Tag Archives: Improvisation

The Use of the Treble Recorder in Music Therapy


This week I am excited to present guest blogger Elizabeth Coombes on the use of the treble recorder in music therapy.

Elizabeth Coombes is the Course Leader of the MA Music Therapy at the University of South Wales.  She qualified as a music therapist in 2000, after working for some years as a community musician.  She has worked with a wide range of client groups, and still manages to keep up clinical work with young people with Learning Disabilities, End of Life Care and Asylumseeking families.  She is also on the Advisory Panel of Musica s Therapy International, and works on projects supporting their work in Palestine and the UK. Elizabeth writes:

‘Oh what great and heavenly contemplation is in this trifling thing…’ (Fludd, 1617)

‘I’ve been recommending my students read Becky’s blog; I’m certainly finding food for thought in the series of posts written about the instruments we use in our work.

Nicky Haire wrote recently about bringing one’s musical history into a session, including an embodied knowing of our instrument. This has spurred me on to write about my relationship with the recorder, the first instrument I learned to play when I was around 8 years old. I remember the sheer thrill of being inducted into the mysteries of learning to read music; all those little symbols and signs translated miraculously into sound!   And it was such a great feeling showing I could finger B, A and G, holding the descant recorder aloft with 30 other children, vying for teacher to see us.

My parents bought me a wooden descant recorder and my own copies of books 1 and 2 of a ‘How to Play the Recorder’ book. I spent hours in my bedroom, working my way through these.   Then in the final year of Primary School I was given a treble recorder by the music teacher, and this brought fresh challenges. It wasn’t until many years later, while working on a music therapy project in Palestine that I was to realise the potential of this instrument in music therapy.

In the Tudor era, the recorder was beloved of kings and common folk alike, with Henry VIII supposedly having 76 recorders of varying types in his collection. Every home had a least one recorder enthusiast, and the sound of these instruments in their many forms was a popular way of providing home entertainment. Much recorder music was marked ‘ad tabulam’, meaning it could be played ‘at the table’ accompanying mealtimes with its dulcet tones. By the late 17th century, though, it had reached its heyday, and subsequently was sidelined by the more brilliant and flamboyant-sounding flute.

For me, part of the charm of the recorder, and particularly the treble, is its inherent simplicity. A wooden pipe with fingerholes, and with many recorders having no keys to manipulate, it is deceptively easy to play. It can have a tone that is mellow, evoking the countryside, or bright and birdlike with a silvery ethereal sound. When used in Renaissance theatre music it often heralded the appearance of a magical being, or something out of the ordinary happening. In my view, then, the treble recorder can add something very special to the musical experience that can be offered in music therapy.

In 2011 I travelled to Palestine to work on a skillsharing project with teachers and social workers. I was taken to a small special needs school where some 20 children were ushered in to a room in which I had been ensconced. I was told it was their ‘rest time’, and that usually music from Youtube was played while the children lay on cushions. Could I play something for them? I had no idea of how I could play culturally authentic music on the treble recorder, but pushed these concerns to one side and focussed on making music in the moment for them. I allowed myself to feel the atmosphere in the room and see the children lying there on the cushions at my feet, some peeking at me, some more obediently closing their eyes in response to the teachers’ commands. Slowly and with growing confidence I explored the sounds of the recorder. I used some of the lower notes to provide a more containing space. Higher brighter sounds were added to the simple, clear melody. One child moved up against my leg and pressed himself against me, looking up at me with big eyes, drinking in the sound. It seemed as though there was a synchronisation of breath and feeling in the room for the few minutes the music lasted.

Ever since that day, I have never been without my treble recorder in a music therapy session. It isn’t always appropriate to use it, but it is ever present. It’s an instrument on which I know I can be congruent and authentic, as Luke Annesley discussed in his post in this series, and that is something that is vital to a music therapists therapeutic skillset’.





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An Improvisatory Approach to Learning Instruments


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.


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.


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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Graphic Scores, Art and Music Therapy (pt.3)

Graphic scores occupy the liminal space between art and music.

