The Improvisation Continuum

Face the Music’s 2013-14 season concluded with a collaboration between the experimental music theater group thingNY and six students. The goal was to create, over three intensive improvisation sessions, a group-composed piece that would be performed together at the Queens Museum. FTM Managing Director Vasudevan Panicker and I selected six students—three girls and three boys—who had a clear interest in improvisation and/or in theater and who seemed game. The result was In Space, which was performed around the Panorama at the museum.

Face the Music and ThingNY "huddle" prior to the premiere of In Space

Face the Music and ThingNY “huddle” prior to the premiere of In Space
Photo by Haley Shaw

Paul Pinto, one of thingNY’s founders, reflected that while the Face the Music players were advanced, they tended to “all try and do their own thing” because they hadn’t worked together previously as an improvising ensemble. I commented that some of the students were disappointed because the resulting piece was very structured, when they had expected to engage in a massive open-ended jam session. (ThingNY and FTM started the first intensive with just such a jam session). This “is a useful way to get to know each other’s styles,” Pinto commented, but his goal was to use improvisation as a means to an end; in other words, as a tool for group composition. Improvisation as a technique, he points out, is different from improvisation as a piece; and furthermore, there are very few truly improvised pieces. Pinto told me that he feels most improvised pieces in the classical canon are really notated pieces that include improvisational elements. “A truly improvised work is freely improvised—every time is completely different.”

Pinto’s point about using improvisation as a means to an end echoes Panicker’s assertion that improvisation falls on a continuum: from completely free improvisation on one end, to creating an “improvised feel” within a fully notated piece on the other.  I would classify the student experiences that I have described as largely falling within the categories of “improvisation as a means to an end” in the sense of planning a group composition, or “classical pieces that include improvisational elements.” There is some truly free improvisation that happens when students get together and jam, but it isn’t something that we cultivate as an end in and of itself.

So, from an educational standpoint, what kind of improvisation should we be teaching? This seems to depend somewhat on the age group and skill level of the students involved. Both Pinto and Martha Mooke, who served as our first-ever composer-in-residence at the Special Music School this season, have had successful experiences teaching even very young students to improvise, but my area of expertise and interest falls in the pre-college realm. Based on my own observations, I would say that all pre-college students could benefit from improvisation experience prior to entering college or music school; it seems to have very tangible benefits.

In talking with Panicker, Mooke, and Pinto, they were strikingly aligned in their observations about the benefits of improvisation for students: it teaches collaboration; it teaches self-expression; and, most of all, it teaches listening.

As a former ear training teacher myself, I have to reflect on the fact that there is more deep listening happening in a well-run improvisation session than in many conventional ear training classes. I believe that this is at least partly because it places it in a high-stakes context that pairs listening with opportunities for self-expression.

An advanced improvisation student might become expert at identifying stylistic characteristics, Panicker mused, and using these as compositional tools.  It occurs to me, though, that this is itself a form of listening, because it is involves incorporating elements of music that the students have listened to in other contexts.

Violinist Ruby Pine performs In Space at Queens Museum

FTM violinist Ruby Pine performs In Space at Queens Museum
Photo by Haley Shaw

There are also a couple of “best practices” when introducing students to improvisation that seemed evident to all of us. One: the instrument tends to get in the way. In essence, the more facile a student is technically, the more prone they are to getting stuck, at least initially, because the options for self-expression are so vast that it’s hard to know where to start. In a workshop that the jazz quartet Gutbucket did for the SMS High School students last December, I saw them conduct an entire improvisation exercise in which they restricted the students to the use of one note; it was liberating for many of the students.

And this brings me to the second of the best practices: students need limits. Well, we all know that students need limits—especially Paris Lavidis, who had a habit of starting Quartet: This Side Up rehearsals with an exercise he calls “59 Seconds of Passionate Improv”—but, kidding aside, the right limiting parameters can make or break an improvisation environment.  “Everyone needs to be able to contribute, and follow, in a group improvisation,” Pinto pointed out, and the selection of good barriers can aid in making that happen.

