CNMN > Projects > The Astonishing Jam Sessions with Astonished!

Chelsea Jones & Helen Pridmore

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  • Physical disabilities (e.g. Cerebral Palsy, Rett

The Astonishing Jam Sessions with Astonished!


This entry is a co-writ­ten account of “jam sessions”—an impro­vi­sa­tion­al musi­cal prac­tice based in Regi­na, Saskatchewan that embraces and accounts for rad­i­cal forms of access in son­ic expres­sion with dis­abled and Deaf folx. The writ­ers here are Dr. Helen Prid­more, a musi­cian-aca­d­e­m­ic who orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped the idea for “jam ses­sions,” and Dr. Chelsea Jones, a Mitacs Post­doc­tor­al Fel­low who assist­ed in sup­port­ing this vibrant work. The par­tic­i­pants in this project are mem­bers of The Big Sky Cen­tre for Learn­ing and Being Aston­ished! [insert URL:], more com­mon­ly known as Astonished!.


  1. Intro­duc­ing Jam Sessions


Helen: In ear­ly sum­mer 2019, I began to work with Aston­ished!, a fam­i­ly-dri­ven com­mu­ni­ty based orga­ni­za­tion offer­ing cre­ative and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple with com­plex phys­i­cal disabilities.


Chelsea: At the time, my research focused on what “voice” can mean in the con­text of a bur­geon­ing, but under­rep­re­sent­ed, dis­abil­i­ty and Deaf art move­ment on the Cana­di­an prairies. I am not a musi­cian, so the ele­ment of impro­vi­sa­tion­al music-mak­ing was entire­ly new to me. I do, how­ev­er, strong­ly believe in doing work that usurps ableist and colo­nial ambi­tions of “giv­ing voice,” which is why it was impor­tant for me to sup­port Helen’s jam ses­sions, which con­tin­ue to be an impor­tant cul­tur­al con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­abil­i­ty arts scene in Regina.


Helen: My work with Aston­ished! is part of a large-scale project fund­ed by the Cana­da Coun­cil for the Arts. Enti­tled Mul­ti­PLAY, this project brings togeth­er artists and com­mu­ni­ties across Cana­da, explor­ing impro­vi­sa­tion, tech­nol­o­gy and col­lab­o­ra­tion. The first step in build­ing jam ses­sions was to meet with Aston­ished! mem­bers in Decem­ber 2018 to explain how impro­vi­sa­tion­al music mak­ing can work. Chelsea and I  pre­sent­ed the idea to stu­dent researchers and stake­hold­ers (such as fam­i­ly members).

  1. Mov­ing Beyond “Voice” through Jam Sessions


Helen: In ear­ly 2019, Aston­ished! participants—known as stu­dent researchers for their role as design­ers and par­tic­i­pants in uni­ver­si­ty-based research projects—and I met reg­u­lar­ly in sum­mer 2019 and ongo­ing into the fall, explor­ing ways to impro­vise togeth­er.  I want­ed to encour­age explo­ration of what would be pos­si­ble for them, and to dimin­ish fears that the vocal sounds pro­duced were “not good enough” or “not nor­mal.”  What is a nor­mal vocal sound, any­way?  My own world as a singer embraces many dif­fer­ent types of vocal sound, inten­tion­al­ly explor­ing vocal pos­si­bil­i­ties and work­ing to break down stereo­types of vocal “beau­ty.”

  1. Work­ing with Technology


Chelsea: I began attend­ing the group’s jam ses­sions. I took notes as part of my par­tic­i­pant-obser­va­tion research. To ini­ti­ate ideas and to over­come ini­tial shy­ness at using voic­es, we used some elec­tron­ic tools such as iPads loaded with sound-mak­ing apps, and a loop­er which record­ed and re-played sounds and voices.

Helen: One of the first impro­vi­sa­tions we tried togeth­er was an audio depic­tion of Bren­da MacLauch­lan, one of the founders of Aston­ished!, on her bicycle.


“Imag­ine Bren­da rid­ing to cam­pus (the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na cam­pus, where ses­sions were held) against the wind.  What kind of sound does her bicy­cle make?  Now she’s lock­ing up the bike, and com­ing to meet us…and now she is coast­ing home with the wind behind her…”


These kinds of visu­al stim­uli, found­ed in real life and fea­tur­ing a well-loved friend, pro­voked col­lab­o­ra­tive sound-mak­ing and some fun.


