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Group Music Therapy Reconsidered: Of Musics, Contexts, and Discourses

Abstract and Keywords

Group music therapy, while acknowledged professionally as a powerful therapeutic format, remains relatively undocumented and untheorized in the literature. This historical scarcity is puzzling, given that music therapists do group work in a range of formats as part of their service delivery in schools, care homes, health centers, hospitals, cafes, and community centers. In this chapter a range of approaches to group work in music therapy will be presented. Four key texts providing information about group work in music therapy are reviewed and discussed in order to show how group work offers opportunities for differences, opportunities for attachment, for different kinds of simultaneous roles, relationships, and transferences, and different combinations of self-and-others, with larger groups, and with offering opportunities for the person to become themselves by contributing to the group.

Keywords: music therapy in groups, therapeutic group work, improvisation techniques in groups, music therapy roles in groups, attachment and group work in music therapy

It appears that there is no single, objective description of the appropriate social or scholarly category in which to locate music therapy, partly due to its hybrid nature, combining skills and knowledge from the two domains of music and of health.

Aigen 2005, p. 19

Psychology cannot provide a complete explanation of Group creativity; we need a group level of analysis, and we need to incorporate methods and concepts from sociology, communication, and organizational behaviour

Sawyer 2003, p. 13

To maintain a definitive non-musical meaning of the client’s musical expression is to censor the autonomous voice of the client and constrict her individual agency. Therefore it is critical to reflect on musical structure in music therapy, but it is equally critical to reflect on what keeps those structures afloat.

Epp 2007, p. 17

When a group is improvising together, the unpredictability of each person’s contribution implies that the performance is collaborative.

Seddon 2005, p. 48

A substantial literary canon on music therapy individual work between a music therapist and client (sometimes called one-on-one work) has created a wealth of knowledge about music therapy models, theories, techniques, and research. This knowledge base is emblematized by the case study report (Bruscia 1991; Meadows 2011). In contrast, group music therapy, while acknowledged professionally as a powerful therapeutic format, remains relatively undocumented and untheorized. This historical scarcity is puzzling, given that music therapists do group work in a range of formats as part of their service delivery in schools, care homes, health centers, hospitals, cafes, and community centers.

(p. 670) Parts of the problem are well-known, and concern the entire discipline. Music therapy is a hybrid discipline: neither situated discretely in musical, health, or social discourses or practices, but in shifting and complicated combinations of any of these. There is not a single music therapy practice—group or individual—neither is there a convenient or grand theoretical frame of reference. The link between music therapy theory and practice can be unpredictable, shifted by time and place. Finally, it must be acknowledged that groups—in and out of music therapy—are complex organisms: neither stable, nor necessarily unified, nor the result of individuals assembling of “more than two” persons in time and place and activity.

Rather than searching for one satisfying or explanatory group discourse—which might well be a spurious enterprise—this chapter attempts a broadening of discourse for music therapy group work, and begins by examining some descriptive conventions. A very brief biographical professional sweep is followed by a commentary on four contemporary group texts. Three group music therapy vignettes provide a prism for discursive foraging and improvising, drawn mostly from contemporary music therapy writings; and the chapter concludes with reflections on how a contemporary group music therapy discourse(s) might continually emerge.

