Hope: the dream we carry (Palgrave Macmillan 2021)

The subtitle of Tia’s new book is ‘the dream we carry’ This is a quote (in translation) from Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge. It describes ‘the dream we carry/ that something wonderful will happen…’

To speak of hope as a dream and as carrying a dream it by no means to contrast dreams with what is real. To the contrary, Hope suggests that dreaming is a form of activism in the world. Carrying a dream, projecting a vision into the world, involves work. It takes planning vigilance, endurance, reconnaissance, pacing. Most of us, individually and collectively, engage in the activity of hoping . We hold on, prepare, and look around for resources and allies to support us in our quest.

That quest may be mundane. It may be extreme. Hope may arise anywhere – as we have seen in our work in hospices and care homes. There is never a fully ‘hopeless’ situation, though there may be varying degrees of realism associated with particular hopes.

So hope can be understood as an orientation to the world that keeps us ready to act when circumstances allow and in ways that seek to carry our dreams. In staying ‘prepared’, we also stay focused, and in staying focused, we can also stay well, that is, live meaningfully. This is one reason why a dream is different from a fantasy, and why hope is different from blind optimism.

“As we make hope, individually, collectively, in and through the many ways we play creatively with time, we produce a warp for future realities. Hope is never passive: it is a technique of world-making – we project our hopes into the world and in ways that alter those worlds and the ways they are perceived. This imaginative activity involves showcasing to ourselves and others thoughts and images of ‘the future’ and images of ‘the past’ (including of course ourselves within these). It involves sidelining other thoughts and images that might lead us to despair. To hope is to be creative and, even when conducted in isolation, hope is social in origins, in orientation and in its potential consequences, rearranging horizons of experience and expectation. Hope foregrounds and backgrounds features of our lives. It knits the now to the then and the later and does so according to the patterns we improvise and negotiate with others, and imagined others, in the world. It embellishes stories of what will or can happen. And this activity not only makes it easier to endure the now; it is also generative of what we can do from within, and about, the now as it becomes the then. In this sense, hope is the ultimate dream we carry – when we hope we are imbued with purpose and meaning, and we are connected to a vision of the world. And as such, we are emboldened and empowered to carry very many more particular dreams together and individually – in all the senses of carrying we have considered – thereby making what is dreamed of as the future present.”

‘In other words, hold my hand’ – intimacy in and with music

“When people get older, they don’t experience physical contact the way they used to when they were young. When I sing, I can literally feel the caress of the breath of the others close to me; I can feel us all breathing together, being close and intimate in the harmonies” (Davidson and Maddern 2012: n.p.)

We love this passage from Jane Davidson and Philippa Madderns’s study of ‘the power of singing’. It reminds us that intimacy is a life-long need. It also underlines how intimacy can take a variety of forms – filial, platonic, erotic, familial. Intimacy, as the various therapeutic and self-help literatures tell us, may involve sexual activity, but it may also not. it can be experiential, emotional, intellectual, non-sexual-physical (feeling the ‘caress of the breath of others’), creative, spiritual – and much more in between. And intimacy is manifested in relation to many different media – verbal, physical, visual, material, and, as we describe here, musical.

In Care for Music we’ve seen different forms of intimacy spring up in (seemingly) unlikely places and between what we might have thought of as unlikely partners. We think that, like water, intimacy adjusts its shape and size to fit the spaces where it flows, or can flow. And we’ve seen how music sculpts those spaces. We’ve been observing how, within our fieldwork settings, intimacy flows, takes shape, and is tapped by different people in different ways. We think there might be quite a lot to learn about how, even in extremis, there is care for intimacy – fostered through care for music.

We’re increasingly intrigued by how music kindles intimacy and how intimacy can be musically expressed, and here we follow other music therapists who’ve charted this terrain (Procter 2013). Our work in Hill House suggests that music seems to work by offering cues or aesthetic ‘nudges’ toward certain kinds of conduct, gesture, role and action style. Music seems to work here more or less as it does in other scenes of everyday life where music frames and lends a sense of occasion to spaces or activities (think of background music in restaurants or shops, think of ‘setting a scene’ with music at home). The difference, of course, is that here, when Gary’s offering a musical session, he’s closely attentive to the unfolding scene, and he takes often highly deliberate measures to nurture aspects of that scene. This is not to say music ‘makes’ people act in certain ways (or that Gary can or would ‘manipulate’ music for this purpose). It is to say that we respond, often in patterned ways, to music in a manner that is grounded in ‘deep’ forms of embodied learning, laid down after years of exposure to, and social engagement with, music.


In previous projects and published work, Tia has considered music in retail outlets, sports classes, pubs and restaurants. She even shadowed volunteer shoppers who, despite knowing in full the purpose of the exercise, found themselves drawn in to musically-mediated modes of feeling/acting despite themselves. Tia has also written about music as sonic resource for sexual intimacy (DeNora 1997; 2000), a theme since taken forward by others as (in these playlist times) empirical studies of ‘music for good sex’ (van Bohemen, den Hertog and van Zoonen 2018).

Tia’s essay was recently re-issued in the current edition of Transpositions, along with a reflection on the piece 24 years since it appeared. in the conclusion to the reflective piece she says:

“To me, at the time, the really interesting question was one that examined the culture/nature and culture/action relationships in real – and often micro – time and real situations and scenes. It was a question oriented to how fragments of culture, molecules of meaning or semiotic particles, often reworked or misheard/misunderstood (creatively appropriated, in other words), can propel our actions, and our embodied processes. Music seemed like a good thing to think with for this project because of the ways it can actually be seen to linger, or hang around in, bodies – and in ways that show up as embodied processes of movement, comportment and stylistic orientation, and because of course, though the ways it models, or makes, time (Ansdell 2014). These days, in our Care for Music project, the team is looking at this question in relation to community music therapy and in scenes of late life, and from the perspective of embodied cognitive processes. These processes can, even in situations where profound dementia plays a part, be relied upon to quicken actors and actions and in ways that forge connection and bonding, and generate pleasure, meaning, and joy – and reorganise embodiment, sometimes within a second. Not always, of course, but in all cases the question remains: how does culture get in to actin and facilitate social situations, encounters – and embodiment(s)?”

Most of us, albeit for different reasons and in different places and life stages, have, at one time or another, turned to music for support in carrying out what we need, or want, to do (think of music for running up a hill [DeNora 2000]). While we might exact conscious deliberation when we turn to music (‘what music would be best for getting me up the hill?’), by the time we’ve put on our running shoes and actually started to run we’re in what we might call ‘action-mode’. By that time, our responses to our music will involve and depend upon pre-conscious, non-verbal capacities, ones that allow us effectively to ‘become’ the music (we ‘become’ the music’s perceived/felt speed or power as we run and the temporal parameters of our running becomes – musicalised). That kind of ‘becoming’ arises, in other words, from a felt sense of resonance or fit between music’s properties, its prior connotations or memories, and action/feeling in the here and now.


