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Learning to Improvise Music: A PhD Project

Learning to Improvise The Music of Music Therapy: Freedom and Transformations

This week I am attending the Italian Music Therapy Conference in Trapani, Sicily. The Italian Association of Professional Music Therapists (AIM) is hosting the general assembly of the European Music Therapy Confederation (EMTC). The focus of the conference  is ‘the music of music therapy’, thus my research topic –  investigating how musicians and music therapists learn to improvise is very appropriate.

The phenomenological arts based study, involving 10 music therapy and postgraduate music students, looks into the lived experience of learning to improvise. Through a series of interviews and improvisations with my participants, I have investigated their first, special and current experiences in improvised music.

An important aspect of the project has been actually making music and improvising with my participants, which has given a richness and depth of quality to the data which words alone could not convey. Out of each improvisation I have created hand-drawn visual interpretations or graphic scores. These scores have been sent back to the participants, with the audio recording, for additional comments, creating new data. I intend to show some extracts of these scores in Trapani (see example below):


Participant 8 / Minute 3 / Purple shapes – Participant plays the Double Bass / Green shapes – Researcher plays the melodica.

The score above reads clockwise, the shapes are overlapping to show sounds occupy the same temporal space. It was created through free-drawing and then building a repertoire of shapes to donate different textures and musical events. Participants responses to the scores have been varied, with some adding many more extra comments, and others simply sending the score back with no further comments.

Learning to improvise can be construed as a misnomer, ‘how can you learn to improvise?’ But it can be thought about as a process in music which engenders social, cognitive, emotional and physical engagement (Rose, 2017). It is a complex  multi-layered process.

I will be presenting a poster looking at the theme of freedom and transformations, which has been particularly prevalent in the PhD data analysed so far (using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis). Participants have described learning to improvise (in music in general and in music therapy) as: eliciting feelings of personal freedom; as a means of relating to music more creatively; transforming their view of music or helping them to increase in social confidence. One student described to me their struggle to ‘re-learn’ improvisation skills on a music therapy course, and how improvisation in music therapy had challenged their pre-conceptions.  A particular quote that stands out, is that of a participant relating to his first experiences in improvising on placement in music therapy, as alike to ‘giving away the freedom’. He had experienced feelings of personal freedom and liberation when he had first began to improvise, then when he played with clients he felt as if he was ‘giving away the freedom’. I am very curious about this phrase, and as I enter into the next stage of my PhD, shall continue to wonder and ponder on its meaning.

It is clear that improvisation in music is not straight forward, but involves many layers, and suggests different ways of being in music. I hope to uncover the understanding of some of these layers as the PhD project progresses.



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Performative Arts Social Science and Music Therapy

Performative arts social science (pass for short) is an alternative view of ‘arts-based research’. Leavy and Jones see the two terms as interchangeable and with a different emphasis. Jones views pass as highlighting the sharing of a creative research process with an audience, whilst Leavy uses the term ‘arts-based research’ to describe any social science which utilizes the arts. Pass seems to be more directly relevant for music therapy, in that it incorporates the notion of ‘sharing with others in a creative process’ in its language (Beer, 2016).

Recently I have been using pass as a label to understand my research. Being a musical performer, thinking about relationship with others and sharing creative processes is the bread and butter of life. Everytime I step out into the world with an instrument, be it to play jazz or to therapize, I am thinking about musical communication. Connecting with an audience, with clients, is a vital part of the vagabond life of a musical therapist-performer.

But what does ‘performative arts social science’ really mean? Is it a useful term for arts therapies research?

The word performance is commonly understood as describing entertainment, or showing off talent. However, there is a deeper sense of performance or performative which is connected to the common sharing of a creative process. The theologian Ward (1992) defines it as, ‘form coming through’, or carrying ‘something through to completion’. 

In qualitative social science research ‘form is worked out, brought-through’. It is possible to perform research through a constant sharing of process, for example I am doing this now in this blog. The process of ‘form coming through’ is present in qualitative research that utilizes the arts (McNiff, 1998; Leavy, 2009). In pass art is understood as social, and always created in relation to others (Jones, 2012). The researcher takes part in a continious co-creation with research participants, with research audience, co-creating the meaning, discovering new knowledge and potentially opening up a space for new audiences.  

My PhD project involves a similar process, co-creating data with the participants using spontaneous music, interviews and responses to graphic scores. Continious sharing with a research audience through blogging and twitter (thank you for reading), showing reflexive art works  (Schenstead, 2012) and through traditional means such as conferences and journals.

Performative refers to the process, to relationships, rather than a single event. This implies that it might be useful to explore pass in arts therapies research, since we also view the arts through a social/relational/process lens.


Beer, L.E. (2016) From Embedded to Embodied: Including Music in Arts-Based Music Therapy Research. Music Therapy Perspectives, 34, pp. 33-40.

Jones, K. (2012) Connecting Research with Communities through Performative Social Science. The Qualitative Report, 17 (18), pp. 1-8.

Jones, K., and Leavy, P. (2014) A Conversation Between Kip Jones and Patricia Leavy: Arts-Based Research, Performative Social Science and Working on the Margins. The Qualitative Report, 19 (38), pp. 1-7.

Leavy, P. (2009) Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice. (2nd ed). New York: The Guildford Press.

McNiff, S. (1998) Art-Based Research.London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Schenstead, A.R. (2012) The Timelessness of Arts-Based Research: Looking Back Upon A Heuristic Self-Study and the Arts-Based Reflexivity Data Analysis. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 12(1).

Ward, R. (1992) Speaking from the Heart: Preaching with Passion. Nashville: Abindon Press, p. 77.



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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:


A Line Sketch


A Box Sketch


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.


Key for Instruments


A Time Line


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:


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.



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.



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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.

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Making-up music to movement


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.

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Teaching Improvisation – a balance between the creative and the technical


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.


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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