A score created from an improvisation can be as simple or complex as you wish. There is a point where the translating of music into visual images becomes art. It is a bit like the mid-point on a see-saw, carefully balanced and slightly elusive.

A major aspect of the 20th century artist Paul Klee’s work was exploring the relationship between visual arts and music. Teaching at the Bauhaus he developed a theory of form relating musical structures to line, in particular the elements of rhythm and time. This became expressed in Klee’s famous phrase, ‘taking a line for a walk’ in which the movement of the linear line embodied temporal aspects. This line illuminated and overlaid with additional marks then became ‘polyphonic’, mirroring the textural nature of music.

In the following extract, taken from a music therapy session, I used the idea of the simple line sketch influenced by Klee (Centre Pompidou, 2016; Bergstrom-Nielson, 2010). The upper line represents John the client and the lower line the therapist. The additional layered graphics correspond to musical events: diamonds (vocal sounds); eyes (eye contact); piano keyboard.


Simple Sketch Line Drawing for a Music Therapy Session


I then ‘illuminated’ this adding more detail.


Illuminated Version of Line Drawing

The background became blue to represent the blues scale, holding and framing the picture. In a similar way the blues held the structure of the session. I added lines and cross-hatching to indicate the dynamic movement between the two individuals. Colours were added to reflect tone. The picture slowly metamorphosed from a sketch into an art work. In a ouroboros circle it would then be possible to ‘perform’ the score. The art which began as session notes, transformed into art work and then transforms again into a different music.

It is almost as if this is neither art or music, but both. This is what fascinates me about graphic scores.


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

Centre Pompidou (2016) Paul Klee: Romantic Irony – The Exhibition. Centre Pompidou: Paris.



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

Magic Synaesthesia and Lost Words


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.


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.


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.



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

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.


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

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Improvisational Musical Roles in Worship


Since moving to Wiltshire I have been involved with a worship band linked to the local team of Anglican churches. The band provides worship music for around 40 people, once a month, in a rural hall. The band is made up of, electric violin, voices, keyboard, fretless bass and trombone. There are four of us in the band, I double on bass and trombone, and the keyboard and violinist double on voices. This is a fairly unusual line up, but we manage to make it work through sensitive listening and careful blending of our sounds.

The music we play is common to a modern church setting, songs written by Christian artists such as Lou Fellingham, Martin Smith and Chris Tomlin. These are essentially contemporary folk songs, with simple melodies, words and repetitive chord structures. We also play traditional hymns such as, ‘How great thou art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’. Many of these were also folk songs. Christian composers in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries took popular melodies and added Christian words and harmonic arrangements. ‘How great thou art’ was originally a Swedish traditional melody and was arranged into a hymn by Bogerg in 1885. ‘Amazing grace’ was an original composition written by Newton to illustration a sermon in 1779. As a band we make new arrangements of these hymns, changing the style, tempo, metre and harmony. This is what we call ‘putting our own spin on things’, taking traditional music and making it new.

Improvisation underpins our musical approach, and we value highly, flexibility and spontaneous response in worship. Although this approach is not unique, I am aware that these sort of processes in worship settings are not very often analysed or written about. So I thought it would be interesting in this blog to attempt to write about and analyse the musical roles.

Our aim is to provide a potential space for the congregation to engage with spiritual and social processes (Winnicott, 1971). We use the music to create an atmosphere, model and lead people into this space, and invite them to contribute. Contributions can take on a variety of guises and be anything from spontaneous prayer, songs to sharing personal stories. There is a core population that tend to come every month, and a shifting population which consists of people who are curious and visit occasionally. In general I would expect people to come from the traditional churches for a different kind of worship experience. The congregation is made up of people from a variety of denominational backgrounds, and a wide geographic area. This is mainly to do with the nature of Wiltshire, being a wide-spread rural county, and few churches in the area. In a way, what happens each time, is that a community is created for that moment, that evening. It’s similar to Monson’s (1996) idea of creating a community in jazz performance. Each time a performance takes place a community is created. This is because in spontaneous music making, everyone who is present is contributing to the whole, and this applies to both worship music and jazz.

