Tag Archives: Music

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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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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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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Musicking or Music Therapy?


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.




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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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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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Dance Performance at Salisbury Arts Centre

At the moment I am curious about dance. This is because the last two projects I have been involved in have both included an integration of live music and dance. I have never been in the audience of a contemporary dance performance and so last night decided to put this right, by going to Salisbury Arts Centre in Wiltshire (www.salisburyartscentre.co.uk).  I went to see ‘Artificial Things’ by the Stopgap dance company, non-disabled and disabled dancers together through collaborative work. I went with an open mind and open curiosity.

The first thing that struck me was that it was rather beautiful, the dancers looked beautiful, the space looked beautiful. What seemed so attractive was the intimacy of watching people move together, their bodies interweaving around each other. The setting of Salisbury Arts Centre, enhanced this beauty. The arts centre is based in a converted church, and a high roof space and stone pillars framed the performance. The seating was stacked at a high angle with around 80 people in the audience, but gave the illusion of intimacy. Being in this space gave the feeling that the dancers were dancing only for you, or looking only at you. The intimate feeling was rather like when someone sings a song only for you, its such a direct communication, that its hard to look them in the eye and keep intimate contact (well it is as a culturally British person). Being a novice audience member, I was also stuck by how silent the dancers were. They made no sounds, I am so used to seeing people perform and making sounds and music. These people only moved, and I couldn’t even hear their footsteps. The music used was pre-composed/recorded and filled the space, making full use of effects like panning. It had been written by three composers who specialise in dance music (Christopher Benstead, Jim Pinchen and Andy Higgs) often it seemed to involve the building up of textures and sounds which were reflected in the movements of the dancers. I wondered if the movements had come first or the music, it was difficult to know.

The second thing that stuck me was, ‘relationship through movement’. I am so used to seeing and hearing musicians express relationship through the interplay of sounds and movements (the movements that musicians make in playing and singing). However, in watching the dance, the movers expressed the interplay of relationships through-out all of their bodies and using the whole space of the floor stage. It reminding me of ‘The dance of wellbeing’ the title of the paper by psychologists Trevarthan and Malloch(2000) who describe the inherent musicality in the movements and sounds of the interaction between a baby and mother. What the dancers seemed to be tapping into was this expression, that is inherent in all of us, the dance of life between us, how we are together, how we dwell together, how we be together. They seemed to be communicating, that this is what is important, being together, being human, being in relationship. The dance seemed to strip back things that are unnecessary and communicate what is really at the heart of our beings, which is how we relate to ourselves and to others.

Stopgap is a dance company that integrates both able and disabled dancers. This meant that on stage there were a variety of body shapes and some were in wheelchairs. Laura Jones was one of the dancers in a wheelchair, her movements were so fluid and flowing incorporating the chair into the dance, so at times it looked like part of her body. The wheelchair in the performance seemed to represent freedom and ease of movement, rather than restriction and control. I have worked with many young people in wheelchairs, and have often perceived the chair as a difficult obstacle that represents the persons disability. Working in special needs schools, the chairs of children and young people have been heavy, or have parts which are not working, or are not technically up to date, often hindering the developmental progress and movement of the person using it. Here in the dance, was an example of someone embracing their chair, and it becoming part of being able to move with flexibility and freedom. Also dancing was Dave Toole, a remarkable dancer whose physical presence challenges conceptions of what a body should look like. He moved across the stage with such grace, and his facial expressions were so direct, I felt captivated and drawn into his world.

In our society we love to label people and put them into categories. The word disabled seems such a wrong label to use to describe these dancers. These people were able to communicate, to perform, to dance.  I recently ran a music therapy group for people with learning disabilities.  A large part of the work was dealing with how being treated as ‘disabled’ people in society had effected the group members (many had been in large institutions for most of their lives). Many of these people acted more disabled than they actually were. Over the years they had been treated like the ones in need, and had not been allowed to make choices for themselves, or reach their true potential. I felt that some of the group members had so much to give to society, and felt frustrated that the system of ‘disabled’ and ‘care staff’ put limits on people, and kept them in a role which they could never break out of. What was so inspiring about this dance performance, was it breaking this system down, and demonstrating to society that people with all kinds of disability labels have so much more to offer, and to give. If only we could get away from thinking that if someone has a  disability that they need to be given to and have nothing to give.

This was my first experience of being in the audience at a dance performance and it was both inspiring and challenging.  The roots of the stopgap company are based in community dance, and they were the first company in the UK to integrate dancers with learning disabled and non-disabled dancers. If you have the opportunity to see them I would highly recommend it, details of their forthcoming shows can be found at http://www.stopgap.uk.com



Trevarthen, C. and Malloch, S, N. (2000) The dance of wellbeing: defining the musical therapeutic effect. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, Vol 9 (2), pp, 3-17.






