We have seen how music in Hill House seems to offer affordances for intimacy. By this we mean we see how different actors, care staff, family members, residents gather music into their actions, and gather their actions into music. They are tapping opportunities, licence, pretexts, signals, permission, musically offered, for what we might think of as ‘touching’ moments of closeness, and in ways that sometimes but not always involve physical touch – hand holding, hugging, the stroking of an arm, a gentle pat, or even virtual gestures o such things, a smile, close eye contact.

Sometimes these small physical acts are explicitly musicalized, as when hands are held and can be observed to move in time to the music’s pulse, or as when, right on cue to the lyrics of Fly Me To The Moon (Let me see what life is like/On Jupiter and Mars/In other words, hold my hand….), one resident reaches over and holds the hand of another. 

In some cases, it is only when ‘inside’ music that such intimacies are possible. For example, here are two passages from Gary’s practitioner log. Both of them describe interactions between long-married couples (Couples a, b and c) where, in each case it is the husband who is ‘living with dementia’:

You are My Sunshine… There’s a line in this song – You’ll never know dear, how much I love you – which today I catch several different couples around the room making nonverbal use of, to communicate an intimate message to their partner in a very touching way. With [Couple a] there’s such a look of love at one point, and I’m fairly sure it correlated with this line. With [Couple b] I see eye contact, hands clasped and just a feeling of enacting this line’s sentiment. And then with [Couple c] just the same. This important phenomenon is one of specifically placed words and sentiments within songs allowing the nonverbal timing and placing of enhanced intimacy in this context.”

“A touching sequence in the song Falling in love with you, which caught the mood of today. It involved [Couple b]. He was especially awake and smiley today, affectionate toward her, holding her hand, often in musically motivated ways that created micro moments when he’d look towards her lovingly. This happened poignantly within the song, and I could see what enormous pleasure and relief this gave her.”  


In the introduction to her book, The Psychology of Intimacy, Karen Prager offers an example of two solitary hikers both pausing at a viewpoint to admire the majesty of the mountains. Their eyes meet, there is a flash of intimacy, a mutual recontiion of a shared love of the mountain and the vista. Everyday conceptions of intimacy, Praeger argues, are often defined too simply as mutual verbal disclosure within an ongoing relationship (1995:12), a definition resonant of the self-actualisation associated with Giddens’ (1993) ‘pure relationship’. But as Prager points out, in this example, no words areexchanged; these people’s paths – quite literally – never cross again. Their moment of intimacy is fleeting – but it is real – and it has been fostered through a shared care for, in this case, the mountains.  

As with mountains, so with music. Music is, in other words, is a place and a modality within which ‘closeness’ between people (who have never met before, who might not remember they have met before) can be achieved and without need for verbal communication. But perhaps unlike a shared love for mountain hiking, love and care for music can be pursued – as our colleagues working in our hospice sites find time and time again – right up until the very end of life, and certainly long after cognitive memory ebbs. So, intimacy, taking the shape of closeness and warmth and connection between people, is always possible – and music can be a conduit for that flow.


Ansdell, G. 2014. How music helps: in music therapy and everyday life. London: Routledge.

Davidson, J and P. Maddern. 2012.  The Power of Singing. Pp in J. Davidson and R. Prince (Eds), Singing Emotions:Voice from History. Crawley WA : ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of WesternAustralia. http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/media/258780/singing-book.pdf

DeNora T. 1997 Music and Erotic Agency: Sonic Resources and Socio-sexual action (Body & Society (republished inTranspositions https://journals.openedition.org/transposition/6261

DeNora, T. 2021. Reflections on Music and Erotic Agency. Transpositionshttps://journals.openedition.org/transposition/6268

DeNora, T. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, An. 1993. The Transformation of Intimacy. Cambridge: Polity.

Praeger, K. The Psychology of Intimacy. 1995. London: The Guildford Press.

Procter, S. 2013. Music therapy : what is it for whom? An ethnography of music therapy in a community mental healthresource centre. Phd Thesis, University of Exeter. 

Van Bohemen, S, L. den Hertog and L. van Zoonen. 2018. Music as a resource for the sexual self: An exploration of how young people in the Netherlands use music for good sex. Poetics 66, pp. 19-29.

It don’t mean a thing

If it ain’t got that swing….

Sideways, across the beats and bar lines….

We’ve talked in this blog about coping with, and even creatively using, sound latency within online music. But Gary found himself actively creating further discrepancies of musical timing during online music therapy sessions at Hill House recently. That is, he found himself ‘swinging’ some of the songs. Why? What’s the use of swing? Does it mean a thing? 


It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing! Duke Ellington’s famous phrase is a statement. But earlier in the verse of the song there are some interesting questions:

What good is melody?
What good is music?
If it ain’t possessing something sweet.
Now it ain’t the melody
And it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes this tune complete…

The chorus then gives us the answer – it’s ‘swing’ that completes the musical experience, gives it meaning. Ellington attributed the phrase “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” to trumpeter Bubber Miley. The librettist Irving Mills said he invented the phrase when explaining to Ellington why customers weren’t dancing. (Keep that thought in mind, we’ll return to it shortly).

But what is ‘swing’? This is where it gets tricky. Swing, or groove (a more general category), is seen as a precious quality in some musical performance styles, but difficult to define. Partly this is a professional mystery thing – in the famous words of Fats Waller “If you gotta ask, you ain’t got it!”. Despite this put-down, there’s been a lot of useful discussion about how to talk about the aspect of performing music that’s characterised by words such as swing, groove, or simply ‘feel’.

And it’s not just jazz and popular music that has groove and swing. An interesting BBC Radio 3 programme called ‘Swing, Rubato, and Bounce” in the Listening Service series showed that any musical idiom can be said to have this performative quality – it’s just that we’re just not used to talking about it. “What happens” the programme asks, “when musical rhythm is loosened by swing?”. We hear it often in jazz and world music. We hear it in Rachmaninov who played with rubato (literally the ‘robbing’ of time). We hear it when the Vienna Philharmonic plays a Strauss waltz with that odd but effectively uneven one-TWO-three that swings it sideways. Any music can be played straight (and, well, dull) or it can be – in a variety of ways and degrees – swung. It can groove and come alive. 

As to how – to echo yet another song – it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Not just the notes you sing or play, but the way that you inflect them. Play only the notes, as the saying goes, and you’ll miss the music. This is mostly to do with rhythm, but it also involves aspects of touch, texture, tone of voice, energy, feel (all aspects of musical analysis that have been side-lined in traditional musical analysis models which concentrate on fixed texts rather than active, improvisational performances). 

