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Ajay Heble

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  • 5 to 12 years of age
  • 13 to 18 years of age
  • Education
  • Community associations
  • Social services
  • Health
  • Family
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Physical disabilities (e.g. Cerebral Palsy, Rett

Ajay Heble


Ajay Heble: What is Music and Health?

My name is Ajay Heble. I’m the direc­tor of The Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute for Crit­i­cal Stud­ies and Impro­vi­sa­tion, and I was the found­ing artis­tic direc­tor of the Guelph Jazz Fes­ti­val (where) I served in that role from 1994 to 2016. I’m also pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Guelph.

It’s a big ques­tion, music and health. My sense is that music and health is a top­ic that has­n’t real­ly attract­ed the kind of atten­tion that it should attract, part­ly because I think music inhab­its the social and cul­tur­al land­scape in ways that remain large­ly unin­vent­ed. Despite this, I’ve long believed that impro­vi­sa­tion­al musi­cal prac­tices in par­tic­u­lar, can con­tribute to the devel­op­ment and well-being of healthy com­mu­ni­ties and in fact, that’s one of the core hypothe­ses that we try to test through the work we’re doing at The Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute for Crit­i­cal Stud­ies and Improvisation.

Ajay Hable: Music and Health through the pro­gram KidsAbility

I think the exam­ple that comes to mind is the work we’ve been doing for prob­a­bly about 15 years

with “KidsAbil­i­ty,” which is a social ser­vice orga­ni­za­tion that runs pro­grams for kids that have phys­i­cal and devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties. And for years we’ve been bring­ing impro­vis­ing artists into the com­mu­ni­ty to work with youth from KidsAbil­i­ty and those impro­vis­ing artists will run series of impro­vis­ing work­shops that will often cul­mi­nate in large scale pub­lic per­for­mances at the Guelph Jazz Festival.

So for exam­ple, we’ll shut down one of the main streets in Guelph at one of the fes­ti­val’s biggest pub­lic events, that’s where these kids get to play on that stage. So it’s real­ly quite remarkable.

And the research com­po­nent is that we have our research team mem­bers, for exam­ple our grad­u­ate stu­dents, doing inter­views with the kids, with the par­ents, with the staff, with the artist facil­i­ta­tors as well, and try­ing to track the impact that these pro­grams are having.

The sto­ries and anec­dotes we hear are real­ly quite remark­able about the impact. The kinds of things that peo­ple tell us. That the kids are show­ing self-esteem, that they’re lis­ten­ing in ways they did­n’t lis­ten before, they’re tak­ing on lead­er­ship roles in front of a large audi­ence. The kids are will­ing to get up in front of an audi­ence of thou­sands of peo­ple and take on a lead­er­ship role by con­duct­ing the whole band for exam­ple. Often we hear from the par­ents that this isn’t some­thing that they see their kids doing very often.

So I think we’re real­ly inter­est­ed in this idea that impro­vi­sa­tion can actu­al­ly be a means of empow­er­ing and ani­mat­ing spe­cial needs youth. And again, the research team that I’ve worked with have doc­u­ment­ed and ana­lyzed the com­plex rela­tion­ships between impro­vi­sa­tion­al prac­tices and their effects on, for exam­ple, social­iza­tion, well­ness, self-esteem, phys­i­cal coor­di­na­tion, and men­tal acu­ity. That’s a project that’s been run­ning for 15 years and the impacts on the kids, as I said, are real­ly quite … we hear amaz­ing stories.

Ajay Heble: On how KidsAbil­i­ty came to be

How it start­ed. We received a large scale SSHRC Grant, this was in 2007. It was a SSHRC  “Major Col­lab­o­ra­tive Research Ini­tia­tives” grant for a project called “Impro­vi­sa­tion Com­mu­ni­ty and Social Prac­tice,” and the bulk of the work was com­mu­ni­ty-engaged part­nered research focus­ing on the social impli­ca­tions of impro­vised musi­cal and cre­ative practices.

So we already had, in this case, a group of part­ners that had signed on to the grant, but in the case of KidsAbility,they came on after the fact. We were just look­ing for a local orga­ni­za­tion that might be inter­est­ed in some of the things we were able to offer in terms of work­ing with impro­vis­ing artists. And so, we had a meet­ing with the staff at KidsAbil­i­ty and they were so enthusiastic.

I still remem­ber that ini­tial meet­ing. There were a few of us, Ellen Water­man and I, and one of our staff mem­bers Jee Bur­rows at the time. We met with staff at KidsAbil­i­ty and they were so incred­i­bly enthu­si­as­tic to part­ner with us, and they saw it as very much in keep­ing with their needs, and it com­ple­ment­ed some of the kinds of pro­grams they were offer­ing because I gath­er that music was­n’t real­ly some­thing that they were doing at the time.

So this was some­thing they were real­ly thrilled to do with us, and fur­ther­more what was real­ly inter­est­ing as I think back on that, we want­ed we had this idea of stag­ing a pub­lic con­cert at the end of the work­shops that the kids would do with the work­shop facilitators.

So there were going to be a series of work­shops that we want­ed to cul­mi­nate in this pub­lic per­for­mance, but we were wor­ried. We thought “Oh, maybe the kids don’t want to do it or won’t want to do it,” and the staff said “No, no, they’re going to want to do it.” In fact, they (the kids) vot­ed and they were total­ly on board. The kids want­ed to go on stage. They thrived in that ele­ment. So that’s where it began, with the ini­tial SSHRC MCIR grant.

Ajay Heble: On what his path was to work in com­mu­ni­ty health and well­ness and music

I think it was an indi­rect path that had to do with the work I was doing with the Guelph Jazz Fes­ti­val. For years dur­ing the Jaz­zFest I would bring togeth­er artists from dif­fer­ent places, dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, and have them impro­vise, and it became clear to me that there was some­thing real­ly spe­cial going on in that moment — where artists come togeth­er to impro­vise. Some­thing that had a lot to tell us about how we nego­ti­ate dif­fer­ence in the com­mu­ni­ty, how we com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er, how we think about issues of trust and social belong­ing. I think this whole issue of com­mu­ni­ty health and well­ness, was some­thing that became more and more evi­dent to me as I was run­ning the festival.

I under­stood fair­ly ear­ly on, that the work I was doing at the Jazz Fes­ti­val was­n’t just about the music or the pro­gram­ming. It was about some­thing much more than that. I’ve said this before it was about rein­vig­o­rat­ing pub­lic life with the spir­it of dia­logue in com­mu­ni­ty. I think that’s very clear­ly some­thing that has an impact on issues of well­ness and qual­i­ty of life.

I think that was prob­a­bly the path that led me to the work that I’m describ­ing here.

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