Category Archives: Creativity

Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators

The term vernacular music refers to the musical styles and music making practices that are most widely used among people. I tend to use the terms vernacular music and popular music interchangeably. For decades now, leaders within music education have promoted the use of popular music in schools only to see little substantive change occur. I think, however, that the curricular landscape might be starting to change. Hopefully more schools are broadening the music learning opportunities they offer to become more inclusive of multiple types of musicianship.

A critical ingredient for carrying on this kind of curricular reform is equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to use popular music in authentic and educationally meaningful ways. I’ve had the opportunity to do this with the music education majors at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. For these students, I offer a course called “Popular Musicianship” with my colleague Dale Bazan. Most of these teachers-to-be have developed their musicianship exclusively through the formal settings of large ensembles in schools and private one-on-one lessons. In this course, they form small “rock bands” and learn how to play the instruments authentic to them. Almost entirely outside of class meetings, they collaborate to cover popular songs and create original works. They also do some songwriting individually.

Here’s a short video from last fall’s class in which I explain it some more:

When talking about the educational benefits of using popular music, one that is usually mentioned first is the motivation boost it can offer. I’ve certainly seen this played out with my students. They have such personal, emotional, and social connections to popular music that they seem willing to invest a lot of their free time—what little music education majors have!—on improving their vernacular musicianship. And their intrinsic motivation is surely enhanced by their being able to choose the music they work on, even composing some of it individually and collaboratively.

Using popular music, however, is much more than a “hook” to get kids into school music programs, only then to focus on other musical things they may not like as much. I seriously doubt that a bait-and-switch approach even works in the long run. The real power of popular music comes from the fact that it’s the native musical style of young people. It only makes sense to use a familiar musical context to most effectively engage students in creative activities like composing and improvising. As numerous music pedagogues have pointed out, people ideally learn music in the same sequence as they learn their native language. Much listening necessarily precedes imitation and personal expression. Here’s where popular music can offer an educational opportunity that other less familiar styles cannot.

As I said above, most of the music education students come into the Popular Musicianship course having logged much time listening to popular music, but having very little experience performing it or being creative with it. They seem to get a lot out of exploring the social music making and personal expressivity. They gain more confidence in ear playing and improvisation, and grow the artistic interpersonal skills involved in making creative group decisions. Through songwriting and performance of original music, many discover a new outlet to express intense feelings and stories from their personal lives. When they have these musical experiences, they quickly understand the merits of providing them to others, including their future students. In this short video, some of our students explain these things in their own words:

In addition to the experiences with the Popular Musicianship class, I’ve been following the growing body of research that supports the value of vernacular music experiences in the education of young people. Here are a few articles I’ve written in which I review some of this research:

  • Woody, R. H. (in press). Vernacular musicianship: Moving beyond teenage popular music. In E. Costa-Giomi & S. J. Morrison (Eds.), Research perspectives on the national standards. National Association for Music Education. [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by ear: Foundation or frill? Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 82-88. [abstract] [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2011). Willing and able: Equipping music educators to teach with popular music. The Orff Echo, 43(4), 14-17.
  • Woody, R. H. (2007). Popular music in school: Remixing the issues. Music Educators Journal, 93(4), 32-37. [excerpt]

And here are some of my favorite research studies addressing aspects of vernacular musicianship:

  • Allsup, R. E. (2003). Mutual learning and democratic action in instrumental music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 24-37. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S. (1995). Of garage bands and song-getting: The musical development of young rock musicians. Research Studies in Music Education, 4, 12-20. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236. [abstract]
  • Davis, S. G. (2005). “That Thing You Do!” Compositional processes of a rock band. International Journal of Education & the Arts(6)16. Retrieved from
  • Davis, S. G., Blair, D. V. (2011). Popular music in American teacher education: A glimpse into a secondary methods course. International Journal of Music Education, 29(2), 124-140. [abstract]
  • Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. [publisher]
  • Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. [abstract]
  • McGillen, C., & McMillan, R. (2005). Engaging with adolescent musicians: Lessons in song writing, cooperation and the power of original music. Research Studies in Music Education, 25, 36-54. [abstract]
  • Woody, R. H., & Lehmann, A. C. (2010). Student musicians’ ear playing ability as a function of vernacular music experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), 101-115. [abstract] [excerpt]

My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship

With the American political season culminating (finally!) in November with election day, I couldn’t help but identify some musical equivalents of the campaigning and posturing that had been going on. It occurred to me that some people speak about their preferred music with the same fervor that political devotees crusade for their preferred candidate. And much like it is with party loyalists, often touting a favored style of music can go hand in hand with condemning whatever’s perceived as the opposition. While I’m not interested in entering the political arena with my blog, I will offer a position about partisan musicianship: it does not serve anyone’s best interest for music people—be they performers, teachers, or listening connoisseurs—to disparage other musicians and styles in an effort promote their own.