This ‘how?’ dimension of swing/groove remains elusive. There’s a ‘feel’ aspect to it, and there’s a technical aspect also – at least to a certain extent. The ‘feel’ aspect is a loosening, a lightening of the beat, a relaxing of the strict metricality of the music. But there can also be an accompany relaxation of the texture of the sound, which leads to a sense of the music lifting and bouncing rather than drooping and hardening. Interesting metaphors, but what, technically speaking, is actually happening? 

On the platform of a secure underlying beat, swing involves musicians playing around with the beat – either through formal syncopation (temporarily displacing the beat) or through more subtle variation techniques. When we swing, not everyone’s sounds land heavily together – and the melody and direction of the music can play sideways across the beat. Micro-variations of tempo (‘robbing’ time – rubato) help loosen and stretch the timing of a phrase such as when a jazz singer delays the arrival of one phrase, then anticipates the next in relation to the pianist’s chords. They are playing with musical time and space, making them elastic and alive – allowing the performance to breathe, to relax, to become a living and unpredictable thing. And this is the key – swing and groove are about animating this musical moment, being responsive to this musical event. 

The ethnomusicologist Charles Keil (1987, 1994) has made a useful study of groove in popular and world music. He suggests that, “[m]usic to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune’” (1987: 275). Though a good sentence, and one we’ve quoted before on these blog pages (see Latency: what’s the problem?) maybe it’s phrased too negatively. Maybe what Keil means is that music in performance is often not perfectly in time or in tune in a mechanical, inflexible way. By contrast, when we creatively exploit the negotiation of individual differences of timing and tuning we invite participation in musicking:

 It is the little discrepancies between hands and feet within a drummer’s beat, between bass and drums, between rhythm section and soloist that creates the groove and invites us to participate. (1987: 277)

Keil calls these inflections of timing/tuning ‘participatory discrepancies’. One of Keil’s examples is of a traditional American-Polish dance band where not only the rhythmic discrepancies but also the textural discrepancies between the traditional two trumpets playing the melody in unison “guarantee textural participatory discrepancy and a bright, happy sound that invites people to get up and dance” (1987: 278). Another example is an analysis of the famous ‘Bo Diddley’s beat’ which had an elusive rhythmic signature to it, which Keil suggests was in the service of “getting the band into the groove and the dancers moving happily” (1987:281). But none of this is mechanical – there’s no precise formula for getting in the groove, or swinging – it’s always a subtle negotiation of timing and texturing between everyone involved in a musical scene, as well in response to the atmosphere, acoustic, and so on. But: whatever physical or cultural space we find them within, participatory discrepancies have the same aim and effect: 

Participatory discrepancies have everything to do with pleasure in the public domain: the presence of a shared tradition and an ever deepening sense of the subtle ways in which wrights and rites, skills and events, craft and culture, are connected in public space and time. (Keil and Feld 1994: 107)

If there’s a ‘swing test’ the key questions are: Does it reach you? Does it move you? Does it touch you? Does it touch you literally– do your fingers, toes, or head move to the music? Does is touch your spirit? As a personal exercise it’s worth considering when we or others find that music leaves us still  – we sometimes also say ‘It left me cold’. Conversely when music ‘warm us up’ – it’s when we can’t seem to help but move to it. Although some of this will be circumstantial, and our responses to music – even the ‘same’ recorded music – will vary from occasion to occasion, there are clearly shared patterns to our embodied responses to musical energy, direction, ‘feel’ and touch. And it’s this that matters – often greatly – when we’re making music in challenging situations such as an online music therapy session in a care home. 


Back now to the online music therapy session at Hill House when Gary heard himself swinging a song. It happened to be (appropriately) Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which may partly explain it.

Gary Ansdell, Swing Low (with some sound effects due to online work)

This Spiritual has swing potentially built-in – to an extent. But then Gary looked through all the index notes of previous sessions for any other times where he’d noticed and marked playing a song with swing. He then looked in detail at the first video excerpt and compared it to other examples …

  • The songs weren’t always jazz songs – one was a Christmas carol! 
  • Gary tended to ‘swing it’ when attention and energy was lagging in a session
  • Swinging it happened most when a carer came into the scene dancing, and then danced with residents whilst Gary musically supported this.

It seems that swinging was, not surprisingly, linked to energy and movement, and with ‘turning up’ the invitation of the music to participate. Remember the comment from the Duke’s librettist – that the line if it ain’t got that swing–  which came to him when telling the Duke why the audience wasn’t dancing to certain tunes. So, while Gary was supporting the carer’s dancing by swinging more, the carer was simultaneously stirring the musical energy in the room to get more participation from the residents. Swing was working amongst-and-between everyone then. 

More technically, a dancing body moves both up and down but also sideways, and what swing affords above all is ‘sideways music’… which then encourages versions of this ‘musical sideways’ energy from residents with movement restrictions, such as sideways-moving hands & heads. The result is enhanced participation just as Keil reported in the Polish dance (and also new and innovative dance moves by and for people who are not able to get out of their chairs and are sitting all in a row in front of the large TV screen). Gary further analysed the examples to detail the layers of rhythmic and textural discrepancy that were constructing the groove: between his own voice and piano; between his musical and visual signals online; between his musical actions and the carer’s and the residents’ musical actions. Together these produced a complexity that nevertheless seemed to enliven the musical scene. 


Music therapy scholar Ken Aigen (2002) has described exactly these effects in his pioneering and wonderful study of groove in relation to Keil’s theory of participatory discrepancies within an individual music therapy scenario – in the book Playin’ in the Band. This book and its accompanying DVD of 48 excerpts charting the 101 session process between therapists Alan Turry and Ken Aigen’s musical interactions with Lloyd, a young adult with learning disabilities, is a ‘must read’. These three men make a popular music combo of piano, drums and guitar and explore how popular music and the phenomenon of groove/swing and other modes helps Lloyd find a place in music, and develop as a musician and as a person. Ken’s analysis of this process in relation to Keil and Feld’s theories of musical participation illuminates the key issue of how ensemble musicking can be at the same time precise and imprecise; or, rather, how just the negotiation of different timings and tunings is often the way that we find a living, vital togetherness in music. 

Lloyd needed Alan and Ken to help him participate in the music he loved, and to mediate the experience for him. This therapeutic situation was a private one, but the principles apply as much to Gary as he negotiates the limitations and possibilities of the online sessions in the care home – both technical and social. In Playin’ in the Band, Aigen gives a clear conclusion that flows from these experiences that’s worth quoting here in full: 

But we all have perceptual, motoric, and cognitive skills and limitations that we live within and through which we relate. Our modes of interaction are determined by them and we create styles and modes of interaction bounded by them. That is all that Lloyd is doing. We are meeting within the style and aesthetic ground that the nature of his being allows. It is not a departure from an idealized style, but merely an alternative one in which the discrepant aspects of rhythmic groove is highlighted, but the mood, timbre, and energy – the overall aesthetic – expressed a fundamental sense of cohesion […] the separateness of the parts blends into the overall whole. [Aigen 2002, 61]


Gary found himself ‘swinging’ partly in the context of the difficulties of connecting and communicating musically in online sessions at Hill House; of wanting people to ‘catch’ the energy of the music, respond to it and participate within it. This exploration of swing and groove suggests that it’s important for a music therapist to be conscious not just of what they play, but also preciselyhow they play. This won’t, of course, only mean ‘swinging’ in the strict jazz sense. It might mean attending to the craft of how to give musical gestures certain forms of energy, shape, texture and other qualities animation, so that the people ‘the other side’ of the digital divide are invited into the music and can in turn ‘take and shape’ the music through their participation. And it highlights how embodied our musicking perhaps always is – it’s just that the online sessions have put a particular microscope on this aspect. The key questions are still (perhaps always have been?) simply: Does it move you? Does it touch you? This is surely how music ‘means a thing’. 