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‘Babeldance’ creating a wordless music and movement performance in Wales

The Company of Babledance

Last week I had the pleasure of being involved in the creation of a new music and movement performance piece called ‘Babeldance’. Taking place in Wales in the beautiful setting of Studio Felin Fach (http://www.taithrecords.co.uk/studio) which is overlooked by the Black Mountains. Gill Stevens, musician, composer and music therapist (http://www.composer.co.uk/composers/stevens.html) had invited 7 musicians including myself to take part in a four day workshop session to improvise and compose the beginnings of a wordless, movement opera.  Finnish choreographer Paivi Javinen (http://paiviarts.net) facilitated the four days, together with Gill Stevens, directing and encouraging the musicians to explore movement as a natural extension of music making and the use of non-verbal communication through the devising of babbled words and musical phrases.

The musicians came from a variety of backgrounds, such as jazz, classical and folk, which created a rich and intense experience. Many were trained music therapists as well as performing musicians. Gill provided beautiful accommodation, in the watermill restored by herself and partner and acoustic musician Dylan Fowler (http://www.taithrecords.co.uk/dylanfowler). living in a temporary community, cooking and eating together (with some people coming and going) facilitated collaborative working and made it easier to connect together more quickly in improvisation and sharing of ourselves and our creative ideas.

The theme of the project was non-verbal communication through body movement, music and sounds. It also explored how words without semantic meaning can still be used for communication (hence the title ‘Babeldance’). Gill Stevens drew on her experience as a music therapist working with people with learning disabilities without language, and wanted to express in the piece the experience of these people, and how they might feel living in a world of verbal language, without being able to use expressive language.  At one point the musicians were asked to create a musical dialogue over a member of the group crouched on the floor, ignoring them and ‘talking/musiking’ over them. This felt like a powerful portrayal of the experience of someone in a wheel chair or with learning disabilities who is frequently ignored, or ‘talked over/about’ by other people as if they don’t exist. This is something I have witnessed many times in my work as a music therapist, and have even done myself without thinking. Gill also wanted to explore how made up words can still be used to communicate meaning, and cited the experience of going to an opera which is sung in another language and how its possible to still understand the story and plot without knowing the meaning of the words. Choreographer Paivi Javinen also brought the key theme of how the natural movement of musicians can be extended, and wanted the musicians to explore this as much as possible. Gill and Paivi had previously developed the ideas in Helsinki with a group of Finnish musicians and movers and this was the second devising session. The first two days consisted of delving into improvised music and movement activities to create new potential material; which reminded me of Spolin’s drama games in which actors are invited to used their intuition in improvised drama to access and get in touch with their authentic selves (Spolin, 1963; Spolin Games Online, 2014). Gill studied music at York University under John Paynter and Peter Aston, the authors of a book on class room music projects which I recently wrote about in this blog, (https://skylarkarts.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/sound-and-silence/). Gill has briefly described Paynter’s and Aston’s influence on her work and the workshops did seem to reflect a similar ethos. Paynter and Aston were pioneers of music education in the 1960’s and 70’s and advocated artists across art forms working together in both education and performance. In ‘Sound and Silence’, several music and movement projects are described which have some similarities to the activities we undertook as musicians in the project, such as creating dialogues whilst playing and moving, and also moving quickly and slowly in and out of physical spaces. No doubt, Gill could expand further on how this part of her education influenced her work, and it would be interesting to hear what she experienced at University under the direction of John Paynter and Peter Aston.

A significant point in the workshops came on day two when Paivi asked us to image a beautiful landscape and move to the visual image of the landscape whilst listening to improvised music by Gill on the cello. This particular activity seemed to have the effect of opening up our awareness as movers. I felt particularly involved in this activity, and as I moved together with the other musicians, and listened, I felt like I was playing music even though I had no instrument in my hands and wasn’t making any sound. We moved together, some had eyes closed, some open, and we interacted together, through the movement and music. Afterwards, I tried to understand what it was I had experienced. It occurred to me that we, as experienced interactors, therapists and musicians were using our musicality in a holistic way, that the skills we use as musicians to interact, listen and respond to others were being utilised in our movements, rather than our sounds. The psychologist Daniel Stern (1998) writes about the idea of vitality affects, how musicality is interwoven in all modes and mediums, whether its movement, vision, touch, feelings or sound. This seemed to be what we were drawing on at this moment in the workshop.  In connection with this, Pashman (2014) writes about the idea of kinesthetic patterns which are evolved through our emotions and then developed into the smallest movements in our cells and then our muscles and whole bodies. That emotions have a natural physical pattern, which are common to all cultures  which we express through body shapes and movements. This idea of kinesthetic patterns could then be translated to musical shapes, vibrations of the air, the movement of musicians creating sound, the need to move in playing an instrument and singing. In this way, movement and music are intimately connected, and what Paivi was asking us to do in these workshops, was to remember this and become more intensely aware of it.

