Latency: what’s the problem?

A Christmas Story

Doing sessions ‘down the line’ really highlights the physical distance between, in our work, the Hill House residents and staff on the one hand and Gary, music therapist, miles away, on the other. But it also reveals what it is that everyone involved – Gary, residents, staff – are doing to care for music in times of social distancing to compensate for the enforced separation…. To think about this, we’ve been rereading Mercédès Pavlicevic – in particular, her abiding concern with what she called, ‘moments’.

Mercédès’ deals with ‘moments’ in several texts. The first might have been a contribution to Voicesin 2001 (Pavlicevic 2001; Pavlicevic 2010; Pavlicevic 2012). Her conception of what makes a moment special (at different times she calls these ‘optimal’, ‘special’, ‘magical) is inclusive. Each time she speaks of moments, though, there is one constant: moments are understood as fulcrums for change. In the moment, after the moment – things are different. And the scenes of action where they occur become charged with new possibilities and potentials. It is perhaps a little bit like after a thunder storm the air is – electric (one of Mercédès’ favourite words by the way).

So, in her publication, ‘Between Beats: Therapy Transforming People and Places’ (Pavlicevic 2012: 202), Mercédès’ considers a day room in a care home and poses the question: 

How do the people – who are in disparate and separate intrasubjective orbits, some with reduced and fractured capacities for ‘being social’ – gather into one shared musical moment…?’

She considers how being gathered is produced in ‘moments’. A moment might contain the social and musical practices, one after another, that draw people into a shared situation, an event with some kind of felt, perceived, spoken about, sense of something shared. A jointly owned happening in other words.

Such practices might include a dramatized shift in participants’ roles. For example, Mercédès’ describes how two carers sitting in a corner of the room start clapping in sync, and in a way that quickly transforms them – while still members of the care team they are now also very conspicuous musicians. This identity shift in turn underscores the general, and shared, sense of musical purpose and energy in the room at that time. Here, synchronous demonstrates to others – Something Musical is Happening – and We Are Together!

Not all transitional moments involve synchrony however. They can also be musical, as it were, gear shifts – changes of genre, material (a new song, a different volume level, octave or key, tempo), gesture, energy flow.

*

Gathering. Reorientation. Happening. Shifting. Transitions… Mercédès’ understanding of musical moments resonates with sociological theorist Emile Durkheim’s notion of, ‘collective effervescence’ – the drawing out, and drawing together of otherwise – Mercédès’ term again – ‘disparate’ individuals – drawing them in or on to something that stands outside of each of them – but is capable of holding all of them, something that generates collective energy. 

The word ‘above’ is important – it references what Durkheim spoke of as the ‘supra’ individual. Durkheim understood culture as lifting individuals up and into a realm of forms – cultural patterns and materials that offer shape for experience, that socialise us in present action for future action. It is through participating in this ‘lifting’ process that we become, and learn how to become, a member of a group, a social human being. It is how we find ‘ourselves’:

Society cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common’ (Durkhiem 2001 [1912]: 417-18). 

Seen in this context, our human capacity for communicative musicality – and the synchronous activities that constitute live musicking – is a means for human social being. So what does music made during social distancing highlight about social assembly, shared processes of acting and being? In online synchronous music making we are not able to effect split-second precision of musical timing. But can we gather anything new from studying online musicking? In particular does it illuminate new features related to how music can ‘gather’ us?

*

We put this question to Simon Procter (Director of Music Services, Education, Research and Public Affairs at Nordoff Robbins) because, as it happened (and as you do in Music Therapy PhD Seminars), we (11 of us plus families) had recently produced an online partially improvised Christmas Panto, using Zoom – in costume (part of Gary’s script is reproduced here – we’d love to share the video but people’s kids were also involved and – frankly we all look extremely silly!). The plot was based loosely on Dick Wittington and His Cat, adapted to reflect the joys and sorrows of doing a PhD. Simon was cast as the Fairy of Bowbells, resplendent in gold lamé and baubles, a bearded ‘furry fairy’, complete with magic wand (the flashlight on his phone we think). He led us in a song he had specially composed for this occasion – about the trials and tribulations of finishing a thesis. 