Chelsea: Because this work involved a com­bi­na­tion of embod­ied voic­es and tech­nol­o­gy, I spent time out­side of the jam ses­sions work with Aston­ished! stu­dent researchers on learn­ing the tech­nol­o­gy. This meant try­ing new tools—iPads, phone apps, edit­ing soft­ware, voice recorders, and keyboards—and learn­ing them for the first time, togeth­er. The idea was to find tech­nolo­gies that gelled with people’s ambi­tions in son­ic cre­ation and fit their embod­ied modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. For exam­ple, when it was not pos­si­ble for some par­tic­i­pants to hold iPads, Helen found mic stand attach­ments to hold and ele­vate the iPads for eas­i­er access.

Helen: As the sum­mer pro­gressed, the group began to explore actu­al vocal sounds, cre­at­ing sound­scapes on var­i­ous themes. We re-cre­at­ed the sounds of attend­ing a foot­ball game; we shared sto­ries from sum­mer camp, such as canoe trips and camp­fire ghost sto­ries; and we had some good laughs mixed in with the hes­i­ta­tion to use voic­es which func­tion in their own way.

  1. Going Pub­lic: Jam Ses­sions as Dis­abil­i­ty Artivism


Helen: My inter­est in work­ing with the Aston­ished! stu­dent researchers is found­ed on my own research inter­ests in exper­i­men­tal voice and impro­vi­sa­tion.  How­ev­er, I must empha­size that my inter­est grew as I got to know this remark­able group of young peo­ple.  I was espe­cial­ly impressed with their efforts and cre­ativ­i­ty at the pub­lic sym­po­sium held in Regi­na in Novem­ber 2019, “Dis­abil­i­ty Artivism Across the Fly­over Provinces.” Orga­nized and pro­duced by Chelsea, this one-day sym­po­sium fea­tured a vari­ety of guest speak­ers, pre­sen­ta­tions and round­table dis­cus­sions, based on the themes of dis­abil­i­ty arts and cre­ativ­i­ty. Our jam ses­sion group was pleased to be fea­tured in the day’s activ­i­ties, and we pre­sent­ed a live impro­vi­sa­tion based on “a day in the life of an Aston­ished! stu­dent researcher.”


Chelsea: Fol­low­ing the lead of oth­er major dis­abil­i­ty-led arts events in Cana­da, such as Crip­ping the Arts [URL:] and Ren­dezvous with Mad­ness [URL:] that cel­e­brate arts-based advo­ca­cy, this gath­er­ing focused on local dis­abil­i­ty arts entan­gle­ments with region­al under­stand­ing of dis­abil­i­ty pol­i­tics by ask­ing: how does the work of dis­abled arts disrupt—or “crip”—normative artis­tic prac­tices on the prairies? The col­lec­tive jam ses­sion served as a rad­i­cal arts prac­tice that might best be described using the words of Lucia Carl­son in her 2016 chap­ter, “Music, Intel­lec­tu­al Dis­abil­i­ty, and Human Flourishing”:

“This was not a ther­a­peu­tic endeav­or with a set goal; rather than being direct­ed at teach­ing, nor­mal­iz­ing, or cul­ti­vat­ing par­tic­u­lar skills, this musi­cal expe­ri­ence unfold­ed organ­i­cal­ly and was valu­able and val­ued for its own sake” (p. 41). 

Helen: Because our improv was sound-based, we were con­scious that it was not ful­ly reach­ing out to every­one in the audi­ence, as we had a large crowd of Deaf and hard-of-hear­ing par­tic­i­pants at the sym­po­sium.  There­fore it was a delight to invite our col­league, lead­ing edu­ca­tor in Deaf and hard-of-hear­ing pro­grams Dr. Joanne Weber, to lead a move­ment- and ges­ture-based improv that involved the entire audi­ence.  Dr. Weber passed on the lead­er­ship to one of her Deaf stu­dents and he ani­mat­ed­ly led the crowd in a spir­it­ed improv that includ­ed both sound and action.

Helen: I was thrilled to see and hear the par­tic­i­pa­tion of a large group in the impro­vi­sa­tion that began with the Aston­ished! jam group.  While the jam ses­sions are cur­rent­ly in hia­tus due to the pan­dem­ic, it is my hope that I can con­tin­ue to explore sound impro­vi­sa­tion with this friend­ly and engaged group of stu­dent researchers. Work­ing with them has cer­tain­ly enlarged my under­stand­ing of vocal beauty.

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