In general, Face the Music tends to run ahead of itself and now we have to figure out where the next step lies in the area of improvisation. Do we go off in search of an improvisation curriculum? Do we write one? Maybe neither—or not yet, anyway.  In 2014-15, Improv Hour will continue—rechristened with the catchier name of Sound Bite Orchestra—and Panicker is going to lead them down some curricular-looking paths, introducing the techniques of Conduction (Butch Morrison) and Sound Painting (Walter Thompson).  But other than that, we will continue to program pieces that include improvisational elements and see where this leads.

Before closing this blog post by stepping up onto my usual soapbox, I should mention that there is a deep thread of “improvisation friendliness” that runs through the foundation of the Special Music School, and I secretly credit this with the fact that Face the Music got started at all. When SMS was founded back in 1996, it was based on (to my mind) a pair of strange bedfellow methodologies: on the one hand, the rigorous pre-conservatory path inherited from the Soviet special music school system; and on the other, the self-expression-encouraging philosophy of the Dalcroze School of New York. So along with a demanding program of instrumental skill-building, using (mostly) a well-trod line-up of dead composer pieces, students at SMS have always received a dose of improvisation in their theory classes, thanks to Anne Farber, Sean Hartley, and Cynthia Lilley. It’s no accident, in my mind, that some of the kids most excited, as young children, by improvising on the five-note xylophone, later become the kids who groove out to Artificial Life.

But now, the soapbox: students who improvise, in a rigorous context, become better musicians sooner; and the sooner, the better. Why are we waiting until students self-select to go to music school to introduce these ideas? It often seems that they are introduced haphazardly on the college level, as a quick ticket to vocational viability, and that’s often way too late. By introducing improvisation as a central part of the pre-college training of every young musician, we might achieve twin goals. One, we might produce card-carrying virtuosos who can express themselves in an authentic and unique way in front of interested and engaged audiences. Two, by encouraging self-expression earlier, we might encourage a greater diversity—even just brain diversity—in the students who decide they want to deal with the headaches of life as a professional musician, and our resultant cultural life could be much richer as a result.

Okay, peeps, want to take a crack at that? What experiences have you had with students and improvisation? Am I off in left field?

5 thoughts on “The Improvisation Continuum

  1. Michael Robinson

    I completely agree with you that engaging in musical improvisation performance and/or appreciation has the potential to be an enriching experience of far-reaching proportions. Similar to learning one’s native tongue, as an individual’s musical vocabulary grows, the ability to express the nuances of individual personalities increases. Perhaps most fruitful is when a person is immersed in a particular improvisational tradition, whether that be blues, jazz, rock, or the classical music of India, among other great cultures of the world. (Improvisation by itself, intentionally removed from any particular context, has important value as well, but if we are considering beginners, I tend to doubt that it will attract most in the abstract, not coming from a vibrant musical tradition.) A meaningful immersion, so to speak, includes much listening to the genre in question, both live and on recordings, in order to gain a vocabulary for meaningful comprehension. Having a wise teacher, formal or informal, would also seem to be essential. Sadly, because of the overall suffocating commercialization of radio, television, newspapers, and magazines, the great majority of people grow up never truly hearing the blues, jazz, or the classical music of India, and other great world traditions, thus missing the opportunity to be sparked by startling new and exciting realms of music. (It also seems that many use the Internet to mostly follow promptings from the various media mentioned above.) Personally, I only learned about the very existence of jazz because I happened to have both a piano teacher, followed by a high school bandleader, who were both knowledgeable and passionate about sharing their enthusiasm for this American art form well beyond what was required and expected from someone in their positions.

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  2. Han-earl Park

    Not sure I understand the statement “all try and do their own thing.” What else would you expect in any kind of musical performance? (That’s a genuine question.)

    So, from an educational standpoint, what kind of improvisation should we be teaching?

    I suppose I’m a little skeptical about the continuum you posit between ‘free improvisation’ and fully notated pieces with improvisative elements. If we are teaching a general practice (i.e. improvisation), isn’t a easy and, it appears to me, entirely viable answer to teach improvisation. If I’ve understood your piece correctly, what you’re asking is not so much about what kind of improvisation to teach, but the context or specific application that might be (usefully) taught.

    The more facile a student is technically, the more prone they are to getting stuck, at least initially, because the options for self-expression are so vast that it’s hard to know where to start.

    I’m interested; this has never been my experience in teaching improvisation. Why is it that your students feel vast options to be so… paralyzing?

