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

Memory, and Contested Memory

Memory Studies at University of Rome, III. Professoressa Annalisa Tota and her team at Roma III are specialists in ‘technologies of memory’, by which they mean cultural media. They study how memory is always collective – it takes shape in relation to available cultural images, narratives, and structured arrangements of sensory materials – such as music. They also study how memory is selective, how somethings are foregrounded, others backgrounded. This selectivity – including the question of what there is ‘to be remembered’ – is always political. It is often also Political. For example, Tota is especially interested in traumatic memories and in when what we know and how, at times what we know and/or remember, cannot be openly stated but needs to be coded aesthetically – as ‘fiction’, as ‘art’, as ‘music’. (see her magnificent article, “I know, but I have no proof”.) We presented some of the theoretical issues relating to music, action and time to a group of students and staff in December and this was followed by useful discussions about remembering, forgetting and the role of the arts, specifically music.

Care for a Revolution?

Our Project Partner, Mountbatten Hospice hosted a wonderful conference entitled Care for a Revolution? Some striking talks and keynotes from Adam Kay, Tracey Bleakley, Dame Barbara Monroe, Barbara Gale, Sam Kyeremateng and (member of the Care for Music Advisory Board) Nigel Hartley.

Two days discussing how to enrich our languages of death and dying, how to build responsive, sustainable, and creative communities of care (see photo of Nigel’s keynote below), volunteering, help/self help, and the importance of fleeting, often very tiny, acts of kindness between people. Death and dying, illness – these involve much more than the physical symptoms. They are characterised by total pain, and culture (music) has a role to play in the transfigurement of that kind of (psycho- social- physical- existential- ) pain. Lesson: dying is fundamentally social and death can be our friend. At the end of day one, the Mountbatten Choir lifted everyone’s spirits.

CEO Nigel Hartley, Keynote

Writing in the Light

September 2, 2019. A Dream Team for an intimate seminar on writing and craft. Gary and Tia were thrilled to welcome the pre-eminent ethnographer, methodologist and theorist, Distinguished Professor Paul Atkinson, Advisory Board Member, Dr Simon Procter, and Dr Emilie Whitaker, expert on care, ethnography, and aesthetics. Afterward, we toasted Paul’s forthcoming book, the third in his Trilogy on ethnography from Sage, Writing Ethnographically, out in December.

Emilie Whitaker, Simon Procter, Paul Atkinson, Gary Ansdell, & Tia DeNora

Our discussion was wide-ranging: ‘how much’ observation is needed to convey the embodied and experiential richness of craft practices and craft nous? How to avoid being drawn into hackneyed tropes and narrative structures? How to shift gears in the writing from microscopy to macroscopy without dropping the connecting threads? And finally, how to find words and textual formats for expressly non-verbal, liminal, aesthetic, ambiguous and often political processes? All critical issues for writing about care for music/music therapy, care, and craft.