Aigen, Kenneth (2002).Playin’ in the Band: A Qualitative Study of Popular Music Styles as Clinical Improvisation [with access to DVD material]. Dallas TX: Barcelona Publishers. 

Keil, Charles (1987). Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 2, No. 3 pp. 275-283

Keil, Charles & Steven Feld (1994). Music Grooves. University of Chicago Press. 

Musical events – with GIO

Our Virtual Tribe: Sustaining and Enhancing Community in Online Music Improvisation….

A few of Tia’s very many ‘musical events’

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-being8, 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

Stitches in Time

Weaving together music, stories, and identities

Painting by Mercedes Pavlicevic, “What Really Matters in this most precious life”

In Philip Larkin’s Love Songs in Age the poet describes how each chord of music brought back, ‘the unfailing sense of being young’ …

Many of us know that listening to music can evoke memories, and that sharing favourite music with others is simultaneously an opportunity for sharing those memories – of who we are and what we’ve done. Our music-linked memories are part of the pleasure we take in re-listening to the music we know and love. 

Sharing music, therefore, can be vitally important. It offers a way of mutually caring for music and through that – caring for each other. The stories we tell, that music prompts, can highlight individually and collectively ‘who we are’, who we are linked to, and what we value. Music, in other words, keeps us in touch with what is important, and has been important, in our lives.

In scenes of care (care homes, hospices), musical reminiscence may involve one-to-one listening. (Gary has done this with residents on many occasions.) It may occur in a group, like a musical appreciation session or ‘show and tell’. (Fraser is experimenting with these on zoom.) It may also occur during a group music session in between numbers. (we see this a lot in Hill House.) And it may occur in conversations where one person tells another about a cherished piece of music (Wolfgang has encountered this in his work with hospice residents who are very near to the end of their lives.)

In all cases, the discussion of people’s special musical reminiscences allows for the music in question to be positioned between all participants as a common object of interest and care and so strengthens the social fabric between participants. And serves as a person’s legacy after they die.

We are currently exploring these issues and building on earlier work in the area of music listening, reminiscence and wellbeing. It is helping us to hold open our understanding of what music therapy ‘is’ and can be, and what music ‘is’ and can be – especially in our current, socially distanced time.

Further Reading 

Ansdell, G. 2014. How Music Helps: In Music Therapy and Everyday Life. London: Routledge.

Batt-Rawden, K, T. DeNora and E. Ruud. 2005. Music Listening and Empowerment in Health Promotion: A Study of the Role and Significance of Music in Everyday Life of the Long-term Ill, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 14:2, 120-136 

Davidson, J and S Garrido. 2014. My Life as a Playlist. Perth, AU: UWA Publishing

DeNora, T. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DeNora, T. 2012. Resounding the Great Divide: music in everyday life at the end of life. Mortality 17:2, 92-105.

DeNora, T. 2017. Public and Narrative Selves in Desert Island Discs. Pp. 215-39 in J. Brown,  N. Cook & S. Cottrell (Eds), Defining the Discographic Self: Desert Islads Discs in Context.. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

‘The other way around’?

Do disabilities acquire people?

Plunging – into the sound of water? Thanks to H-B family for frogs

In an essay on a project called Musical Minds, a project that was facilitated by music therapist Sarah Wilson, Gary Ansdell muses on how, ‘”communities of practice” catalyse fundamental social processes of participation, meaning-making, identity, and belonging’ (2010: 48). His essay highlights one of the bedrock features of ‘community music therapy’, namely that we – our capabilities and identities – come into being socially, through the ways we participate, and are facilitated to participate, in social groups. Music, in this perspective is not ‘what we do’ ‘to’ or ‘for’ people, but rather, what people do together…As Ansdell notes, Sarah was ‘not employed specifically as a “music therapist,” but to be a “music facilitator”…’ (p.18). This difference is deeply significant. And it is an idea that lies at the heart of the Care for Music Project

Some years ago, music sociologist Mariko Hara studied community singing for people living with dementia (Hara 2011). The group she observed was also composed of a facilitator, people living with dementia and their friends, carers or loved ones, and volunteers. One of Hara’s key findings was that, from within musical situations, it was often very difficult for newcomers to distinguish between these three ‘types’ of people because the format of the musical activities there diminished difference within the group. She writes:

‘Inside the musical community of SFTB , which encompasses a variety of ways of participating, the differences between people with and without dementia are reduced’ (Hara 2011: n.p.).


‘The way that a music therapeutic environment can affect one to become “someone else” has also been discussed in community music therapy (Ansdell, 2002). Aasgaard (2000) has talked about how song creation in a paediatric oncology ward shifted one client’s role from “patient” to “song maker” or “creative person.” ‘ (Hara 2011: n.p.)

We see this role shift happening in all of our research sites -in the Hospice work with Wolfgang Schmid and Fraser Simpson and, of course, at Hill House. It is perhaps hardly surprising: community music therapy has recognised, and been steeped in, the idea that our attributes and identities take shape in relation to each other – and therefore in relation to the ways we make music together. As such it overlaps, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, with research in the theory and ethnography of learning….


Jean Lave, social anthropologist, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of California Berkeley, is known around the world for her research on, among other things, ‘situated learning’ and ‘cognition in practice’. Her work has highlighted how skill, intelligence, communicative abilities, the capacity for learning are not ‘inside’ us but take shape in relation to the environments where we operate. In her publications, Lave describes learning and cognition as matters that develop through ‘peripheral practice’ – the kinds of ‘apprenticeship’ that happen gently, as people come together and learn from each other. These apprenticeships include the kinds of learning that seems sometimes to occur like osmosis, through tacit, embodied action (see Atkinson 2013 and Delamont & Stephens 2008) and, as we discussed in our previous Research Vignette (Wandering Free) – embodied cognition.