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  3. Paris Lavidis

    Some thoughts, comments, suggestions, criticisms, and antidotes from not a teacher, but a student:

    This might just be my typical teenage NYC creative impulses kicking in (as they did when I first came up with “59 Seconds of Passionate Improv”), but limits in improvisation have the opposite effect on me (i.e., one note improv would not be liberating, but rather purely a creative exercise). I find that musicians, when they improvise, find themselves assuming that improvisation involves equal tempered notes, rhythms, articulation, timbre, etc., when really it is more of an inherent thing, without limitations. For example, when Face the Music performed “Artificial Life” at Queens College, it wasn’t liberating when I was standing there playing a low pitch while a percussionist created low reverberations on a tam-tam – it was when I put down my instrument, said to myself, “no, I’m not going to follow the score right now,” and growled furiously and continuously, causing the audience to burst out into laughter. It’s a moment that can never be replicated, but that is the beauty of improv. It seems the best things come out of accidents, and without limits, improv is bound to have accidents. But these accidents are joyful accidents, when there’s no time to think about whether or not it’s acceptable or appropriate or within the guidelines, or whether the audience will like it or not. True liberated improvisation is when you’re unashamed of the limits you’ve broken and the lines you’ve crossed, when you’re standing there onstage almost saying to the audience, “now is your time to throw chairs and vegetables, and curse me off the stage, because I am putting myself in complete vulnerability.”For example, when I interrupted a comedian’s stand-up routine by serving pizza and getting a pie thrown in my face during a long-winded open-air improvisation, there was the chance that I would be booed out of the comedy tent, unlike in a concert hall, when criticism is more passive aggressive. But I enjoy such vulnerability – it’s a key part of being a fresh artist. And I am lucky enough to have experienced many such liberating moments as these, in only thirteen years of living and breathing – but I wish a higher percentage of music students my age had had so many of these, frankly, life-altering, soul-freeing, and mind-blowing experiences. But I don’t think the way to treat improvisation is with limits, like those Gutbucket allegedly liberated your high school students with. On the contrary! Young musicians should be able to put down their instruments, put down their “social armor”, put down their dignity, etc., and make fools of themselves, make living, breathing art, and make all the audience members who are willing to sense, take in, and appreciate the music that is being created from scratch have a good time.

    That all said, I think limitation as an exercise and a technique is worth an improviser’s time, but only for 25% of the improv experience. But I think only improvising on one note does not limit the exercise quite enough, because it still considers the exercise to be in an equal tempered, chromatic system. It really takes an improviser to take the extra step into the territory of no intended pitches, contorted faces, and dessert menus read aloud in a cartoon voice, in order to liberate using limits. I have old recordings of myself improvising, for example, on the side of a gong for forty-five minutes, switching between using my nose and a train whistle – I know for certain that those little unpublishable improvisations did their duty in my learning how to improvise. What I got out of it was this: If you can make something out of nothing, then when you have more than nothing, you’ll have even more something. Yet, I think, improvisers forget that improvisation with almost nothing actually exists, as opposed to improvisation with twelve notes in an octave. Because of the fact that musicians accept this pitch-oriented system, it is possible to create an encyclopedia of, say, for example, jazz solos. If only jazz solos involved eating a hamburger in a rabbit suit, or something analogous, then they wouldn’t be listable, and thus each would be special. In any case, my point of all of that is simply this: The best and most liberating limitations are those which surpass and thus transcend the limitations which take for granted pitches, rhythms, etc., which, in reality, we have created in order to satisfy the constraints of notated music, and not improvised music.

    And finally there are the people who say, “I hate improvisation”, or “I can’t improvise”, which is both pathetic and untrue. I always put it this way to those people: Every time you make a comment, choose what you’re having for dinner, or take the scenic route home, you’re improvising with a certain amount of inescapable influence from before and during the action. It’s the very same thing in musical improvisation. If you can construct a sentence of more than five words, make a leap of faith for the barramundi, or let yourself wander the streets of Midtown, then you can string a melody of foreign vowels, tap random rhythms on a replica of the Liberty Bell, or hesitantly rip a piece of paper in half, the same as a hard-core improviser like me does. My father, an artist and graphics designer, once began a draw class by making the point to some tentative and unconfident drawers that if you could sign your name, you can draw. If you can at least squeak, you can improvise.