In search of biographies: Praxes and pioneers

The received music therapy canon has historically—until the turn of the millennium—positioned music therapy’s social-political engagements and interests in the background—as though music therapists worked within socio-cultural vacuums. In contrast, accounts of music healing practices, from fields of anthropology/ethnomusicology, have always situated practices in the midst of, and as part of, everyday economic, religious, musical, medical, and political currents of their time and place (Gouk 2000; Horden 2000; Koen 2008). However, a more recent reframing of the founding music therapy accounts, by music therapist Brynjulf Stige and sociologist Leif Aaro (Stige and Aaro 2012), (re)embeds the work and ideas of music therapy pioneers as part of their contemporary historical, social, political, economic, and geographical milieus. Thus, Florence Tyson established the Community Music Therapy Center in New York in the 1950s (Tyson 1968) as part of a broad based development of Community-based centers; while Carolyn Kenny (1982) privileged rituals and myths in response to overly medical-behavioral emphases in practices. Christoph Schwabe (1987), writing and working within an East German tradition that predated the unification of Germany founded “Social Music Therapy” on his experiences and understandings of the individual and society mutually constituting one another. While in the UK, community music therapy emerged at the turn of the millennium in response to a discrepancy between narrowing disciplinary discourses and broadening practices; and in South Africa a distinctive praxis has responded to political instability and inequality with an emphasis on musical-social activism. Another contemporary text, by music therapists Trondalen and Bonde (2012), focuses explicitly on theoretical influences of music therapy models, also historically situated. Trondalen and Bonde cover Bonny’s Guided Imagery in Music, informed by psychotherapy; Analytically Oriented Music Therapy by psychoanalysis; Nordoff and Robbins Creative Music Therapy, (p. 671) by anthroposophy and humanistic psychology, Cognitive Behavioral Music Therapy by behaviorism, and so on. Theories, it would seem, are of their time, place, and persons, and shift accordingly. In the 1980s, Even Ruud (1980, 1988) alerted music therapists to the relationship between practices and “the prevailing treatment theories” of the day—be these explicitly acknowledged by pioneers and practitioners, or not. More recently, music therapist Simon Procter (2008) considers the complexities of the “fit” and “drift” between powerful and legitimating theoretical narratives, and practitioners’ quotidian enactments of a practice that responds to the changing and shifting needs of their working environments.

These biographical/historical snapshots of music therapy praxes already hint at music therapy navigating closely the intellectual, social and political currents of their time and place—whether or not they are described as such at the time of their geneses.

Given the temporal, contextual and fluid nature of music therapy discourses, it may be useful at this point to draw from Ken Aigen’s (2005) work to consider how music therapists make links between theory and practice. His taxonomy considers the disciplinary origins of theories that inform music therapy thinking, and how music therapy scholars have translated, transplanted these—or not.

Recontextualized theory, he writes: “… seeks to describe and explain music therapy processes and phenomena in the terms of other disciplines such as psychoanalysis, neurology, or behavioural learning theory” (Aigen 2005, p. 23). The danger, he suggests, is one of reductionism, and of privileging the constructs of other theories over those of music therapy (and at times, it would seem, replacing music therapy). Bridging Theory establishes connections between terms and constructs from different disciplines, combining these with those specific to music therapy. He cites his own explorations of Keil’s participatory discrepancies, within the context of music therapy improvisation: seeking to bridge between these, rather than reframe music therapy within other theories. Indigenous Theory he describes as original and specific to music therapy—based on the understanding that like all disciplines, music therapy also uses theory imported from other domains. Practice-based, indigenous theory explains phenomena unique to it. While Nordoff and Robbins’ Music Child explains Nordoff Robbins practice, (with theoretical resonances from anthroposophy and the humanistic psychology), it is questionable whether indigenous theory is useful outside the discipline.

Thus far, we have explored the transient, situated nature of a range of music therapy models—of their time and place, theoretically, culturally, and politically. Where does this leave group music therapy discourse? Might its paucity also be the result of historical—cultural preferences—and absences? And how might understanding socio-cultural music therapy praxes help to redress this paucity?

The next section casts a brief glance at four contemporary group music therapy texts not because they represent the entire canon, but because they offer a discursive range—although, to reiterate, entire books on group work are few.

With some exceptions: Current texts

Texts on group music therapy can be broadly clustered under those offering practical resources for practitioners, and those that privilege explaining and theorizing group work. Tom Plach’s The Creative use of music in Group Therapy (1996) and Chris Achenbach’s Creative (p. 672) Music in Groupwork (1997) offer practical group musical resources and techniques, with suggestions of “extra-musical” functions of various activities; for example, warm up, finding a voice, self-expression, making contact, recovering from separations, and so forth. In addition to strategies for doing and thinking about the function of group work, Pavlicevic’s (2003) Groups in Music: Strategies from Music Therapy offers various theoretical strategies for making sense of both the musical enactments and their functions, informed—at times implicitly—by bridging and recontextualized theories (from music, psychology, music therapy)—and by theories that are explicitly “group” focused. Davies and Richard’s edited text Sound Company (2002), discusses group music therapy work within the psychoanalytic tradition, with influences of group analytic theories of Foulkes, Bion, and Yalom. A substantial range of group work is presented and discussed: with adults and children in a range of educational, health, clinic settings, and with a range of needs; as well as group work in supervision, and with music therapy students. Group work is described as offering opportunities for experiencing different kinds of simultaneous roles, relationships, and transferences, and different combinations of self-and-others. Larger groups offer opportunities for “spending time together,” and for persons to experience themselves through contributing to the group. However, the distinctive phenomenological nature of the group remains elusive. Some chapters use dyadic terminology, and predominantly draw from psychological theories with a dyadic emphasis. This suggests the complexities of identifying and describing the essence and nature of groups and group work, even where group models (e.g. Foulkes’ Group Matrix) might offer a supportive discursive resource.