ORIGINAL STORYRESEARCH ALLEGORYWHO DOES WHAT?
 Dick is introduced to Barney the cat by the Fairy of Bowbells Dick is lonely, and needs a research partner to help him. The NR Director of Research Enterprise, Strategy, Quality, Certainty and Paperclips makes an introduction…Fairy of Bowbells [Simon] – speech/song to introduce Dick to Barney. The value of research partnerships, etc… Dick expresses gratitude
Scene 2: Nordoff Robbins PhD Seminar Christmas Panto, 2020, Script by G Ansdell

Simon’s song had a chorus: ‘We’re all here to help you write/We’re all here to help you write/We’re all here to help you write/Your magnum opus!’ Cue synchrony. Or in this case, not. The voices wafted in and out, some took longer to finish than others. They were – most precisely – out of sync! You can hear most of the final verse, followed by the chorus here:

Simon Procter’s Fairy of Bowbells PhD Song

Tia (Dame Cicely Suet, abusive supervisor) took part heartily. She, barely noticed (or cared?) about latency. ‘Latency? What Latency?’ If anything, the mismatched voices seemed to underscore (that word again) the bizarre sense/fun of what was happening – the fact that we were doing a song together, live, and indeed, in defiance of what the medium could not deliver (sync). You might say that Tia failed to notice zoom’s ‘failing’ here because it was eclipsed by something more important – singing the chorus of this new and very amusing song together. You might even say that this specific context (its haeccceity or unique ‘this-ness’) was as beautiful in its way as any perfect, split-second sync. It was, we think, a ‘moment’, in Mercédès’ term.

We began to think it might be similar to how music works in pain management. If you engage with music, or with the social interaction linked to music, perception of pain can be eclipsed. The fact is the mind can never notice everything at once; it’s selective. Psychologists speak about Inattentional Blindness. That’s when we don’t see one thing because we’re focused on another (DeNora 2014:107-23). Ethnomethodologists (the study of ordinary people’s methods of sense making) speak about how we add things to what we perceive or encounter, ‘filling in’, letting unclear information ‘pass’ and generally colluding to produce the semblance of a sensible, ‘natural, normal’ world (Heritage 1984: 96). We cooperate – and collude. Whether or not we find coherence, beauty, logic, or even a sense of musical togetherness, depends on many factors. It depends upon what we bring to the scene, how cooperative we are in the shared work of producing ‘collective effervescence’ and – of course – these things are linked to how motivated we are to do so.

Meanwhile, Tia was reminded of her involvement in another research project, with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. The interdisciplinary team there, led by Raymond MacDonald, has been exploring how online music making is embracing latency as another instrument, playing with zoom’s affordances, and through that finding novel ways to stay together (and care for each other during Lockdown). The team (Rob BurkeRoss BirrellMaria Sappo Donahue) has just finished its first major article and is hard at work on a second. And GIO have graciously let Tia sit in on their Tuesday night sessions. 

Yesterday, while writing up this blog entry, Tia went back to Simon and asked him: had he noticed the latency during his Panto song, and if so, did it bother him? Yes, he did notice it. He thought as he was ‘leading’ the singing that he had to take care to keep moving, not to wait until everyone ‘caught up’ otherwise the music would get progressively slower and grind to a halt. But then, he described how this was by no means his first experience with the ‘latency problem’. Earlier in his career, serving as a church organist, Simon routinely dealt with the ‘latency problem’: ‘ you have to plough on… you’re miles away from the congregation and what you hear back from them is miles too late’ is what he said (on this topic, see Stack Exchange 2015). No doubt there are other forms of latency that we encounter socially – for example at Hill House where many of the residents live with dementia and responses are often, ‘delayed’. No doubt our own responses are sometimes, ‘delayed’ and, indeed, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil argues that, ‘[m]usic to be personally involving and socially valuable must be “out of time” and “out of tune”’ (1987: 275). The question is when this ‘problem’ matters, and to whom, and how, through what cultural means? It is, in Thomas Szasz’s sense, just one more ‘problem in living’ (Szasz 2010 [1960]) which might be over-come.