Paivi, also asked the musicians to be as fully aware as possible of our movements, sounds and to take full responsibility for our actions. It occurred to me that what she was asking  for, was every movement to have a meaning, and every sound to have a meaning. This reminded me of improvising with a good friend who is a Korean music therapist (now living in Australia), she taught me to value every sound I made in improvisation and not to throw away any notes. Paivi’s intention to help us focus on our actions and sounds, was like trying to value everything that was done. This is not dissimilar to the idea in music therapy, when every sound and action that a client makes has a meaning and is considered carefully by the therapist. So in practice, this meant even getting up from the floor, after sitting down, had to be done with consideration and careful thought, to embody it into our performance of sounds and music. I found this a challenging way of thinking, as did some of fellow musicians, since it was new way of being, and required a conscious, cognitive effort (rather like the early stages of learning to play an instrument, and mastering the movements required to manipulate the sound).

The workshops ended with two ‘showing sessions’ to a small select group of listeners (the term audience seems wrong in this context). The two showings were half an hour long, and in six sections which had been pre-planned on the previous day. This provided its own challenges, involving remembering all the different directions and the sequences of events. The showings began with each musician having an individual emotional phrase and expressing this as they walked across the room; this then changed to the phrases and movements becoming merged and connected together in a type of minimalist rhythmic music. As the musicians sat conjoined back to back on the floor, one member attempted to disrupt the flow, trying to use vocal sounds to create disconnection. The musicians dispersed and then sat with their backs to the audience. Three of the musicians moved out into the performance space, expressing different aspects of communication. I was using my trombone, and moved out into the audience, inviting them to interact with me, through body language and trombone music. Paivi, had also asked me to emphasise the natural reaching out movements of the trombone, and I did this using my whole body, as well as my arms. Another musician played the flute, emphasising moving up and down (right down to the floor), and yet another sang a hauntingly beautiful vocal solo, moving up above everyone’s physical space standing on a tall stool. In this way, we as musicians, were exploring our natural movements in making music as well as the physical space of the studio (the studio had several rooms and was a beautiful wooden building). Other parts of the showing, involved creating dialogues which ignored an outsider (which I refer to in paragraph three); expression of frustration through using Taiko drumming;  the interweaving of music and movement together, in a mutual interactional quartet of movers and sound makers, and the use of musical phrases and intuited stillness and movement to created the experience of a whole group operating together, weaving sounds in and out of each other (using our instruments, voices and bodies).

The listeners had different reactions, many expressed being confused by what was happening (especially at the start of the performance). This was viewed as positive since Gill had wanted to explore the experience of people living without language in world where language is a major form of communication. The listeners also said that they felt moved by the showing and that it had given them a lot to digest and think about in a deep way. The meaning behind the showings was not explicit, and so listeners were free to interpret them in an individual way.

The project may develop more depending on funding, and both Gill and Paivi would like to extend it to a larger setting, combing the work from the Finnish and British musicians together, with possible performances in Wales and Helsinki. It was privilege to be part of the workshop, and what will stay with me is meeting new musical-movement friends and the new relationships and old relationships that have been renewed and developed. This blog has just reflected a small part of the content of the few days, and is my own personal point of view. I am sure all involved felt enriched and enlivened by the experience. I would like to thank Gill Stevens for asking me to take part in the project and her skilled compositional directing, and Paivi Javinen for her skilled choreography, also to my fellow musicians who it was a great pleasure to meet and work with.


Pashman, S, E. (2014) When the music moves you: Revisiting the classics in the company of neuroscience. Journal of Music and Dance, Vol 4(2), pp, 10 – 24. Available at: http://www.academicjournals.org/journal/JMD/article-abstract/F18961E47314 [Accessed 2/11/14].

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

Spolin, V. (1963) Improvisation for the Theatre: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Spolin Games Online. (2014) Spolin Games Online. Available at: http://www.spolingamesonline.org [Accessed 6th November 2014].

Stern, D. (1998) The Interpersonal World of the Infant, a view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. London, New York: Karnac Books.


Bibliography not quoted in the blog:

Pavlicevic, M. (1997) Music Therapy in Context, Music, Meaning and Relationship. London and Philadelphia: Jessical Kingsley Publishers.

(Read in relation to Mercedes Pavlicevic’s idea of ‘dynamic form’ in music therapy)

















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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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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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