Currently working on drawings which reflect Synaesthetic experiences. Listening to music and drawing what I see. Up and coming exhibition at Pewsey Tea Rooms June 4th to Saturday 6th July … Here is a taster …
Creating essays which are ALSO art works.
Trying to create a beautiful book is a relief in a world where we are so often virtual and on-line. It was a pleasure to create a physical object and to try to use that to communicate a creative heart.
As part of the taught module in ‘psycho-social’ studies, at the University of the West of England, I wrote a 6000 word assignment which included a reflective portfolio and micro research project. My aim was to create something beautiful, which was both aesthetically pleasing, and academically sound. This was instigated by the reflexive aspect of the assignment, being asked to express a personal research journey. I thus fell to using music<>visual aspects of reflection. This was the first ‘physical’ object I had been asked to produce towards a PhD, and it seemed important to express something tangibly creative through the act of making.
I was inspired by the idea of artists books, which are art works in the form of a book, made as small runs or one-off objects. I wanted my essay to give the reader a sensory experience of musical synaesthesia, or coloured hearing. This was done by the traditional practice of incorporating prints, on separate pages:
In addition, I wanted to give the experience of the simultaneous act of images combined with text. I did this by creating a hypertext, layering graphics underneath the words though out the document. This was inspired by the music therapist Stige (2002) who discusses the idea of different ways of collecting and viewing data such as, music, diaries, poems and drawings. In combining visual and text together I was revealing my own neurological difference, that the first thought is music <> visual and then it becomes words. My thought processes through out the module, involved thinking about highly coloured shapes which were also aspects of experience in improvised music. I wanted to try to convey this through the making of an artists book.
The next stage was to take some of the actual pieces of the art work and tie them onto the book:
I used all of the spare pieces on the books, so they became merged with the art works.
The final aspect was to use the paper craft technique of applying layers of paper on top of the page using masking tape. I also played with the formatting of the words.
The question remains what will my final PhD look like?
I’ve no idea what so ever!
Stige, B. (2002) Cultured-Centered Music Therapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers
A few weeks ago I had an intense study day preparing for my progression Viva. As some light relief at lunch time, I decided to check out the local children’s playground. To my delight a new roundabout had been installed. Since the playground was empty I decided to try it out. To my puzzlement and frustration, every time I got to the apex, I flew off and rolled onto the ground. This happened even after three or four attempts. On closer inspection I realised that the roundabout was on an angle (why I have no idea) and is actually tricky to stay on, you have to hold on really tight. I have not managed it yet.
Why am I sharing this? The PhD has felt rather like an unbalanced roundabout ride over the past weeks. I cling on, thrilling at the speed and then keep falling off at the top. There have been some very big highs over the last month, I survived the progression Viva, using newly acquired vocal -speech coaching techniques. I managed to try and explain what it is I am doing, including how improvised music might be useful to reveal unconscious processes (a tricky one to explain in words). I completed a very long report, which took hours of working away at writing skills with a dyslexia tutor. I presented a poster at a national conference, and was overwhelmed with the amount of interest in my study, where I definitely suffered from the classic ‘impostor’ syndrome. In between these dizzying heights, I kept rolling off the roundabout and wondering where I was, but thankfully there is a nice, soft grassy landing and time to keep getting back on. I am determined to conquer the puzzle of the ’roundabout’.
It occurs to me doing a PhD is also a little bit like this:
The Magic Roundabout Swindon – which I have to negotiate on a regular basis. Apparently the best technique is just to drive forwards whatever is in front of you.
Or maybe a PhD is like this?
The Magic Roundabout …
Only time will tell!
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.
So far, doing a PhD, has basically been a long writing task, interspersed with meetings, reading and thinking. What the books don’t tell you, however, is how hungry you get.
Since I started my PhD I have been very hungry. The kitchen draw is now filled with ‘PhD’ snacks, which the man is banned from eating. My snacks are nuts, dark chocolate, dried fruit, oat-cakes, peanut butter, bananas, and the list goes on. It’s so important to eat well when you are studying, better food, means better words.
The other issue, is the need to find a rhythm to working, and take breaks. My usual habit of walks in our local nature reserve are now even more essential. Sometimes I take a break by doing house work, running round the house. It doesn’t require any thought and is an opportunity to move. My favourite type of break is a music break. Being a musician, writing about music, I can’t listen to music when I am working. So as a reward I allow myself to listen to a current favourite track, when a task is finished.
