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Playrooms - Adhockery Strategies and the Utilization of Improvisational Tools

Dr Petter Frost Fadnes is Associate Professor at The Department of Music and Dance, University of Stavanger, and former principal investigator for the HERA-funded research project Rhythm Changes: Jazz Cultures and European Identities. He is an active improviser and saxophone player on the international scene, and has released albums with bands such as The Geordie Approach, The Thin Red Line and Kitchen Orchestra to critical acclaim. He combines his artistic practice with ongoing research scrutinizing improvisational processes through musical performance, and has published on topics such as collectiveness, underground venues and improvisational architecture.

Jorunn Thortveit is Associate Professor at The Faculty of Arts and Education, department of Education and Sports Science, University of Stavanger. Her former experience as a music teacher in compulsory school and specialist music school, as well as teacher-education programmes, is of great importance to her priorities as a researcher. She has published on topics ranging from the role of the music teacher, to how partnerships between schools and the art field may contribute to changing perceptions of core values of music teaching.


We base our debate on the potential values of bringing improvisational practices into schools. Through using a specific primary school production (Bråkebøtta) as case study, with data collected from both the musicians involved as well as selected teachers, we compare the two perspectives, and consider to what extent improvisational practices may enrich a learning and teaching environment. Indeed, letting three professional improvisers «do their thing» in a school concert setting, represents a situation in which the two perspectives meet in «playful» dialogue. We describe this as a playroom; and by that, we recognise both the playful and adhockery based character of improvisational practices, as well as see how such practices are adaptable to ever changing contexts in various schools. Through trial workshops, interviews and observations we see a link between the musicians’ improvisational tools and strategies, and teachers’ reflections on the production. We describe the performance strategies and tools behind Bråkebøtta as facilitating a communal playroom for all participating parties (pupils, teachers, musicians), and scrutinize the interactive elements in play within such a space.

Keywords: improvisation, relational music didactics, improvisational tools, adhockery, school concerts.



In this paper, we present findings from an exploratory study on the use and development of improvisational strategies within a school concert setting.1 Our data have been collected in relation to a specific school production, as part of the Norwegian «Cultural Rucksack» scheme. It is the mandate of this scheme to ensure that all Norwegian pupils gain access to experiences with artistic and cultural material of a professional quality. Furthermore, it is an explicit aim for these concerts to be integrated within the schools’ daily work towards achieving set learning objectives in the national curriculum. Previous studies (Borgen & Brandt,2 Breivik & Christoffersen,3 Holdhus4) have identified difficulties in this integration. According to this research, elements such as poor communication between relevant parties, lack of participation from teachers and pupils, and even conflicts between schools and artists are some of the obstacles school productions have faced. In another study, Nyrnes5 employs a rhetorical perspective to illustrate how easy it is to employ traditional frames of reading and understanding to such artistic projects, thereby arriving at repetitions of rather stereotypical dichotomies and opposites such as art versus pedagogy, or artistic and subjective perspectives versus communication with an audience. In what follows, we strive towards a more complex understanding of interactions between agents in the school performance space.

On the one hand, the idea of bringing improvised music into a school context can be imagined as perfectly feasible. In this vision, improvisational tools may be freely used by pupils in age groups well-suited to engage with non-rigid, flexible, and super-creative situations. On the other hand, improvised music – especially free improvisation – stereotypically represents something anarchic and undisciplined, which on the face of it might not fit the firm structures implicit in teaching plans and timetables. In order to bypass the generally misconceived thinking of improvisation as mere unstructured anarchy, we argue that it is useful to break the practice down into sets of strategies and performance tools. Borgo6 describes improvisation as «both mundane and mysterious», and Bailey7 writes that it is the musical activity «least acknowledged and understood». Perhaps some musicians identify with this obliqueness or mystery, thereby contributing to the upholding of such ideas. Perhaps the supposed enigmatic nature of improvised music relates more to commercial purposes and image building than it does to musicians’ self-reflection, knowledge and understanding of their own performance tools. By focussing on performance practice, rather than on the ideas of improvisation, we aim to avoid the trap of mythicizing improvisation as something of an inexplicable magic act, beyond analysis and comprehension. As our findings will show, when faced with the challenge of composing a school concert, musicians need to develop a more concise, to-the-point artistic expression than they are normally used to. Such a focused expression can only take form through effectively developing the internal group discourse into a coherent level of reflexive analysis. In other words, our study shows that to present artistic practice to children demands a high level of self-insight amongst musicians in order to convey the aesthetic essentials within their own practice.

Due to time restrictions and busy schedules, musicians and teachers do not usually have access to dialogue and reflection on a more overarching level. Improvisation might alter this perception, and we ask whether improvisational approaches facilitate musicians’ abilities to affect schools – albeit through a mere forty-minute snapshot of their performance practice? Subsequently, we also ask the question: in what way are teachers able to reflect on this practice as didactical input – and expand a mere forty-minute concert into a wider teaching context? Indeed, developing a common platform of strategies of tools might contribute to a dialogue of inclusive music making and inclusive practice beneficial beyond the mere time-span of a school concert. Through the «meetings of two worlds» this leads to questions on how improvisational strategies may directly contribute towards an interactive learning and teaching environment.

