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.”

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25 responses to “Improvisation, Part 1: Addition by Subtraction

  1. I LOVE that TED talk by Limb!

    My 5th graders are helping me plan their upcoming classes for next week, and many of them are begging for more improvisation. I love that!

    On another note, in a curriculum cycle meeting earlier this year, we noted that improvisation is a standard that needs a lot more attention in all music classes. If we aren’t deliberate about providing opportunities to develop improvisation skills, students (and practicing musicians, for that matter) really miss out.

    Great post… looking forward to Part 2.

    • Michelle – Thanks for commenting. It’s so great that your students are getting to improvise…and even getting in on the lesson planning! I love it.

  2. This is much bigger than music. Music is just reflecting issues in culture and education. If the accountability & standardized-testing emphasis keeps going the way it is, we’ll have kids who actually improvise less when they talk! The entire premise of thoughtlessly regurgitating the “correct” answer as the focus of education is extremely problematic, discouraging of creativity, improvisation, and critical thinking.

    Maybe this is too harsh, but I wonder if classical music education is just a little ahead of other academic subjects in the squashing of creative expression and improvisation…! The classical “right note” “wrong note” attitude is simply another form of teaching-to-the-test. Personally, I find a very precise orchestra performance of the same classical greatest-hits not much more exciting than marveling at some random rote skill like Senator Al Franken drawing a map of the United States freehand. In both cases, I appreciate the skill and the process by which it is revealed, but it isn’t that meaningful or expressive or anything…

    Bravo for challenging these things and pushing for improvisation and creativity.

    • Aaron – I enjoy reading your “big picture” applications of these ideas. As you say, perhaps you are being too harsh, but I imagine that some of that negative emotion comes from feeling that alternative types of musicianship–alternative to traditional formal model, that is–are devalued. I’m all for the performance of composers’ published music, but not at the exclusion of improvising, and other important ways of being musical. But in many ways, we are living in a culture of specialization: play one instrument and one kind of music, and learn to do it very, very well. Surely there are some benefits to this kind of “depth” development. But it also necessarily excludes many other things. I’d rather have breadth of musicianship: performers who can sing, play instruments, read notation, play by ear, improvise, do classical music, do rock, etc.

      • Bob, thanks for the reply, very well put, I agree with all your points.

        All this actually ties together. Your posts about expression, about improvisation, and about vernacular music all are reflections of the problem with the teach-to-the-test right/wrong type of mentality. It is harder to test and judge expression or improvisation or creative personalized approaches to music. I think that is one of the roots of the problem that need to be addressed in addition to addressing the symptoms that you’re bringing up.

  3. I love the comparison to conversation … Is that yours or borrowed? Either way, it’s brilliant. I’ve been doing a long term sub job at the elementary level for the last several weeks… The kids are thirsty for opportunities to express themselves! So we’ve been composing, improvising, and lots of just making sound and experimenting with instruments.

    I do have to say that I did feel squelched in my own yearning for improvisation … Through all my years of piano, clarinet, and voice lessons – I never had a teacher even attempt to teach improvisation. But, I must say, that is probably a product of their own inefficiencies and maybe underconfidance as improvisers. It wasn’t until I starting playing “keyboard” for a church worship band that I was forced to improvise.

    Anyway, great thoughts… Now, how do we train teachers to teach improvisation??

  4. Lynda – Thanks for chiming in. I’m so glad to hear how you’re engaging students in creative music making. In fact, I think you shed some light on answering your own final question! You said you got very little improvising experience yourself as a student, yet here you are giving it to your students. That tells me that a big key is a teacher’s attitude. Deciding to not let your own inexperience or perceived lack of expertise deprive students of opportunities they might otherwise receive. It kind of flies in the face of the teacher-as-all-knowing-expert model, but I think most students can deal with this. The question is, can most teachers?

  5. Mistyn Kozisek

    I’m happy to say that I improvise a lot more than I used to because of the musicians I’m collaborating with these days and the style of music we are performing. I find it so much more gratifying. I recently got an IPad 2 and am improvising along with that for practice. My elementary students have done a lot of improvising this year. I have been amazed at how my kindergarten and first grade students can improvise answer phrases back to my question phrases, ending on tonic. Many of them add their own cool rhythms and can feel 4 and 8 beat phrases.