Throughout our lives, we undergo apprenticeships within what Lave and education-researcher Etienne Wenger terms, ‘communities of practice’ – domains of interest we share with others that contain different kinds of resources and repertoires we can ‘acquire’. One of the key implications of this perspective is that what comes to count as our identities, capabilities and potentialities is flexible; who we are, what we can do, emerges in relation to our situation and what that situation affords and how those affordances are controlled and distribute – as opportunities for action. Situations, which, within Care for Music, we understand ecologically, are therefore laden with the small-p politics – definitions of situations that have consequences for how we – different groups of us, individuals  can live… 


Back in the 1980s, Tia’s PhD research focused on the sociology of how exceptional talent comes to be recognised.  Her research focused on the social bases and social consequences of Beethoven’s emergence, during his first decade in Vienna, as ‘a genius’. She was lucky enough to have been at the University of California where she was supervised by Hugh (‘Bud’) Mehan. In 1986, Mehan and co-authors (Alma Hertweck and J. Leigh Meihls) published Handicapping the Handicapped: Decision Making in Students’ Educational Careers. As Lave puts it in her 2019, Learning and Everyday Life: Access, Participation and Changing Practice when describing how ‘special’ identities emerge, swell and ebb in relation to organisational culture and organisational needs:

“Further evidence that school accomplishments (including failure) are situated and collective is to be found in demonstrations that a child’s “handicap” may be reformulated when it turns out to be incompatible with class scheduling requirements (Mehan, Hertweck, and Meihls 1986), and in McDermott’s argument that learning disabilities acquire the child, rather than the other way around.” (2019: 35)

This notion, that cultures ‘acquire’ types of people, is good to think with. It directs us to some key questions about how identities, and social problems, take shape in the ‘in between’ of individuals and cultural ecologies – terrains, practices and materials that are to be found in the places where people come into contact. And, as with ‘special’ children in schools, so too adults living with dementia in care facilities. No one of us is ‘the same person’ from situation to situation; we sometimes speak of having a ‘good day’ or ‘not being quite ourselves’. Our states of being are temporal; we flourish and languish to different degrees according to where we are and who we’re with. And in relation to many other features of the scenes and settings within which we find ourselves and that make ‘atmosphere’, and within which we may feel empowered, or, conversely, ‘lost’.

So, to speak of how some situations may bring out ‘the best’ in us and others may actually suppress our ability to – in our own ways – flourish, is to speak about how creative capabilities acquire us, rather than the other way around. And those acquirements can be made manifest in and through the ways they rest within communities of practice, in the places and spaces where we acquire skills, or rather, where skills may acquire us.


In 1985, Nora Groce published a book entitled, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. It described, using an historical case study, how on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts in the USA, there was a high proportion of hereditary hearing impairment. And yet, communicative practices and patterns of work were such that people ‘living with hearing impairment’ were well integrated into the social fabric. They did not think of themselves as having a disability and the difference between people who could hear audible sound and people who could not was, for all practical purposes, not apparent. There were no (or far fewer) situations or practices that would make such differences into matters for attention and because they did not matter, as it were, there were no forms of social exclusion built around them. The culture did not, in other words ‘acquire’ hearing impaired people. 


To speak of communities of practice is, as we said at the start of this blog entry, to speak of people pursuing shared activities, tapping resources and repertoires for that pursuit and in ways that are capable of altering the social distribution of opportunities for action. (As when, for example, care staff at Hill House describe seeing residents in a ‘new light’ after witnessing their musical creativity.) Charles Goodwin, in his study of, as he puts it, ‘how a man with a vocabulary restricted to three words is nonetheless able to function as a very powerful speaker in conversation’ (2011: 185) describes how ‘power’ (to be heard) is linked to the semiotic and interactive practices within a particular speech community. 

Goodwin outlines, ‘a model of the speaker that moves beyond the individual’ (Goodwin 2018: 68). The speaker, Chil, lost the ability to use words in talk after a ruptured blood vessel to the left hemisphere of his brain and paralysis on the right side of his body. Nonetheless, as Goodwin describes, Chil retained and was able to employ a wide repertoire of ‘semiotic resources’- prosody (the pitch and musical features of speech), pointing, and gestures. These were in turn responded to by others – his friends and family – who understood and helped Chil to realise meanings and communicative intent. As Goodwin observes, a focus on this joint, practical, responsive activity has implications for how we think about what language is and how it works. Language is not something that each of us, individually or privately learns (or does not learn) to ‘master’: rather it is, ‘a public embodied interactive field that is sustained and constituted from moment to moment by the coordinated, differentiated work of structurally different kinds of actors’ (2011: 185). Or, as he says a few pages on:

“Rather than being a hidden capacity that resides within the mental life of the individual, language is organized as a public interactive field. Actors with different abilities, or who may occupy different positions within that field (C. Goodwin 1984), can nonetheless contribute to production and organization of action through language in different ways. By participating in this field, and using language – some of it from his interlocutor – to build relevant action, Chil acts as a speaker capable of conveying complex propositions through language use in interaction, despite his inability to produce sentences as an individual (2011: 186). 

So, Chil’s semiotic agency emerges from the scenes and interrelations where it takes place – what others bring to the situation and how meaning is interactively produced, how it is collaboratively altered in some ways from its original intention – or partial intention – and this is a feature of all utterances, something we all share with Chil: what we say is not fully ‘formed’ until it is responded to by others and thatprocess may run and run – indefinitely. And this is where, we think, ‘learning’ – Chil’s own learning, his friends’ learning, his family’s learning, our own learning – is, simultaneously, ‘adapting’ and responding to perceived needs. To learn is also – to create. We are reminded here of the famous Haiku by Bashō:

With thanks to Motoko Hara (Hamill 1995)

Thinking of learning as creating (plunging into what the leaping makes, perhaps?) highlights in turn the importance of design: and designing, through musical means, ‘learning’ or ‘developmental’ or ‘creative’ opportunities (and with them, within them communities of practice) is as relevant in care homes as it is in schools or communities. It is about being responsive to what others do and can do and will do and do together. The semiotic resources are used for this design work (crafting) may include much more than words – especially when, for various reasons, the spoken word is problematic (linked to dementia or hearing impairment) and where embodied (and aesthetic) modalities (sign language; music) are easier to access, and easier to use for creating communities of practice. And those communities can be conceived as ‘safe spaces’, ‘conducive spaces’. They can be preventative – preventing, at least for a time (and taking care not to idealise), that organisations do not ‘acquire’ disability. 

Thinking about what organisations ‘acquire’ has led us, in Care for Music, to the methodological practices of ‘zooming in’(no pun intended, given the current socially distanced situation). Honing in to examine the fine-grained craft, and the necessities, of producing situations of learning in late life. Trying to understand what it can mean to ‘talk to each other in tones’, as Beethoven said to Baroness Ertmann, when seeking to condole with her after a loss. Examining the fine-grained interplay of music and gesture, understood as embodied cognition, furthers also our understanding of aesthetic materials and gestures as scaffolding for being the, ‘everyone here’, and in ways that tap and advance a musical community of practice. As Wittgenstein once put it, aesthetics is ethics (see DeNora 2013: 124). 