Background and Theoretical Framing

Our case study and the performance in question is the Concerts Norway/Rikskonsertene production Bråkebøtta/Noise Bucket,8 set up for Norwegian primary schools (ages 6–12) by the Norwegian-British improvisation trio «The Geordie Approach» (TGA). Bråkebøtta is a part of The Cultural Rucksack (DKS)9 based on musical improvisation, and has been performed well over 500 times in the period between 2008–2014. Our fascination with this particular production is how it facilitated informality, adaptability, and spontaneity simultaneously as being structured, logical and (mostly) based on familiar musical codes. Borgo’s10 view that such improvisational thinking is based on a «science of surprise» comes to mind. According to Borgo, good improvisation is unpredictable, but simultaneously logical, context-based, synchronized, and never chaotic. The longevity of Bråkebøtta – and its 500 concerts – is particularly important though, as it highlights how the musicians developed a «science of surprise» based on specific tools and strategies. In other words, their musical skills were already in place, but the specific skills of playing improvised music in schools developed over time, suggesting that they honed their tools and strategies through adapting to a new context. In addition, the musicians do not ordinarily have access to formal feedback from teachers, and our project is therefore adding important knowledge about the listening perspective as constructive critique for the musicians’ further development.

Research on musical improvisation has over the last few years finally started to approach the core questions of what it actually means to improvise in a musical context. This is in effect done by bypassing clichéd ideas of its semantic meaning and concentrating more on improvisation as stylistic and conceptual approaches to performance. Examples are found in Sarath’s11 description of improvisational practices as a form of mass-meditation, Fischlin et al.12 viewing the improvisational expression as a result of sociopolitical context, and Saul13 writing about eras of jazz improvisation and their radical freedom principal as forms of socio-political opposition. Although different in approach, and in how they actually view improvisational thinking, all these examples attempt to tackle improvisation as a performance practice more than merely an ideal. Within learning and teaching, this gives our topic much more substance, where improvisational practices may be broken down into strategies and tools in the same way as one would summarize key practices within baroque music, punk or Norwegian folk. These tools and strategies are not just individual approaches, but rather something that develops within a group. Sawyer14 points to sociocultural psychology and the importance of recognizing that when groups improvise, «the knowledge acquired is group level knowledge». He points to how musicians often «compare their ensemble art to a conversation»; and although «conversation» is often used in describing interaction, we believe the use signifies much more than conversation. The goal is not just talking with/between each other, but talking together/collectively, and, according to Sawyer, «limit[ing] their individual freedom for the good of the group».15 Collaboration is therefore a key word, and in our context, «children learn more effectively in collaborative, creative classrooms».16

The problem with improvisational research is the trend to sometimes state the obvious: it is easy to deduct that improvisation is about levels of spontaneity, but harder to analyse what this actually means in a practical performance-based context. Through the use of adhocism, Jencks underlines the «desire for immediate and purposeful action»,17 and by doing so sums up this paper’s attempt to contextualise improvisational practice in schools through both viewing specific «action» and gauging its impact. Through such a discourse, we both start to construct a relevant language for describing what processes are inherent in an improvisational context, but may also spot how these processes affect the participating parties. We chose to refer to such an improvisational context (and its «immediate and purposeful action») as a playroom: a place where human actions are shared as a communal experience based on improvisational practices. The artist Rebecca Caines describes setting up a platform for improvisation in a community art project:

It is fair to say that we all approached improvisation as a collaborative process of active listening, real-time decision making, risk taking, experimentation, and trust, and that we thought of «mistakes» and «failures» as potentially productive moments of re-creation and change.18

This sums up strategies seen as important improvisational «values», where the term «collaborative process» implies codes of social interaction and common etiquette. Again, the basis for such interaction is adhocism, or what McKay19 later coined as adhockery in a jazz improvisation context. As ad hoc suggests, spontaneity is the key: «it involves using an available system in a new way to solve a problem quickly and efficiently».20 If we reflect on this in a didactic context, we see the potential for such adhockery-based mechanisms creating new communicative platforms of learning and teaching. These forms of interactive learning and teaching are however dependent on the construction of a viable playroom. In fact, adhockery can only occur in a place where improvisational values are viewed as critical.

Although in using the idea of a playroom, we recognise individual experiences of the music played within such a room, traditional categorizations of perspectives (e.g. performer vs. audience) may also merely stereotype these experiences. Holdhus21 observed that there is still a dependency on repertoire-based music – or what she calls «an artwork-based approach», and argues that this may contribute towards maintaining a barrier between artist and audience. Holdhus22 raises the important question of art-based practice and «ownership» for musicians, embracing a relational performing situation (built on both relational aesthetics and relational pedagogy) that connects visiting artists and schools in a more meaningful way. From the field of philosophy of music education, Pio & Varkøy23 discuss the experience of music by merging its value with Christopher Small’s24 inclusive and relational term musicking: «It is when products meet people, when music becomes musicking, that the value occurs».25 They see musicking as «action». Inspired by Hannah Arendt’s critique of modernity actions – practical and social – this constitutes a means to an end in itself and is not merely about end products. Indeed, by recognizing the value of a musical product as inseparable from the value of musical action, we may approach an understanding of musicking as a process of meaning-creation that transcends artistic versus educational practice. The future of music in schools may even be dependent on the music teacher as a «co-constructor of experimental and collaborative musical learning environments, as well as a person who challenges structural expectations and demands».26 Our research recognizes how improvisational strategies may consolidate such changes, and function as a further decommissioning of dichotomized roles. We therefore look at musical improvisation as a collaborative practice based on sociocultural perspectives. We are interested in how the performance situation in itself constitutes a communal learning experience, and ask which interactive processes are identifiable through the musicians’ engagement with the production, and in what way teachers experience and evaluate the improvisational strategies; both aesthetically and as teaching tools.

