Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Improvisation -- a philosophy for learning

A few weeks ago I stated that anybody could improvise. This may have seemed like news to some of you. It may not have even been welcome news. After all, in order to encourage you to improvise, I'm going to explain what goes on in order to achieve it, and explanations are, interestingly enough, not welcome in all quarters. I've had students before who seem disappointed when they hear me explain or analyze the musical elements in a composition which shed light on how a particular composer wrote something. It's as if I took the magic out of it, and now it just doesn't seem that dazzling anymore now that their ignorance has been removed.

In that case, you and I are going to have to differ. Let me simply state that I have no fear of explanations. An explanation cannot ruin the great and true mysteries of art. Understanding how to spell and use good grammar does not make "War and Peace" any less wonderful. An inspired improvisation by a remarkable improviser is not any less just because we have some insight into the processes by which the music came about. Being able to make small talk at a party does not mean you will go home and write the next "King Lear."

In other words, assuming great art will come out of this is beyond the scope of this project. That is really up to you. But achieving improvisational competence? The ability to create some kind of cogent, coherent music on a moment's notice? The ability to negotiate your way through a musical sentence in a way that is at least inoffensive and perhaps vaguely interesting, and probably even magical to members of your congregation when they find out you are doing it (if you tell them)? Sure, that can be arranged. We can even lay the conditions under which you just might be inspired to go to great heights. Who knows? But to achieve any of this, you will have to master the musical elements.

Great! So how do we do that?

There are three basic plans of attack. They are based on the idea I outlined a few weeks ago when we began regarding the three basic ways we approach the languages in which we communicate every day (such as English). Those ways, you'll recall, were speaking, writing, and reading.

The ways I am proposing we investigate improvisation are these: (1) we began cold, and simply explore the universe of sound using our ears and our judgement, (2) we start with musical notes in front of us written by somebody else, and we manipulate those notes, either by ornamentation or paraphrase, or even re-composition of some parts, or (3) we learn lots of musical theory so we can glean the rules behind music as it has been created by others and thus learn in an abstract manner how to do it ourselves.

These three ways suggest different methods, but our plan is to combine them, even though they may seem opposites. For one thing, if you don't know it already, it will become evident that different people have different biases when it comes to learning, and by alternating between diverse learning procedures, we are more likely to play to any person's strengths at one time (and weaknesses in others). For another, relating to language is also done in a variety of ways, and these ways cross-pollinate one another. For instance, when you are talking to someone at a party (improvising in English or another language), you might be talking about something you have just read, in which case, the words of others have become filtered through your own experience and are now part of your own speech. Or writing (composition) may serve as a substitute for speaking, such as when you are sending an email to a friend whom you were not able to reach by phone.

People who have been reading the first two installments in this series (one and two) will note that I've already begun my "practicum" with a little exercise involving written music and its transformation. This should serve as a reminder that improvisation does not happen in a vacuum. Usually one's own ideas spring at some remove from written (or heard) material that already exists. When you have a conversation, you do not make up your own words and place them into sentence by alternate rules of grammar (usually). Particularly not if you want to be understood! In other words, improvisation does not imply creation of everything! This is why improvisation is a craft, and a craft can easily be learned. Procedures exist because they work and they satisfy customs and traditions that have themselves been found satisfactory and meaningful. You are not creating the elements themselves, you are taking elements that exist already and putting them together to create something that is wonderful and unique. That is where improvisation becomes an art.

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