On­line event: Pub­lic de­fence of the doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion of Eeva Siljamäki

Title of the dissertation:
Plural possibilities of improvisation in music education:
An ecological perspective on choral improvisation and wellbeing

The event is available free on Youtube on June 4th 2021 at 10 p.m.

Opponent: Prof. Raymond MacDonald (Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh, UK) 

Examiners of the dissertation: Prof. Raymond MacDonald (Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh, UK) & Asst. Prof. Maud Hickey (Center for the Study of Education and the Musical Experience, Northwestern University, USA) 

Chair: prof. Heidi Westerlund (Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki)


Opening of the Public Defense (prof. Heidi Westerlund)
Lectio praecursoria 
Statement of the Opponent (prof. Raymond MacDonald)
Examination of the Dissertation 
Closing Statement of the Opponent (prof. Raymond MacDonald)
Closing of the Public Defense (prof. Heidi Westerlund)


Improvisation is increasingly valued in music educational contexts and beyond, however it has not yet gained an established position in music education research and practice. This dissertation addresses the need to recognize the wide variety of affordances that improvisation can offer music education. By utilizing a socio-ecological research framework, this dissertation aims to contribute to the theorizing of improvisation as a social practice and pedagogical approach, as well as to unwrap how improvisation can contribute to the quality of human life on multiple levels. The socio-ecological perspective allows us to explore improvisation as social action with the goal of understanding the complex and transformational processes by which learning occurs and musical agency and identity are constructed in relation to the social environment. By untangling these social aspects, as well as addressing the significance of the quality of social interaction, this work points out that there is a need to recognize the conditions that either support or hinder the social participation and diversity of learners, and furthermore their wellbeing and equality.

This is an article-based dissertation with an instrumental multi-case study design, and aims to identify the plural and holistic affordances that improvisation can offer to music education. The three sub-studies provide insight into and diverse perspectives on exploring the phenomenon of improvisation: 1) a collective case study contextualizing the research literature in music education; 2) an empirical case of an arts intervention choir; and 3) an empirical case of an improvisation choir. In both adult choirs, the researcher was positioned as an insider and the quality of the social interaction and the pedagogical atmosphere were supported by applying a mindset stemming from applied improvisational theatre. Interviews, observations, and researcher diaries were analyzed as empirical material in the choir cases. The findings from the sub-studies were interpreted within a socio-ecological framework, drawing on Tia DeNora’s sociological and social psychology perspective on the interrelation of wellbeing and music, as well as anthropologist Christopher Small’s conceptualization of musicking as a social and relational process. 
The first sub-study explores approaches to improvisation and maps visions of improvisation pedagogy in music education scholarly research by visualizing the multitude of possible approaches and pedagogical practices associated with the practice. The study highlights the need to develop opportunities for learners to engage in a variety of approaches to improvisation, and also conceptualizes the values, tensions, and beliefs underpinning the teaching of improvisation that can induce tensions and conflicts. The second sub-study, also the first choir case, explores university students’ narrations of their experiences of an arts intervention choir project and of social anxiety in university contexts and beyond. The findings show that the experimental project combining choral singing and improvisation with health care expertise from the Finnish Students Health Services offered the participants a safe environment and social space for developing interaction skills and coping with social anxiety. The case highlights the significance of the quality of social interaction in education, and of recognizing each student as an individual with specific needs in learning. The third sub-study, and second choir case, examines the affordances of the collaborative, vocal, and bodily improvising practices of a free improvisation choir for adults with mixed skills. The improvised musicking afforded the participants resources for constructing both their social and musical agency, as well as the opportunity to explore playful collaborative musical learning and thereby their deeper wellbeing. The case thus exemplifies how, when meeting the conditions of a safe learning environment, free improvisation can enhance equal participation in music regardless of one’s prior cultivation of musical skills and knowledge – and thus, overall equity. 

This dissertation advocates that more emphasis could be placed on the reciprocal co-construction of musical learning environments that, firstly, support an experience of safety, participation, and exploring capabilities when encountering the inherent uncertainty of improvisation; and, secondly, that provide each learner with the opportunity and capacity to perceive their potential avenues of conduct as social, creative, and improvisational agents of their own future wellbeing and learning within their social ecology. By extending the understanding of improvisation from being regarded solely as a musical practice to being fully perceived as a social practice and pedagogical approach, we will be able to support the constructing of learning environments with more emphasis on individual and emotional development through holistic (embodied), reciprocal, playful, and free (welcoming all kinds of sounds) expression, and the acknowledgement of individual affordances of music and music making for each learner, as well as the true meaning of equity. 

More information

Eeva Siljamäki


4.6.2021 at 10:00 – 13:00