Improvisation is based on a fine balance between pre-composed structure and creative freedom. Bråkebøtta is based on a pre-written «script» containing a rough timeline and order of events; where events constitute everything from simple melodies and rhythmic, participatory games to solos, duos and a final, anthem-like sing-along. Such a script looks more like a «shopping list» than a score, and gives few clues to the actual performance outcome or the sound of the music in itself. Constructing an appropriate structure, as pointed out by Sawyer,27 can be seen as a form of sociocultural «scaffolding». Effective scaffolds provide for different levels of participation, and allow musical learning processes based on the experience of the communicative essence of music. Sawyer claims that children learn more effectively in such classrooms, and that «creative and improvisational teaching are effective tools for collaborative and constructivist learning of any content».28 In addition, musicians’ own developmental processes can be seen as learning trajectories,29 30 established through cultural participation; and our actions within these provide experiences that in turn constitute new trajectories. Wittek & Bratholm31 recognize the qualities of such trajectories as dynamic (in flux), constituted by how tools are interpreted and utilized, renewed by interactional activities, and based on practices that are transboundary. Learning within such a social and practiced-based context constitutes gradual and long-term change of identity within the group of participants – a process aided by the collective, improvisational resources at hand. Within this context, the aim is to move between diverse contextual actions, significantly transforming your identity back «in the real world».32

Design and method

At this point we should also reveal that this paper is co-authored by one of the Bråkebøtta-musicians, with subsequent «inside information» as part of our debate. As an initial peek into this perspective, it seems logical to pursue the musicians’ «Grand plan behind» the production. Indeed, the musicians highlighted specific tools and strategies as a starting point to the development of Bråkebøtta, such as (1) non-verbal communication, (2) flexibility and ad hoc strategies, (3) adaptability to and utilization of the site-specific, (4) variation and development within set structures, and (5) challenging stereotypical musical norms and conventions. With this in mind, we attempted to bring these improvisational tools and strategies into a didactic setting through a series of workshops; with the advantage of observing smaller groups (10–20 pupils), more active participation, and direct dialogue; as opposed to a large concert setting (up to 150 pupils). Based on our empirical findings we decided to set up two perspectives of analysis (musicians and teachers), and a posteriori divide the two perspectives into three parallel categories that we considered to match the data: (1) improvisational tools (2) feedback loops, and (3) adhockery.

Emphasising the aforementioned playroom as a reciprocal space capable of impacting all participating parties, we highlight this by examining the Bråkebøtta production from the inside ethnographic perspective of the performers merged with outside data based on observations and interviews. Our data is gathered through participant observation, field notes and video recordings from a specific period, autumn 2010. We conducted semi-structured interviews in three different schools with six primary school teachers; two in each school, where half the teachers were specialist music teachers (MT) and the other half generic classroom teachers (T). They were asked to reflect on their experiences regarding the specific approach used by the musicians both in concert and workshop, to what extent they gained inspiration towards their own practice, and finally, their own experience with improvisational approaches. The musicians on the other hand were interviewed about their experiences from the school workshops, as well as different stages of the production process in developing Bråkebøtta. Through the four associated workshops the musicians had the opportunity to explore improvisational strategies and observe the musical interaction more closely with a smaller group of pupils (a regular classroom setting with pupils ages 6–10).

Gathering qualitative input from two disparate viewpoints provides us with the problematic process of attempting to combine two sets of data into a coherent, logical argumentation. In addition, as «a complete insider»33 and by being an active participant, the researcher is in danger of «going native» without a critical distance. On the other hand, active participation provides access to more nuanced and multiple perspectives of the playroom. Hammersley & Atkinson34 claim that ethnographic research can be seen as one long continuous reflective process. The musicians are observers, developing their production in accordance with audience response, with questions arising on topics such as conventional versus unconventional, idiomatic choices, communication and interaction, and mutual learning. Methodical problems occur through the disparate perceptions of the production in itself, and especially of how the «inside» and «outside» view of process is likely to differ. The musicians’ inside view includes all stages of development from preparatory work through to first performance – which subsequently turned into hundreds of performances. The teachers’ perspective on the other hand is based on their impression of one single performance in the context of their particular school setting. Their feedback however, shows them reflecting on such a single experience in a context of processual thinking – constantly attempting to see the concert in a broader context of learning and development. In an attempt to qualitatively describe the interactive dynamics within a playroom, we examined its different perspectives, and subsequently structured our study as a hermeneutic enquiry into the connection between these perspectives; balancing a micro-ethnographic study (within the trio itself) and the external, observational approach to data collection.

Experiences from workshops

As an additional platform for empirical data, we conducted workshops around basic improvisational structures. The workshops were in effect «mini-labs» for us to further pinpoint key tools musicians would use to explain and mediate the core of their improvisational thinking to, for example, a six-year-old, and gave us valid clues as to the performance practices they use as foundation to their work. The musicians presented tools, structures and ideas within the following themes: Rhythmic patterns using body percussion, the distribution of musical roles, exploring qualities of movement and dynamics, and aspects of musical communication. Visual notation (images, graphics, colours) was used in addition to verbal imaging. We observed how improvisational strategies appear both inclusive and communicative:

Pupils chose a percussion instrument from «the Bucket» and were asked to keep a pulse (three beats) where the tempo was not dictated in advance. After a while a pulse is naturally established, the drummer joins in and starts to expand the rhythm, and musical interaction occurs on the basis of pupils finding their common time feel. All the while, there are forms of direction from the musicians, who use facial expressions to communicate and control the musical parameters. Eventually, a certain amount of experimentation is allowed within the framework, and in the last section, the pupils are encouraged to play with the musicians with great engagement.35