Maybe the constraints of enforced distanced musicking are helping us notice (and extend) the para-musical features of music. Maybe our already-existing notion of music as Music+ (music is always somewhere, in some context, linked to other things/meanings) is now Music++? In other words, music PLUS all the things that music can be when perfect synchrony is denied are coming to the fore (and this was a key finding in the GIO study): gesture, comportment, words, props, actions, activities, costumes, pictures, people (this list only begins to scratch the surface)… Maybe the ‘latency problem’ will lead to a more fully-fledged (or fully acknowledged) notion – following Cook’s pioneering work on this topic (Cook 1998) – of music as a multi-media modality, even when we might think we’re simply making or listening to ‘sound’? Maybe, this period of enforced latency will help us to see just what music can do includes but also extends beyond the sonic and the sonic-semiotic . For example, sometimes making music, or listening to music, music might be more of a pretext for other forms of meaningful and aesthetic activity – ceremony, sharing, displaying, moving, communicating… (doing the Panto, in spite of ‘the latency problem’ was definitely part of a group consolidation or ‘gathering’). Feminist improvisers have been demonstrating this point for decades in the concepts of social virtuosity and mixed abilities (Nicols). 

As long ago as E M Foster’s Howard’s End (‘only connect’) and his dystopian story The Machine Stops, writers have debated technology’s dual-edged quality.  These debates underscore how, as with music, technology is always technology+. So, maybe creative ways of addressing ‘the latency problem’ – indeed, of embracing latency and working it into the musical system – underscores some of the themes that disability studies have pursued for some long time (Groce 1988), namely that ‘problems in living’ can be transcended if collaborative practices change.

References:

Cook, N (1998) Analysing Musical Multimedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DeNora, T (2014) Making Sense of Reality: culture and perception in everyday life. London: Sage.

Durkheim, E (2001 [2012]) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. (Trans. C Cossman). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Groce, N (1988) Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness in Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Heritage, J (1984) Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity.

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

Pavlicevic, M (2001) Moments. Voices Resources. Retrieved June 19, 2018, fromhttp://testvoices.uib.no/community/?q=fortnightly-columns/2001-moments

Pavlicevic, M (2010) Let the music work: Optimal moments of collaborative musicing. In B. Stige, G. Ansdell, C. Elefant, & M. Pavlicevic (Eds.), Where Music Helps. Community Music Therapy in Action and Reflection. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Pavlicevic, M (2012) Between Beats:Group Music Therapy Transforming People and Places. Pp. 197-217 in R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz and L. Mitchell (Eds). Oxford Handbook of Music, Health and Wellbeing. Oxford University Press.

Stack Exchange (2015) How does a pipe organist deal with latency or delay? Retrieved on December 16, 2020: https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/30454/how-does-a-pipe-organist-deal-with-latency-or-delay

Szasz, T (2010 [1960]) The myth of mental illness: foundations of a theory of personal conduct. NY: Harper Perennial Edition. 

Disrupted Synchrony: Does it matter?

Gary’s thoughts

As we reported in the last Vignette, the Skype sessions at Hill House in the last six months seem to have been – surprisingly – successful. Surprising, that is, for Gary – who feared that the famous ‘latency effect’ [aka sound delay] would make musical activity just too difficult between him and the residents. 

During these Covid times musicians of all types have been talking extensively about the possibilities of playing together ‘synchronously’ on Skype or Zoom. The problem is that split-second timings are disrupted due to latency. So fully synchronous, rhythmically entrained, music making is difficult if not impossible. (Which is why so many web-performances rely on ‘a-synchronous’ re-combinations of music’s individual parts – to bring them into sync.)

The irony is that only by going off-line – and non-live – can synchrony be achieved. And yet, being online is being together in time – if not in sync. Which then to choose? Non-interactive and in sync or interactive and out of sync? For music therapy, and indeed for any situation where music is being used as a medium of emergent, ‘live’ interaction, there is only one option – live. But latency complicates the picture and for us the question arises: what’s lost when we make this compromise – and what, perhaps, is gained?

On long-distance phone calls and over Skype/Zoom we can usually cope with some degree of latency when talk is the expressive modality. But musicking together is a different thing. Latency in online synchronous music making means we see things before we hear them, and for music this can matter.  The traditional assumption has been that successful music-making relies on very split-second timing, and often when we’re deprived of being in sync we feel dissatisfied, frustrated. So, when sync isn’t possible people won’t feel they are ‘together’ in the music. Or will they? 

