Monthly Archives: January 2015

Finding Focus and True Colours


My main preoccupation recently has been choosing the focus of my research study. With the RD1 dead line looming, I have been having to think hard about what it is exactly I want to focus on over the next 4 – 6 years. I have never been in doubt that it was the experience of learning to improvise that has fascinated me. I have been interested in this topic ever since I had my first experiences as a teenager, and always wondered what it was that was exactly happening to me as a musician, and why it took me where it did (i.e. becoming a music therapist and improvising bass player and trombonist). It is through my own experiences and also reading anecdotal accounts of musicians experiences of learning improvisation that I have decided to focus on researching ‘pivotal’ experiences in learning journeys. These can be defined as ‘intense, memorable and distinctive, experiences that are a turning point and/or feature a sense of discovery and growth’ (taken from Grocke 2002, cited in Wheeler 2005 and Csikszentmihayi, 1992). In learning to improvise I had experiences which seemed to be significant to my journey as a musician, they were kind of turning points in my musical life.

One example I remember very vividly. I was 18 and had just left home and started my first music degree. I was keen to join a church and had been invited to a church music practice at a house church. When I arrived I realised that the band didn’t use any music, but they seemed to all know the chords and were playing together, it fascinated me how they were managing it, and I wanted to find out how they could play together without the notated music. I had taken my trombone and the group were very warm and welcoming, they said they had been waiting for an instrument like a trombone to join them as there was already an existing brass section of a trumpet and saxophone. The group played a ‘chorus’ (a type of modern hymn developed in the 1970’s) and then moved into improvisation, using the chords and melody as a platform for the music. I felt envious and desperate to join in, but very nervous. It came to my turn to play, the leader of the group pointed at me and said play. I was really hesitant, and I remember very vividly picking up my trombone and playing a glissando from c to f, it fitted the music exactly, the whole group burst into a spontaneous applause and cheers, I felt goose bumps physically. I went onto play a solo, it wasn’t a very good solo, some of the notes didn’t fit, but the start of the solo had been so powerful, I felt it was the start of a new phase of my musical journey, even thought I didn’t know it at the time.

There is some anecdotal evidence that I am not alone in having had these ‘pivotal’ experiences when I learnt to improvise. Music educator Schlict (2007) in a description of a course design on improvisation quotes students speaking about their experiences of learning to improvise which seem to be similar in nature, for example the students state;

‘I feel my true colours began to show’
‘It was my musical renaissance’
‘It was a turning point for self esteem as a musician’

So I am interested in the ‘true colours’ moments, the turning points moments, the moments that stand out as special or different. I hope to interview music students and hear some fresh accounts of pivotal experiences in learning to improvise. Let me know if you have had any similar experiences, I would really interested to hear. Either share them here, or write to me at




Csikezentmihalyi, M. (1992) Flow and the Psychology of Happiness. London: Rider.

Schilct, U. (2007) I feel my true colours began to show, designing and teaching a course on improvisation. Critical Studies in Improvisation 3 (2), pp. 25- 71. [Accessed 14/9/14].

Wheeler, B, L. (2005) Music Therapy Research (2nd ed). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.



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