In her empirical research on music therapy groups, music therapist Katrina Skewes (2002) reviewed group improvisations in music therapy by interviewing prominent international practitioners. While the questions are framed within group practices, the responses are surprising. The explicitly group responses have been highlighted.

What is unique about music as therapy in groups?

An opportunity to work through issues in a different way; is different to words; can be safer than words; transcends psychological individual experiences; create a musical portrait of the individual; creates interactive entity—“the representation of the group at a moment in time

(Skewes 2002, p. 50).

What outcomes do music therapy group improvisations facilitate?

Playing spontaneously, listening to the music of others, playing in a communicative way; flexibility in playing, awareness of relationship between self and the musical making meaningful music together.

What are the characteristics of the music therapist leading group improvisations?

The ability to create a musical environment; creativity; intuition.

On Musical Listening:

Music therapists listen to the musical qualities of the playing; salience is more relevant than interpreting musical elements; change and variation are significant indicators; playing together in time can mean many things.

On Listening to the dynamics of the group

Music therapists juggle the dynamics of the group; the individual within the group; the group sound.

(p. 673) Apart from a few explicitly “group” oriented comments, some of which resonate with descriptions in Sound Company, many responses could be reframed as comments about individual music therapy work. Again, this suggests the difficulty that occurs when pinpointing the distinctive nature of group work in music therapy.

This brief overview of texts about group work in music therapy hints at the complexity of navigating between group music therapy experiences, enactments, activities, descriptions, explanations, and theories; and of the variable distances between any of these. While practitioners are skilled at the complexities of group practice, growing a group discourse is a complicated business. The next part of this chapter builds on these complexities and instabilities. Three brief vignettes serve as platforms for discursive improvisations. The commentaries on each of the vignettes draw, in the main, from contemporary music therapy texts. While each of the three commentaries may seem discursively exclusive to respective vignettes, that is not the intention. The discrete nature of the commentaries (the first is a social-musical discourse; the second is music-centered, and the third is on group improvisation) is simply a focusing tool, and indeed, any of these could be exchanged and melded together—rather like a group improvisation.

Foraging and improvising: Broadening instability

Vignette 1—The community choir at Christmas

M will leave her daughter behind for the performance, she says, as she needs a night off and wants to enjoy herself…. J has become the choir mascot, with her infallible sense of timing and pitch. S always ensures there’s a bean bag, soft toys, and some hand instruments, while M has liquid bubbles in case her 15-year-old daughter becomes too agitated. E is to conduct us for David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey,” and sings the splendid solo line of “will you tell my wife I love her very much” which brings lumps to everyone’s throat each time he does it. N and F practice the guitar chords together: N tells F that she’ll “hide” behind him for the trickier chords. S is ensconced with the basses, while P, the choir leader, is amongst the altos, switching to the higher tune when needed. We’re all bringing nibbles and drinks, and will gather at 6pm to set up chairs and eats before our guests (two each allotted) arrive—most of them live around the corner from this busy Metropolitan music therapy Center. This is our choir, preparing for our Christmas performance. We all live, work and shop in the neighborhood, and since joining, recognize one another in the streets and on public transport, and we’re pretty clear that when we sang at the Camden Roundhouse for the last day of the 2012 Olympics London torch relay we were the very best of the four choirs (whatever they might have thought). We’re ready to start and the hall is filled with children, teenagers, grandparents, siblings; tables heave with food and drink. We’re off.

Vignette 2—Group music therapy improvisation and the focus group

Four young adults with severe learning disabilities and two music therapists seem to be having a musical banter. At least, that’s how the focus group of parents and professionals describe the video clip we’re all watching as part of a small practitioner research focus group. On the video there are pauses, silences, sudden drum beats, giggles, a repeated three-note ostinato by the music therapist on the viola, then a vocal sound, a repeated sudden drum beat, more giggling, someone shakes a bell… the therapist at the (p. 674) piano offers some light harmonies with more rests…. The focus group discussants comment: it’s like a group conversation, like teenagers hanging out, lots of silences, a bit of a mutter here, yeah, giggle, silence, another yeah—and more…. hardly a swing band in full flow….