There’s a theoretical interest here too. A whole raft of theory from the sociologist Schütz (1964) to the early communication theorists Daniel Stern (2004), Colwyn Trevarthen and Stephen Malloch (2009) have argued that successful non-verbal communication both in and out of therapy is based on precise interactional synchrony, and that disruptions in shared timing have (bad) emotional and relational consequences for the communication partners. There’s a further literature that suggests split-second synchrony gives rise to good emotional consequences – bonding, empathy, even a surge in endorphins (Clarke, DeNora and Vuoskowski 2015). 

Music therapists have been particularly concerned about musical latency as they’ve been experimenting with online work. This concern is heightened because many of the people music therapists work with already have problems with conventional verbal communication.  For these reasons, we thought that sound delay might be a particular problem in the care home setting: to be sure the residents already encounter too may barriers to communication, such as hearing and sight impairments, or the unknown effects of dementia on participation in music. So adding a further complication initially felt like it would be impossible. Gary experienced this first hand, and at first it’s odd and disconcerting to see someone’s mouth moving and then to hear the sound a split-second later, or to hear an echo of singing in the care home that’s not in synch to the music he was making in his room more than a hundred miles away in Norwich. Our thinking was: if Gary finds that disconcerting what must the residents and carers make of it down there in Hill House? 

But it turns out that although the latency problem has featured in every one of the 25 sessions Gary’s done so far, this hasn’t made sessions impossible. To the contrary, it seems that residents and staff at Hill House are finding ways to cope with latency – pointing to the screen, helping each other to take part, conducting the music with a hand or a walking stick, miming gestures or engaging in improvised dance. The visual features of music have, it seems, come to the fore and helped to compensate for what is not so easily achievable online. Gary is now continually working on ways to develop those ways that people are helping to keep the music relevant, and building on the new resources he’s finding week-to-week. And some of these strategies, and the larger questions they’ve raised have been unexpected prompts for our research, and our thinking about ‘care for music’ in these settings – and perhaps others too. 

We’ve been looking in some detail at latency effects in the sessions, and how residents, carers, and Gary as the music therapist cope, and possibly ‘repair’ the musical communication in live musical time. 

Here are some of the questions that we’re pursuing through what we see as the ‘accidental experiment’ of socially distanced music making:

  1. What are the different experiences of musical latency for ‘each side’ of an online musical encounter within a music therapy scenario? For example, is it worse for someone producing or receiving music (perhaps acutely for a highly trained musician?). Is it less important for people who may experience music making as just a way to be together socially? 
  2. What techniques and strategies is each side learning to use to cope with latency, or to compensate for it?
  3. Are these musical ‘repairs and adjustments’ (from both sides) a continuation of the ‘normal life’ repairs and adjustments we all make in communicative interactions – perceptually, cognitively, socially?
  4. How is latency helped by ‘musical intermediaries’ (we have started calling them ‘musical mediums’) such as carers conducting the music, and dancing, singing with the residents? Is this a form of ‘devolving’ the latency into real-time musical synchrony within the room? 

We’re interested in probing these questions through further inquiry. It’s an intriguing question: when is disruption not disruptive? 

References:

Clarke, R, T. DeNora and J Vuoskowki (2015). Music, Empathy and Cultural Understanding. Physics of Life Reviews (December), pp. 61-88. Report version available here: https://www.music.ox.ac.uk/assets/Cultural-Value-Music-Empathy-Final-Report.pdf

Malloch, Stephen & Colwyn Trevarthen (eds) (2009a). Communicative Musicality.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schutz, Alfred (1964). Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship. In: Collected Papers, vol.2. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Stern, Daniel (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life.New York: Norton.

Poetry of Departures

We (Gary and Tia) are exploring the uses of poetry in ethnographic research. This is different from writing, for its own sake, poetry about what happens in, or outside of, the field. This is also different from seeking to share ‘research poems’ with readers or listeners as part of a process of ‘public engagement’. We are – some might say, overly – cautious about writing poems expressly for these purposes. We think that they can become: 

….so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object…

By contrast, poetry is part of our desire to develop ‘gentle’ research methods and to contribute to conversations around what ‘gentle’ methods might mean and do. ….

