Monthly Archives: May 2011

Improvisation, Part 3: Reclaiming Our Nature

Improvisation—and creativity more generally—may be of special interest to those who have struggled with it. Ask great improvisational performers how they do it, and they’ll likely struggle to answer your question. They may not consider improvisation anything special. It’s just what they do. It comes naturally. But for those of us who are not fluent improvisers, it really does seem like a special gift…and one we didn’t receive.

PianistBut improvisation is a musical skill that is acquired like any other. Virtually all human beings are born with the capacity to be musical, and that includes through improvisation. Of course, that capacity will only become functional musicianship with the right exposure, opportunities, and experiences. With these things in place, young children develop musicality just like they develop language skills. As infants and toddlers, they hear people around them speak, and soon they imitate what they hear. If they hear people singing and making melodies, they reproduce that with their voices. Youngsters quickly build a huge vocabulary of words to express themselves. They similarly learn to match musical sounds to human feelings and gestures. Before reaching school age, children demonstrate relative mastery over their native language. They can recite memorized texts (e.g., “patty-cake patty-cake…”), narrate familiar stories with their own personalized spin, and spontaneously tell new stories straight from their imaginations. These abilities have direct musical analogies as well. Children can sing songs they’ve learned from people and recordings, make up personalized versions of familiar tunes, and create completely new songs right on the spot.

Perhaps the reason why music is often seen as a gift, while language is not, is that many people lose the musicality they developed in early childhood. This is not the case with language. Through middle childhood and into adolescence, most young people become more articulate and able to express themselves with words. In contrast, musicality often atrophies. Additionally, when introduced to a musical instrument, many young students are not afforded the time and experiences necessary to acquire the same aural fluency on the instrument that they’ve developed with language and that they began developing through singing.

GuitaristSo how do we develop improvisation skills in young musicians? Ideally we let them continue doing what comes naturally. Children are eager improvisers. School playgrounds are filled with spontaneous music. Hand a young kid a musical instrument and his or her impulse will be to experiment on it. This natural inclination underlies a call for free improvisation made by Northwestern University music education professor Maud Hickey. In her 2009 article “Can Improvisation Be ‘Taught’?”, published in the International Journal of Music Education, Dr. Hickey presents improvisation as a disposition that needs only be enabled and nurtured in young people. She rejects the typical ways that improvisation is done in school music classrooms (when it’s done at all). For example, she challenges whether creativity is truly being fostered through a call-and-response activity, in which the quality of a student’s improvised response is determined by how well it matches aspects of a teacher’s call. Instead, Dr. Hickey endorses free improvisation, which is more rule-free and learner directed. It engages musicians in simultaneous sound exploration, which demands careful listening and reacting. She explains, “The sounds of a free improvisation session, if truly free, do not necessarily produce an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ product, and are certainly something an audience of parents may not understand, much less enjoy.”

Dr. Hickey admits that she’s advancing a rather extreme position to provoke thought and dialogue. She’s done that for me; in all honesty, I’m still sorting out what I think about her approach! I certainly agree that children are natural improvisers, but I also believe that they can lose that disposition through underuse or neglect. I’d guess that the majority of high school band and orchestra students lack even the most basic improvising ability on their primary instruments. And surely there are many adult musicians—including music teachers—who have done so little improvisation over the years that they don’t know how to begin to learn the skill.

I’ll suggest some broad ideas for these musicians. These suggestions are intended to help them re-acquire a natural approach to musical improvisation (you may notice that they reflect the language learning ideas above):

  • Listen to music. Listen to the styles of music that you want to be able to improvise in. Listen to recordings and take in live music whenever you can. Listen carefully to the music. If you’re listening to recordings that you’ve heard repeatedly, sing along with the music as a way of testing just how familiar you are with it.
  • Play music by ear. Try to reproduce the music that you’re listening to. Play along to recordings. Play melodies and songs from memory (that you’ve learned aurally). Do this regularly, and not just as a part of formal practice; if you can, keep your instrument handy while you’re watching TV and play the commercial jingles that you can’t help but know!
  • Improvise music. Yes, to get better at it, you have to do it. Improvise vocally and on your instrument. Shed unhelpful preconceptions of what it means to improvise. Get basic: just create original sounds on your instrument, in some way that expresses yourself. Improvisation should be a natural act, but it may not be for you (anymore). So it will likely have to feel unnatural a while before it becomes natural (again).