Vignette 3—The group: a musical catastrophe

Three children are enjoying themselves, running, skipping, jumping, rolling on the floor, and hiding behind the piano, shouting, laughing, chattering…. The improvised music is strident and dispersed, reflecting the children’s spiritedness, and the sparsest moments of what might pass for shared musicking swiftly vanish behind more exuberant leaping. For almost thirty seconds, the music therapist and T, hiding under the piano, engage in a spirited and quiet vocal duet, disrupted when H arrives and bangs chord clusters onto the piano. The pace is relentless and in between what feels like car crash improvisation, the two music therapists can only wonder what the special needs teacher, observing behind the one-way mirror, must be thinking of all this. In a follow-up phone conversation, the teacher is ecstatic; these are children who in the classroom and playground are inert, isolated—and she had no idea that T could sing, while H is normally painfully shy and P slow to engage in anything.

Vignette 1 presents a broad social-musical narrative that situates the choir event within the melee of culinary, logistical, economic, musical, and social resources; the description reads like a Music Souk: food, wine, singers, and songs to be displayed and exchanged, in ordered and chaotic extravagance. This narrative resonates with Small’s notion of musicking (1998): that music is never alone, never separate from the relationships that it reflects and generates between people, between people and places (this building in north London) and (in this instance) festivities and season (a chilly midwinter’s night).

This narrative resonates with current Community Music Therapy texts, influenced by contemporary studies in anthropology, sociology, community psychology, and cultural studies, and by community-oriented practices and theories (see Trondalen and Ole Bonde 2012). These texts assemble the ecological socio-cultural-musical fabrics of music therapy work, reaching out well beyond the “medical” or “educational” models, to consider social models of music, health, and well-being (Ansdell 2002; Pavlicevic and Ansdell 2004; Pavlicevic 2006; Stige 2002; Stige and Aaro 2012; Stige et al. 2010). Within such frames, theories of social capital social empowerment and social action (Edwards 2007; Procter 2006) help to contextualize a distinctive discourse. Two examples are helpful here. Gary Ansdell ‘s reflections (2010) on public group performances by people with medical/health needs—as part of a four nation study on Community Music Therapy (Stige et al. 2010); and Stige’s characterizing of Health Musicking (2012). Ansdell’s commentary on the two public performances conveys not only the sense of social belonging, pride in collective participation and sharing, the sense of musical commitment in the performance, but also proposes that this public social musical event offers opportunities for redistributing and animating the resources and skills latent in the locality. This broader narrative, with its Resource-Oriented music therapy resonances (Rolvsjord 2004, 2010), has a hint of social activism. It suggests a more even distribution of resources and skills than those implicitly conveyed in music therapy literature, (for example, with the music therapist in “expert helper” role). Ansdell is at pains to insist that such public events belong within music therapy practice rather than on its margins, with their professional origins in Nordoff and Robbins early public performances with children (Nordoff and Robbins 1975). Here, the performers are witnessed—both as individuals (soloists) and as a group—not as persons in need or on the (p. 675) margins of society, or “expert” music therapist-choir leader, but with reconstituted heath identities of skilled, efficient, supportive, cooperative, leading soloist, drummer, guitarist, pianist, listeners, and more. Musicking, we know, reconfigures our identities (Ansdell 2010; MacDonald et al. 2002).

The collective and individual resources and identities seem to be interchangeable, and improvised, defined through enacting choir-specific roles and responsibilities. While the choir leader may orchestrate the music in the longer-term, this is inseparable from the shared reservoir of songs, talented singers, guitarists and drummers and cooks that feature at that festival, and these in turn seem inseparable from the descriptions of the spacious and easily accessible, pleasant and free local rehearsal space, and local residents who open their home for the after-party.