We think social research often makes too-hasty a leap to interpretation, to attribution of character and causality. We think, by contrast, there is much to gain and learn by being ‘gentle’, by which we mean taking time with a scene, staying ‘with’ a person or group, and zooming in to examine a moment (perhaps listening repeatedly to the micro-features of a sound recording). We want to slow the research process down.  And we think poetry has a role to play in this slowness.

We’re interested in where attempting the poem-writing process takes us, what it might reveal (to us) about our research sites and research relationships, and how poetry might draw out new and potentially important features of what we are seeking to describe and understand. We are equally interested in how writing poems, because of the demands that literary forms make of their makers, might not only draw out, but also potentially traduce or over-write the greater richness of what is otherwise there to be noticed. 

Which has led us to ask, to what extent is it possible to harness the dynamics of poetry writing so as to lead to further reflections about a scene or site or set of relationships. If all forms of writing involve compromise, if all of them produce an ‘object’ then writing in any genre –a letter or research report, field notes, novels, and poems –  can be dangerous. Dangerous – and also necessary, if we want to place our thoughts in a shared domain, to capture what we want to know about and dwell upon. The question is then how to tell about and how modes of telling all have consequences… How, then, to use the various lenses that writing affords to learn more – in this case about people, music and care. 

The music stopped. Then it started again.

I started working as a music therapist at Hill House four years ago. Almost every week since there has been live music for a couple of hours on a Thursday afternoon. It involves anyone who’s there at the time: residents, family members, staff coming in for ten minutes, or simply dancing through to the kitchen. The sitting room turns, gradually, from sleepy to lively. There might be unexpected musical participation as people sing, dance, play instruments, or just tap a foot. Sometimes you’ll see people mouthing the words to a song. Residents singing to their next-chair-neighbours. Staff noticing things they’d never seen residents do before. In a rare moment of intimacy the wife of one resident will hold hands and sing with her husband who, once-eloquent, no longer has spoken language. These afternoons are inevitably convivial, joyful. The atmosphere lightens. There is a sense of presence– people coming back, as it were, to themselves, and coming together in a powerful way. 

Gary doing a music therapy session via Skype during Lockdown2

Then the music stopped. Covid-19. In March 2020 almost all care homes in the UK were in crisis. Family visits and social activities ceased immediately as care homes valiantly adapted to the new situation to protect their vulnerable residents. I sat at home feeling helpless – thinking about what was happening at Hill House, worrying about the residents I’d grown so fond of, and wondering if the situation would spell the end of music therapy sessions. 

Three weeks later, the manager asked if I would continue the music sessions by Skype. My first thought was ‘this will be impossible!’. In those early days of the pandemic musicians all over the world were rapidly discussing online how to manage music therapy, music teaching, or music performance now. The talk was of synchronous and asynchronous timing – facing the simple fact that on the internet current technological limitations meant that we see quicker than we hear, so there’s a significant time-lapse that makes making music together in real-time challenging, and often unsatisfactory. I wondered how I could possibly manage this when the people I was making music with also had perceptual and cognitive challenges due to their age or disability…

But, of course, I tried. The first week care workers organised some residents in a row in front of the large TV in the living room that was linked-up to Skype, and I sat in front of my laptop miles away, singing and playing guitar and piano. To me, the first session felt chaotic and hopeless: the signal kept dropping out, and I felt I was singing to myself as I watched some of the residents I knew staring at the TV screen in what looked to me like puzzlement. But then a moment… Saul looked up at the TV, moved his arm upwards with the musical phrase, waited, and as I sang a downwards melody he gradually lowered his conducting arm along with my voice. Musical connection!The rest of the session was messy, probably unsatisfactory to everyone, but I’d learned something crucial: it waspossible. 

I’ve now done 22 of these Skype sessions. It’s helped me re-think how what it can mean to have a ‘successful session’. Often these sessions are messy, sometimes confused (with all of us equally confused as to what’s going on!). My vision of the room is limited (mostly I see just the front of the room). We see each other in two dimensions. The internet signal is intermittent.  Of course, residents are often sleepy or not feeling up for it – though this is no different from when music was live. 

