Our Virtual Tribe: Sustaining and Enhancing Community in Online Music Improvisation….
Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) is friendly and accepting. Tia noticed that immediately when she began to play along with them on zoom (she is relearning an instrument – the flute – after forty years of neglect). To celebrate she tried to draw a diagram of a few of the ways that what happened in, and around (before and after) GIO sessions has – quite literally – ‘changed her life’.
A few of those changes are depicted in the photo (above), which is pictured next to the book, Musical Pathways in Recovery: Community Music Therapy and Mental Wellbeing by Gary and Tia (Ansdell & DeNora 2016). The drawing is trying to highlight what it can mean to speak of, and in a documentary manner, how music instigates change.
That topic is also the one the GIO project has been exploring – how, during C-19, online music improvisation can sustain and support connection between people and thus, wellbeing, not so much ‘in spite’ of the ‘latency problem’ but ‘because of it’ ..
The first paper by the GIO team is just published in Frontiers in Psychology. It has prompted Tia to think about something she and Gary have been trying to do for a long time now namely, develop methods for tracing music as it ‘gets into’ action.
That is about how ‘events’ happen and how the interweaving between them lays down pathways for action, feeling, identity, social relation. That process is empirical and traceable. It is about practices that happen in space and time which we can think about as a three-part sequence of:
(a) ‘Before’: things happen and we gain, are attributed with, histories (and connections to things that have historically become associated with meanings, expectations, and patterned practices.
(b) ‘During’: We act. As we act we draw features from those histories into the (now) present (and in ways that reference them, make them evident, and so, for all practical purposes, make them ‘real’). Then
(c) ‘After’: we do something else and we may draw features of that earlier past-present into the present-now. The cycle continues, with different degrees of repetition and variation.
This ‘drawing in’ (of features of that past-present) is also the laying down of a ‘pathway’ in which actions are linked across time and space. It is a way of prolonging a previous moment.
Time A. Where you’ve been >
Time B. What you took from there to ‘here’, where you are >
Time C. where you go next and how you might make a connection there to what has happened ‘here’
When a thread can be seen to link, or draw in, something from the past into the present and then, later, from a present moment into the future, it can be called a ‘pathway’. And when that thread involves something musical it can be called a musical pathway.
Musical pathways are pathways to becoming – when they work well that becoming involves different forms of flourishing – for example, becoming more empowered, skilled, resilient, energetic, content, meaningfully occupied. Such pathways are the routes that action takes ‘into’ identities, states and relationships to others and the world, the routes into shared meaning and ‘community’.
So we can try to follow:
(a) our musical pasts, or rather, our past musicking (which includes musical memories, situations, associations, talk about music, liminal forms of music making such as music partially overheard, shared music making or music listening, musical objects and identities),
as that musicking is (b) drawn into a present moment and, later,
(c) gets linked to something else and somethings else that may not be explicitly musical but that ‘go with’ or ‘arose from’ music, that are ‘para-musical’.
To identify a musical ‘pathway’ is to identify an example of how music gets into – is a condition for – action. And that is to identify how, musical practice is socially-situated, collaborative world-making. Brynjulf Stige makes this point succinctly but comprehensively it in his article, The Practice Turn in Music Therapy Theory (2015):
“To think of practice as constitutive implies that our identities and subjectivities are not primordial but grow out of the situated activities that we take part in; people and their activities and places make each other up, so to speak. To consider practice relational involves recognizing collaboration as well as conduct; doing things involves relating to others in some way or another, in coordination and competition. To claim that practice is contextual involves seeing how it is contingent (on cultural conditions, for instance) as well as connected in time and space to other practices. To view practice as temporal implies that we pay attention to how it is process and improvisation. As process, practice evolves over time as a more or less systematic series of actions, in ways structured by tradition and purpose. Still, practice is also improvisational; there are always openings for unpredictable events and actions, due to human creativity in relation to predicaments and possibilities. Finally, to consider practice as corporeal involves taking into account how it is embodied and materially mediated” (Stige 2015:7)
So a focus on practice holds together the here and now of improvised action and the prior patterns, pre-existing materials, and relationships that offer conditions, resources and topics for action. And that, as Stige says, means we need to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ when we examine improvised action, looking at action as the set of practices that draw threads together across and within actions scenes in ways that produce what happens, and what sense we may make of that, and how it provides potential conditions for action, ‘next time around’.
Gary and Tia have written about the methodology of the musical event and how ‘events’, repeated, varied, accumulated, produce ‘pathways’ (DeNora and Ansdell 2017). A detailed focus on such pathways can, they have suggested, show us in grounded, ecologically valid ways how practices of musicking draw together context, time, relations, meanings, people, possibilities for future action, and prior conditions of action – in ways that are real in their consequences.
So, describing a musical event involves following the connections that people (we) make between music and many other things. When there is a musical thread that connects past, present and future action, and particularly when that thread is thickens, or strengthened through repeated practice, it’s possible to document how networks – of people, skills, memories, objects, meanings, practices – change and expand in relation to – because of – musicking. Thinking about this issue is also thinking about where affect, identity and wellbeing come from. It highlights the process by which we come to feel connected to a meaningful world – a world that is produced in and through practice and in and through musical practice.
If to improvise musically is to be open to what sounds can, or might do, then to improvise collaboratively is to be open to other(s) and what they can do. And learning about what making improvised music can do for and in this process is about learning how to care for and with music and without unduly worrying about ‘getting it right’ (in tune, in sync), or rather, that aesthetic criteria are produced collectively and are multi-faceted.
Maybe this is why musical improvisation can be such an excellent resource for wellbeing and why in Gary’s, and Fraser’s, and Wolfgang’s music therapy practice they embrace improvisation. Maybe this is why music improvisation can be a great way of learning (or relearning and, responsibly, relating to the other [Stanseath 2017)). And maybe it is why, when we listen to and participate in the music made at Hill House, we, and others, find it interesting, rich and beautiful.
‘Getting it right’, musically speaking, involves a kind of willingness to experiment and to work with ‘different’ sounds, to explore sound possibilities and see where they might take things. It is about making space for different sounds and voices and practices, making sense of them. And that seems like a social, ethical matter. GIO project and the Care for Music project are of course very different but they seem to share the idea that perhaps beautiful music is music that resonates between us and makes us – a bit more – whole.
Ansdell, G and T. DeNora. 2016. Musical Pathways in Recovery: Community Music Therapy and Mental Wellbeing. London: Routledge.
DeNora T. (2013). “Time after time”: a Quali-T method for assessing music’s impact on well-being. International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being, 8, 20611. https://doi.org/10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20611
DeNora, T. (2013) Where is good music? (Chapter 7). Music Asylums: Music and Wellbeing in Everyday Life. London: Routledge.
DeNora, T and G Ansdell. 2017. Music in action: tinkering, tracing, and testing over time. Qualitative Research 17(2) 231–245
MacDonald, R, Burke, R, DeNora, T, Donohue, M. S. Burrell, R. 2021. Our Virtual Tribe: Sustaining and Enhancing Community in Online Music Improvisation. Frontiers in Psychology
Stenseath, K. 2017. Responsiveness in Music Therapy Improvisation: A Perspective Inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin. Dallas, TX: Barcelona Publishers.
Stige, B. 2015., The Practice Turn in Music Therapy Theory, Music Therapy Perspectives, Volume 33, Issue 1: 3–11, https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/miu050