The result is a process of playing with, meaning no one steps out of the frame by playing too loudly or in the wrong place. Here, the musicians adapt quickly to the children’s pre-existing knowledge and interests, and effectively communicate with real-time, actual conditions and circumstances. By responding to the musical initiatives, both the ideas and the participation move from a peripheral to a more central position. Eventually one can progress to more difficult challenges, where the children have an opportunity to expand their musical sound, resulting in a range of different expressions within the music as a whole. By working with this, engaged in the actual situation, we can begin to approach a musical praxis where division between art and pedagogy is no longer the most interesting or relevant aspect for those involved. Indeed, such a situation inherently contains creative resources. Lehmann36 points out that these are found not so much in a single creative power that one possesses to a greater or lesser extent, but rather in the relation between the I and the other(s) in the material that we have access to together. It is the fictional universe that opens up between us, which allows us to act creatively: «Ideas emerge in the best way from creating cool conditions for playing. If you want creativity to blossom, the aim is, paradoxically, to alleviate the subject from the demand to be creative».37 The principle behind the production is to give the pupil a possibility to react to something that is already pre-existing. For the TGA-musicians the thought is: «regardless of what you take as your starting point, it’s a good idea to have a loose game plan that can help structure the whole thing».38 The urgency of adhockery is still key, however; here structure is meant to aid and maintain spontaneity more than dampen it. Through this strategy, one can set up a framework that acts as the foundation for the pupils’ musical development. One of the music teachers experienced the musicians’ workshop in the following way: «Their framework was much more clear, whilst at the same time, it is open to all sorts of solutions» (MT).

On the other hand, this (Bråkebøtta) approach is a demanding teaching method, requiring a flexible approach and a wide-ranging knowledge of repertoire. For example, one teacher commented on the technology utilized by the musicians: «With a loop-pedal like that, I think we could achieve a lot more here in the school. I often feel short-changed when it comes to equipment» (MT). Interestingly, the classroom teacher referred to this as «electric sound, mixed with instruments». However you look at it – and independent of sophisticated midi-equipment – the musicians hold embodied musical and improvisational skills that to some extent are invisible, and are perhaps by that accord shaping an illusion of adhockery. The overall performance seems to be controlled by the musicians’ skills in an almost invisible way. In fact, even though they do direct the pupils in a subtle manner, they leave out specifics like giving the pupils a starting point (sound or specific instrumentation), or dividing them into groups. This perhaps alluding to a strategy opposite to conventional expectations, which for example Sætre39 describes as more controlled teaching-composition practices.

During the workshop, the teachers were observing and took pleasure in the efforts of their pupils. They enjoyed seeing how their pupils became involved and took part in events, and were even surprised at some pupils’ levels of participation and engagement. Further to this, they also commented on the absence of corrections by the musicians in the workshop: «They could contribute something, and so they weren’t corrected» (MT). «They coped, there was no difference between them and ‘stronger’ pupils, they were all on the same level, everyone could make their own contribution, and in a way this was right» (T). As such, this was a good experience for younger pupils who normally seem restless, said the teachers. However, the inclusive elements that teachers commented on concerns all the pupils, underlining how pupils engaged enthusiastically as a group. In addition to this, the workshop seems especially effective for pupils struggling with group participation. One teacher adding that some «are restless and unfocused, whereas others just tend to opt out of the class context» (T). In this situation, it was possible to draw the pupils directly into the playing without having a pre-set standard or ideal for what it should sound like. Pupils contributed in a concrete way by playing percussion with the musicians or with musical ideas that the musician took on and developed further in the musical process. In music teaching, as in teaching in general, it is easy to create a situation where pupils are corrected: «I have a real tendency to think for myself how things should sound» (MT). In improvised music, the musicians’ artistic starting point is that there is no (idiomatic) «right or wrong» – an approach that received recognition from the teacher: «It was inspiring, and showed potential for ways to develop music lessons» (MT).

Two perspectives of analysis

In referring to an interactive playroom and the context of a concert, we still recognize the predetermined/allocated roles between performing and listening. Although the use of improvisational practices does indeed challenge this notion (a case we will argue further), to recognize participatory roles is not necessarily to succumb to stereotypical hierarchal thinking, any more than it is about analysing differences in preset roles and practices. From this, we therefore divide our analysis into two perspectives on Bråkebøtta (musicians and teachers) and then further divide this into three parallel categories of analysis:


  • Improvisational tools

  • Feedback loops

  • Adhockery

1. Musicians’ perspective

1.1 Improvisational tools

The Geordie Approach (TGA)40 is a trio consisting of Ståle Birkeland (drums), Chris Sharkey (guitar) and Petter Frost Fadnes (saxophone), and has over the years developed an idiosyncratic sound where improvisation and electronics (electro-acoustic manipulation) are merged with more modern commercial expressions such as dance, punk, pop/rock etc.41 TGA builds its identity on a form of inclusive improvisation: an eclectic laissez-faire thinking where musicians access all available indoctrinated resources. The interplay between the three constitutes the internal interaction – the internal playroom – of the group; in turn questioning to what extent they are capable of letting external factors impact on such a strongly established performance process. We also ask if the musicians may learn, grow, and develop in front of their young audience – somehow willing to engage with the spontaneous feedback to their music. The idiomatic starting point is not in their favour. Within contemporary music (in the broadest sense), there is an inclination towards a classical and «serious» image or logo; a classic stage performance where performers distance themselves from more commercial stage manners; including introverted body language, absence of eye contact with the audience and so on. The thought (or ideal) behind this is that music on a high level should contain an inherent ability for communication, making the entertainment aspect superfluous – or even distracting – to the aesthetic content.42 In other words, musicians deliberately distance themselves from the pop-cultural; and even though TGA flirt with elements of pop/rock in their music, they seek a serious image, and are used to playing dimly lit clubs with esoteric music and a somewhat passive, quietly listening audience. Within the school tour context, these expectations and codes are challenged. The trio was required to move beyond its traditional comfort zone, and incorporate aspects such as eye contact, humour and audience participation. Taking the first steps towards a more proactive mediation of their musical expression constitutes an extension of their playroom. Through this action they notice nuances of audience reaction (likes, dislikes, fear, laughter, seriousness43), invite audience participation (clapping, singing, shouting44), and let audience interaction decide the overall outcome of the music (dynamics, idiomatic approach, mood, timbre45). Specific action or «tools» within their repertoire are, for example, handing out over a hundred percussion instruments, using the guitar lead as a hilarious noise devise, moving the performance into the audience itself, anthem-like sing-along, or hammering rhythms on the floor together with the children.

