Biography, identity, improvisation, sound: intersections of personal and social identity through improvisation

Rineke Smilde

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleProfessional

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    This essay addresses the relationship of improvisation and identity. Biographical
    research that was conducted by the author into professional musicians’ lifelong learning showed the huge importance of improvisation for personal expression. Musically, the concept of sound appeared to serve as a strong metaphor for identity. In addition, ethnographic research conducted as part of the project Music for Life in London, and published by Smilde, Page and Alheit in 2014, where musicians work in creative music workshops with people with dementia and their caregivers, shed light on the use of improvisation as an expression of the identity of ‘the other’ (i.e. the person with dementia). Sound again appeared to serve as a metaphor for identity. The essay draws on the work of George Herbert Mead on identity, which distinguishes between the personal ‘I’ and the social ‘Me’, and points out that both aspects are essential for the self. In this sense, improvisation can be conceived as a means of communication that
    connects the personal with the social. Furthermore, drawing on Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another (1992), it is shown that this concept of improvisation in relation to personal and social identity may be transferred to forms of community engagement through music. However, despite its huge importance, improvisation is still often marginalised in specialist higher music education, particularly in conservatoires, and the essay finishes with a strong plea for conservatoires to take up their role in the midst of society and embed improvisation in the core of the curriculum.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)308-324
    JournalArts & humanities in higher education
    Issue number3-4
    Publication statusPublished - 2016


    • music
    • communication
    • empathy
    • improvisation
    • identity
    • conservatoires


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