Let me be specific. I don’t believe that the long-term success of classical music depends on convincing enough of the general public that popular music is comparatively inferior. Similarly, attendance at jazz concerts will not likely grow through its supporters taking to Facebook to mock the musicianship of performers like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. And toward the other side of the aisle, I’d say that no one is in a position to dismiss classical music and jazz as boring or weird before making an effort to understand the cultures, values, and purposes of these styles.

Musical exclusivists can easily condemn non-preferred styles if they judge all music by the same set of standards. Comparing apples to oranges is a well-known no-no, but unfortunately it’s still done in music circles. “Quality” is defined differently across the diverse styles that make up Western music. Classical music tends to value precise performance of a notated score; compositions are largely judged by things like harmonic and textural sophistication and extended structural development. Jazz places a premium on harmonic complexity and rhythmic variation, with improvisatory performance being an important hallmark. Popular music typically values creativity outside of harmonic complexity, instead relying on sound (timbre) combinations, rhythmic groove, and melodic memorability; live performances are expected to have a strong visual component, through facial/bodily expression, gesture and dance, and performer-audience interaction. If you apply the values of one musical style to another, you can quickly reject it as bad music. Calling a pop song bad music because it uses only three chords is like calling a classical composition bad music because you can’t sing along to the melody after one hearing. Yes, the crisp texture of an apple makes for a really bad orange.

Several months ago, in the throes of the political campaigning, I commented on Facebook that it was easy for me to dismiss people’s opinion of what is the best thing—be it a political party, social cause, or musical style—when that thing corresponds exactly to what’s familiar and deeply assimilated by them. In such cases, I wonder whether they ever adopted that thing because they were convinced of its merits, or whether they “just know” it’s the best because it’s what they’re used to. What gets my full attention, however, is when someone espouses a thing in which they do not have such an obvious vested interest. I don’t often encounter this. It’s far more common to find people making cases for what is personally dear to them, sometimes doing so in pretty unpleasant ways. When followers of a cause defend it so harshly, I suspect that they’re actually hindering the advancement of it.

Perhaps it’s human nature, when considering unfamiliar things, to compare them to what we already know and are comfortable with. In response to my comment on Facebook, my friend Chris Varga offered me an excerpt from the book The Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing, by David Berkman. In it, this highly accomplished musician encourages his readers to listen to music without deciding whether or not they like it. Berkman says:

That’s difficult to do. For many people, deciding whether or not they like a piece of music is the first thing they think of when they hear a new piece. Often younger players have strong ideas about who they like and who they don’t. I still have favorite players…but I am more appreciative of more players now than when I was younger. A lot more of them are just too good not to like, even if you don’t want to sound like them yourself.

I’d like to see more musicians striving to be pluralists, accepting and even applauding those whose music making is different than their own. And here’s where I acknowledge that my musical-political analogies eventually break down. I recognize that in politics, there are important moral issues and governmental policies being debated, and that there truly are positions in opposition to each other. But I think this is very rarely the case in music. People are capable of enjoying a huge variety of musical styles, and they can all coexist on our iPods! So though I’m skeptical about every seeing much bi-partisan action in the political arena, I hold out much greater hope for music.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: junsjazz on Flickr Creative Commons.

Is Science Useful in Explaining the Arts?

I recently read a blog post called “Creativity explained…Eureka!” by Kurt Knecht. Kurt is a fantastic composer, organist, and scholar whom I know because he’s a recent graduate of our doctoral program in the UNL School of Music. In his post, Kurt reacts to a radio interview he heard with Jonah Lehrer, who’s making the rounds promoting his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. You should read Kurt’s entire post, but I think it’s fair to say that he is not impressed with Lehrer’s position on the matter. I’m also basing this on a tweet of Kurt’s from last week, in which he said “People who attempt to explain creativity seem to be the least creative.” As someone who has, well, attempted to explain creativity (in fact, a number of times here on this blog), I was thrust into some serious soul searching by that tweet!