References cited:

Ansdell, G. 2010.Reflection. Belonging through musicing: Explorations through musical community. Pp. 41-65 in Stige, B, G. Ansdell, C. Elefant and M. Pavlicevic, Where Music Helps: Community Muysic Therapy in action and Reflection. Farnham: Ashgate.

Atkinson, P. 2013. Ethnography and Craft Knowledge. Qualitative Sociology Review IX, 2. https://orca.cf.ac.uk/58205/1/PA%20Atkinson_Ethnography%20and%20Craft%20Knowledge_QSR%20IX%202%2056-63.pdf

Delamont, S and N Stephens. 2008. Up on the Roof: The Embodied Habitus of Diasporic Capoeira. Cultural Sociology 2(1):57-74. 

DeNora, T. 2013. Music Asylums: Music and Wellbeing in Everyday Life. London: Routledge.

Goodwin, C. 2018. Co-Operative Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Groce, N. 1985. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamill, S. (Translator). 1995. The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets. Boston & London: Shambhala Centaur Editions

Hara M. 2011.. Expanding a Care Network for People with Dementia and their Carers Through Musicking: Participant Observation with “Singing for the Brain”. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy11(2). https://doi.org/10.15845/voices.v11i2.570

Lave, J. 2019. Learning and Everyday Life: Access, Participation and Changing Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger. 2000. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mehan, H. L. Meihls and A. Hertweck. 1986. Handicapping the Handicapped: Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Streeck, J, C. Goodwin and Curtis LeBaron (Eds). 2011. Embodied interaction: Language and Body in the Material World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wandering Free?

Featherstone, K. and A. Northcote. Wandering the Wards: An Ethnography of Hospital Care and its Consequences for People Living With Dementia. London: Routledge. 2020. Xxii + 165pp. £77.38 (cloth) free (ebk) ISBN 978-1-350-07845-1 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-003-08733-5 (ebk)

Out for a walk

We recently read this wonderful book. Our review of it will appear soon in Sociology of Health and Illness. It touched on many things, among them (for us) three important, interrelated topics. First, self-preservation: How, within institutions such as care homes and hospitals, do individuals engage in make-do, impromptu and improvised strategies as part of the routine care of self? Second, communication and cognition manifest themselves in multiple formats, extending beyond linguistic matters and yet these skills may not be ‘seen’. Third, there may be vicious circles set in motion when people’s ‘logics’ of practice are rendered invisible.

So maybe walking (‘wandering’) is as an adaptive behaviour, a response to the perceived sense of restriction and loss of control experienced in unfamiliar or unsettling circumstances? Maybe exercising – literally – freedom (of movement) is a means for restoring a sense of embodied agency and empowerment? If so, then maybe it’s not surprising that people living with dementia often feel a powerful need to move?

Perhaps the philosophy of embodied cognition can help us to explore these questions and their connection to our main concerns in Care for Music. The philosopher, and our colleague, Giovanna Colombetti describes how:

“Cognition as sense making does not require a central executive system that represents facts about the world, reasons about them, and generates rules for action. Cognition from an enacted perspective is, rather, the capacity to enact, to bring forth a world of sense, namely an Umwelt that has a special significance for  the organism enacting it” (2014: 18).

As with walking, so too music? Which leads us the theme we’re currently exploring. How do, and why is it that, some people living with dementia seem to love to conduct the music therapist’s music making? Using whatever might be available as a ‘baton’ – a hand, a drum stick, a walking stick, a spoon. This conducting seems to be, and all at once, a virtual form of movement, a kind of dancing or rhythmic gesture, physical exercise, a kind of musical composing (choosing what, sound-wise is going to happen next and how – the creative shaping of a musical future in dialogue and collaboration with someone else), a chance to connect in split second time, an opportunity to exercise creative control, a form of pleasure. All adding up to, of course, the care for music.


Colombetti, G. 2014 The Feeling Body. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Why do we sing?

The Hospice Choir via Zoom

Keep smiling, keep shining
Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for.

In good times, in bad times
I’ll be on your side for evermore
That’s what friends are for.

Burt Bacharach & Carole Bayer Sager

The Hospice Choir on Zoom

Every Wednesday evening for three years, around 70-80 people packed themselves into Mountbatten Hospice on the Isle of Wight for a couple of hours. A café and social, day and rehabilitation centre, open seven days a week to the public as well as patients and families sits at the heart of our hospice building and it is into this space that our choir comes together. Staff, patients, relatives – including bereaved people, volunteers as well as members of the wider island community – would all join forces and sing. Some were quite experienced singers whilst others were trying out their voices more or less for the first time. All were welcome.

As the leader of this group, I’ve always been interested in what it is that they come for. We know, of course, that singing is a particularly health-giving activity – ‘body mind and soul’ in the deepest sense: it’s great exercise, it fires the brain, and it gets us in touch with our feeling life, from which we are so often disconnected.

We know that it’s more than this, too. Singing is a social activity and creates community. Many friendships have been forged through the choir. When people sing together, they flourish together. A couple of years ago, Ana Ambrose, who was then a Clinical Psychology doctoral student at the University of Southampton did a study in which she interviewed choir members. Her research highlighted five key types of benefit that members associated with the choir: the sense of being connected, improved physical health, improved mental and emotional wellbeing, a sense of purpose, and a changed perception of the hospice.

Within our Isle of Wight community, the hospice is a focal point. We look after around 2000 people on any one day across our communities and the hospice building provides spaces for inpatient beds, day, self-help and rehabilitation services to support this work. Widely loved and supported, it looks after those affected by death, dying and bereavement, as well as running an innovative programme to change attitudes towards the work that we do. When the choir began in 2017, it quickly found a place at the centre of the hospice community, through a focus on singing songs of hope, uplift, consolation, joy, and mutual support. Bacharach’s classic, That’s what friends are for (originally recorded by Dionne Warwick and friends) is now a kind of choir anthem.


When the country went into lockdown in March 2020, all of this came to a halt. The media began to warn us against singing. In an instant, singing was transformed from being a life-giving practice into a potentially dangerous medium of Covid transmission. For us, and seemingly for the world, singing’s sudden ‘fall from grace’ felt like a peculiarly powerful symbol of the shredding of communities. And then we turned to Zoom…

The key question was –could we sing together online?

The answer came in stages  –  yes…no…YES!

The choir’s first online meeting in late March was experimental. There were 43 of us – a impressive number given that many members were using Zoom for the first time. People had all kinds of teething problems with cameras, mics and the rest of it. We found out quickly (and hilariously) that there were two big problems. One was the time lag between sounds being made and received by others – the infamous ‘latency’ problem which makes it impossible to sing in time together – and the other was the tendency for the audio to overload with so many channels, all but the loudest sounds cutting out. The upshot was that within seconds of starting a song those at the front would be several bars ahead of the stragglers at the back and the rest somewhere in between. We laughed, but we couldn’t resolve it.