Stige’s Health Musicking (Stige 2003, 2012), offers another discursive prism for musical health performance; framing music therapy as a health event, with five affordances: The arenas—the site in which the choir event happens, as well as the ethos of this music therapy center that supports, allows for, and promotes such a reciprocally enhancing local musical event; the (at times implicit) agendas—of trust, mutual respect, musical friendships, social reciprocities and support, valuing making music together—having fun and celebrating together; the agents—whose skills, resources, will are enacted and embodied through participatory events; the activities themselves (cooking, drinking, singing, gossiping), and the artefacts—instruments, the well-lit space, songs, recipes, cultural traditions, and so on.

This kind of broadened discursive frame for Vignette 1 suggests a “social practice,” that can be explained as a participatory ritual, generating, and sustaining social health and well-being, as fostering social collaborations, and generating shared values, meaning and understandings—all of which are key to ensuring social bonding (Dissanayake 2001, 2009; Rogoff 2003; Stern 2004).

Let us now consider Vignette 2.

In contrast to the musical melee of Vignette 1, Vignette 2 offers a “traditional” music therapy group scenario, ongoing over weeks if not months, within a closed space with (we imagine) few interruptions, as described in many more general music therapy texts (Bunt and Hoskyns 2002; Darnley-Smith and Patey 2003; Wigram et al. 2002). Participants’ disability delineates their group membership, in keeping with medical model, psychological and special needs discourses. The roles in the vignette are formally identified as those of “music therapist” and “clients,” and there is little in this narrative that signals the practice’s broader socio-cultural context and networks—which of course, doesn’t negate their presence (it is the vignette itself that is the focus here).

This is an ambiguous narrative: it frames the musicking event both directly and through the comments of focus group observers. These add a discursive resonance: how do observers, unschooled in music therapy discourse, decode the group’s enactments? How do they translate musicking into “yeah yeah,” “hanging out,” and “having a banter”? How do musical acts come to be seen and explained as non-musical acts?

Emerging from Nordoff Robbins improvisational practice, Ken Aigen’s (2005) music-centered framework understands participative musicking as the locus of therapeutic work (in contrast to approaches that use music as an adjunct or trigger to therapeutic work through other media, such as words, medical treatment, or art1). Music-centered theory (indigenous theory?)—explains participatory shared musicking not as separate from, but as embodying (p. 676) the extra-musical, while paradoxically also retaining the focus of the musical experience in music therapy praxis (Ansdell 2014; Epp 2007; Stige et al. 2010). Drawing from sociologist Tia DeNora’s (2011) descriptions of how musical affordances depend on the perception that the musical and the extra-musical (e.g. feelings, movements) have something in common: that the musical incorporates aspects of the extra-musical, the notion of the para-musical (Stige et al. 2010) helps to frame the group improvisation in the Vignette as embodied social banter, embodied hanging out, with notions of shared meaning and understandings being enacted through participative musicking. By according musical qualities both within explicitly musical enactments, and people’s everyday skills, resources, roles, and relationships, music-centered theory, helps to explain the musicalizing of shared experiences during, alongside and beyond music therapy, while also retaining the focus on the explicitly musical phenomena that forms part of these experiences. Such explanations have some discursive resonances with Pavlicevic’s work (1991, 1997, 2000) on Dynamic Form, based on extensive close study of dyadic music therapy improvisation and drawing from a psychological discourse of non-verbal communication literature. Her work made an empirical case for dyadic music therapy improvisation and human relationship being a unified musical-emotional event. Neither exclusively musical nor exclusively emotional, but as both and as one concurrently, either one could be a portal for experiencing and describing the other. The musical–paramusical continuum described here helps to explain why, in the vignette narrative, unschooled observers instantly identify what the group improvisation might be about.

There is, however, a subtle professional—political point being made by the narrative, which is to do with professional accountability of music therapy practices. Rather than restricting the narrative to describing the group improvisation’s impact on participants’ social collaboration, social skills, behaviors, etc., the observers’ (para-musical) comments mirror the musicking event as this is happening. This is more than a temporal trick, and subverts more conventional music therapy “impact” accounts. Such accounts often implicitly “justify” practice by suggesting a subsequent connection between musicking and people’s lives beyond the musicking. That “instrumental” frame positions musicking as acting upon that which is separate from it, and subsequent to it. This separating of music from the extra-musical (whether behavior, language skills, social milieu) risks undermining the “musicking heartbeat” of music-centered theory, which offer powerful discourses for continuity of people’s experiences before, during, and beyond “the music therapy session,” however socially hermetic the portrayal of this event might be.