When Kurt put up his post about creativity, he tweeted at me to ask for my thoughts about it. I didn’t hear the interview with Lehrer that Kurt listened to, and haven’t read the book Imagine (though I intend to very soon). So I can’t yet speak to Lehrer’s position specifically. But I will take up the cause of defending the value of research in the social and behavioral sciences in trying to explain creativity. What’s more, I think it can be fruitful to consider broader phenomena that are found across disciplines. Creativity in music may not be exactly the same as creativity in the visual arts, but I think there’s insight to be gained by sorting through the similarities and differences. By way of full disclosure, I’m somewhat committed to such interdisciplinary pursuits…I’m the guy who offers a summer class at UNL called “Music and Sports: Performance and Perception,” in which we consider topics like talent, practice, group dynamics, performance anxiety, and, yes, creativity.

Social and behavioral science research does not seek to advance “one size fits all” explanations for complex human phenomena. Rather, the work involves looking for trends and associations and effects that hold true much of the time. Even if a theory cannot explain 40% of all cases—say, those for whom a bath doesn’t work! (see Kurt’s post)—it doesn’t make the theory worthless to the other 60%. Any researchers worth their salt are careful not to overgeneralize or oversimplify their studies’ findings. They are, of course, free to propose theories and offer possible interpretations of their data.

Research results are best seen as one source of evidence to support a theory. And not all evidence is convincing to everyone who hears it. Perhaps one problem comes in the way that the evidence is presented. Usually when we hear about research results, it is not from the researchers themselves, but from other media members. These folks may not always handle the information accurately. Sometimes they paraphrase the research to make it more accessible to the general public which isn’t interested in wading through academic jargon. Other times, writers and broadcasters turn to research simply to bolster their own position on an issue by throwing around the authoritative phrase “Research shows….” As a result, research is often mishandled and its findings applied too broadly. One of the worst music examples of this came in the 90s with the so-called “Mozart effect.” The original study found that college undergrads (not music majors) did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to spending the same amount of time sitting in silence or listening to a relaxation tape. Yet the results in this very specific context somehow morphed into a “music makes you smarter” movement that was embraced by far too many in the field of music education.

Kurt’s post also includes a quote from his friend (and my colleague at UNL) Guy Trainin, who is a fine researcher in his own right, and an expert on reading acquisition and literacy learning. On the topic of creativity, Dr. Trainin said, “I think I might be able to measure it, but it is so discipline specific that I’m not sure it would be transferable in any way to another subject.” As this perspective suggests, I think we must be cautious in applying research results to areas outside our expertise. But I’d also contend that anyone seeking greater understanding of a topic like creativity can gain much by considering what well-conducted scientific research has found. I’m sure Dr. Trainin’s own teaching practices and operations at the reading center he co-founded are largely informed by the insights of research. And I dare say that some of the effective strategies used in reading instruction also work in music instruction. The strategies may not work with all learners, but when we’re dealing with something as complex as the human mind, it makes sense to me to start with what research says works with most.

Creative Artists: A Different Breed or a Different Creed?

Many people are fascinated by artists, musicians, writers, and inventors, whose lives are occupied by creativity. The general public is content to enjoy the creative output of others as consumers and audience members, without attempting to be creative themselves. They may look at artists and innovators with admiration, and wonder “How do they think this stuff up?”

Perhaps because of this outside-looking-in effect, many have concluded that creative individuals are fundamentally different than everyone else. That is, they have a different makeup. They’ve been endowed with an uncommon gift, or their brains are wired in a special way. Creative artists are a different breed.

There is, however, and alternative explanation. Creative individuals may be unique primarily in their values, goals, and approach to life. Their brains may indeed be different, but perhaps they’ve become that way. Creative people may develop differently as a result of going through their lives with different motivations, and from understanding their experiences with a different perspective.

The endgame: Expertise or exploration?

One of the hallmarks of creativity can be seen in artists’ broadest motivations. After becoming involved in a certain field—say, music, painting, or poetry—some people proceed with the goal of being the best they can be, to be a highly skilled musician, painter or poet. But others approach their activities a bit differently. Their orientation is not toward becoming an expert in their chosen field. They are motivated to more fully explore it or even challenge it.