And so, like many other choirs gathering online, we reached for the only realistic solution. Everyone is muted, they hear me and sing along, but they are unable to hear each other (though we can all see each other of course – and the ‘sight of sound’ as Richard Leppert (1995) once called it, has become ever more important). It doesn’t ‘work’ – in the way we might normally think of community singing ‘working’ but something happens that’s satisfying enough to keep a strong core of about 30 people returning each week – and we’ve kept it going for nine months now.

All this activity attracted the interest of the local island media. The Press regularly reports on hospice activities, and within a few days of our first meeting (I think of them as ‘meetings’ rather than rehearsals or practices because it’s difficult to rehearse a choir when you can’t hear it) there was a news piece. The choir members’ comments featured in that story illustrate some of the initial excitement of the experience which was felt very genuinely by many:

“It was very novel to see more than one person at a time, and with me living on my own and also working from home, it gave me immense pleasure seeing you all again!”

“The online meeting is as social as the actual one. Great fun as people get to understand the technology.”

“I found it really moving, and it’s just so lovely to connect with others at the moment – probably even more so for people on their own.”

“I so enjoyed seeing you and other choir friends again. Feel we all lifted one another’s spirits.”

Choir member Sue has described how she joined the choir after the death of her husband who was looked after by the Mountbatten team:

“It is a wonderful thing to be able to look forward to each week. To know that there is no pressure and that I will be with people who have been through or experienced similar situations to myself, with who there is an immediate bond. I have made many friends, which has been invaluable in building my new way of life alone.

Continuing to sing online through ‘Zoom’ has been an exciting new challenge and I am so pleased that I have been able to achieve this, using new skills acquired and being able to continue to enjoy singing at this particularly difficult time of lockdown and the feeling of isolation.”

The online format of the sessions has also enabled us to invite members of the community choir of our sister hospice over in Southampton, Mountbatten Hampshire, to join us, since they also had suspended their regular weekly sessions in the pandemic. This has proved an unexpected pleasure, with several members of the Southampton choir zooming with us each week.

Why does it still work, nine months later?

Although as a community choir we come together to sing and this has always been the central focus, the online sessions have revealed ever-more clearly that the social aspects of this singing are just as important. In the online format, the ‘bits in between’ when I invite choir members to say a brief word about how they are doing (which happens more informally around the edges when we are singing together in the hospice) have become an integral part of the evening, and indeed, maybe the zoom format makes this interchange easier to do. At the same time, we hold in mind those who are not with us, either because they cannot manage the technicalities of Zoom or because they do not find the format a satisfying enough musical experience (and it is important to acknowledge that it does not work for everybody). 

Another choir member Alison wrote to me just before Christmas:

“Thank you so much for sustaining our choir throughout lockdown and beyond. It has been such a joy and tonic to positive well-being to sing together on Wednesday evenings and in a strange way I have felt I’ve got to know choir members even better even though we’ve been apart and how lovely to share singing with our Southampton friends.”

What a lovely realisation: that the Zoom choir is not merely a watered-down version of the ‘real thing’, but brings its own unique enrichment.

How long can we keep this going? At the time of writing the vaccine programme is well underway, but a new lockdown has just been imposed by the UK government. There’s new hope with the roll out of vaccines, but we’re still in the thick of it and like everyone, we’re taking every day at a time. But each week when I see the faces of my friends “keep smiling, keep shining” as they sing across our screens, I know our songs will keep our hope, friendship and love alive and well. What are friends for? What is music for?


Leppert, Richard. (1995) The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation and the History of the Body. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Fraser Simpson,

January 2021

Poetry of Departures, 2

“- Say it, no ideas, but in things…” – William Carlos Williams, Paterson

Imaginative engagement of what might, through other methods of investigation, be documented… That is our aim….  Working on a longitudinal (10 year), ethnographic study of community music and mental health some years back, we took inspiration from the work and writings of the American doctor-poet, William Carlos Williams. Williams described how, as a doctor on the daily house-call round, he sought to comprehend the situations of his patients and, “com[e] up with my medical pictures in my mind, like those artists do with their head and heart using the easel, and like photographers do in the same way with their cameras. …trying to figure things out, get the right picture, as do artists, painting or photographing, trying to get their kind of ‘right picture’.” We used this quote as the epigraph to the one of the books associated with our project.

For Williams (as for Goethe, father of ‘delicate empiricism’), the ‘science’ of doctoring was by no means separate from the ‘art’ of writing a poem. What’s in, or out, of a frame, what kind of frame (and therefore claim) makes (or ‘figures out’) experience. (NB the word poet comes from the Greek poiein, or ‘to make’.) For us, this making contributes to the more general project of making sense of things in the research field, albeit for slightly different reasons and we’ve listed those reasons here: 

Tia’s poems deal with non-fictional material – the imagined problems, and solutions (?), associated with living ‘in a care facility’. Her poems typically begin with real-life (field) events but then shift into the realm of fiction. Here, after encountering a situation in real life, she tries to imagine a further situation involving a devoted couple who are physically separate due to the exigencies of their conditions and care needs. The poem was concerned with what are sometimes described as ‘coping strategies’:

We are two of the mountains

There’s a valley between our two, twin

beds. We’re far apart up here,

camping past the foothills.

Our tents are staked.

I wave to you. You signal back

with a mirror. Sunlight plays on the eastern wall.

Short, short, short, short. Short. Short, long, short, 

short. Short, long, long, short.

So we occupy ourselves

being together these many years.

Gary’s poems, by contrast, recall things that happened, sometimes verbatim, and his reactions, in the scenes of care where he works. They come, as he once said, ‘tumbling’ out, composed on his phone after a work session in care facility:


Today there’s only

the rough sound of your 

laboured breath left.

A promise of song at the beginning of life,

your lungs work now only to complete

these final beats

of the body’s time.

Keeping vigil in this room

are the icons of your life:

an oil painting of the famous young composer, 

a print of two stylised Japanese carp,

two bronze Buddhas – 

staying with you as you did them. 

On the bookshelf the record

of your scholar’s devotion; 

close probings of music and spirit. 

But now these images and voices recede, 

Leaving your own life’s melody

longing to cadence. 

As a research team, we then use these poems to pursue more explicit, ‘research’ questions – for example we use them in interviews with each other to tease out what might be our otherwise-tacit assumptions about people, situation, and place (e.g., ‘what made you think that couple actually wanted to be physically closer?’ or ‘how did you come to think that that person was longing for “cadence”?’). We think poems work well for this purpose because of the way they draw attention to details, often one ‘grain’ at a time. Seeing the world in these grains (and regardless of whether a poem is ‘good’), lingering because this literary format allows for, requires, lingering, permits metonymy, letting the ‘grains’ stand in for wider patterns and matters in the ‘field’ – and letting us test the robustness of these metonymic relationships. So, the poem becomes a lens or way of refracting and magnifying scene, place, history and relationship. And it runs in contrast to our field notes. 

