Category Archives: Creativity

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.”

Reconnecting to the Heart of Music

Contrary to my friends’ opinion about my “cushy job as a music professor,” I seem to keep pretty busy. Busy enough that I sometimes feel like I’m just operating class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline. But every so often I’m able to take a step back and wonder, just what am I trying to do here?

Following the advice of any life-coach worth his or her salt, I end up prioritizing my values. I remember the things I consider most important and inwardly rally around them. This kind of process led me to start the blog you’re reading at the moment, and the name I gave it: Being Musical. Being Human.

It’s the big picture items that matter most. For me, the biggest is the natural connection between music and humanness. As a performing musician, I easily get preoccupied with right notes vs. wrong notes. And as a music parent, I worry about my kids getting enough practice time done. Too often I lose perspective by focusing on these little things, and forgetting what the whole purpose of music making is anyway.

I believe music is primarily about the sharing of expression between people. Consider music’s capacity to evoke emotions, stimulate people mentally and physically, and build personal relationships through communal music making. Years ago, anthropologist Alan Merriam offered up a list of 10 functions that music plays within human cultures around the world. They are:

  1. Emotional expression
  2. Aesthetic enjoyment
  3. Entertainment
  4. Communication
  5. Symbolic representation
  6. Physical response
  7. Enforcement of conformity to social norms
  8. Validation of social institutions and religious rituals
  9. Contribution to the continuity and stability of culture
  10. Contribution to the integration of society

I’m pretty sure that Merriam didn’t publish these as a Letterman-esque “Top Ten,” but I like seeing emotional expression at #1. In fact, I think the reason that music is so effective with the other 9 functions is that it enhances them with its emotional/expressive capacity. Take, for example, our American culture’s passion for professional sports, NFL football in particular. This would likely be a “social institution” according to Merriam (now college football is closer to a religious one! :)). Think about the many ways that music enhances our experience of NFL football: the stadium music, the enduring theme of Monday Night Football, and of course the Super Bowl halftime spectacles (U2 in 2002 was easily my favorite).

Just listening to music can be a very emotional experience, and performing it yourself can be even more so. For most people one leads to the other (even if it’s just singing along to a recording). Perhaps the most rewarding form of musical involvement is creating original music that is personally expressive. Maybe it’s with this kind of music making that the connection with humanness is strongest. In order to express yourself, you have to look inward. You have to know yourself, or at least know how you feel. Then you look outward, to others, as you consider how to express yourself to them. In this process, music provides a captivating medium for us to learn about ourselves and learn about others. And learn about how people connect. And learn about the world in which these connections occur.

Music is a lens for considering core issues of humanness: growth . . . the passing of time . . . bodily motion . . . power . . . motivation . . . identity . . . consonance . . . conflict . . . emotion . . . creativity. Some of the musical connections with these things are amazing. For example, a team of researchers found that the rate of slowing that musicians use in a ritardando is “strikingly similar” to the pattern of deceleration that runners naturally take in coming to a stop. That’s pretty cool.

My favorite trumpet player Chet Baker said “I don’t believe that jazz will ever really die. It’s a nice way to express yourself.” The simplicity of this statement is what’s so beautiful to me. Music will always remain because by its nature, it has the capacity to express our humanness. Music is critically important, yes, even in comparison to school staples like math and science. To say that music is not important is to say that human expression is not important. And that’s not a position that’s easily defended.

Glimpse into a Group Creative Process

In terms of social dynamics, I’m really impressed how a group of musicians, who are strangers to each other, can get together and make music immediately. I suppose this kind of thing is not exclusive to music though. In sports, there’s the pick-up basketball game that commonly takes place in public parks and gyms. The corporate world has ad hoc committees and the justice system throws together a “jury of your peers” for criminal trials. These zero-history groups are pretty interesting for exploring how people get along (or not) with each other.

Some musicians are so good that they can all show up for a gig and without knowing each other, and without any rehearsal, they can put on a quality performance that the audience loves. I think this is pretty common in the jazz world. Groups like this are able to perform on the spot because they all share a common knowledge base. If, say, four jazz musicians are hired and they’ve never played together, they would talk before and during the gig to figure out the songs that they all know. Plus they would rely on standard conventions of jazz performance along the way.

But what about a group of musicians who come together for the first time to create a completely new piece of music to be recorded? We’re not just talking about strangers functioning together and carrying out the things that each of them already knows how to do. Now we’re talking about group creativity. Here’s where it really gets interesting!

Below is a video of singer-songwriter-guitarist John Mayer taking part in such an experience. He joins up with guitarist-bassist and drummer to create a new song for an album. The 18-minute video covers a 12-hour period during which they go from nothing to a polished recording.

Here are a few things you’ll notice in their process:

  • These guys have great musicianship. They have much experience to draw from, and all of them know a lot of the same things. They know the same conventions of rock music, the same kind of chords and progressions, rhythmic expectations, etc. And of course they all have great ears. They are adept at playing by ear and improvising, which allows them to musically interact so well together.
  • As they work together, they are establishing social roles in the group process. John Mayer is clearly the leader. I assume he coordinated the project, and they all know that the song they come up with will go on his album. (He’s also the most famous…just how many movie stars has he dated?). Yet he is very accepting of the others’ ideas and input. Especially in a artistic venture like this, all members of a group must feel that their contributions are important and valued by the others. No question that’s the case here.
  • They effectively communicate with each other. And they do so in a variety of ways. Like any other group, they talk together. Sometimes they say they like each others’ ideas–like at 6:08 in the video where the bassist tells the drummer, “Dude, your groove is disgusting, man” (yes, that’s a compliment!). But they also find tactful ways of voting down certain ideas. These musicians also communicate nonverbally during performance. They use eye contact, facial expression, and physical gestures. Most interesting to me, though, is the way they communicate to each other through the music they play. For example, Mayer and the drummer may hear in the bass line where the bassist thinks the chord progression should go. Or the drummer may signal in a drum fill how he thinks the tempo or rhythmic activity should change.
  • Creativity requires reflection. All the musicians in the video see the value in experimenting musically and seeing what is spontaneously produced. But they also recognize the need to periodically step away from their instruments, and with fresh ears listen to what they’ve made. Psychologist Howard Gardner has suggested that exceptionally creative individuals are willing to risk failure (i.e., experiment freely), and spend much time reflecting on and refining their work.

It’s pretty impressive what a few great musical minds can come up with together!