Everyone has to find their individual way of working, when a task is so long and intensive. What works one week, might be different the next week. The key is to recognise how you are that day, and think what you need to do to look after yourself for the day. Sometimes I don’t manage this and end up lying under the desk, but on other days, the rhythm is right and the words flow.
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.
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.
Recently, I was involved in running a workshop for music therapists on the subject of improvised movement and music. For those of you who have read my blog before, you will know this is an interest of mine. There were many high points to the day, meeting new people, using the lovely facilities at UWE performing arts centre and enjoying the freedom of uninhibited movement. One particular moment stands out, I was asked to play the piano whilst four people moved in pairs. The idea was that in pairs, people mirrored each others movements. They did this, with and without their eyes closed. The aim of the exercise was to explore interaction in close movement. My remit was to play holding, supportive music. I found myself becoming very absorbed in observing the movers. They were so intense and seemed to be highly emotional, as they moved gently and beautifully together.
I used the piano to simultaneously reflect the group, and the pairs. This is a duel reflection skill, using improvise music to reflect the group as a whole, but also to reflect individuals. The music has an overall feel, and has small elements in it which represent individuals. The other process I used was to represent each duo with a different hand. This is a multi-layered response, which as far as I know is only possible in music. To have a multiplicity of reflection, happening simultaneously in sound. Admittedly this is a skill, and one I developed over years working in music therapy groups. Thirdly, when the couples moved physically away from each other, I played large intervals to represent the space between them. This is something I was taught in music therapy training; but it seems so instinctive to represent physical spaces in sounds. What fascinates me is that physical movements and sounds seem to be intimately connected. When I dance to live music, its like the music is in my body. When I play music in response to others movements, its like the music emanates from their bodies.
Music is essentially a physical art form, made of vibrations. This is an obvious statement, but so easy to forget in a world saturated with sounds. Perhaps its important to keep remembering this as music therapists, and make sure we think carefully about physical responses. It’s also vastly important for performing, you almost have an ethical responsibility to think about what you are doing to others when you play music. This is why it’s so important to get sound levels right, a concert that is too loud can physically damage people.
The exercise I accompanied on the piano was an intense experience and high point of the day. It felt like the movers were expressing their humanity and connectedness, even though they were strangers. The music I played supported them emotionally and reflected their movements, it was a privilege to play. I have many friends who are dance, movement therapists and I really value their input and insights into movement and music. I would like to suggest that more dialogue happen between the two professions of music therapy and dance and movement therapy, so we can share skills, and acknowledge our shared heritage in sounds.
One of the heart warming facts about my PhD experience so far has been the dyslexia support I have received from the University of the West of England (http://www.uwe.ac.uk). Last December I had my very first official test and diagnosis of dyslexia, with visual stress syndrome. I had been told at school (in the 80’s) that I was dyslexic and then been left to muddle my way through school. Over the course of my student and working life I developed various tactics to overcome problems or hide it from employees and tutors. One of the most successful was the recruitment of friends and family in proof-reading before sending any work into the outside world. The other was pouring over the dictionary combined with a thesaurus, and then of course, a God-send, was spell check and computers.
After a fairly stressful assessment, consisting of three hours of tests I couldn’t do well. I had an official diagnosis. In the report was a long list of help, support and recommendations I should have when studying (and working). Initially the list made me burst into tears. Here was a list of things I had done for myself, without support (for example getting handouts for lectures well in advance of the lessons). It was an emotional experience, to finally have recognition that I had some specific needs around spelling, reading and writing. Since then I have received a grant from student finance England, and been given some amazing software. I am currently using ‘mind view’ to write the first draft of my literature review. This allows me to write in the form of a mind map, rather than creating the usual messy word document and drawings on paper. I have been given proof-reading software, including a dictionary that has pictures. And as a musician, aural-note taker is very interesting, its software to write aural notes whilst listening to a recording. This has potential for other areas, such as song-writing, and music therapy clinical notes.