While this commentary on Vignette 2 offers a broadening discursive frame for music therapy praxis, the commentary on Vignette 3 explores groups as a distinctive phenomenon, hopefully approaching a group discourse more explicitly.

First, some maths. The vignette hints at constant dynamic clustering and separating of different combinations of dyads, trios, solos, and the splintering into five disconnected individuals. Although this differs from the more sedate gatherings of Vignettes 1 and 2, this disorder prompts fundamental questions: when is a collection of persons assembled for a common task in a common space a group? When is this collection NOT a group? When is “a collection of different combinations of persons” a group—or not? How are they similar or different? Can a group be not a group at the same time? If group music therapy is characterized by more than two (one therapist and one client), then how does a threesome of two music therapists and one client differ from that of two clients and one therapist, and from one parent (p. 677) + one baby +one therapist? And in a larger ensemble (Vignette 1)—how do the fluctuating roles and tasks (solo/accompanying/conducting/supporting/listening/arranging cushions/cooking) interfere—or enhance—what and how a group might be understood? And when might a dyad be a group?

These complicating questions are too easily side-stepped by neat representations of group music therapy in dyadic speak: the therapist(s) and the group; the choir and the conductor; the soloist and the ensemble. This is unsurprising given music therapy’s historical reliance on (Western) psychological theories, themselves embedded in notions of the “self” as individual (the psy complex), with corresponding emphases on the dyad as the therapeutic unit (see Pavlicevic and Ansdell 2009).

Drawing from their music therapy group experiences, music therapists Pavlicevic and Ansdell (2009) developed the notion of Collaborative Musicing. Their music-centered framing of group music therapy events was influenced by cultural theorist Keith Sawyer’s jazz improvisation group studies (more of this later), as well as the work by a range of scholars and practitioners in Malloch and Trevarthen’s broad ranging text entitled Communicative Musicality (2009). Collaborative Musicing was also a two-fold expansion of Pavlicevic’s Dynamic Form (2007), from explicitly dyadic to explicitly group focused, and from the explicitly musical-emotional focus to a broader bio-social-musical framing of music therapy improvisation. In Collaborative Musicing, the practitioners ambitiously attempted to synthesize group musicing in music therapy within a broader ecological frame, that sought to convey people’s ongoing dynamic and reciprocal participation in social-cultural events and resources, already signalled by Stige’s Culture Centered Music Therapy (2002).

Collaborative Musicing framed Pavlicevic’s micro-study of music therapy group improvisations, considered in particular the improvising groups’ topographies and choreographies (Pavlicevic 2010, 2011, 2012). These portray ongoing, at times split second, grouping and regrouping of any combination of clusters and subclusters during a shared—if not always single—improvisational musical “stream.” The notion of “Magic Moments” conveys optimal collaborative moments as intrapersonal as well as inter-personal and supra-personal animation through one common temporal musical stream; and the author suggests that in those moments the “group” becomes one supra-subjective musicking organism. These descriptions parallel Keith Sawyer’s extensive studies of improvising groups—in jazz, theatre, organizations, and business—(Sawyer 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007), that describe improvising groups as having distinctive properties: not simply more than the sum of their parts, but that transcend the properties of its individual members.

What and how might any of these concepts contribute to a group music therapy discourse?

I suggest that as a temporary first step to shifting towards a group phenomenological frame we begin by freeing ourselves of role labels (e.g., therapists, clients, choir members, audience, or observers). Such as their culturally sanctioned roles may well interfere with this discursive endeavor, and for this next exploration, I label all persons simply as “musicians.” This is not to subvert or render invisible the roles and tasks that music therapists—or clients—enact in group work! This would be counter-productive to growing a discourse on group music therapy, given music therapists’ specialist training, and the epistemological foundations for their work. However, for the purposes of exploring the group musical phenomenon afresh, professional labels and roles may distract from allowing the musical phenomenon to offer insights.