In an evening we usually have around eight to ten pre-planned songs, which we play in two sets. What I would like to write about now is the musical relationships and roles. There are many other aspects of the worship which I could focus on, but I will leave that for another time and blog. The following is a summary of the musical roles:

Keyboard and Vocal

  • Musical Lead
  • Leading harmonically
  • Key changes
  • Melodic Motifs

Vocal Two

  • Underpins and supports lead vocal
  • Provides backing vocals
  • Responds to vocal melodic motifs
  • Initiates melodic motifs

Electric Violin

  • Underpins melody
  • Pushes music forward rhythmically
  • Responds to keyboard melodic motifs
  • Provides an alternative timbre
  • Spontaneous melodies

Vocal Three (same musician as electric violin)

  • Underpins melody
  • Provides an alternative timbre and higher register
  • Backing vocals

Fretless Bass Guitar

  • Underpins harmony
  • Grounds, holds, contains
  • Sometimes underpins melody
  • Sometimes initiates new melodies or motifs
  • Responds to keyboard, violin, voices melodic motifs

Tenor Trombone (same musician as bass)

  • Underpins melody
  • Pushes music forward melodically, rhythmically, dynamically
  • Responds to Keyboards, voices, violin melodic motif
  • Alternative timbre
  • Sometimes pushes tonality into atonality or dissonance
  • Spontaneous melodies

The keyboard player provides the lead and gives direction to both the congregation and musicians. Although some of this is pre-planned often the worship moves into spontaneous actions. The keyboard player is a trained organist and follows in a long tradition of improvising. Musicians such as C.P.E Bach, Kollmann, and Vierling all wrote treatises on the art of keyboard improvisation, many of whom used it in sacred settings (Berkowitz, 2010). Melodic motifs are created from the pre-composed melodies, and these are played in-between the verses. The motifs are a significant part of the musical language of the group, and all the musicians pick up on them. This results in a tapestry of short melodic phrases which get repeated throughout the band in different timbres, this works as an invitation to the congregation to sing spontaneously. In a recent meeting, we also utilised suggested word phrases which were flashed onto the overhead screen. This gave a traditional congregation a guide to suggested words for spontaneous singing.

The second vocalist supports and provides backing vocals. The violinist provides a melodic emphasis and pushes the music forward. The electric violin and tenor trombone blend their sounds together, and complement one another. I play trombone in a very soft, lyrically cello like way. In addition the bass provides a grounding, holding containing function. The music therapist Wigram describes this musical role as, ‘creating a stable, containing music that can act as an anchor to the client’s music’ (Wigram, 2004 p. 91). So the bass sometimes ‘acts an as anchor to the congregation’. When I play I switch between trombone and bass, switch. This requires making a choice about what instrument to play. Choice making is always a significant part of creating spontaneous music (Sawyer, 2008). The songs are often in safe guitar keys such as G major or D major, and often on the trombone I push at the boundaries of these keys, creating dissonance. The feeling I have behind this, is that it is ok to challenge the congregation, to draw them out of the safe predictable music, and into something more creative and unknown.

The result is an interweaving of musical roles that creates something bigger than the sum of its parts. Monson (1996) writes about the connections that jazz musicians make through playing music together. I feel we have the same journey. Through creating this spontaneous music over a long period of time (around 7-8 years), we have developed interpersonal connections that go deeply. Making spontaneous music with others bypasses verbal language, and somehow you come to know people in a very personal way. It’s also interesting that as a band we have developed our own verbal language for musical events, such as, ‘going off on one’ for leaving the structure of the song entirely. This phenomenon has been written about by Wilson and MacDonald (2012) who described how jazz musicians and freely improvising musicians create their own verbal language.

The hope behind all this musical activity is that we can create a potential space for worship, and that we and others might be able to engage in a spiritual journey that is edifying and healthy. I think a key to this is entering into a musical process, that in turn leads to a social and a spiritual process.


Berkowitz, A.L. (2010) The Improvising Mind, Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, I. (1996) Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sawyer, R.K. (2008) Learning music from collaboration. International Journal of Educational Research, Vol 47 (1), pp. 50-59.