You’ll notice that these suggestions do not make up any specialized approach to improvisation. I firmly believe that improvising can be a natural way for all people to make music, rather than being a type of musical giftedness or a specialized skill reserved for jazzers. I hope these suggestions can serve as guidelines for music teachers in designing learning experiences for students and in creating homework assignments for them. Please let me know your thoughts for incorporating these and other ideas into improvisation development. Your feedback is much appreciated!

Improvisation, Part 2: Not as Spontaneous as You Might Think

We all make a myriad of decisions each day of our lives. Many are made on the spur of the moment. What coat do I grab as I run out of the house in the morning? What route do I take for my drive to work today? Do I hit the brake or the gas pedal at this yellow traffic light? In this sense, we largely improvise our way through life. But when you think about it, some of these decisions we make are pretty sophisticated. We draw on our past experiences, our accumulated knowledge, and our perception of current conditions. And we do so incredibly quickly. Especially in the case of that yellow traffic light.

Improvised music may be one of the most sophisticated forms of human decision-making. Great improvisers can create a melody that, only moments before, they didn’t know they were going to produce. So in this sense, musical improvisation is undeniably spontaneous. Yet with closer consideration, we can see that improvisation is not entirely unplanned and without preparation.

The music that skilled improvisers make is preceded—if only by a split second—by the idea or intention to make it. Such musician don’t accidentally play that beautiful melody that fits the moment perfectly. It may be unrehearsed, but it’s not random. They are expressing themselves. The amazing thing is that they’re able to generate a musical idea so instantaneously, and do it repeatedly, and so quickly that each idea in succession is but a fleeting thought.

How do musicians come up with ideas that sound good in the moment? The ability to generate such ideas comes from much exposure to the style of music they’re playing or singing in. Musical improvising is necessarily preceded by much music listening. There are some great books out there about improvisation, and some great music teachers who can lead you through some great exercises. But these things are merely supplements to the requirement of doing lots and lots of listening.

But having ideas of what to do is only part of the process. How do ideas actually get realized…and so effortlessly at that? To explore this, let’s jump outside of music for a moment (as you can probably tell, I enjoy applying musical concepts to other aspects of human experience, and vice versa!). Let’s look to the world of comedy. In his book Blink, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell spends several pages considering the workings of an improv comedy group. He describes a team of comedians who can bring an audience to tears of laughter with a skit presented so smoothly that you’d swear they rehearsed it for days. Yet he clearly explains how “improv isn’t random or chaotic at all” but rather “an art form governed by a series of rules.” Gladwell maintains that within group improvisation like this, the amazing spontaneity is the result of hours of practice. The members of the troop have never rehearsed the specific skit that plays out for the audience in that moment, but they’ve all done things like it many times before. He states it articulately: “How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.”

To become a fluent musical improviser, you need to practice. But the meaning of practice here is broader than is often used by many musicians. Improvising can be developed by formal practice or by more informal means. Formal practice might entail repeating scales, arpeggios and other motifs, in order to build a repertoire of patterns that is so assimilated that they can be drawn from immediately while improvising. But practice for improvisation can also be informal, and done in more authentic musical contexts. Many young musicians develop their improvising skills by simply jamming together, messing around while playing a vibe, and just “noodling” on their instruments constantly. There’s also a kind of middle ground between formal and informal practicing, such as when aspiring jazz musicians learn other performers’ improvised solos from recordings. (This is sometimes called transcribing a solo, although they don’t necessarily write it down.) They apply a deliberateness to this exercise that’s reminiscent of formal practice, but the material is definitely authentic music.

So although the specific contents of any single improvisation are created on the spot, that music does not happen without advanced preparation and planning. But by the time skilled improvisers hit the stage, they’ve logged a great deal of that preparation (through listening and practice), such that the planning or “ideating” happens almost reflexively. Jazz great Charlie Parker is said to have offered this advice: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

Improvisation, Part 1: Addition by Subtraction

We’re all fluent improvisers. The most common way is our speaking. Everyday we talk with family members, friends, teachers, students, and even strangers. And we do it all without a script. Our spoken words are not rehearsed, but they effectively express our thoughts and feelings. A spontaneous conversation is anything but mindless. It’s probably in such improvised interactions that our minds are most engaged—listening to others’ words, reacting emotionally to what we hear, and offering heart-felt opinions of our own. But despite being accomplished improvisational talkers, many of us have not developed this aspect of our musicianship. In a recent poll, I asked my website visitors what music performance skill they would most want to improve. As I type this, improvising is the clear leader (the poll’s are always open!).