(p. 678) In the vignette, as in studies alluded to, we might consider that all the improvising musicians seem to both retain their sense of separateness while also experiencing “groupness.” This, Sawyer describes as “a working together that is beyond individual and dyads” (2003, p. 365). In the vignette, however, exasperatingly for those two musicians (who happen to be music therapists), there seems to be no “together”; no apparent agreement or coordination of enactments, at least on the narrative surface, and apparently no musical structuring that can “hold” the ongoing grouping and re-grouping, despite the musicians’ best intentions. However, on imaginatively entering through the narrative into the room, we might hear and see something rather more complex. We might see and hear one shared enactment, both musical and para-musical (i.e. shouting, running, jumping, singing, playing the piano, kicking), that is propelled by all, and whose quality is that of multiple disruptions, fragmentations of genre, multiple pulses, meters, and fragments of rhythms. Even if the group musicking seems rather distant from Sawyer’s descriptions of jazz musicians using musical genres that are mutually agreed upon, conventional and idiosyncratic, with effortless split-second timing, we might reframe this musical “catastrophe” as a single enacted emergent, however chaotic and apparently incoherent, with the help of Sawyer’s work on Collaborative Emergence. This clarifies the emergent nature of group systems (whether ordered or not): where individual contributions and actions cannot account for the group actions (or improvisation); and where there is no pre-structured plan or leader guiding the group. Collaborative emergence explains the group improvisation properties as transcending those of its (musicians) individuals: the whole, then, is not only the sum of its parts but also has distinctive properties. The group flow (however disrupted and dispersed in the vignette) in turn inspires the musicians to play and do things that they wouldn’t do on their own. It both belongs to, and is beyond each of the musicians in the vignette. Cultural anthropologist Barbara Rogoff (2003) insists that such collectively produced and collectively experienced enactments are a critical part of, and cannot be separated from, individual and dyadic experiences of what and how it means to be a meaning-making human.

To return to group music therapy discourse, with its corresponding identities of therapists and clients or patients. It would seem that when, for therapeutic reasons, the client’s (or therapist’s) actions need discrete commentaries (e.g. for clinical reports on clients), such commentaries might need parallel descriptions of the group as one collective musicking system—with insistence on musical hierarchies and characteristics. However (to link to the commentary on Vignette 1), a convincing account needs to encompass the social-cultural structures within which such enactments happen. The musical and para-musical; the social-cultural supports and reciprocities; the mutual supports and trust that are invited, elicited, and enacted through group improvisation in music therapy; that as practitioners we understand to be part of generating, contributing to, shaping and drawing from, social-musical capital (Procter 2006).

Final discursive improvisations

This chapter began by problematizing an asymmetry: music therapists do far more group work than is suggested by the writings in the music therapy literature. Various contemporary group music therapy texts, considered here, seem to point to the potential for further (p. 679) development and refinement. They appear to confirm what practitioners know well: that describing group music therapy is a complicated business, and risks drawing from reductive discursive frames embedded in dyadic psychological theories. Besides, many texts seem to ignore the social cultural worlds of which such practices form a part. Three vignette narratives, portraying improvisational group music therapy in action, presented an assortment of group practices. Discursive foraging was restricted (with small exceptions) to those contemporary music therapy texts that are, for the most part, under-represented in the general music therapy canon. Each of the three discursive improvisations considered a distinctive theoretical angle: socio-cultural perspectives; a music-centered discourse with a dual purpose, one for insisting that the musical and para-musical be considered simultaneously, and the second for considering these as part of a broader ecological framing. The third discourse possibly came the closest to considering the group as a distinctive phenomenon.

It is this statement that now needs some dismantling.

If, to borrow liberally from anthropologist Barbara Rogoff (2003), we all need a lifetime of enabling situations and shared opportunities and endeavors to constantly revise, expand, stretch our separate, common and shared humanity, then ecological opportunities, social (in this instance, group) priorities and relationships cannot be neatly removed from experiences of individual creativity and initiative. For music therapists, a group therapeutic endeavor offers just such shared and enabling situations, for all musicians, whatever their socially sanctioned identities outside group improvisations. A number of papers on improvisation (including Alterhaug 2004; Sawyer 2000, 2003; Seddon 2005) overlap with one another and with group music therapy improvisation on musicking and para-musicking fundamentals. In his description of “golden moments” Bjorn Alterhaug (2004) parallels music therapy’s “Magic Moments” touched on earlier. He describes jazz musicians’ existential need for striving towards such moments; and he sees musicians’ need for agreement and mutual consent as points of departure for creative interactions—both in music and in everyday life. He describes group improvisations as offering contrasts to hierarchical and pyramidal group structures (think orchestras), offering instead fluid possibilities for distributing and rotating tasks (of leader, soloist, dictator, revolutionary, pretender, usurper, supporter, chorus).