1.2 Feedback loops

Through this engagement – aided by improvisational strategies – the trio’s playroom is in effect extended into an interactive and inclusive space, in turn establishing a form of music with elastic properties, where such elasticity is highly impressionable to feedback. A process of mutual dialogue (and impact) is subsequently established within the situatedness of a school concert; something which the British saxophonist Evan Parker explains as a process of «feedback loops».46 Within a context of live improvised music, Parker believes that the audience is actively participating in the creative process. He notices how the audience affects the musicians and the musicians affect the audience, and through this constant feedback loop sees an intimacy being produced between them. In order to analyse such a process, it is often helpful to envisage a defined space filled with activity – again turning to Small’s «musicking». Small underlines how the «meaning of music» is found «in action, in what people do»,47 avoiding a hierarchy between parties by attributing musicking to personal experience, or more accurately, individual action. This rejects the idea of a passive listener, and highlights the interaction process on constant loop between participants through what they do. Within such a process, it is perhaps counterproductive to separate perspectives between performers and listeners, essentially suggesting hierarchy through the separation of professionals and learners – musicians and pupils. We do however embrace Small’s musicking through the idea of a playroom, where the playroom helps us define the aforementioned space filled with activity. A common (or communal) playroom underlines mutuality of experience, but also a realisation that such a process can only be properly scrutinized through recognizing the difference of perspectives involved (otherwise we are left without comparatives). What musicians bring to a school concert can therefore in good faith be emphasised as professional artistic practice, which in this case includes embodied skills and abilities as professional improvisers (amassed through, for example schooling, degree programs and experience48), but nevertheless where performance practices are challenged through audience interaction. Therefore, the playroom – or what Nachmanovitch refers to as «play space»49 – highlights performance processes which in turn reveals mutuality in learning relevant to our discourse. Valid attempts to describe such playrooms have been made in ecological psychology utilizing «affordances» in describing how improvisers play what they play, where an affordance «is a property of an event or object» which «represents its potential for action».50 Running parallel to this are the phenomenological aspects of performance,51 where the idea of self is experientially dictated by circumstance. Context is in other words still key. What Clifton would refer to as «fields of action» is the subject’s constant interaction with the musical object within a specific setting. Indeed, in Merleau-Ponty’s words it is «from the subjectivity of each of us that each one projects this ‘one and only’ world».52 The initial setting of such a «world» is the room itself; and important to an improvisational situation constitutes both a physical, acoustic performance space, but also an analogy for creative structures.53 54

1.3 Adhockery

Much the same way as this fine line between chaos and control functions as an efficient structural device, it also provides audience appeal. Guitarist Chris Sharkey underlines how several schools claim Bråkebøtta to be more «informal than other school concerts», illustrating how uncomposed music is perceived as informal (and where the road to «chaotic» can be short, depending on personal disposition). Indeed, George McKay55 points out how «adhockery» functions almost like a cultural strategy within improvised music. Opposition to the establishment and the notion of breaking out of the mould is more often than not an integral part of an improvising musician’s mind-set; leaving audiences with the experience of something radical and unconventional. In this context, Bråkebøtta can be seen to implement a communication strategy adhering to the aesthetic guidelines for improvised music. Bråkebøtta celebrates the radical, or even the dangerous and «naughty» (also reflected in the title, Noise Bucket’). In the same way that London musicians viewed free improvisation as a manifestation and dissemination of radical politics in the 1960s, the concept noise is here used to challenge perceptions of what music is and can be within the cultural milieu that the school represents. It was decided to go for a continuation of the TGA aesthetic: Bråkebøtta would present children with an aesthetic usually associated with noise music and contemporary improvisation, where noise finds a musical place within a pre-composed framework. Within the context of a school concert, McKay’s «adhockery» holds a clear advantage: informal behaviour from stage is soon perceived as less scary than a more formal (classical?) concert performance. In this sense, improvisation functions as an important icebreaker between performers and pupils; the teachers characterized the pupils as «excited» and «thrilled» after the concert.

The guidelines for school concerts in Norway emphasise the principle of shifting a professional artistic performance context into a learning context. Differences between such contexts are nuanced, and in many ways irrelevant to the performance process in itself, but nevertheless relevant in the challenges musicians face in trying to play music at the highest level within the ad hoc context of a school gym or assembly room.56 A poignant example is how Birkeland often needs to dampen his drum kit with a tea towel in attempts to make the sound «dryer»/less reverberant, or how Sharkey and Frost Fadnes improvise simple melodic lines more than rhythmic textures to avoid a messy/reverberant sound. As far as the improvisational process is concerned however, the playroom is established equally between a concert hall and a school assembly room. Nachmanovitch sums this up: «Acts are pulled from their normal context into the special context of play. Often we establish a protected setting or play-space […]».57

