Tag Archives: jazz

‘Finding a voice’: The saxophone in music therapy.



This month I am very excited to introduce Luke Annesley as a guest, to the series on the use of instruments in music therapy. Luke is a jazz saxophone player and music therapist. He works for Oxleas Music Therapy Service (with children and young people). He has a quartet with trumpet player Jim Howard called ‘Moonscape’ (you can find some of their music at https://soundcloud.com/user-931488122 ) and he plays with The John Wilson Orchestra. He also produces and presents the BAMT podcast ‘Music Therapy Conversations’. and frequently lectures at GSMD. Luke also has a blog site found at https://www.jazztoad.blogspot.co.uk. Luke writes:

In jazz, the saxophone puts you out front, ‘expressing yourself’, carrying the melody, getting all the glory, putting across your individuality, your musical personality. For this you have to develop a ‘personal sound’. A ‘good tone’ is not enough. Being a jazz saxophone player is a journey of self-discovery, in which your relationship to the tradition must be addressed, followed by the integration of stylistic influences, leading to a mythical moment when you ‘find your voice’. Paradoxically, the great saxophone players in jazz, Pres, Hawk, Bird, Trane, Rollins, Getz, Wayne Shorter, were/are great musical personalities, who seem to be expressing something beyond the instrument, and beyond themselves. There’s a weight of expectation on the saxophone that perhaps is not carried, in the same way, on rhythm section instruments, but then I would say that. On the other hand, you also have to play for the band, which sometimes means playing 2nd alto.

Recently I went to hear the great alto player Geoff Simkins play at The Vortex in Dalston. He plays with unstinting inventiveness, all the time, while connecting to the tradition, playing melodically, lyrically, recalling at times Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond, or Ornette Coleman, but always being himself. He was playing with a group of younger musicians (Tom Ollendorff on guitar, Connor Chapman on bass, James Maddren on drums), all at the top of their game and fully ‘up-to-date’ in their approach. There was no discernable musical generation gap. But there’s not the remotest hint of Geoff striving to be hip, or being a ‘daring innovator’. There’s no ‘image’ or agenda. He’s just playing, with total honesty and commitment, and playing really really well. I realised that it’s not really about striving to ‘find your voice’. Who you are will come through, probably, but, in any case, who cares? As a listener, I just want to hear the music clearly.

In music therapy, for me, using the saxophone always has a question mark attached. Very often there’s an internal dialogue along the lines of ‘Obviously the saxophone wouldn’t be appropriate in this context. Or would it?’ The starting point is not to play, because it might overwhelm the client, or I might tip towards satisfying my own musical needs, or it’ll just be too loud. But if I lose my connection to the saxophone in music therapy sessions then I do, in a sense, lose my connection to my musical self. It’s my main conduit, if I’m really expressing something, and what’s the point in playing, either performatively or ‘clinically’, if you’re not going to express something?

And I’ve found it useful in surprising situations. Working in groups with under 5s, the saxophone can raise the bar. It might be a sound the children have never heard before. (‘Sleeping bunnies’ works well in the middle register, by the way, maybe written G or F.) Working with older children or young people, I often find the saxophone useful for improvising with drums. We can get into a free jazz/improvised music space, which can become an exciting musical dialogue. Or the saxophone can provide a clearer alternative to using my singing voice, which has a limited range. In an improvising group, it can be useful if I need to cut through the chaos, perhaps provide a melodic thread to suggest musical connections. I use it sparingly, but I couldn’t do without it. It’s the instrument on which I can be the most congruent, which I suppose is what ‘finding your voice’ might be about.




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Guided Imagery in Music


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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











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

How to be a successful musician

Picture 004

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

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

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


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

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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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Is Improvisation an acquired or a taught skill?


I’ve recently been reading some older papers from around twenty years ago which discuss whether music improvisation is an acquired or a taught skill. Hall (1992), an ethnomusicologist, thought that improvisation couldn’t be taught and was only acquired and absorbed through culture and unconscious learning. He thought that musicians primarily learnt to improvise through being in a musical improvisational culture ( ie, jazz) and learning was through hearing and seeing others improvise.

I wonder if the question of whether improvisation can be taught was a contentious issue in the 1990’s?  Since other educators and musicians at the time wrote very clearly about the teaching of improvisation and championed the introduction of courses into formal music education. One such American educator was Kraus (1991) who devised a seven step method (based on the Dalcroze  style of music teaching, 2014) designed to help musicians develop improvisational skills, from first steps to the development of stylistic playing and individual style.

Indeed my own experience of formal music education in the 1990’s was very dismissive of improvisational skills, and several times at music college I was told that improvisation couldn’t be taught, and one tutor even stated that jazz musicians were only playing jazz because they couldn’t make it in the classical world! Thankfully, the world of music education has moved on, and now improvisation, especially jazz improvisation is part of the mainstream for music students studying at Higher Education level.

So, back to the question;

‘Is Improvisation an acquired or taught skill?’

In my opinion it’s probably both, children are natural improvisers and music improvisation is part of childhood play and development (Flohr, 1979). If any of you have ever read the wonderful book by Iona and Peter Opie (1985), ‘The Singing Game’ which is a rich collection of playground songs created and sung by children, its obvious that musical play is a natural and human inclination. So if we all have music play within us it must be possible to develop our natural inclination to play with sounds and learn how to harness the skill when we go to school or college. I expect that both types of learning continue into adulthood, and we continue to unconsciously absorb musical cultures and influences, but also learn from tutors, mentors, recordings, performances, workshops, lessons and lectures.

Right now, at the beginning of my research journey,  I am interested in stories of how people have learnt to improvise and what your experience has been. Please feel free to share and contact me about any of your experiences of improvising, how you learnt to improvise, was it at home playing along to a recording, or was it with a teacher?  Feel free to leave a comment below or e-mail me at bwskylark@yahoo.co.uk


Dalcroze (2014) Dalcroze. Available at: http://www.dalcrozeusa.org/. Accessed 24th August 2014.

Flohr, J. (1979) Musical Improvisation Behaviour of Young Children. PhD. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Hall, E. (1992) Improvisation as an Acquired, Multilevel Process. Ethnomusicology (online). Volume 36. (2.), pp. 223-235. [Accessed 21st August 2014].

Kratus, J. (1991) Growing with improvisation. Music Educators Journal. Volume 78. (4), [Accessed 21st August 2014].

Opie, I and Opie, P. (1985) The Singing Game. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.


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