    Other than all that, I agree with you completely, Jenny. I support and appreciate your preachings of improvisation, and I know for a fact that it is working, and that lots of students are positively affected by and in deep engaged in it all, including myself. So thank you, and keep soloing – at least a few more chord cycles…

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  4. Andrea La Rose

    A few quick thoughts:
    I teach at a young-ish international school in Germany, where I’ve had the freedom to design the curriculum as I see fit, for the most part. This has meant putting a lot of emphasis on composition and improvisation, even with students who are using an instrument for the very first time. Keep in mind that pedagogies Kodaly, Orff, and Gordon’s Music Learning Theory all place a high value on improvisation (probably Dalcroze, too, but I have no experience with it), so it is happening more and more in teaching, but we still have a lot of teachers out there who haven’t had improvisation in their own training and are probably under too much pressure to try to tackle something new, foreign, and scary.
    Some resources that have helped me immensely in my teaching and learning:
    “Now’s The Time” by Doug Goodkin — an Orff-based approach to jazz improv.
    “Developing Musicianship through Improvisation” by Christopher Azzara — a Music Learning Theory-based approach to jazz improv. (I find this method transfers really, really well to other styles.)
    American composer Alan Bern runs a fantastic workshop on improv every spring in Weimar, for any readers out there also on this side of the pond: http://othermusicacademy.eu/springworkshop/
    It’s there that I learned two other improv “methods” (for lack of a better term): 1) Percusión con Señas from Marcelo Moguilevsky, an Argentine improviser — PCS was developed by his colleague Santiago Vazquez, who combined some elements of Butch Morris’ Conduction® with his own rhythm signs. There’s a bilingual book, but you’ll have to order it from Argentina. Very much worth it. 2) Alan has his own method that he hasn’t come up with a title for, but he spent a lot of time thinking about what happens in compositions (outside of harmonic concerns) and how to practice improvising those elements very thoroughly. It’s a bit hard to explain, but he’s fantastic to work with.
    As far as what kind of improv you should be teaching, I think your average Western person needs a balanced diet of tonal improv and free improv to start. We all grow up hearing tonal music and learning to navigate chord progressions spontaneously helps us understand our tonal traditions better. It doesn’t matter whether you start with blues or Mozart or whatever. Free improv is simply another path and opens up different ideas. I find that it eliminates the need for right notes, which is freeing for most people. There are certainly non-Western improv traditions to choose from and I do wish I knew more about them (mainly I know of their existence!). The more, the merrier, I say.

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  5. Luke Schwartz

    Beyond the sheer joy of shaping music in realm time, some of the most exciting benefits of improvisation is that it teaches exceptional listening and gives one a chance to think about how their reactions will shape or enhance the musical situation. I also believe that experienced improvisers are able to translate these skills to other realms of life. When one is truly “engaged” they are not worried about the anxieties of the past or future, but only the reality that is the “here and the now”; they are in the moment. In today’s world, where technology is a constant threat and distraction, I would venture to say that it is more important than ever to practice the art of improvisation. For me, that means through musical performance and composition, but improvising is a general ability that can be applied to a wide variety of mediums. The best improvisers are able to transcend physical space so that their whole being (body and soul) is actually present. We all know the scary image of society: millions of people walking the streets shoulder to shoulder, all faces glued to their cell phones. Like a meditation of sorts, improvising can draw us back in to the moment. Any musical performance should come from that moment: a place of focus, truth, devotion, sincerity, etc. Since all of these things are required of a good improviser, it only makes sense to include this as part of the standard music curriculum. Plus, practicing the art not only expedites musical growth, but can also lead to the enhancement of interpersonal communication, which seems endangered to me, sometimes. In my opinion, a program that provides students with the opportunity to improvise in diverse situations, whether it be different musical styles, theater, writing, or other, is definitely doing the right thing.

    Here is an excerpt from Earle Brown’s essay “The General Movement” that I have always loved:

    “The presentation of an “actual” event attempts to bring the “audience” and the work together in/at the same “time”—to close the gap between art (reflection) and life (being …in the moment and not somewhere else).”

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