Category Archives: music teaching

An Improvisatory Approach to Learning Instruments

img_0037

How do we learn to play musical instruments? For those of us who have been through exam systems we are provided with a stepped set route of pieces, scales and graded music. But for the individual who wishes to explore creating their own music this may not necessarily be the only or best way. For the improvising musician the instrument is a means to discover sounds, both their own voice and that of the object. It is double sided, a dialogue between instrument and musician. I own a cheap acoustic bass guitar, to some it might be inadequate, have too many flaws, feedback, rattles and buzz. But to me, I have taken time to discover its peculiarities, its unique sounds. I play with and around those noises and make them my own. Some of the best music lessons I’ve had over the years, have been those which have allowed me to find my individual path on an instrument, my own unique way of playing, my own fingering, my own touch, my own breath.

‘Searching for an individual sound’ is the job of the improvising musician (Frisk, 2014). This involves trying to get away from existing schemas and ways of playing. Discovering new means to produce a sound or turning to a new instrument. The saxophonist Ornette Coleman picked up the trumpet and violin in order to extend his musical resources, deliberately playing instruments he had no or little skill on to explore increasing amounts of freedom. Sometimes playing an instrument that you are unfamiliar with forces you to be more explorative, to move away from the usual ways of playing and to re-learn.

I recently attended the abstract expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Included were photos of Jackson Pollock  dripping paint onto canvas. The photos speak of the artist finding his visual voice with materials, they are dynamic, kenetic and demonstrate the embodied nature of an artist manipulating objects.

img_2194

Figure 1 Jackson Pollock painting No. 32, 1050, photographed by Rudolph Burckhardt (Anfam, 2015)

The same process occurs for the musician, trying to tease noises out of an object and through this process of learning the musician becomes embodied with the instrument.

LaBelle writes that in music improvisation the ‘instrument functions as a partner in the unfolding of musical expression, where an individual and object are integrated, becoming a single body driven by choreography of movement and energy, precision and improvisation, skill and its reciprocal gestures’.

Learning to play an instrument as an improviser is so much more than set pieces, regular techniques and sounds, it is a journey of discovery of the self and the peculiar sound world of the chosen object.

References:

Anfam, D. (2015) Abstract Expressionism. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson world of art.

Frisk, H. (2014) Improvisation and The Self: To Listen To The Other. In Schroeder, F., and O’ hAodha, M. (2014) SoundWeaving: Writings on Improvisation.Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 153-169.

LaBelle, B. (2005) Museum of Instruments. Exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde Denmark. September 30-December 18, 2005. Available at http://soundartarchive.net/WORKS-details.php?recordiD=1106. (Accessed November 10 2013)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Contemporary Art, learning, music teaching, Music Therapy, Teaching improvisation, Uncategorized

Are Graphic Scores Useful for Music Therapists?

Do graphic scores have a place in the practice of music therapy?

How might they be useful as tools of transcription, communication and analysis?

As music therapists we are often time poor. It can be difficult to find space to keep detailed reflective records and notes. However, making visual transcriptions of clinical work can enrich our practice.

There are many different ways of keeping records of music therapy, audio and video files, reflective and process notes. It can be useful to transcribe aspects of sessions and make brief visual jottings. Bergstrom-Nielson (2010) describes using drawing as an aid to recording musical events in sessions. He suggests making extremely simple sketches, such as single lines or graphics boxes, to aid memory and convey events in a session. These can be incorporated into the therapists reflective notes, and potentially communicate in an immediate direct fashion which the written word might lack. For example:

IMG_1756

A Line Sketch

IMG_1755

A Box Sketch

IMG_1758

A Mind Map

To take the idea deeper, graphic realisations of sessions can be useful for analysis. If as a therapist you are listening back to a session, and want to think in more detail, the process of making a graphic score can reveal ‘hidden aspects’ of the therapy (Bergstrom-Nielson, 2009). With a sketch intended for analysis you may take time to add in more aspects, to create specific symbols for instruments, or to show other aspects of the session, such as a time line or physical gestures.

IMG_1760

Key for Instruments

IMG_1762

A Time Line

IMG_1764

Illustrations of Physical Gestures

Drawing can also be utilised to communicate about the work. When presenting clinical material showing graphic realisations can enhance the understanding for the listener. For example a simple box flow chart:

IMG_1753

Box Flow Chart

Graphics scores can be an extremely useful tool for music therapy practice. We need not limit ourselves to always using the written word to communicate or think about music therapy. I hope I have demonstrated that you don’t need to be an artist to use graphics as part of your music therapy practice, but can make simple sketches, mind maps or more detailed scores for analysis which can potentially enhance working life.