2. Teachers’ perspective

2.1 Improvisational tools

At this stage, we turn our focus on the teachers, and their spontaneous «here and now» immediate reading of the production. By referring to the previously mentioned building blocks to Bråkebøtta (such as non-verbal, ad hoc strategies, the site-specific, variation, challenging norms), we may juxtapose this with teachers’ reflections on the production. For example, teachers identified some of the improvisational tools utilized by Bråkebøtta as:


  • structural/compositional: «start from nothing»

  • adaptability/flexibility: «open to all sorts of solutions»

  • challenging musical preconceptions: «sound-shaping»

  • inclusive/participation: «co-players»


This highlights some parity between musical intent and the perception of intent by its audience, but does not initially say much about how schools may conceptualize these aspects as valid working strategies. Indeed, they might even highlight the disparity between the utilization of highly skilled improvisational tools and schools’ ability to incorporate these tools in their daily work. At the same time, as will be shown, teachers pragmatically broke this down to a recognition of skills with which they are already to some extent familiar. In fact, rather than seeing this as a gulf between specialized performance skills and a more general musical knowledge, they saw potential in these skills as parts or scaffolds with other potential musical outcomes than that of Bråkebøtta. The idea seems to be that breaking down Bråkebøtta to simplistic building blocks bypasses specialist performance skills, with the potential to go straight to the core of improvisational thinking. This way the musical outcome is adaptable to skills; and not the other way around, where the outcome is dependent on specific skills.

2.2 Feedback loops

The specialist music teachers naturally tend to focus on specific elements that have to do with musical content or performance perspectives: «We’ve had Stomp58 here before, and even if this isn’t quite the same, there were elements they recognized, what we’ve practiced; these are things professional musicians work on too» (MT). In this context, quality is associated with pupils being able to recognize certain elements within the concert. The musicians used material that the pupils know from music lessons; and equal to the musicians, the pupils are familiar with practicing and rehearsing such material. The fact that pupils recognized these elements from their own music lessons, in a sense having previous experience of what they now see as professional techniques, represented a positive outcome for the teachers – in fact a confirmation of their own teaching. Another teacher was more interested in dramaturgy and the way in which the concert was structured: «They created an expectation, coming in from the back, a pleasure to watch them. They played, they engaged» (T). Here, the teacher entered the playroom and joined her pupils by safely taking on the role as audience. Other teachers valued the spontaneous mood of the performance, even when they felt sceptical towards the content: «It was experimental jazz after all» (MT), and despite this, the concert represented «inspiration and renewal» (T). From this an obvious dual teacher role emerges within the setting of a school concert; in that they are meant to actively maintain the school’s obligations (for example in tying artistic content to the school’s learning objectives) while also being present as audiences together – and on par – with their pupils. In fact, when teachers act like guards, and illustrate this by placing themselves in a particular way within the room (behind the pupils, close to a wall), displaying defensive body language (crossed arms), clearly not part of the audience, it is much more difficult for the musicians to establish a meaningful level of interaction. Poignantly, Jank and Meyer59 remind us that the teaching content is not an entity that exists independent of the teaching itself, but is brought forward by teachers and pupils communally as a result of a work process. The lesson material does not become relevant until teachers succeed with drawing pupils in through targeted conversation or action – engagement is therefore an important criterion for assessing whether one is on the right track with regard to achieving learning.

2.3 Adhockery

Thematic elements in the production are clearly perceived in different ways, where one of the teachers made the following comment after being asked if the concert was inspiring concerning further work:

No, not directly, but I noticed the simplicity, to start from nothing, the floor, oh yes, that’s something we can do, good inspiration, to get little things going. These were simple things; even though we don’t exactly have a drum kit standing here, and you don’t really need one…it’s possible to get different things going, to hit all sorts of things, to make rhythm. (T)

Teachers recognized the way the musicians approached the sound material, and point out that they themselves have a largely explorative approach in their work – and especially with primary school children. «Starting with nothing, that’s familiar to us» (T). MT said she was inspired to «expand the framework». In her daily work with the subject, she is determined to get pupils actively involved with music, and she often uses improvisation as part of this endeavour. By observing the way these musicians worked, she noticed a clear framework with room for «many solutions inside». She points out how easy it is to bring into the situation preconceptions about how something should sound or what a movement should look like, it is difficult to let go of such levels of control.

They had a much clearer framework, which at the same time is open to all sorts of solutions. This is a challenge, it is easier to say this beat is supposed to sound like this, now you do like this or that. But then you have to interfere and correct, which often results in someone withdrawing. (MT)

The balance between creativity and teacher-control is challenged here.60 We know that in-school performances (both small events in the classroom and bigger on-stage productions including all pupils) represent demanding work for teachers, often working under managerial pressure and parents’ expectation to produce a viable artistic product. Strict schedules guide the rehearsals, incompatible with a focus on creative processes outside the artistic product in itself.61 Regardless of this, teachers are keen to protect and keep a focus on such creative processes as part of the musical training:

Composition and improvisation can be a lot of different things in music lessons and projects. I try to insert something; sound-shaping and that sort of thing. The pupils want to show themselves off, to bring their own things, a dance they like, a text they want to make a melody for. (MT)

Several of the teachers touch upon this participatory aspect of Bråkebøtta: «They are not just receivers, they are co-players too» (MT). The teachers in our study seemed to be interested in different forms of improvisation and ways of working where pupils have an opportunity to bring their own material. On the path towards the «hundreds of objectives to be reached, you can work creatively along the way» (T). However, it is experienced as a time-consuming approach, and is likely to get less focus in schools that underline project- and show-based activities. In fact, when constantly working towards showcase performances, the musical process will often be strictly guided by the teachers – with a real risk of eliminating more exploratory processes within music teaching.62