Many young people fall in love with music and want to become career musicians. Someone like this may envision the kind of musician he or she wants to be, try to learn the requisite skills, and seek opportunities that lead to that destination goal. In contrast, someone traditionally considered “creative” may travel on a different, more exploratory path. They gain musical expertise, but do so as they pursue the larger goals of realizing original ideas and experimenting with new ways of doing music.

Psychologist Howard Gardner has considered the minds of artists and great thinkers for decades. Much of his work has involved in-depth study of the lives of extraordinary people like Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Albert Einstein. He has cited Mozart and Beethoven as an example of an expert and a creative individual, respectively:

Mozart is the master. Mozart, in my view, wrote the most beautiful music ever. But Mozart was not somebody who was trying to create a new domain. He was not interested in creating new genres. He wrote in the genres of his time, and just did it so beautifully that he forced, in a sense, his successors to become Beethoven, to be Romantics, to overthrow classical music, because nobody could do it as well as Mozart.

Regardless of whether you accept his appraisal of these great composers, his quote describes the difference between a domain acceptor and a domain challenger. Obviously both kinds of artists are important. Perhaps, as Gardner suggests, they even depend on each other.

Failure: To be avoided or to be exploited?

A more specific component of the creative mindset has to do with beliefs about failure. Nobody enjoys failing at something that they care about, or even use to define their identity. But creative people may take a bigger-picture perspective. Not being able to do something (i.e., failure) is a kind of prerequisite to learning and improvement. Creative artists accept failure as merely part of the process, when others may see it as a reason to quit.

In a previous post, “Improvisation: Addition by Subtraction,” I considered how suspending self-consciousness is key in creative thought and performance. “Self-consciousness” can be a misleading term. Often our inner critic simply voices our fears about what other people might say. So self-consciousness can really reflect concern about other’s opinions. Could it be that creative artists just have less regard for the criticisms of others? Here’s what I suspect: They’re not less sensitive (to criticism) than most people, but proportional to their preoccupation with their art, they are less influenced by criticism.

To creative artists, the praise of critics and applause of audiences are not the primary means of defining success. Feedback from others is a source of information, or an opportunity to better understand how their work affects people. A poorly-received performance or product—a “flop,” a “bust,” or even an “epic fail”—is embraced as a lesson learned. In this way, they may ultimately come to define failure differently than others do. They’re not primarily worried about failing to impress an audience. Rather, failure equals not being fully engaged in your art. The amazing cellist Yo-Yo Ma once described a moment of revelation he had:

While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, “Why am I here? I’m doing everything as planned. So what’s at stake? Nothing. Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored.” Perfection is not very communicative. However, when you subordinate your technique to the musical message you get really involved. Then you can take risks. It doesn’t matter if you fail.

Of course, it’s easy for Yo-Yo Ma to say this…as he’s actually playing all the notes correctly! But I think it applies to us non-virtuosi as well.

People we admire: Role models or inspirators?

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to put less stock in the “nature” explanation of creativity and more in the “nurture.” I believe that everyone has the capacity to be highly creative. With the right opportunities and experiences, I think virtually anyone can develop the mindset of a creative artist.

I acknowledge, however, that this doesn’t happen with many people in our society. Even among talented musicians and artists, many do not adopt a creative mindset. I’ve started wondering if a potential hindrance is the use of role models. By definition, a role model is someone who’s an example to be emulated. While imitation is a natural and effective way to learn many skills, primarily aspiring to “be like” or “as good as” an admired artist may not be conducive to the creative spirit. The desire to be “good enough” or “make it” as an artist could override a creative drive to advance your understanding and fully engage in your art.

It may be more constructive for young people to look to admired artists for inspiration…inspiration to develop their own creativity. In fact, like Howard Gardner did in considering the lives of great minds, I think we can all learn from creative artists’ creed, the set of values that guide their activities. There’s inspiration to be had whether we aspire to innovate the field in which we work, or more simply wish to better express ourselves through our art.

The Artist’s Battle Within

Artistry and expertise are domain specific. This means that someone who’s particularly creative as a musician will not necessarily be creative as a writer or a painter or a chef. But there are major commonalities in the creative process across all disciplines. I’ve noticed that music composers and creative writers sound very similar when they talk of the challenges faced and the rewards gained in their endeavors. There may be a kind of creative mindset that is needed to be successful, regardless of whether your medium is music, words, paint, or food.