 

References

Bergstrom-Nielson, C. (2009) Graphic Notation in Music Therapy: A Discussion of what to Notate in Graphic Notation, and How. Approaches: Music Therapy & Special Music Education 1(2). Available at: http://approaches.primarymusic.gr [Accessed 23 March 2015].

Bergstrom-Nielson, C. (2010) Graphic Notation  – the Simple Sketch and Beyond. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 19 (2), pp. 162 – 177.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, Art, Graphic Scores, learning, music teaching, Music Therapy, PhD, Research Methods, Synaestheisa, Uncategorized

Guided Imagery in Music

IMG_1618

A Mandala created as part of the Guided Imagery in Music Course

As part of my PhD course I recently attended Level 1 training in Guided Imagery in Music, with Professor Leslie Bunt at The University of the West of England, further details available at: http://courses.uwe.ac.uk/USPKJE15M/2016

Guided Imagery in Music is a particular branch of music therapy which focuses on receptive responses accompanied by a therapist.

GIM has a lot to offer the music therapy community. Not only do we need live improvised music making, we also need recorded music. Many of us use recordings in our clinical work, but how aware are we really of the techniques required to use them? GIM should be part of all music therapists training, it seems to be such an intuitive step in the development of the profession of music therapy.

The training involves listening to programmes of classical music. Beginning with a gentle start of listening whilst doing other activities such as drawing Mandalas (Fincher, 1991) or writing a narrative, developing into listening in deep states of relaxation whilst being closely attuned to by a therapist.

This is the first time that a Guided Imagery in Music course has been run at The University of the West of England. Receptive therapy in music is like the missing jigsaw piece in the music therapy spectrum, and it feels absolutely right for GIM to have a higher profile and an increasing number of therapists are starting to recognise its value.

GIM was originated by  Bonny (2002) following an epiphany experience in a prayer meeting, playing the violin, Bonny started to research the therapeutic benefits of listening to classical recorded music. Sessions in GIM start with a carefully controlled induction in which the therapist first finds out about the individual’s life, and creates a relaxation activity that facilitates the ‘traveller’ to enter an altered state. This is not strange as it sounds, since ‘altered states’ are a natural part of our everyday lives. The moments between waking and sleeping, or when we day-dream are all ‘altered states’ (Meyer, 2007).

The imagery and amount of direction is carefully considered by the therapist, designed to aid therapeutic process. The traveller is invited to visualise imagery, such as a pathway, a boat or a house.

GIM has two more levels in which the therapists learn to keep the travellers safe, before they can practice. One of the aspects that interests me is the analysis of sessions, looking in close detail at the musical analysis of a piece of classical music and then tracking the journeys it creates. I love this sort of analysis looking at small details in music. Which is part of the reason for doing a PhD.

On a personal note, I had one experience of travelling on the course, I was very surprised at the profundity of the experience, and I am still thinking about it two weeks later…

“Mandala created with sea-glass, pebbles, rocks, shells, toy instruments, lights and drawing”.

 

References:

Bonny, H.L. (2002) Music and Consciouness: The Evolution of Guided Imagery and Music: Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers

Fincher, S.F. (1991) Creating Mandalas for Insight: Healing and Self-Expression. Boston: Shambhala.

Meyer, E. (2007) Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. London: Bantam Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, Guided Imagery in Music, jazz, learning, music teaching, Music Therapy, PhD, Research Methods, Spiritual, Synaestheisa, Uncategorized

How to be a successful musician

Picture 004

A fact of life for musicians is inherent tension in how meaning in music is interpreted. Music has been understood as an aesthetic object, which can be sold, passed on from person to person and put on a shelf. This is music as a commercial object, music as a book of graphics on a page, music as a round — shiny thing you put in a machine. The problem is, as musicians we understand this perception of music, but in reality it is not our experience, or the experience of our listeners. In actual fact music is us, music is a social process, it is what happens between you and me. Music can not be pinned down to materialism, it floats on the air, it acts in the space between us.

This tension is persistent in contemporary western society, as musicians we are constantly juggling with it. Frequently our highest aim is to create a place of connection with others, that is our success. The Finnish music researcher Hytonen-ng (2013) writes about intense moments of connection in Jazz music. She explains how for Jazz musicians creating and seeking out incredible moments of connections with others through Jazz is the most motivating factor there is to keep on playing. Music therapists are experts in creating these sorts of connections for people on the margins and edges of society. The profession of music therapy highlights the social view of music. That is why music therapists have so much to contribute to the music industry, to music academia and music performance. Music therapists are trained in music as social interaction, music as communication, music as the sounding of souls.