Probably the most useful equipment has been using coloured overlays to read black and white text. Last week when reading music (now green) I didn’t get lost in the notation, the notes didn’t bounce around. I am due to buy a set of green glasses, provided by student finance England. Having green text is making a huge difference to my speed when reading, and to my stamina. In addition I have some software, that is text to speech (claro-read). This makes it possible to listen to papers whilst doing other things (my kitchen cupboards are very clean).
Overall, having this support is making PhD work a lot smoother than some of my other educational experiences. It’s a relief to use software which is geared towards creativity and visual thinking, and great to finally have the support I need when studying.
The Art of Retreat
An important part of developing a spiritual and creative life is going on retreat. A retreat can be for a day, a few hours, in your back garden or in wild places, such as islands and mountains. In fact it doesn’t really matter where you are on retreat, what matters is your intention. I go on retreat 2-3 times a year, and think I need to do it more often, especially since it has such a transforming effect on my emotional, spiritual and creative life.
It’s a funny thing saying to people you are going on ‘retreat’, often I am met with blank looks or misunderstandings. It goes against the grain of our society to spend a few days in contemplation, without all the entertainment and trappings of our modern ways of life. But it’s probably something that a lot of people could benefit from, whatever their religious or spiritual leanings.
So, I thought I’d write this blog with a bit of advice about retreat making.
The first thing to do is find somewhere to go. There are some excellent places to go to be found at http://www.retreats.org.uk. But you don’t have to go to a dedicated retreat centre, you can book a b&b for a night, go the local park or sit in a spare room in your house.
The next thing is what to take with you. I often take a pile of books, since I love reading, I have provided a list of helpful books at the end of this blog. If you are a creative type, taking a sketch pad, pencils, manuscript paper, modelling clay, whatever, helps you process your thoughts. Its best to stay away from technology, i.e. don’t take your lap top, or only take your phone for emergencies. The cascade of information we receive through social media, and the world wide web is not conducive to meditation or contemplation. Then take all you need practically, warm clothes, rain hats etc.
Going on retreat is an act of intention, it’s not a holiday or a mini break, its more like going to a place with the intention of listening.
Since I am a Christian, I go away to listen and pray to God and the Holy Spirit.
As a ‘creative’ person, in retreat I am also refreshing my creativity, giving my mind a rest from focus on particular projects and letting it wander to other ways of being, other creative ideas. This is a really important point, that out of stillness and contemplation can come creativity. Creative projects can have their roots in times of stillness.
When you are on retreat, use your senses, and practice the art of looking, listening, touch and smell. Either walk, or sit and notice the environment around you in small and big detail. On the beach, you might notice a beautiful shell, or sea flower, or a smooth round pebble. Listen to every sound you can, and build up the sound scape of the environment, and touch, run your hand through the sand, pick up cool pebble. Use the environment, to inform your listening. Listen through your whole senses.
It may take some time to start to listen, a few days even. But once you are listening and have found a still place. Then take some time to either write, paint, draw, sing. Express what you have thought or heard in a medium which expresses you. In my most recent retreat, on a beautiful beach, I listened and thought I heard words from the holy spirit (this is my belief). I picked up some pebbles and wrote words on the pebbles, as a way of expressing the emotion, content and feeling of what i was hearing. So find a way of expressing what you hear.
The retreat doesn’t have to end, when you get back home. Often after being away on retreat, I have started the process of listening intensely, and i continue the practice in my daily life. Picking up the book I was reading and finishing it, going into the garden and contemplating again what i heard. One of the most exciting things for me, is the art or music that flows from these times. My recent series of poetry art cards, developed out of retreat walking and times of intense, mindful listening.
So I would encourage you to try this. Of course you don’t have to do it the same way as me. But the art of retreat, is making space for yourself, listening to your God, and finding health in world where there are so many pressures. If you can, go on retreat, for an hour or a few days, I think you will find a freshness and new spring to your steps.
Adam, D. (2004) Music of the Heart: New Psalms in the Celtic Tradition. Great Britain: SPCK.
Adams, I. (2013) Running Over Rocks: Spiritual Practices to Transform Tough Times. Norwich, Canterbury Press.
De Waal, E. (1992) A Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton: Making A Private Retreat. Guildford, Surrey: Eagle Books.
Lacey, R. (2003) The Street Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan.
Nouwen, Henri. (2013) Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life. Great Britain: SPCK.