Despite the difficulties, there are moments when it clicks. When people seem to look right through the TV, right through the physical distance that separates us. There is mutual learning and support as all of us adapt to the constraints. Residents are singing to each other again. They are pointing to the TV screen, alerting each other to what’s going on. Staff are singing with the residents, dancing with them, dancing with each other. Staff members say that in these tough times when they are stressed and over-worked, just five minutes of doing live music with the residents and with each other makes all the difference. “It’s therapy for us” is what they have said.

For the Care for Music Research Project, dealing with these constraints has led to what we are beginning to realise constitutes a series of ‘accidental experiments’. Facilitating musical connection in extremishas opened up new ways of thinking about what it means to be musically connected. It has put the spotlight on many skills and capabilities we did not know the residents had. It has highlighted their care for music, and their desire to sustain musical encounters. And it’s opened up new questions and topics – specifically how any ‘successful’ musical event is a collaborative, and multi-media, multi-sensory, effort, something immensely richer than an ‘intervention’. So now in our research around this topic we’re asking the question, what might this time of social distancing teach us about musical connection and how can what we learn be feed back into music making once – hopefully – we can be together again in the same room? To be continued…

World Federation of Music Therapy

The theme of this World Federation Congress is Polyrhythms of Music Therapy. Nice. We recorded our contribution for the conference on Friday. None of us are too clued up with zoom so it’s been a learning curve. But in a way, that made it more fun – at least in the recording and we laughed a lot in between trying to get the timings sorted and the key information conveyed. The Congress website is here and will be updated regularly until the actual dates – July 7 & 8 – when the presentations can be viewed (and we’ll be on hand afterward to for discussion). https://www.wfmt.info/resource-centers/events-center/world-congress/

Wolfgang Schmid (Voss), Gary Ansdell (Norwich), Tia DeNora (Exeter), on a Zoom Learning Curve

What Can Music Do?

Music is there for us. It keeps us company. It puts us in mind of others. It can help to shift our mood.

So much uncertainty. Inevitable anxiety. Much in upheaval. The NHS enduring tremendous strain. And all of us, if we are lucky, at home (that is, if we have homes). And something new that doesn’t come naturally – social distancing.

This is where music can help. We can’t go to the theatre or sing with our choir or jam with our band. It is not possible to visit museums. To just hang out in parks or on street corners. Or to attend church services. But music is still there for us and it offers consolation.

At this time we’re thinking of our favourite music, registering, savouring and remembering the different times in our lives when we first encountered certain songs or works, the people that music helps us to recall (those who are living but also people from our past who may have died). Even in isolation music can help to kindle connections, memories and moods.

Poetry of Departures

Health/illness experience has been a rich seam for poetry and there are some wonderful precedents – we’re thinking of Auden’s famous ‘Care Home’ poem, Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’ or ‘The Building’ or ‘Ambulances’, Sharon Old’s The Father, and all those beautiful, bitter-sweet ‘cancer poems’ which you can read about here Cancer Poetry, by Ian Twiddy, 2015 MacMillan.

We are very interested in how poets employ language in ways that (in the old fashioned sense of the poet) make experience and both of us are amateur poets (hopefully not quite of the Vogon variety…). And so we are interested in how artistic researchers create literary forms as part of a project of stimulating public discussion about issues such as dementia and end of life.

Our project departs from this tradition. While we are interested in how poetry (and the arts in general) can be used to promote public engagement with issues, we are even more interested in how poetry can be used as part of reflexive practice in research, for researchers.

While Tia has used formal poetry as a kind of ‘imaginative method’ for exploring the ways that a particular family (her family) responds to the experience of dementia, Gary has for a while now been writing little fast-composed poems about people and events in his work as a music therapist. Sometimes this is to remember people after they have died. It helps him process the sadness associated with the loss of music participants. Other times it is to capture a ‘telling’ moment, to think about the wider world of relationships and happenings as it is refracted in a ‘grain’ of interaction and exchange. In both cases, the poems are responses to things they’ve noticed about others, and about themselves in response to others.