As a method, we see that improvisation has unique properties (particularly regarding site-specific communication) and is an effective tool in a school concert setting. Because of its elastic properties, we also observe and experience how improvised music reduces the boundaries between performers and audience. Indeed, improvisation has a fundamental methodology that embraces the site-specific, where the situation can be adapted to the various challenges performers confront in the course of a long tour. The various concert situations – with elements such as acoustics, atmosphere, expectations, prerequisites – really puts performers to the test. The great variations from school to school are enormously challenging, demanding a flexibility in form and content, met most effectively through an improvisatory approach; an approach which in turn opens up an effective communicative arena between pupils, teachers and performers. Furthermore, this communicative arena – the playroom – has a range extending much further than the performance itself, setting in motion an ex post facto learning process between all the playroom contributors. The musical input and individual reactions cross between the parties in a sort of aesthetic ball game, where pupils teach the musicians at least as much as the musicians give to the pupils. As Chris Sharkey exclaimed after a particularly hard day at work: «Oh well, I was starting to enjoy it towards the end, and, you know, if the music is not enjoyable it’s not worth doing». This does not mean that there should not be an expectation towards musicians to «just keep going» whatever happens, but rather that a notion of a two-directional, dialogical teaching process based on high levels of musical enthusiasm is much more effective than a dreary notion of «just keep going». In other words, if musicians can radiate a form of honest enthusiasm, this plays into the quality of the communicative arena and increases the pupils’ dividend to a considerable degree. Furthermore, in order for the musicians to maintain a valuable degree of enthusiasm within their own performance (during the course of hundreds of shows) they need to utilize an improvisational strategy which demands high levels of creativity, playfulness – and ultimately presence – at each and every concert.

We have seen how the teachers in this study recognize with trepidation the complexity of skills and experience involved by the musicians’ use of improvisational strategies. This does not however undermine the feeling that these skills and strategies are highly relevant within the classroom. In fact, as we have seen, improvisational strategies are adaptable to any level of complexity (both for teachers and pupils), and even a limited use of their adaptable, playful, inclusive and ad hoc character can be justified as essential to a good learning environment. It appears that the teachers in this study in different ways both recognize and approve of the exploratory and playful approach to performance that these musicians represent. Inclusion – and the primary attitude that there is no right or wrong – is one aspect they particularly notice. They reflect on making the frame wider, to integrate exploratory elements in their own work process, becoming co-constructors of «experimental and collaborative musical learning environments».63 The extent to which they make use of structures, ideas and concrete tools from the production themes does however appear to vary depending on prerequisites: individual or internal school priorities. An improvisational approach might indeed represent a potential conflict, where such a flexibility in form stands firmly against the school sector’s increasing focus on measurable outcomes and visible products.