Musicians know the true value of music is to be found in being-us, being together. They frequently come across assumptions, that to be a successful musician is to be famous, to play big venues, to be signed with a record company. If you think of music, as a social phenomenon, then these ideas about success make no sense. I would choose every time the close connection in the music therapy room with a child with autism, or playing to a small group of people in a living room, cafe or local pub.

 

Hytonen-ng, E. (2013) Experiencing ‘Flow’ in Jazz Performance. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, jazz, music teaching, Music Therapy, Uncategorized

Musicking or Music Therapy?

IMG_1038

What is the difference between music therapy and other musical activities?

Is it possible to label all music making as therapy?

These are issues I find myself grappling with, especially as I move between the roles of teaching music therapy, performing and researching. Are there transitional places between activities when music therapy takes place?  In performance, happenings occur: an elderly gentleman spontaneously sings to an old jazz song; at a living room gig people respond by crying; in a busy pub, the room suddenly becomes hushed to the sound of a lone voice. All of these incidences happened (and more) during performances I took part in.  I am a trained music therapist, does this make these performances music therapy?

A few years ago I would have said, without a doubt, no. I viewed music therapy as taking place in a special clinical setting, within psychoanalytic boundaries. However, these days, I am not so sure. It has been in experiences, like those quoted above, which have re-affirmed for me, the therapeutic nature of music. I am always a music therapist, and I bring this training and experience to performance. When performing, I am unable to stop thinking about the music therapeutically. Personally I think that, performing is at its most effective when the therapeutic results of music are in evidence.

Ansdell (2014) writes that:

‘a music therapist’s specialist skill is to midwife music’s help in situations where people can’t necessarily access it for themselves (Ansdell, 2014, p. 295).

He suggests that Small’s (1998) idea of musicking (music making as a social phenomenon) and music therapy are on a continuum, and music therapists often work with people who can’t access music in other situations. I am not sure where I stand with this, since as a performer, who is also a music therapist, I find my self performing in unusual situations where people can’t usually access music. So is this music therapy? I suppose I shall just have to keep wondering and journeying with the music.

 

References:

Ansdell, G. (2014) How Music Helps: in Music Therapy and Everyday Life. Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Small, C. (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Academic, music teaching, Music Therapy, Teaching improvisation, Uncategorized

Can you practice improvisation?

bass at the bear

This blog is in response to the music therapy blog challenge set up by http://www.serenade-designs.com/blog/

Something students have asked is, ‘how can we practice improvisation? You can’t practice it’. The word ‘improvise’ comes from the Latin ‘improvises’ which means unforeseen. So how can you practice music which is unforeseen? Well, I suppose the answer to that is ‘you can’t’. However, you can practice for it, by preparing for what you might play, for what might be unforeseen.

In an ethnographic study of Jazz musicians, Berliner (1994) documents in detail how they prepare for improvisational performances. The musicians learn through imitating recordings of solos; learning phrases; learning scales, modes and harmonic language and a whole repertoire of standards. They develop a grounding in the language of jazz. They practice through imitating, taking musical phrases and transforming them into every possible permutation, knowing a tune in every key, knowing every rhythmic possibility. Once this practice has been done, the musician can then create their own music, find their own voice and play music which is new and unforeseen.

Music therapists who are learning to play improvised music may go through a similar process. Taking familiar songs, learning them in every key, taking musical phrases and turning them inside out, upside down and transforming them until new phrases are created. Music therapists need to practice improvisational skills, in order to provide a good musical experience for the people they are working with. Unfortunately there are no short cuts for this, its all about practice. In my own work as a music therapist I tend to keep up the practice of improvised music as part of the working day. So I will spend some time each day, learning a melody or playing something in a different key. I have also spent many hours at home listening to recordings and playing along. You can’t ever know what exactly you will play in a music therapy session, you can make a draft plan, but its important to react in the moment and change your music to meet the needs of the person. Berliner uses an interesting phrase, being ‘musically agile’ (p.94). This means being able to musically respond quickly, and sensitively to events, whether it’s a jazz performance or a music therapy session. It’s a bit like exercise, in order to be agile physically you have to keep exercising. So the same principle applies in music improvisation, in order to keep musically agile, you have to keep on practicing.

Reference:

Berliner, P.F. (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Academic, jazz, music teaching, Music Therapy, Research Methods, Teaching improvisation