Wigram, T. (2004) Improvisation: Methods and Techniques of Music Therapy. London, New York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wilson, G. B. and McDonald, R.A.R. (2012) The sign of silence: Negotiating musical identities in an improvising ensemble. Psychology of Music, Vol 40 (5), pp. 558-573.

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

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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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Narrative Inquiry, Stories and Cheating at GCSE Music.

This week in preparation for writing my RD1 (the project proposal and first milestone in the PhD process) I am busy reading about the research method called narrative inquiry. Presently there are two main options I am considering for the methodological focus of my study, phenomenological methods and narrative inquiry. Narrative inquiry is a relatively new method (Webster and Mertova, 2007) and is about hearing and recording stories of people’s lives, finding patterns or the plot within them. It treats ‘narrative knowing’ as a way of learning about aspects of people’s lives or particular happenings.

What is currently interesting me about researching stories is that it seems like a natural way of exploring identity. It’s through stories that we create our identities and the identities of others (Kenny, 2005). Stories are a way of making sense of time, of looking back, looking at the present and looking forward, we construct our identities through this constantly shifting perception of our time line. As part of my study I hope to explore how improvisation becomes integrated into ‘musical identity’ (the musical story of our lives), exploring what part it plays in the stories of music students and how taking improvisation classes contributes to those stories. So, at the moment, narrative inquiry seems to be a good fit for my study, although it is early days.

Recently I’ve found myself telling people stories about my improvisational musical journey. In different contexts with different peoples, I’ve caught myself re-counting the time I learnt this, or did that, in music improvisation. It’s as if my own narrative of music improvisation is coming to mind and informing the path and direction of my research. One story I recently told was about GCSE music (aged 14-15). I took my GCSE’S in 1988 in the first year of the new syllabus. In music education at secondary school level it was a time of experiment and change, and a move away from the western classical approach of the traditional O level. The syllabus I took at GSCE was heavily influenced by John Paynter and Peter Aston (1970), the radical music educators who advocated the teaching of music through exploration and improvisation (authors I have mentioned several times in this blog). The music GSCE explored creating compositions through improvisation. I wrote many compositions during my GCSE music, some of which I can still remember and play on the piano. However, as well as writing some compositions out on manuscript I also submitted improvisations (and pretended to my teacher and to the exams board that they were compositions). I simply recorded the improvisations, made up a title for them and sent them in for my final course work. It wasn’t until I was re-counting this narrative to my Supervisors that I thought, why did I do that, and what was behind it? Possibly I didn’t understand the point of formalising my music, when it seemed perfectly fine as a spontaneous creation, or I might have been acting as a typical teenager and doing as little work as possible in order to pass the course. However, the punch line is that my music teacher (a wonderful women called Dorothy Gallagher) attended a music teachers day for the county on the course work and compositions and I received the highest mark in the county for my improvisations (sorry compositions)! In a way this story also highlights how difficult it can be to make the divide between composition and improvisation in music, that they are one and part of the same picture.

In telling this small piece of musical narrative, the story was brought to life and it forced me to reflect on my actions of the past, creating self-reflection. It also caused one of my supervisors to think about different ways of helping her son to learn music. This improvisational narrative is an event on my time line, a part of a bigger story, a small story within stories, and has partly has led me to this point of researching improvisation in music in 2014.

Telling some of my own improvisational musical narratives, and reflecting on them has started to draw me closer to using narrative inquiry as the underpinning of my PhD study. It’s through the stories that we tell ourselves and others that we understand our lives and find meaning. Hadley (2009) in her moving narrative inquiry of Clive Robbins life and work puts it into words;

In the process of hearing someone’s story, it is already interacting with our own in such a way that is not only brings us to a greater understanding of that person’s narrative, but can encourage self-reflexivity and self-inquiry with regard to our own narrative as music therapists‘ (Hadley, 2007, p.33).