    • Mistyn – I love hearing things like this…providing valuable experiences to your students and simultaneously developing your musicianship. In other words, “Those who can, do…and teach at the same time.” Thanks for sharing your comment!

  6. Nicely done, Dr. Woody. I remember discussions in class that went along these lines.

    Well, you asked for thoughtful and articulate comments when you posted this on facebook. I’m not sure this qualifies, but here’s my best attempt.

    While music teachers need to see that planning “improvisation” into your lessons can be as easy as creativity in movement and speech, leading to singing and playing musical phrases, and that it can lead to growth in not only the musical abilities of their children, but in themselves as well; I think what music teachers absolutely must realize is that, regardless of our experiences as a professional musicians, as music teachers we improvise all the time. Lesson adaptations for English Language Learners and Special Ed students, schedule changes, new students, state testing, home room teacher song requests, and administration demands can throw a monkey wrench in the most organized teacher’s plans and processes. All of the sudden, you are teaching off the cuff and some of your most creative moments in the classroom occur because you stopped obsessing over getting everything right, everything being perfect, and accepted “this will be what it will be, let’s make some music.” We are better at improvising than we think, so there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to teaching it to our students.

    Good teachers know how to fake it til they make it, but it sounds much better if we say we are trained musicians and who know how to improvise when it is our turn for a phrase.

  7. Heather – I’m so glad you offered this comment! I think you’re right…teachers are pretty good at balancing the lesson plan with the “improvised” responses to the needs of the moment. Some musicians are a lot like that in performance. They may have written music, but they use it as more of a guide that can also accommodate the musical needs of the moment.

  8. A great post, thanks for directing me to it. Improvisation is inseparable from creativity, without a doubt.

    This post did make me think about the debate that began on my blog last week about when one is truly creative, and how that links to exposure to a domain of creativity. I remember from when I used to be a serious singer that true scat singing required a certain mastery of music and voice, at least to get to the point where you didn’t think about it but instead just let the music carry you. It seemed at that point you weren’t working at all, but in fact your subconscious was working overtime, anticipating chords and tempos.

    • Patrick – Thanks for stopping by and checking this out. I really appreciate your feedback. The last couple sentences in your comment practically read my mind…it points to my Part 2 on improvisation (which I just posted). And I’m really intrigued by your comment about being a scat singer. I’m going to have to look through your site a little more carefully to see if you talk about your musical background there!

  9. Hi Bob, I’ll check out the other post.

    I haven’t written much about my days in music/singing, but here’s a post where I mention singing under Robert Shaw: https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/the-zen-of-teaching-creativity/

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  11. Great series of posts, Bob! Looking forward to reading the rest! This is timely for me, as well — at my recent recital I incorporated improvisation. I had one student play the I, IV, and V chords in a pattern in the bass, and then each student come up individually and improv over it. I just “broke it to them” at our dress rehearsal parties that they would be doing this and they thought I was crazy. But, I showed them that they would tap the person on the shoulder as a dancer would to step in to take a partner and then play then play their “improv”. It was all very “organic”, but you would not believe the confidence they felt after being up on the bench for a few times, and wanted to keep going! So, at the recital we all had a blast, and the parents thought it was the best thing in the world!

    • T.K. – Thanks for sharing this. Sounds great. I’m not surprised that the students rose to the challenge and that the parents ate it up. It just takes a teacher to give them the opportunity…

  12. Interesting that different parts of the brain are required to recite a memorized piece vs. improv. What I didn’t expect, but makes perfect sense, is that improvisation requires the artist to shut out the self-assessment/critique part of the brain. Of course. But how to do that? By practicing the required skills until a level of proficiency is reached, therefore allowing a level of confidence to be achieved as well. So it seems one must go through the practical steps of right way/wrong way training to get to the other side.

    “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…”
    Yes, elusive….takes money to make money…..or something like that.

    Loved Dr. Limb’s quote, “Artistic creativity is magical, but it isn’t magic.” Makes me think of the Malcolm Gladwell theory that it’s the hours logged practicing the craft that produce the “talent.” I think more people would do it if they knew they didn’t have to be born with it to do it.

    What I really want to see a study of what chemicals are released in the brain while doing these creative self-expressive endeavors….when you are “in the zone.” Reading some about the healing aspects of creativity. Seems like it’s all related.

    (note: I actually did have this response composed before I read part 2)

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