This speech analogy may in fact be very similar to the processes of musical improvisation. A few months ago, I caught Charles Limb’s TED Talk “Your Brain on Improv” (the video is embedded at the end of this post). Dr. Limb is a hearing specialist, surgeon, and brain researcher. He’s also a musician. In his talk, he shares—quite eloquently, I might add—some exploratory research he’s doing with musicians who are skilled improvisers. The participants in his research carry out two different performance tasks: playing a memorized jazz solo and improvising an original one over the same chord changes. The kicker is that they do this in a functional MRI scanner, which captures images of activated areas of the brain.

Although Dr. Limb is careful to state that his findings are preliminary, they are nonetheless fascinating to me. They suggest that certain areas of the brain are much more active during improvisation than they are when playing music from memory. More specifically, the areas of the brain that are more active in improvisation are those thought to be autobiographical, including language centers for expressive communication. What’s more—and this is really cool—some areas drop in activity from memorized performance to improvisation. The area of the brain that essentially turns off is an area thought to be involved in self-monitoring.

Dr. Limb’s theory is that what enables these improvisers’ creativity is a “weird dissociation in the frontal lobe” of the brain. While self-expression needs to be boosted, inhibition needs to be reduced. In his words, “You’re willing to make mistakes. You’re not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.” In effect, what facilitates improvisation is more thought of one kind, but also much less thought of another kind. Incidentally he also found similar brain activity in expert rappers engaged in improvised “freestyle” rapping, compared to when they recited an equivalent memorized rap.

As I try to apply these ideas to music making, a couple things come to mind. First, in order to be a fluent improviser, musicians must develop the capacity to be spontaneously self-expressive. Back to the language analogy. Just as we can quickly choose and combine words to communicate our thoughts at any moment, musicians must possess a similar command of their musical instrument in order to be expressive on it. And like learning a language, this kind of fluency is only acquired through much aural experience. But a second important point is that performers must also be able to shut down the self-consciousness that can interfere with genuine expressiveness. This brings to mind the motivation concept of self-efficacy, that a person must not only be competent with a particular skill, but must believe in their competence. So in addition to developing the ability to improvise, musicians must also learn to trust in this growing musicianship. This can be an elusive goal, considering how so much music instruction is based entirely on error-detection (i.e., “let me tell you what’s wrong with what you’re doing”).

I think there’s much to be gained by studying the processes of improvisation. Whether it comes by interviewing amazing musicians or by scanning their brains in action, I’ll eagerly accept the insight gained. As Dr. Limb says in the video below, “Artistic creativity is magical, but it’s not magic.”

Collaboration is Key for Award-Winning Student Jazz Combos

I came across a great little article about the music making processes of some young jazz musicians. In the June 2011 issue of DownBeat, Hilary Brown writes about three student groups who won in the jazz group/combo category of DownBeat‘s prestigious annual awards.

As I read the article below, a few things really jumped out at me. I was particularly struck by the importance of relationships. The students collaborate with each other to learn by student-directed exploration. And they also gain much from the expertise of teachers and mentors. Also, I love the idea that musicality is being driven by cooperation, rather than competition. Let’s face it, all of these kids are likely incredibly talented musicians. Suppressing egos in order to serve the music and the betterment of the group…well, that’s not easy for some people. But it’s credited for the great success these kids are having.

Special thanks to Hilary Brown for getting me the PDF so quickly after my request, and to DownBeat for permitting me to post it here!

By the way, the main reason I was looking through that issue of DownBeat was to check out the award-winners from my own campus, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Really proud of these students in our jazz program!

Emotion in Music: What the Ear Hears

Often when people are presented with idea of music psychology, they quickly get to wondering about how music can provoke strong emotions in listeners. Who can blame them? It is pretty cool that merely hearing sounds can cause us to have intense feelings. And music can elicit a great range of feelings, depending on the way sounds are produced, how they’re combined with each other, and in what order they’re put. People’s fascination with the expressiveness of music was brought to my attention again this last week as I caught an extended interview with Dan Levitin, author of the books This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs. As intriguing as this topic is for the general public, it’s also of critical importance to musicians and music teachers.

