer,2012). It is interesting that Saywer, discusses a similar technique in the context of improvised theatre. In the creation of improvised theatre, the ‘referent’ is the basic story and lines of dialogue, both of which the performers use as a grounding on which to improvise and create new theatre each time they perform. In this creative worship context, we created new songs and music out of  existing songs, and the improvised songs were always different.

Sawyer also writes about the collaborative nature of improvised theatre and how the members of the group are caught up in a symbiotic relationship of interactions and reactions, out of which new material is created. This was the driving force behind the evening of creative worship. The musicians began the event and the dancers responded, and then throughout the evening it become a mutual relationship between dancers and musicians. I was very aware of this when I was playing the trombone. At one point I began to play some glissandi and had my eyes closed, when I opened them a group of around 10 dancers were making swooping low movements backwards and forwards. I remember thinking, ‘did I just respond to their movements with my music, or did they respond to me’? The interlaced relationships between dancers and musicians was extremely connected and it was difficult to tell where the ideas had begun and who was responding to who.

An important element in the evening was the facilitation by the two leaders, it reminded me of Winnicott’s (1971) holding and containing space, in which the therapist or carer creates a potential space which allows the child to play, create and grow. Through controlling the environment and the pace of the evening the two leaders were able to facilitate a holding space.

A key skill in musical improvisational activity is the ability to reflect back to others, their mood, experiences, and way of being through music. In music therapy this is often referred to as mirroring and matching (Wigram, 2004). It involves creating in music a person’s way of being, their movements, their sounds, their emotional presentation, and giving back to them a musical portrait of themselves. Chung and Sawyer (2008) write about the importance of the musician reflecting back the mood of listeners in the context of jazz improvisations. They describe how the most effective improvisers in jazz are able to demonstrate sensitivity to their audience and their environment, through musically responding to and reflecting back to the audience their emotional and physical presentation and the general atmosphere in the room. In creative worship the same skills are utilised. The creative practitioners reflect back to the congregation their mood and feelings and way of being, as well as the atmosphere in the general environment, they are expert listeners and expressers. In creative worship the musicians and dancers listen simultaneously (with all their senses) to the congregation and to the holy spirit. The job of the creative practitioner in Christian worship is to express what it is to be human, in that moment and specific place, and also at the same time to make a connection with the spiritual part of being human and spirit of God. Whether you believe in a God or the Holy Spirit or not, the arts and especially improvised arts are intimately connected to spiritual experiences, expressions and transformations. Chung and Sawyer (2008) write about the spiritually transforming potential of jazz, and how improvised music can open up opportunities for change and development. This change and development takes place through the reflection, and connections created by the music between people and the spirit of God. In creative worship the musicians and congregation are caught up in a conversation between each other and a mutual desire to listen for and seek out the spiritual. Using improvisation opens up opportunities for the possibility of  emotional, cognitive, physical, social and spiritual change. This then  creates a space in which the Holy Spirit can work, and speak, and develop people’s lives.

It would be interesting to find out how people experienced this evening, and if there were any tangible changes. For myself, the evening was about connecting and playing music with old friends, expressing who I am now in music, reflecting back the mood, actions and atmosphere of the dance and sharing my own spiritual journey through creative writing and improvised music (which I hoped encouraged others). For me personally, it was an evening of social, spiritual, musical and cognitive development and continuation of my own journey. I should point out that the musicians and dancers consisted of a mixture of professionals and amateurs, and this mix of people brought both variety and skill which enhanced the effectiveness of the evening.

In summary the creation of a holding and containing environment, the skilful leading and facilitation, the use of song structures and musical and movement frameworks, sensitive reflection and listening and the collective and collaborative nature of the evening all combined to create a  potential space for change, growth and spiritual development.

If you would like more information on creative arts worship events happening in the South East, South West or Wales, please contact me at bwskylark@yahoo.co.uk

 

References

 

Chung, T., Sawyer, C. (2008) The Trinity Encounter and All that Jazz, Can Jazz Transform us Spiritually? In: Abernethy, A. D. (ed) Worship that Changes Lives. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

 

Education Scotland (2014) Scotland’s Songs. Available from : http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandssongs/about/songs/psalmsinging/index.asp [Accessed 15th October 2014].

 

Eric Barne Hill (2014) The Daily Improvisation. Available from: http://ericbarnhill.wordpress.com/facts-about-improvisation/ [Accessed 15th October 2014].

 

History of Rock (2014) A Short History of the Blues. Available from: http://www.history-of-rock.com/blues.htm [Accessed 15th October 2014].

 

Sawyer, K. (2012) Extending Sociocultural Theory to Group Creativity. Vocations and Learning. Volume 5, pp, 59-75.

 

Wigram, T. (2004) Improvisation: Methods and Techniques of Music Therapy. London and New York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

 

Winnicott, D,W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London and New York: Routledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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