Impoverished Improv

Music Learning Revolution and victims

Note: this entry was originally written in the spring (that’s how far behind I am on updates). There may have been workshops on improvisation at ISME 2016 – but if there were I didn’t attend.

I’m just back from yet another conference that subjected me to yet another workshop on “improvisation” and it’s well past time for me call this the absolute nonsense, garbage, claptrap, charlatanism and chicanery that it is.

Once again I found myself utterly micromanaged by a smirking, self-satisfied signaler, using highly choreographed, specific, pre-defined hand gestures to tell me when to sing and at what dynamic.  I had the immense satisfaction and autonomy of choosing my own pitch while the leader dictated every remaining detail, and occasionally noodled on top of the ensuing atonal chord cluster with a saxophone. After giving the final cutoff the leader beamed at the assembled, basking in our adulation at the catalysis of our newfound musicianship. And yes, some of the rubes loved it.

There was a small benefit to this demeaning experience. I could now commiserate and empathize on a most personal level with the school children who were paraded in front of the Music Learning Revolution audience in London last October, chanting repeated cells, beginning and ending their pre-planned contributions at the physical behest of a dynamic central authority figure.  It was tuneful, it was energetic, it was repetitive, utterly forgettable and it went on far too long.

I wish that were the extent of my experiences in this area, but there have been many other unhappy encounters. In Manchester in 2013 the Voces8 choral group, promoting the publication of their new guide to choral improvisation, gave a demonstration of their techniques in which vectors of the audience were trained on very specific choral patterns, and then the patterns were overlaid in different combinations by the group leaders. Hey ho, we’re improvising, or so we were told by them. My interpretation was a little different: I was under the impression that I had been rote-trained to deliver a musical line and then had produced it on their demand.

Back in 2010 I worked with a group from the Guildhall who “crafted” a “collaborative composition” with a major American Sistema program. This artistic venture involved the leaders telling us exactly what to play and when, and then expressing disappointment when we failed to meet their expectations.  Once again the degree of hand signaling we witnessed was understandably in inverse proportion to the amount of autonomy we had as musicians. The words energetic, repetitive, forgettable, and unending again come to mind.

I don’t doubt that these experiences are gratifying for those with the opportunity to lead and create, but I’m tired of being stomped like a foot-action player piano and then being told I’m empowered and improvising. I’ve had fantastic improvisation experiences, chief amongst them a session at New England Conservatory with a Dalcroze/Eurhythmics specialist, in which the improvisation felt like a dialogue between me and the instructor, a musical evolution of actions and reactions. I was given near-complete musical autonomy, with my only instruction to interpret as I saw fit the motions of the instructor as I sat at the piano. No pre-defined cues, no pre-agreed gestures.  Far from it being a unilateral experience in which I responded to signaling, however, my musical choices in turn influenced the physical reactions of the instructor and I was left with a genuine sense of collaboration.  But that certainly wasn’t a group effort, just a duet, nor was it public performance.

I’ve attended other workshops on improvisation by master Jazz and popular musicians, and every time I’m struck by how structured and rehearsed their improvisations are, and how much training, practice and forethought is involved.  They operate within strict harmonic frameworks and operant rules, with the degree of latitude directly related to the genre. Just as with any art form, the more constraints there are, the more creativity is demanded, and the easier it becomes to evaluate outcomes. As free as “Free Jazz” may be, its audiences and practitioners still make rigorous qualitative assessments. That last point about assessment and evaluation is perhaps the most important. After observing another “Facilitated improvisation” I asked the participants about their experiences. Most agreed they’d had some fun, but for many it was “just another rehearsal” or “just another concert.” But not one single participant could answer the question: “How could you have made this better?” It’s this dimension of self-evaluation and reflection that is absolutely critical to establishing pedagogical benefit, and their responses reflected the reality that they were in no position to “make” anything, being reduced to instruments (literally and figuratively) of the conductors. (Let’s call them what they are.)

Given the currency that this new vogue of improvisation has, it’s hard not to think of it as yet another fad that produces a lot of excitement and conversation but that will ultimately be exposed as window-dressing of the more serious issues and deficiencies that underlie music education, while the real, impactful work in the sector continues quietly. And there is real, impactful work. I deeply regret that improvisation was not part of my own training, and I see the creative and artistic value in it as part of a continuum of essential musical experiences and capacities.  But to suggest that improvisation in its current high fashion imperial garb is the answer to the missing social dimension of music education is simply as false as saying that the orchestra in its current incarnation represents the perfect community.  Medium and genre are almost irrelevant. Practice is everything.

3 thoughts on “Impoverished Improv

  1. I’m going to send you Allice Kanack’s FB. She is working on that interface between safety, inspiration, and imagination that children need to get their feet wet in future improvisation. She refers to it as Creative Ability. It’s not standardized or stylized improvisation yet, as children do not have much to work with. It is not intended for performance but getting comfortable with the process of solving musical problems without worrying about getting the right answer.

    It’s not Bobby McFerrin leading audience members in a prescribed rhythm machine so he can improvise above them. It is teaching children how to create their own individual and spontaneous contributions to a rhythm machine or musical game so that it becomes interactive, unpredictable and inspired. It is more like a musical laboratory where things are allowed to fall apart if they don’t work or even get off track from the original intention rather than be rescued. Creativity is found in the spontaneous response to the other musicians.

    What children learned could be recycled for a performance or musical drama but there was no guarantee that it would resemble what they did in class. This is not a technique class or a music theory class though students are owning more of what they contribute to the process.

    “Improvising for Quartets” has no CD play-along accompaniment with it. Unlike the books, she published to jump start younger children. At this point, young musicians are creating their own accompaniments spontaneously resembling a fugue. It gives me an insight into how Bach and Early Music musicians developed their musical ideas through trial and error.

    It starts with interactive games starting with simple rhythm machines,drones call and response and accelerates to rounds, counterpoint, Ostinati, Passacaglia, Canons, in every key or modal scale and possible interplay by participants. One side of the page is directions and suggestions for going further, the facing page is a diagram of the possible interactivity by musicians as they cycle through ideas. In the last section, she has suggestions for Romantic Quartets inspired by Stories, Scenes, Emotions, Artworks, Poetry, Drama Nature.

    You could spend an entire weekend making music with friends working on just a few of these developmental ideas and not have enough time to try everything that they inspire.

    The publication Alice is working on next is for working with preschoolers so they can someday ‘play’ around with musical ideas as described above. As you sugested, what if we could keep that intuitive ability we are born with for exploring our creativity without fear.

  2. Zappa had a lovely improv game, but noone knows the real details now anyway. That sort of structured improv you write of is shite, but it can work along the lines of what we’ve known of Zappa’s scorpion game. But honestly, improvisation is just live composition between all parties. I’ve developed my own method (and technology, and programming, and so on) for it that works fantastically for me and for certain types of free-thinking collaborators, but I don’t know if it suits the classical world.

    In response to the above comment (the longer one) – there’s definitely better ways to empower children to actually make music, and to create and thereby learn about the timeless beauty that lives in the artist in all of us – but I don’t know if the orthodoxy has room for it.

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