by Katie Dockstader

In western society, music is commonly thought of as an object; we see a sheet of printed notation and think, “That’s music.” The same goes when we hear a familiar song on the radio. We are marginally aware of the months or years taken to write that piece of music or record it in the studio, but in the end, the final product that gets published or recorded is, for the would-be performer or listener, the definitive version. In the seventh chapter of his book, Music, Society, Education, Small (1997) discusses how both the advent of printed music and of the gramophone served to alienate the average individual from the creative process of music making. Both the performer and the listener only have access to the final product and must be content with either replicating as close as possible the ideas of the composer, or to listening with critical admiration. Because of this alienation, a split developed between the makers of music and the consumers, one that greatly preoccupies Small throughout the book.

One way that Small sees to “restore lost communality to western music, to restore the importance of the creative process over that of the glossy finished product” (p. 175) is through improvisational music. Small says that there are two main differences between improvisational music and composed, product-focused music: the first is that there is no foreseeable end in improvisational music, and the second is that the listener is taken on the journey along with the improvisers. As I was contemplating the nature of these themes, I thought a lot about a recent informal lecture I attended by Dr. Mark Hopkins of Acadia University. In his presentation, he discussed his discontent with the lack of creative control he and his students had over the music they were making. Over the course of a number of years of exploration in the world of improvisation, he eventually came across Walter Thompson and his concept of Soundpainting. Essentially, Soundpaining is a whole-group method of live composition, in which the soundpainter uses a variety of hand gestures (not unlike some orchestral conducting) to signal to the whole group, subgroups, or individuals to create certain kinds of sounds. Below is a video of the Walter Thompson Soundpainting with a group of instrumentalists and vocalists:

If Small were alive today, I believe he would have both approved of and questioned the concept and methods of Soundpainting. On one hand, the concept (I’m hesitant to call it a method because a method alludes to a linear progression, of which this is not) is an ideal way for musicians of all abilities to make music together. The emphasis is on the word make because the performers are indeed making music in every sense of the word – there is no predetermined score, and even the same set of gestures may produce different sounds at different times because it is up to the individual to interpret their meaning. It is up to the individuals to react within their community and create a collective sound. The importance is placed on the process of creation, not the end product, which creates a metaphoric safety net in which the musicians can explore their own musical voice free of the value judgement that western culture typically places on music (Small, 1997).

On the other hand, Soundpainting still has its foot in the door of the scientific worldview. The creation of the soundpainting still relies on the guidance of a trained expert. There are four levels of intensive training that one goes through before one is fully qualified as a Soundpainter In this way, Soundpainting could be thought of as a method. One must first master the basic gestures before moving on to the more advanced ones. The aforementioned expert is also in control of the overall effect of the live composition; although the participants are the ones creating the sounds, it is the conductor (for lack of a better word) who decides what types of sounds are made, who will make them, for how long, and in what combination. Small (1997) warns about the over-reliance of methods, claiming that they are more about discipline than music. Indeed, the main purpose of the conductor when creating a soundpainting is to regain some sense of control and avoid total chaos. I wonder, however, what would happen if we did open ourselves up to a little bit of chaos once in a while…

In my own teaching, I am becoming more aware of the importance of improvisation, especially for young musicians. As Small states, most children, by the time they are adolescents, have decided for themselves whether or not they are musical. In my opinion, too many children decide they are not musicians because someone along the way has told them so. I believe it is my job as a music educator to allow all students the opportunity to make music in a meaningful and judgement-fee environment. I currently teach private piano lessons, so am unable (most of the time) to work with larger groups required by Soundpainting. I do, however, improvise with all my students from their very first lesson. A few years ago, I came across the Pattern Play book series by Forrest and Akiko Kinney. The books provide the basis for improvisational duets and have changed the way I teach piano. Personally, it is so rewarding to see a student who has barely touched a piano before make gorgeous music within minutes of sitting down at one. The books do rely on tonal harmony for the most part, but provide students with the opportunity to explore world music as well. Improvisation is an opportunity I did not have as a student, but one that I think can help in a child’s development of his or her own musical identity and self-concept.

Although both Soundpainting and Pattern Play are imperfect in their own ways, I see them, and I think Small would agree, as ways of trying to escape the product/consumer divide within western music culture. As a teacher in the western culture, it is important that we find accessible, meaningful ways to bring musical creation to our students, and these resources are perhaps stepping stones to what Small had in mind for his future musical society.


Small, C. (1997). Music, society, education. (Revised ed.). Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.


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