Category Archives: Teaching improvisation

An Improvisatory Approach to Learning Instruments

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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.

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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)

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Magic Synaesthesia and Lost Words

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Extract from ‘The Musical Flow Moment -Saxophone Timbre’

Researching the intersection between art, music, words and modalities of expression.

I recently wrote an assignment on ‘the ineffable’ in musical experience, how we become lost for words when we try to speak about music. Through attempting to write this (with words) I found myself reaching into the visual to try to describe the musical.

Music for me triggers shapes, colours, spatial sensations and touch (Cytowic, 2002; Marks, 1975). Compounded with this I have visual stress syndrome, which means I process colours and light differently, and black and white print moves around on the page.

So in order to explore the PhD study of improvised musical experiences. My first impulse is to draw.

Since January I have spent time researching art focused on shapes; such as the work of textile designer Tibor Reich or linocuts of Angie Lewin. Both of these artists take their inspiration from the natural world, using shapes that are already present around us, but it is the artist job to notice them and bring them to our attention. In the same way, music for me has a particular natural form, and it is this I have been trying to express. The process was:

  • Choosing two colours which related to timbre, then drawing large fluid lines
  • Drawing further shapes to represent different aspects of the music
  • Adding smaller lines in
  • Repeating the process.

Each picture is rather like a continually developing jazz standard, the first one is created, but then the second becomes an improvisation on the first, the third on the second and so on.

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Extract from ‘The Musical Flow Moment – Bass and Voice’

As I drew these pictures particular thoughts dreamt up, the lines felt like drawing bodies together, with music inside. I had words such as ‘ musical archeology, digging-deeper and magic’ bouncing around my mind. It was if, in the act of visually realising the shapes, they came into sharper focus and shifted from my unconscious to conscious mind. This then enabled clearer thought about the musical experiences. For example, on drawing shapes based on traditional notation, this morphed into inner body shapes, clef’s became kidneys, note stems veins. I became aware of drawing the embodiment of music.

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Extract from ‘The Musical Flow Moment – Bodies and Notations’

To return for a moment to the subject of ‘ineffability’. It is almost as if some experiences are without words. That there exists a musical realm, a visual realm which is sensory, embodied and felt. This is music as ‘musical thought’, visual as ‘visual thought’ – only then is it translated into words. It is possible that this ‘other dimension’ is closer to our primitive selves, to our authentic selves, and it is only in the arts, especially in improvised arts, that we connect and reveal this part to each other.

 

References

Cytowic, R.E. (2002) Synaesthesia: A Union of the Senses: Massachuetts: MIT Press.

Marks, L.E. (1975) On Coloured-Hearing Synesthesia: Cross-Modal Translations of Sensory Dimensions. Ppsychological Bulletin. 82(3). pp. 303-331.

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Filed under Academic, jazz, learning, Music Therapy, PhD, Spiritual, Synaestheisa, Teaching improvisation, Uncategorized

Musicking or Music Therapy?

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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.

 

 

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Can you practice improvisation?

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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.

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Teaching Improvisation – a balance between the creative and the technical

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Over the past two weeks I have started teaching an improvisation evening leisure class at a local FE college. Whilst being very happy to have the opportunity to try out some of my new knowledge in music improvisation, I have found it challenging to really get the heart of how to teach improvisation and meet the needs and expectations of the students. The course is set as fairly broad, and students are at all differing levels of musical skill and experience. Teaching lessons like these is not totally dissimilar to planning music therapy sessions in special education. As a music therapist working in special needs schools I had to devise educational objectives for children with special needs, and find ways of meeting these objectives in the sessions. In running this class for adults, I have to find out what the students want to learn, what their expectations are and then find ways of helping them learn.

I began the workshops by discussing with the students what they wanted to get out of the course and also did some careful observation and listening to their playing and responses during the first lesson (a bit like doing a music therapy assessment). I then decided to adjust the lessons plans week by week to fit into the students needs and learning path. The lesson last week seemed to be a success it used the following format:

  1. Focusing on defining the difference between pulse and rhythm using clapping exercises.
  2. Dorian mode, and inviting the class to improvise using a bass riff.
  3. Free improvisation (supported by myself on the piano).

I think one of the main challenges in teaching improvisation maybe striking a balance between teaching technical musical skills and encouraging creative exploration. It’s common for courses to either fall into one camp or the other. Traditionally teaching in Jazz has placed emphasis on the importance of learning technical music skills before learning creative expression (Murphy, 2009). Although I think there is some truth in this, that learning a technical skills (such as the scale of D major) is important and facilities being able to find creative expression and freedom. It is also important to explore creative expression at whatever level, from complete beginner to advanced musician. In a study of musical identities amongst improvising musicians Wilson and MacDonald (2012) found that jazz musicians placed more emphasis on the importance of technical skill in improvisation and freely improvising musicians placed more emphasis on the importance of the social and relational aspects of improvising. The groups were polarised into their culture and way of thinking about music. However, I think, that both aspects are important, that its important to have a technical grasp of music but also important to have a creative grasp, the challenge is doing both at the same time.

In the class I am currently running, the students have expressed a wish to learn both aspects of improvising. So last week I included specific technical information and then also a free improvisation. I was also open to any initiated music by the class, for example one student started a blues jam and I encouraged the class to go with it, letting the class take the lead in their own learning experience. This may be a key skill in teaching improvising, providing the right technical musical information but also providing what Winnicott (1971) called the ‘potential space’ in which people are free to explore play and creativity.

References

Murphy, J. (2009) Beyond the Improvisation Class: Learning to Improvise in a University Jazz Studies Program In Solis, G. and Nettl, B., eds. (2009) Musical Improvisation, Art, Education and Society. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Wilson, G, B. and MacDonald, R, A, R. (2012) The Sign of Silence: Negotiating musical identities in an improvising ensemble. Psychology of Music. 40(5), pp.  558 – 573.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Academic, Music Therapy, Research Methods, Teaching improvisation