Tag Archives: PhD

PhD as Improvised Mountain Walking


 (Photo  – Reaching the top of the mountain Meeknoken on Averoy, West-Coast of Norway).

Taking the high road, taking the low road, the research map is not set but improvised, keep writing, wondering and climbing.

I am nearly half way through this PhD journey, it still excites me and requires an inordinate amount of determination to keep going. Having walked many mountains in Wales and Norway during my twenties, I often think of research like walking. The top of the mountain constantly looks closer than it is, there is always a point when you need to push yourself, it’s important to have provisions and to drink from cool mountain streams.

Having now completed seven interviews, transcriptions, graphic scores and analysis, the participant’s voices resound in my head, like musical leitmotifs. I can conjour up the sound of their voices in a moment. Their experiences fill my mind and I keep wondering where exactly this research is taking us. I feel I am finally starting to understand what the research journey is about; listening, wondering, going backwards and forwards, round in circles, letting the map change and being prepared for your knowledge and life view to expand.

I am sure in the future I will look back and see just how much this research journey is changing me personally. Curiously I find my creativity expanding, a new flexibility in my bass-playing fingers, and the art work more fluid and loose. As an accompaniment to this journey new songs have been written and art work bubbles away underneath. I hope to reach the top of the PhD ‘Meekknoken’ in a couple of years, but know rain, brambles, swarms of insects and unmarked paths are all the hazzards along the way!



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Filed under Music Therapy, PhD, Reflexive, Uncategorized

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

Falling off Roundabouts


A few weeks ago I had an intense study day preparing for my progression Viva. As some light relief at lunch time, I decided to check out the local children’s playground. To my delight a new roundabout had been installed. Since the playground was empty I decided to try it out. To my puzzlement and frustration, every time I got to the apex, I flew off and rolled onto the ground. This happened even after three or four attempts. On closer inspection I realised that the roundabout was on an angle (why I have no idea) and is actually tricky to stay on, you have to hold on really tight. I have not managed it yet.

Why am I sharing this? The PhD has felt rather like an unbalanced roundabout ride over the past weeks. I cling on, thrilling at the speed and then keep falling off at the top. There have been some very big highs over the last month, I survived the progression Viva, using newly acquired vocal -speech coaching techniques. I managed to try and explain what it is I am doing, including how improvised music might be useful to reveal unconscious processes (a tricky one to explain in words). I completed a very long report, which took hours of working away at writing skills with a dyslexia tutor. I presented a poster at a national conference, and was overwhelmed with the amount of interest in my study, where I definitely suffered from the classic ‘impostor’ syndrome. In between these dizzying heights, I kept rolling off the roundabout and wondering where I was, but thankfully there is a nice, soft grassy landing and time to keep getting back on. I am determined to conquer the puzzle of the ’roundabout’.

It occurs to me doing a PhD is also a little bit like this:


The Magic Roundabout Swindon –  which I have to negotiate on a regular basis. Apparently the best technique is just to drive forwards whatever is in front of you.


Or maybe a PhD is like this?


The Magic Roundabout …

Only time will tell!



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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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Filed under Academic, jazz, music teaching, Music Therapy, Uncategorized

Dyslexia Support at PhD Level


One of the heart warming facts about my PhD experience so far has been the dyslexia support I have received from the University of the West of England (http://www.uwe.ac.uk). Last December I had my very first official test and diagnosis of dyslexia, with visual stress syndrome. I had been told at school (in the 80’s) that I was dyslexic and then been left to muddle my way through school. Over the course of my student and working life I developed various tactics to overcome problems or hide it from employees and tutors. One of the most successful was the recruitment of friends and family in proof-reading before sending any work into the outside world. The other was pouring over the dictionary combined with a thesaurus, and then of course, a God-send, was spell check and computers.

After a fairly stressful assessment, consisting of three hours of tests I couldn’t do well. I had an official diagnosis. In the report was a long list of help, support and recommendations I should have when studying (and working). Initially the list made me burst into tears. Here was a list of things I had done for myself, without support (for example getting handouts for lectures well in advance of the lessons). It was an emotional experience, to finally have recognition that I had some specific needs around spelling, reading and writing. Since then I have received a grant from student finance England, and been given some amazing software. I am currently using ‘mind view’ to write the first draft of my literature review. This allows me to write in the form of a mind map, rather than creating the usual messy word document and drawings on paper. I have been given proof-reading software, including a dictionary that has pictures. And as a musician, aural-note taker is very interesting, its software to write aural notes whilst listening to a recording. This has potential for other areas, such as song-writing, and music therapy clinical notes.

Probably the most useful equipment has been using coloured overlays to read black and white text. Last week when reading music (now green) I didn’t get lost in the notation, the notes didn’t bounce around. I am due to buy a set of green glasses, provided by student finance England. Having green text is making a huge difference to my speed when reading, and to my stamina. In addition I have some software, that is text to speech (claro-read). This makes it possible to listen to papers whilst doing other things (my kitchen cupboards are very clean).

Overall, having this support is making PhD work a lot smoother than some of my other educational experiences. It’s a relief to use software which is geared towards creativity and visual thinking, and great to finally have the support I need when studying.

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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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What is that thing you are doing?


I recently announced to friends and family that I was going to embark on a doctorate in ‘free improvisation’ at the University of the West of England. Since then, a number of musical friends, old and new, have expressed a curiosity about what exactly it is I intend to do.

At the moment (two months before the course officially starts) I am hoping to investigate the stories of music students and professional musicians who are learning, and have learnt, and continue to learn to improvise (its not something that you ever get to complete). I am curious about other musicians stories, I want to find out what happened to them when they started to improvise, where it was and when. I’m wondering about how the process of learning to improvise effects (or affects) musicians who haven’t explored it before. If the experience of learning to improvise changes them in some way.  I’m interested in the value of learning to improvise for musicians, if it has any usefulness for musicianship, and quality of musical communication. Hopefully, some of these questions will be answered, or not , through interviews and careful analysis. I hope to interview musicians from three different disciplines,  music therapy, community music and contemporary music performance.

At this point in time, my project is very much forming and taking shape, I’m very excited to be working with music therapy colleagues Leslie Bunt and Cathy Warner at UWE, and will keep you posted on developments.

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