I would encourage you to think about your own musical stories, to reflect on them and tell them often, in doing so, your perception of yourself as a musician can change and develop. Narrative research is about finding a truth that is only found in stories, that stories represent the way we feel about an event. A person might tell a story one way on one day and in a different way another day, both stories are valid, both are true. I am sure a friend of mine who is a children’s story teller would agree, that stories grow and change and reveal the self of the teller and change the self of the hearer. This fascinates me, and might possibly lead me use narrative inquiry as part of my PhD study.


Hadley, S. (2009) Meaning Making through Narrative Inquiry. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy. Volume 12. (1), pp. 33-55.

Kenny, C. (2005) Narrative Inquiry. In: Wheeler, B., L., ed. (2005) Music Therapy Research. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers, pp. 4160429.

Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence, Classroom Projects in Creative Music. Cambridge, London, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Webster, L., Mertova, P. (2007) Using narrative inquiry as a research method: an introduction to using critical event narrative analysis in research on learning and teaching. London, New York: Routledge.


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Improvised Music and Dance in Creative Christian Worship

At the weekend I took part in gathering of creative people at a worship event on the South Coast of England. The evening consisted of dancers, musicians, visual artists, poets, sound and technical crew and hospitality crew. The setting was a formal church hall, with a large canvas and paints set up in one corner and microphones and speakers at one end of the room.

The evening was facilitated by two leaders (who were also dancers), who oversaw the event and made verbal  suggestions and directions for the activities to move from one creative medium to another. They also made their own spiritual interpretations of what was happening in the worship and shared these with the creative artists. The event lasted four hours and had different timed  phases of activity which were pre-arranged, these were:

  • Songs and music led by first group of musicians
  • Songs and music led by second group of musicians
  • Drumming circle
  • Songs and music led by first group of musicians

The dance took place continuously in the centre of the room. I was working with the first group of musicians, playing the trombone. The group I was playing with were very old friends, and people I have known for  25 years, we occasionally work together at similar events  and are always amazed and encouraged at how the musical, social and spiritual connection between us happens despite the passage of time.

The main emphasis of the evening was improvisation, across the all the art forms. For the purposes of this blog I am going to focus on the music and dance expressions, but there were also visual arts, poetry and words which were utilised as part of the evening. Using music improvisation in Christian worship is part of a long historical tradition from the sacred organ improvisations of J.S Bach (Eric Barne Hill, 2014), to Scottish Psalm singing (Education Scotland, 2014) or the hymns and spirituals of the blues (History of Rock, 2014). Having an emphasis on improvisation did not mean that the evening was ad-hoc or unplanned. There is a very common misconception that if something is improvised it is totally spontaneously without pre-thought or planning. This evening had a pre-planned structure the musicians had songs which were pre-composed (and the dancers may also have had some pre-planned dances and equipment such as flags, banners and staffs). The group I was working with had a repertoire of songs that they had  prepared. The evening began with these songs, and they were used for a basis for improvisation. This is similar to the practice of playing the changes in jazz standards, or extemporising on a folk tune. The songs were sung in their entirety a couple of times, to let the people in the room familiarise  themselves with them, and then the guitarists and keyboardist played the chords again several times over, leaving aural space, to allow for other musical or creative events to happen. This method of opening up a song, is a tried and tested formula, used many times by the group over the years, and also a familiar way of creating music in many modern church settings in the UK (and around Europe and the USA as far as I am aware). In the church I attended as a teenager this technique was taught to the musicians and referred to as ‘creating a platform’, in my training as a music therapist it was called ‘frame working’ (Wigram, 2007), and in the study of group creativity it’s called using a ‘referent’ (Sawyer,2012). It is interesting that Saywer, discusses a similar technique in the context of improvised theatre. In the creation of improvised theatre, the ‘referent’ is the basic story and lines of dialogue, both of which the performers use as a grounding on which to improvise and create new theatre each time they perform. In this creative worship context, we created new songs and music out of  existing songs, and the improvised songs were always different.

Sawyer also writes about the collaborative nature of improvised theatre and how the members of the group are caught up in a symbiotic relationship of interactions and reactions, out of which new material is created. This was the driving force behind the evening of creative worship. The musicians began the event and the dancers responded, and then throughout the evening it become a mutual relationship between dancers and musicians. I was very aware of this when I was playing the trombone. At one point I began to play some glissandi and had my eyes closed, when I opened them a group of around 10 dancers were making swooping low movements backwards and forwards. I remember thinking, ‘did I just respond to their movements with my music, or did they respond to me’? The interlaced relationships between dancers and musicians was extremely connected and it was difficult to tell where the ideas had begun and who was responding to who.