The use of poetry here places a minute detail – an event or experience – inside a frame. That framing in turn helps to hold a moment, to consider things in detail and to consider modes of description as they have power over the shape and content of what we describe and then come to remember and know. Dwelling in this way can help draw to our attention things we want to know and analyse that our other methods of data ‘collection’ cannot address. And it can alert us to some of our presuppositions and reflex practices of ‘writing up’.

Writing ethnography is, as Paul Atkinson has observed, inevitably a literary endeavour. So too is all science writing – scientific enquiry and scientific praxis has, in other words, a poetics (back to Goethe). If every literary foray packages/repackages, arranges, highlights, translates, traduces, constitutes, and constrains its subject, then thinking about what comes out when we write within a genre, style or form calls attention to the social contract we make with the words we use, and the words that use us. And so we are asking ourselves – what emerges when we ‘tell’ about the field in short, ‘poetic’ bundles of words (as opposed to field notes), how might these bundles, because of their particularity, sensitise us to things that we might not otherwise have noticed and – this is the key – with what kinds of consequences for those involved?

The Social Value of Music

Over the last 15 years music therapists and community musicians have increasingly used the word ‘wellbeing’ to talk about their work. ‘Wellbeing’ – instead of the seemingly more ‘objective’ term, ‘health’. While the term wellbeing raises many complex issues, it also captures the multiple senses of what it means to be at ease, secure, or – the key (and deliberaely nebulous term) – flourishing. These things can, the thinking goes, stand side-by-side with physical symptoms or medically recognised ‘conditions’ and in ways that can actually affect those conditions – suppressing awareness of pain, perhaps even helping to reverse the mechanisms that contribute to, or cause, pain (and ‘total pain‘). This Nordoff Robbins conference examined how music often makes a crucial difference to how we live with illness or disability – with how we can still be ‘well’ within challenging circumstances, how music in short, can help. 

Gary’s talk (‘When (exactly) is wellbeing? What clues does music therapy give?’), tackled a (research) question near to the heart of the Care for Music project – what level of research ‘focus’ is needed if we’re to move beyond merely general statements about how music helps? How can we begin (finally!) to specify the ecological web of what happens – musically and para-musically – that leads to increased ‘wellbeing’.

Former politician, and now CEO of UK Music, Michael Dugher talked about the macro-economics of the music business in this country and how we channel its power to bring music to everyone who needs it. Community musician and sociologist Prof Norma Daykin’s keynote challenged us to re-think what kind of enterprises music therapy and community music are. Are they professions or social movements? Provocative and useful thoughts … 

Claire Flower and Gary Ansdell

 

The Power of Music

Nottingham University: One of the sponsors was the Room 217 Foundation from Canada. The title of Gary’s talk was ‘Taking an improvisational attitude to music’s help’. He described how how music can foster second-by-second change (of energy, mood, intensity, movement, focus). Music practitioners can use improvisational methods in ways that create connection with (and between) people in challenging circumstances in care settings.

While there, Gary also did a research workshop with Dr Orii McDermott of Nottingham University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences –  ‘Music therapy research in later life care settings: how can it help practitioners?’. So much research is being done now, but we still have to work hard to make sure that it reaches practitioners, who are the conduit for putting research into everyday contexts and in ways that further inform and develop the research. It’s a good sign that conferences where researchers and practitioners can meet – like this one at Nottingham – are happening, and happening more often. 

Gary Ansdell at The Power of Music Conference Nottingham (photo: Raymond MacDonald)

The High Road and the Low Road in Care for Music

Micro analysis of musical engagement takes time. It often dwells on split second interaction. The kind of things that, literally, if you blink, you will miss. Sometimes small things have large effects. In popular culture we speak of things like the ‘final straw’, of ‘tipping points’, of how sometimes things can, and have to ‘turn on a dime’. We know that details matter. In communication, and musical communication (or ‘communion’) these nuances can determine many so-called ‘larger’ things for example, the quality of the relationship between two or more people, their mutual perceptions of each other, their gradual and mutual attunment (or not) and their future conduct trajectories. The keynote talk described the importance of micro-ritual interactions in socio-musical situations of care and the kinds of differences that these ritual interactions can make for action and for opportunities for action in space and time.

Frode Aass Kristiansen, Tia DeNora, Maren Metell, and Simon Gilbertson with the Masters Students in Music Therapy GAMUT