Group descriptors such as Alterhaug’s (he draws substantially from Sawyer’s work) help to broaden music therapy discourses: for example, the notion of group mutual support could be theorized and described as more than psychological and behavioral. For music therapy praxes, these broadening and shifting discourses may help us to clarify how such lived musical and para-musical group experiences have the potential to become part of enactments with other persons, in other contexts. From a scientific, positivist perspective, this has yet to be convincingly “proved”; but from a broader discursive viewpoint, this lack of proof doesn’t negate the continuity of people’s lived musicking experiences.

This chapter has implicitly suggested that developing a convincing and broad ranging group discourse needs to begin with the practice, and that such developments need to be unembarrassed to revisit essential questions: what and when is the group? What is the nature of musicking in group music therapy? What is the nature of group improvisation in music therapy? What are the differences and similarities between dyadic, triadic, quartets, larger ensembles in music therapy (and do these matter?) How might music therapists best represent a collection of people with an astonishing variation of physical, mental, and social capacities and limitations who at times mutually enact sophisticated, flexible, shared social musical synchronicities? How might music therapists theorize such peak (p. 680) synchronicities—that may well challenge notions of what it means to have a “disorder,” a “disability,” and to be in “distress”?

Given music therapists’ professional responsibilities for accounting for their work, and given that Group musicking seems to offer endless variety of social-musical psychological experiences, it would seem that this work demands a correspondingly flexible and elaborate discourse.

I conclude with a telling scenario, drawn from the context that spawned Vignette 2. In a modest qualitative study exploring how music therapy engaged with the needs of young adults with severe learning difficulties, parents and professionals familiar with services catering for this population were interviewed. In focus groups they watched films of—as it transpired—mostly group work. Analysis of discussion transcripts revealed four surprising continua of needs. These were surprising less because of the contents of each continuum, but because the four didn’t seem to relate neatly to one another. These were: (a) personal/primary needs—arising within the person from the effects of the disability; such as in the areas of perceptual, language, motor, and health needs; (b) needs arising from engagements with others, ranging from dyadic engagements with family members, carers, peers (communicative, emotional expressive, relational); (c) needs arising from difficult environments, unaware social attitudes (self-esteem, self-value); (d) needs arising from flashpoints: generally temporary and triggered by, for example, life transitions and other acute stressors (Pavlicevic et al. 2013).

Many of the needs seemed to be situational: observers’ descriptions of young adults’ needs appeared and disappeared in their accounts, depending on those young adults’ life context and resources available. In addition, the group improvisations videos were portals for considering each and all of young adults’ needs, both within, during, and beyond group musicking. The musical and para-musical meanings of the group musicking examples seemed clear—and obvious—to the observers; and a broader socio-economic-cultural context seemed to be a given, underpinning all discussions. For the researchers, the four continua seemed to defy developmental or participatory conventions, and would not “fit” a neat, continuous narrative. In reporting we agreed to leave these as they were: open-ended and open to multiple interpretations and improvisations of meaning.

In concluding, a possibility presents itself; that is, to consider groups not as separate from other aspects of music therapy work, but as part of a broader discourse—hence the trick question: when is a duet a group?, and when might an individual be a group? This, perhaps, is the point of this discussion. That music therapy work—whether in duos, trios, small or large ensembles—be treated as an assembling of comprehensive practices, needing situated, comprehensive discursive elaborations. I suggest some caveats, however: that group work is a distinctive and hugely complex phenomenon and risks being minimized by the importing of principles from dyadic work; that dyadically based psychological theories do not easily convert to groups; that psychological theories alone are insufficient if music therapists are committed to broader social-cultural representations of the interwoven-ness of music therapy with everyday life; that to broaden any and all music therapy discourse music therapists need to forage well beyond traditional territory—as adventurous colleagues in this volume have been doing for some time; and as the three commentaries have attempted. The discursive complexities of group work need to be retained rather than resolved. By exploring an expanded group music therapy discourse, it is hoped that this chapter contributes to what (p. 681) really matters: collaboratively improvised emergent praxes that enrich and deepen people’s musical experiences in any and all kinds of music therapy.


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                                                                                                                          (1.) See Bruscia’s distinction between music as therapy and music in therapy.