Tom WaitsMuch music making around us is reproductive, rather than creative. Formal groups from professional orchestras to school choirs perform the published works of composers. Aspiring rock bands play “cover” versions of others’ songs, and even the most popular artists can feel obligated to offer in live performances exact replicas of what they recorded in the studio. As much as audiences enjoy hearing the familiar, there are some insights into music that can only be gained by creating original material for oneself. Unfortunately, immersion into reproductive music performance can make composing or improvising new music a scary prospect. But a disinclination to creativity is not natural. On the contrary, young children are natural creators, be it through singing spontaneous songs, drawing personally expressive pictures, or thinking up imaginative stories. To paraphrase Picasso, the problem is remaining creative when we’re grown up.

The parallels between creative writing and creative music making are striking to me. I’ve tried to do both, and my struggles have led me to take a real interest in the similar processes involved. I’m not the only one. I recently came across a podcast by WNYC’s Radiolab called “Help!” This episode–subtitled “What do you do when your own worst enemy is…you”–includes a stimulating discussion of the artist’s struggle to be creative. We’ve all been there. We stare at the blank page (whether literally or figuratively) and there are no ideas flowing. Instead of tapping into deep emotions to drive our creative expression, we experience feelings of self-doubt, disinterest, or just desire to do email/Twitter/Facebook!

It seems that many artists successfully overcome these writer’s block experiences by separating from themselves. Some have conceived of it as being visited by a muse. Or receiving inspiration from a source outside of themselves. Or simply accepting the ideas that are “out there” and looking for an artist-portal through which they can enter reality. In the “Help!” podcast, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert tells of an interview she did with singer-songwriter Tom Waits when she was a writer for GQ magazine. Here’s a clip in which she recounts Waits’ philosophy that each song is its own entity and must be dealt with as such:

Unlike Waits and Gilbert, other creative artists look inward. They believe the ideas come from within, and that their job is to allow that part of themselves to speak. In her book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron describes her solution to writer’s block as thinking of writing as taking dictation, not giving it. “Once writing becomes an act of listening instead of an act of speech, a great deal of the ego goes out of it,” she says. “We retire as the self-conscious author and become something else–the vehicle for self-expression. When we are just the vehicle…we often write very well–we certainly write more easily.” This sentiment is echoed by author Oliver Sacks, who wrote among other books the wonderful and provocative Musicophilia. At one point in the “Help!” Radiolab podcast, he describes one of those break-through moments:

Whether conceived of as coming from within or without, interfacing with that expressive source is a key to creativity. It requires us to suspend our own critical voice. In his series of Inner Game books, author Timothy Gallwey describes all performers as having both a Self 1 that’s controlling and judgmental, and a Self 2 that’s free and naturally expressive. (Gallwey’s ideas are anecdotal to be sure, but I’ve found many to line up well with what the research says about managing performance anxiety.) Sometimes that critical voice is plainly negative and floods our minds with self-doubt and defeatist thinking. Other times we more subtly sabotage ourselves with the mindset of perfectionism. We may even believe that perfectionism is an asset that ultimately ensures our work will be of the highest quality. But more frequently a perfectionist mentality prevents artists from having the freedom to be creative at all. One of my very favorite writers is Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird (which I love) she offers advice to struggling authors who cannot let their thoughts flow into a first draft because they’re too concerned that the initial wording doesn’t sound like a polished final product. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” she says. She gives great encouragement toward quieting the inner critic to allow more free personal expression. She also calls perfectionism a “mean, frozen form of idealism” but says “messes are the artist’s true friend.”

The hard and messy work of creativity can be especially difficult for musicians whose training and performance activities have been dominated by the realization of other people’s music. They may need to learn a new kind of mental discipline in order to silence the self-critical voice. But even experienced composers–and writers and painters and chefs–struggle with the creative process. Many are constantly devising new strategies to disable that judgmental force within, and strengthening their resolve to battle against it (with this metaphor, I must acknowledge Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art…I’m a fan). It seems that most artists believe that creativity involves both inspiration and perspiration, though there’s less agreement about how much of each is required, and from where the inspiration comes. For her part, Elizabeth Gilbert offers: “I think the angels reward people who are at their desk at six o’clock in the morning working.”

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.”