Unless you believe in a sixth sense like clairvoyance or telepathy, then we can agree that anything communicated from one person to another must happen via our five senses. This is the case with musical communication. In order for the expressive sounds of a soloist to emotionally affect us, we have to hear it. (Of course, music can also be tactilely felt; and live performances can be seen…more on that below.) Sound has certain qualities that our ears can perceive. Then our minds try to make sense of those sounds, to find meaning in them. When, say, a cellist plays a sad melody and a listener responds by feeling a pang of regret, the sounds produced by the cello must have contained some very real acoustic properties that the ears and mind could handle.

Musicians who perform someone else’s music begin their expressive communication process with some things already in place. One might say a lot in place. Whether it’s classical musicians rehearsing from a composer’s written score or a rock “tribute band” covering a recording of their namesake, they essentially start with the notes given to them. The pitches and rhythms–and the larger sequence/structure of the notes–are prescribed. Even so, the performers have great expressive license here. This mainly comes in the elements of tempo, loudness/dynamics, and articulation. Additionally, some instruments are able to make changes in timbre, and add vibrato (i.e., slight wavering of pitch). These elements of sound are the “stuff” of music. It’s what performers have to work with as they’re trying to make their music emotionally affect listeners. And really, these elements are a pretty comprehensive list.

I realize that some musicians object to such a reductionist approach. But let me assure you that the more I try to get “under the covers” of musical expressivity, the more I am amazed by it! I’m not suggesting that musical expression can be easily simulated through some formula of acoustic variables. And I’m also not advocating an educational approach that eliminates emotional language in favor of systematic attention to tempo, loudness, and articulation. But what I am saying is this: A musician’s expressive intentions will not emotionally affect listeners unless those intentions somehow become perceivable sound properties (again, barring any visual cues of a live performance). Audience members do not have direct access to the soul of a musician. They must rely on the outward expressions. And those expressions travel via sound wave to listeners’ ears.

Some of my past research efforts have focused on explaining how developing musicians try to infuse their performances with expressivity. One thing is for sure, there’s no one way that they like to do it. Some prefer to visualize emotional images or scenarios. Others stick to the sound properties; they may mentally rehearse a version of their music with prominent expressive features, then try to match that aural model in their performing. Still others attempt to muster up felt emotions in themselves, perhaps by recalling joyful or painful events from their lives.

All of these approaches can be effective. And…all of them can fail. In fact, a musician’s emotional intentions can actually interfere with their ability to perform expressively. This is really interesting to me. Sometimes musicians’ expressive goals or expectations are so strong that they seem to bleed over into how they hear their own performances. In other words, they think they’re being expressive, but that is more based on their intent to be expressive, rather than an accurate judgment of the sound they’re producing.

So what practical things can we take away from this? Here are a few that come to mind:

  1. It’s good for musicians to record their performing, in order to step outside of themselves. Listen like an audience member, and judge the expressivity as an observer. Let’s face it…performing sometimes takes all of musicians’ focus and energy, so that they don’t have any attention left over to accurately monitor in realtime how they sound.
  2. Younger musicians will benefit from mixing approaches to expressive performance. A music teacher might present a student with an expressive aural model (“Listen to how I sing this”) and an imagery-based description (“The melody should float like a leaf in the breeze”) and direction about the sound properties (“I’m making the notes smooth and connected”). This way the student can learn musical terminology and how it applies to sound.
  3. Expressivity really is the thing in music. As important as it is, though, not enough instruction and practice time is devoted to it. Formal music lessons in our Western culture tend to be dominated by technique instruction, and that is what students take to their practice sessions. But what would most audiences prefer to hear: a lifeless note-perfect performance, or an emotionally-moving one with some missed notes?
  4. Finally, live music is so great because the audience can take in visual expressive cues in addition to the sound qualities. In a live performance, facial expression, bodily posture, and physical gesture are all extremely communicative, sometimes even more so than musical sound. In fact, research has shown that audience members–even musically sophisticated ones–find it difficult to ignore visual cues and accurately judge the musicality of the sound. Many student musicians who give recitals and concerts could stand to devote a little more attention (and practice) to improving the visual aspects of their performing.