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: www.beingastonished.com], more commonly known as Astonished!.
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).
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.”
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.
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: http://bodiesintranslation.ca/cripping-the-arts-symposium-2019/] and Rendezvous with Madness [URL: https://workmanarts.com/rendezvous-with-madness/] 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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