In other words, writing a poem is a methodological strategy not a form of ‘outreach’. We are not using poems to communicate our research findings to others, nor to encourage public engagement with our findings. Rather, poetry offers us a springboard for further questioning – questioning the poem in terms of the ‘history’ of how it took shape and questioning whether and how the poetic ‘angle’ does or doesn’t square with what audio-recordings, photos, videos, field notes, or interview transcripts might reveal. This valuing of multiple modes of representation resonates in turn with what we’ve learned about writing and analysis from ‘master’ ethnographers such as Paul Atkinson(2019; 2012). Atkinson describes how all science writing is, inevitably, a literary endeavour, has a poetics. Every literary foray, every format will package/repackage, arrange, highlight, translate, traduce, constitute, and constrain – that’s the social contract we make with words. 

And so, we end with the questions we hope to pursue over the next two years (and more) about the relationship between poetic image and research idea. What emerges when we ‘tell’ about the research scene in small, ‘poetic’ bundles of words? How might pursuing this question shine a light on some of the border territories between fiction and non-fiction which Bruno Latour once called, ‘Scienti-fiction’? We are great believers in the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. But we also believe, along with philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, in the power of, ‘faint, suggestive imagery’ (Murdoch 2000: 332), that fiction can distil truth and so bring us closer to the realities of lived experience in ways that, as Murdoch says, ‘are often so much less definite than pictures’ (ibid). And so, we will continue to think about how to widen the range of documentary methods in the pursuit of making research more complete, or more whole.


Atkinson, Paul (2019). Writing Ethnographically. London: Sage.

Atkinson Paul (2012 [1995]). The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Constructions of Reality. New York: Routledge.

Murdoch, Iris (2000 [1968]). The Nice and the Good. London: Vintage Classics.

I take one of the surgical masks out of the box that is placed on a little table in front of Rebecca’s room…

Wolfgang Schmid’s kantele

I take one of the surgical masks out of the box that is placed on a little table in front of Rebecca´s room, put the elastic straps behind my ears and fix the blue-white colored piece of fabric tight on my nasal bridge. During this extraordinary year with the Covid-19 pandemic, I have learned that this helps to prevent my glasses from getting fogged when I breathe, talk or sing. I knock at the door to Rebecca´s room. She was referred to the hospice the day before and my colleagues describe her in the team meeting as being very weak and tired. Rebecca has stopped eating and drinking and seems to having entered the final phase of her life. 

Since 2014, I work as a music therapist at the hospice in western Norway. Once a week, I offer to play music for terminally ill people and their families, listen to their preferred music or sing familiar songs together. I work in a multi-disciplinary team with specialized nurses and physicians, a physiotherapist, a priest, a family therapist and a psychologist. People referred to the hospice are often in the final phase of their life and die during their stay. This means that I often see them only once in their dying process. Like in other hospices all over the world, we aim to practice person-centered holistic care here. That means neither hastening nor postponing death and dying, but affirming life. It means recognizing dying as a natural process – a part of life. And the hospice is a lively place; people are welcome 24/7, to gather to eat, celebrate and grieve together, to live their lives as fully as they might wish and with the best possible quality. 

All these practices were turned upside down by the sanctions following the Covid 19-pandemic in spring 2020 during the first lockdown. The hospice was completely closed down for ten days. Eventually a few people were admitted to the hospice after this period. But life and care in the hospice was quite different from before. Visitor restrictions were introduced that allowed in exceptional cases that a terminally ill person could have one visitor, a close family member and always the same person, each day for a limited amount of time. When the hospice gradually opened again, we were talking about how to do music therapy – via zoom? With me sitting outside a person’s room? Or, being in the room but wearing a surgical mask, the requisite three meters distant, a maximum of 15 minutes. I decided to try the third option.  As a music therapist, I did not necessarily have to be physically close in the way my colleagues from physiotherapy or nursing need to be. Even with the new constraints, being in the same room together felt right. 

So, Rebecca and I meet during the second lockdown in winter 2020. My face and hands covered with a mask and gloves, I enter her room, taking with me a kantele, a small string instrument that can be easily sterilized after the session. 

When I introduce music therapy to persons and their families at the hospice, the kantele is often my companion. It is both, a door-opener and an opportunity for here-and-now musicking. Once played, people often start to talk about music, and we find a song or piece that is meaningful to them and that we continue with.

Rebecca lies in her bed. A morning show is running on TV. I introduce myself and she looks at me and the instrument. Her reaction comes completely unexpected to me. She rises her body from the bed with such an energy, claps her hands and smiles. With a cheerful voice, she says that this is really a surprise! While I find a chair in three meters distance to her, Rebecca tells me that she has been writing some poems that she always wanted to make songs out of and that she used to play the piano, the trumpet and the guitar. She plays on an air guitar with big movements as if to prove that. She is really excited about the idea of music making, and at the same time expresses that she is quite tired and exhausted. We turn off the TV as Rebecca wants to hear the sound of the Kantele: 

I begin with some sequences of arpeggiated tones and eventually find a little melody that I repeat. Rebecca closes her eyes and I can see that her breathing becomes steadier and deeper. She seems to relax and I almost get the sense that she has fallen asleep, but she opens her eyes and says that she likes the soft and delicate sound of the kantele. I ask her to tell me more about her poems and she tries to recall one of them. She smiles and I can hardly believe that this is the same person that has been introduced in the interdisciplinary team meeting earlier that day. She is frail and at the same time enjoys talking about her poems and music and seems to be right in the middle of it again. She asks me where I come from and if I want to sing a song from my home country.

I smile at her energy and her concern for me, weak as she is. I suggest an old song for advent that is known in both Germany and Norway: “Es ist ein Ros´ entsprungen” – “Det hev ei rose sprunga”. During the year I have become used to sing with the surgical mask and sing the first verse of the song in German and then in Norwegian. Rebecca closes her eyes and I see that she taps the rhythm of the melody with her right forefinger on the bed linen. She becomes slower and I adapt the tempo of my singing accordingly. Again, I feel that she has fallen asleep. But she opens her eyes and smiles. I say, that it would be lovely if we could meet again and take one of her poems and find a melody to it. She agrees and says that this needs to happen another day, as she felt quite tired now. Rebecca dies two days later.  

I tell her nurse about the music therapy session, Rebecca´s energy, dedication and joy. And my nursing colleague responds: “You play on other strings with the people – both literally and metaphorically”. 

I have been working at the hospice in this way now for nearly the entirety of this extraordinary year, and I realize that keeping a distance or a surgical mask are not hindrances for music therapy. To the contrary, we can build sounding bridges and  musical bonds between us, keeping distance without being distant at all.