Are You Fluent in Music?

I inhabit a world of my own. I always have. Sitting on the school bus on the way to school, I remember retreating into that world, which consisted of me constantly humming softly. I was humming nothing in particular, just mindlessly humming whatever came to mind. There was an older boy who made a point of sitting next to me so he could also start humming, sarcastically, just to make fun me. It stopped me from humming, sometimes, but not always. I just enjoyed humming. I loved music. 

What I was trying to do privately on that school bus was improvise. I didn’t know what that was back then, but looking back, that’s what I was doing. I still do. It is not at all uncommon for me to start humming something only to have my wife ask me what tune that is. “I don’t know, it’s not anything in particular. I just made it up.” I’m improvising. It’s in my spirit to do so. Of course, it’s much easier when I know only my wife is listening. But even when I’m playing with the Lowcountry Jazz Band, I don’t find improvising a particularly scary thing to do when others are listening. It’s just a creative thing I do, and that I enjoy.

Children, up to around eight years of age, do things like that quite naturally. They haven’t been stymied by self-consciousness or embarrassment, by fears of what other people will think. That is why children are by and large so creative. They trust those around them to accept them at face value, so they are free to do what their spirit moves them to do. For this reason, music educators should be encouraging and enjoying improvisation with students, beginning when they are young. The key is to just let them do what I did on that school bus, and more. Hum away. Play away. Scat, sing, bang, blow an instrument. Anything that will produce a musical sound should be used. No teaching of chord changes, no setting boundaries or rules of how we want it to be done. Just allow them to spontaneously and joyfully make music. We needn’t control the experience to make it fool proof so the children won’t feel bad about what they’ve improvised. Leave them alone. They’ll have fun and won’t even know there’s a “wrong” way unless you tell them there is.

That phrase, “make music” warrants our attention. When we pick up a clarinet and play something someone else has composed, we say we are making music. But are we? If we buy a frozen dinner at the supermarket and heat it in the microwave and then have it for supper, have we made dinner? No, we’ve heated up a dinner someone else has made. They made dinner, not us. To make something means you originate it, you create it. In music, you may be making the performance, and the result of your performance is music, but the music originated with the composer, not you. When we say we are making music, we are doing so like we make a cake out of a boxed mix. I maintain that, to really claim I have made a cake, I must make it from scratch. I am part of the process of making the cake, but I couldn’t have done it without some else putting all the ingredients together for me. But it’s not a cake ready to be eaten until I have finished mixing it and then baking it. To really claim I have made music, I need to make it from scratch too. That’s where improvisation comes in. Improvisation gives me the opportunity to make music from scratch. To be the originator of musical ideas, or of manipulations of someone else’s musical ideas, without having to compose an entire sonata, or even song.

What’s on your mind? Don’t answer with words, answer with music. It might be a tune, it might be a rhythm, it might even be moment from a piece of someone else’s music that you know and that just came to mind. Go with it, what ever it is. If it’s a rhythm, start scatting or drumming. If it’s a tune, start singing or playing. If it’s a pre-existing bit of music, extend it with your own ideas; play with it. We and our students alike need to give ourselves permission to whimsically go down pathways of musical thought, no matter where they may lead. In fact, it doesn’t matter where they lead. We’re not trying to improvise over chord changes, or for a given number of measures. In fact, in this kind of musical creating, chords and measures are whatever one perceives after the music is out in the air. Chances are, the improvisation will be in a recognizable tonality and/or meter, because that’s what is familiar to us; those things are the musical building blocks we possess, so naturally we will use them, at least at first, as a point of departure. 

When we speak, or write a text or e-mail, sometimes it is wise not to say or write exactly what is on our mind, especially if we are upset or angry. Doing so can cause us to say or write things we will soon regret, and may make the situation even worse. No such hindrance exists with music. When we “say” in music what is on our mind, no matter if it is out of anger, love, or anything in between, the worst that can happen is anyone who hears it may not like it, but they won’t be offended by it. One of the most valuable attributes of music is that it is a healthy outlet for expression. Music generated by others can soothe or rouse the soul. Music that I generate can do the same, plus, it gives a voice to the condition of my soul at that very moment, or of the condition I want to be in. A forlorn musician can make music of longing and lamenting, but they can also in that forlorn state, make music that is jovial and uplifting; music that ultimately serves as a tonic for what ails, and a way to a better emotional place. 

When I perform music composed by another, that performance must be informed by what my spirit infuses it with. It cannot be only informed by knowledge of performance practice, style, form and so forth. It must also, and perhaps even primarily, be piloted by what makes the music meaningful to me. I, the performer, am the completion of the creative process begun by the composer or songwriter. When I take musical ideas from another’s work and substantively change it, I have entered the realm of improvisation. I am now giving the music a sound and a meaning the composer did not anticipate or imagine. If I begin with my own, original material, the music is all the more meaningful. In either case, the improvisational aspect of performing music must be given its due, or else music performance becomes perfunctory; and once it has become perfunctory, it is but a hair’s breadth to boredom for the listener, and disengagement from music by our students.


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