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1The authors would like to offer their sincere thanks to the following for their help and support: TGA musicians Ståle Birkeland and Chris Sharkey, Bråkebøtta-producer Kari Holdhus, Rikskonsertene/Concerts Norway, Rogaland Fylkeskommune, and Lise K. Meling, Birgitta Haga Gripsrud, Luke Windsor and Torill Vist for insightful feedback and proofreading. In addition, we would like to thank all the helpful pupils and teachers vital to our project
2Jorunn S. Borgen & Synnøve S. Brandt, Ekstraordinært eller selvfølgelig? Evaluering av Den kulturelle skolesekken i grunnskolen (Oslo: NIFU STEP, 2006).
3Jan Kåre Breivik & Catharina Christoffersen, eds., Den kulturelle skolesekken (Oslo: Kulturrådet, 2013).
4Kari Holdhus, Stjerneopplevelser eller gymsalsestetikk? En studie av kvalitetsoppfatninger i skolekonsertpraksiser (PhD thesis, Institutt for uddannelse og pædagogik, Aarhus Universitet, 2014).
5Aslaug Nyrnes, Ut frå det konkrete: Innleiing til ein retorisk kunstfagdidaktikk in Aslaug Nyrnes & Niels Lehmann, eds., Ut frå det konkrete: Bidrag til ein retorisk kunstfagdidaktikk, (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2008).
6David Borgo, Sync or Swarm (London: Continuum, 2005), 14.
7Derek Bailey, Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992).
8A common, derogatory term used by adults towards noisy children.
9 The Cultural Rucksack has been part of the Government’s cultural policy for primary and lower secondary schools since 2001, and has recently been extended to upper secondary school. The Cultural Rucksack will offer cultural opportunities representing a wide variety of cultural expressions, such as the performing arts, visual arts, film, music, literature and cultural heritage. The Cultural Rucksack is a joint venture between the educational and cultural sectors at the national and local level (http://kulturradet.no/den-kulturelle-skolesekken). From 2016 Kulturtanken (former Rikskonsertene) is the new national, overarching organisation responsible for The Cultural Rucksack.
10David Borgo, Sync or Swarm, 4.
11Edward W. Sarath, Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness: Jazz as Integral Template for Music, Education, and Society (New York: SUNY Press, 2013).
12Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble & George Lipsitz, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation (London: Duke University Press, 2013).
13Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (London: Harvard University Press, 2003).
14R. Keith Sawyer, «Learning music from collaboration», International Journal of Educational Research 47 (2008), 50–59.
15Ibid. 54.
16Ibid. 58.
17Charles Jencks & Nathan Silver, Adhocism, 16. (London: The MIT Press, 2013).
18Rebecca Caines, «Community sound [e]scapes: Improvising bodies and site/space/place in New Media Audio Art» in Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound, and Subjectivity, ed. Gillian Siddall and Ellen Waterman (London: Duke University Press, 2016).
19George McKay, Circular Breathing (London: Duke University Press, 2005).
20Jencks & Silver, Adhocism, vii.
21Kari Holdhus, Stjerneopplevelser eller gymsalsestetikk? En studie av kvalitetsoppfatninger i skolekonsertpraksiser (PhD thesis, Institutt for uddannelse og pædagogik, Aarhus Universitet, 2014).
22Kari Holdhus, «Skolekonserter – relasjonelle kunstdidaktiske praksiser?» Studia Musicologica Norvegica 1 (2015), 91.
23Frederik Pio & Øyvind Varkøy, «Reflection on musical experience as existential experience: An ontological turn,» Philosophy of Music Education Review (2012): 102.
24Christopher Small, Musicking – The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
25Pio & Varkøy. «Reflection on musical experience as existential experience: An ontological turn,» 106.
26Marja-Leena Juntunen, Sidsel Karlsen, Anna Kuoppamäki, Tuulikki Laes & Sari Muhonen, «Envisioning imaginary spaces for musicking: equipping students for leaping into the unexplored,» Music Education Research, 16:3 (2014): 259.
27Sawyer. «Learning music from collaboration,» 57.
28Sawyer, «Learning music from collaboration,» 58.
29Jane Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
30Klaus Nielsen & Steinar Kvale, eds., Mesterlære: Læring som sosial praksis. (Oslo Ad Notam: Gyldendal, 1999).
31Line Wittek & Berit Bratholm, Læringsbaner (Oslo: Cappelen, 2014).
32Klaus Nielsen, «Learning trajectories and reflection-in-practice through teaching,» Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives 9:4 (2008): 488.
33Danny L Jorgensen, Participant Observation. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1989).
34Martyn Hammersley & Paul Atkinson. Feltmetodikk. Grunnlaget for feltarbeid og feltforskning. Translation by T. M. Anderssen and A. Sjøbu. (Oslo: Ad Notam Gyldendal, 1996).
35Observation from field notes.
36Niels Lehmann. «Kunstfagdidaktikk efter subjektet: Et retorisk perspektiv i konstruktivistisk belysning» in Ut frå det konkrete: Bidrag til ein retorisk kunstfagdidaktikk, ed. Aslaug Nyrnes & Niels Lehmann (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2008).
37Lehmann. Kunstfagdidaktikk efter subjektet, 189 (our translation).
38Field notes.
39Jon Helge Sætre, «Teaching and learning music composition in primary school settings,» Music Education Research 13:1 (2011).
40The word Geordie refers to the trio’s guitarist, Chris Sharkey; a Geordie is someone from the Tyneside area surrounding his home city Newcastle.
41Listen to The Geordie Approach: Inatween. Bruce’s Fingers BF 116, 2013, compact disc. The Geordie Approach: Why Eye, Bruce’s Fingers BF 68, 2008, vinyl.
42Jorunn Spord Borgen and Synnøve Skersli Brandt, Ekstraordinært eller selvfølgelig? Evaluering av Den kulturelle skolesekken i grunnskolen, Oslo: NIFU STEP, 2006.
43Too loud, noisy or intense may be scary for the youngest, and some react by holding their ears or moving closer to their teacher. Equally, too silly (humorous) may be deemed childish by the oldest and they subsequently tend to cross their arms or frown…
44Through active use of gesture, the musicians invite the pupils to actively respond to the music; a form of interaction, which in effect, decide on many of the musical parameters.
45Towards the end of the concert, the musicians open up the noise-bucket and hand out percussion instruments to most of the pupils, with subsequent call and response, rhythmic games and spontaneous conducting.
46Andy Isham, «Not a timid man,» Avant, (1997): 6–11.
47Christopher Small, Musicking – The Meanings of Performing and Listening, 8. (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
48The musicians in Bråkebøtta/TGA collectively hold 3 BAs, 2 MAs and a PhD, and perform internationally both as a trio and individually with a variety of performance projects.
49Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, 52.
50Luke Windsor and Christophe de Bézenac, «Music and affordances,» Musicae Scientiae 16.1 (2012): 102–120.
51Thomas Clifton, Music as Heard – A Study in Applied Phenomenology (London: Yale University Press, 1983). Petter Frost Fadnes, Improvisational Architecture (PhD. thesis, University of Leeds, 2004).
52Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge Classics, 2003).
53Frost Fadnes, Improvisational Architecture.
54Myra Melford, «Aural architecture: The confluence of freedom» in Arcana, ed. John Zorn (New York: Granary Books/Hips Road, 2000.), 119–135.
55George McKay, Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, 195.
56Kari Holdhus, Stjerneopplevelser eller gymsalsestetikk?: En studie av kvalitetsoppfatninger i skolekonsertpraksiser (PhD thesis, Institutt for uddannelse og pædagogik, Aarhus Universitet, 2014).
57Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, 42.
58Referring to UK/US percussion and dance-company known for using everyday objects as props, instruments and sound sources.
59Werner Jank & Hilbert Meyer, Didaktiske modeller (København: Gyldendals Lærerbibliotek, 2009), 55.
60Jackie Wiggins. «Teacher control and creativity,» Music Educators Journal 85:5 (1999): 30–35.
61Jorunn Thortveit, «Forestillingen som pedagogisk praksis: Musikkfaglige erfaringer fra et samarbeidsprosjekt (KOM!)» in Guldal FoU i praksis 2009: Rapport fra konferanse om praksisrettet FoU i lærerutdanning (Trondheim: Tapir akademisk forlag 2010), 277.
62Christine Hall, Pat Thompson & Lisa Russell. «Teaching like an artist: the pedagogic identities and practices of artists in schools,» British Journal of Sociology of Education 28:5 (2007).
63Juntunen et al. «Envisioning imaginary spaces for musicking: Equipping students for leaping into the unexplored,» 259.

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