An important element in the evening was the facilitation by the two leaders, it reminded me of Winnicott’s (1971) holding and containing space, in which the therapist or carer creates a potential space which allows the child to play, create and grow. Through controlling the environment and the pace of the evening the two leaders were able to facilitate a holding space.

A key skill in musical improvisational activity is the ability to reflect back to others, their mood, experiences, and way of being through music. In music therapy this is often referred to as mirroring and matching (Wigram, 2004). It involves creating in music a person’s way of being, their movements, their sounds, their emotional presentation, and giving back to them a musical portrait of themselves. Chung and Sawyer (2008) write about the importance of the musician reflecting back the mood of listeners in the context of jazz improvisations. They describe how the most effective improvisers in jazz are able to demonstrate sensitivity to their audience and their environment, through musically responding to and reflecting back to the audience their emotional and physical presentation and the general atmosphere in the room. In creative worship the same skills are utilised. The creative practitioners reflect back to the congregation their mood and feelings and way of being, as well as the atmosphere in the general environment, they are expert listeners and expressers. In creative worship the musicians and dancers listen simultaneously (with all their senses) to the congregation and to the holy spirit. The job of the creative practitioner in Christian worship is to express what it is to be human, in that moment and specific place, and also at the same time to make a connection with the spiritual part of being human and spirit of God. Whether you believe in a God or the Holy Spirit or not, the arts and especially improvised arts are intimately connected to spiritual experiences, expressions and transformations. Chung and Sawyer (2008) write about the spiritually transforming potential of jazz, and how improvised music can open up opportunities for change and development. This change and development takes place through the reflection, and connections created by the music between people and the spirit of God. In creative worship the musicians and congregation are caught up in a conversation between each other and a mutual desire to listen for and seek out the spiritual. Using improvisation opens up opportunities for the possibility of  emotional, cognitive, physical, social and spiritual change. This then  creates a space in which the Holy Spirit can work, and speak, and develop people’s lives.

It would be interesting to find out how people experienced this evening, and if there were any tangible changes. For myself, the evening was about connecting and playing music with old friends, expressing who I am now in music, reflecting back the mood, actions and atmosphere of the dance and sharing my own spiritual journey through creative writing and improvised music (which I hoped encouraged others). For me personally, it was an evening of social, spiritual, musical and cognitive development and continuation of my own journey. I should point out that the musicians and dancers consisted of a mixture of professionals and amateurs, and this mix of people brought both variety and skill which enhanced the effectiveness of the evening.

In summary the creation of a holding and containing environment, the skilful leading and facilitation, the use of song structures and musical and movement frameworks, sensitive reflection and listening and the collective and collaborative nature of the evening all combined to create a  potential space for change, growth and spiritual development.

If you would like more information on creative arts worship events happening in the South East, South West or Wales, please contact me at bwskylark@yahoo.co.uk




Chung, T., Sawyer, C. (2008) The Trinity Encounter and All that Jazz, Can Jazz Transform us Spiritually? In: Abernethy, A. D. (ed) Worship that Changes Lives. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.


Education Scotland (2014) Scotland’s Songs. Available from : http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandssongs/about/songs/psalmsinging/index.asp [Accessed 15th October 2014].


Eric Barne Hill (2014) The Daily Improvisation. Available from: http://ericbarnhill.wordpress.com/facts-about-improvisation/ [Accessed 15th October 2014].


History of Rock (2014) A Short History of the Blues. Available from: http://www.history-of-rock.com/blues.htm [Accessed 15th October 2014].


Sawyer, K. (2012) Extending Sociocultural Theory to Group Creativity. Vocations and Learning. Volume 5, pp, 59-75.


Wigram, T. (2004) Improvisation: Methods and Techniques of Music Therapy. London and New York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


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













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