What Are Music Teachers Really Trying To Accomplish?

Ask a Language Arts teacher what they are trying to achieve with their students, and that teacher will probably mention growth in literacy. He or she wants students to read and write effectively, with understanding and comprehension. Students are likely being asked questions like, “what is the author trying to say?” “How does the author feel about this topic, and what evidence do you find to support your answer?” These are good questions. Students who can answer them are bound to be engaged in critical thinking, and are likely to be showing growth very soon.

The Core Arts Standards were written with this kind of instruction in mind. They use the same approach to education and the same language as the original common core standards for language arts and for math. Because of this, it is good to understand how music students are, or ought to be, answering the same questions, and how music teachers ought to be after the same kinds of growth in literacy, only with music, not language. What does the language arts teacher accept as evidence of literacy? What does a child need to be able to do to demonstrate literacy? He or she needs to be able to look at words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections and entire essays or other works, and to not only recognize strings of letters as words, and strings of words as phrases, and strings of phrases as sentences, not only be able to speak with correct pronunciation all of those, but also to understand the meaning of each as it is revealed by context–the relationships between words, phrases and sentences that create meaning that is absent in the individual words and phrases out of context. Just begin able to read aloud or spell words does not indicate literacy. There must be understanding and comprehension.

Yet when it comes to music, music teachers all too often accept much less as literacy. A child who can look at a note on a musical staff and respond by pressing the correct key on a piano or other instrument is given credit for being able to read music. But that not on a staff is more than just a keystroke, and even when the note has been sounded, it by itself has no meaning, any more than a single letter has meaning apart from the word of which it is a part. When a child sees a word, if they can read, they associate the word with a person, action, object or concept. That is what a literate person does. When a child sees a musical note, if they can read, they associate the note with a sound that has a definite pitch and a definite duration. A sequence of several of these notes, that is to say several of these defined sounds, forms a musical idea. Musical ideas are combined into themes, and themes are combined into theme groups, sections, movements, and entire works. A musically literate person not only can audiate or know through inner hearing the individual pitches from notation, but also can understand how those notes are arranged into groups, and metrical patterns, perceiving them as the ideas, phrases, themes and so on that they are, with all of the relationships between notes that make them so. This goes far beyond matching a note with an instrument key.

How does this literacy come about? One thing that is for certain is that it does not come about through rote learning alone. Rote learning is an important first step, but when musical training does not go beyond rote learning, the associations between what is heard and what is seen in notation is never made, precluding development of true musical literacy. Perhaps the clearest explanation of how musical literacy is developed are the steps Feierabend gives in his Conversational Solfege. Essentially, these steps consist of rote learning songs with the voice on neutral syllables, then these same songs with tonal and rhythm syllables, “decoding” songs by hearing them sung by the teacher on neutral syllables and then repeating them with tonal or rhythm syllables, and then being able to do the same thing with unfamiliar songs. The final step is to create original musical ideas (composing and improvising) using labels (syllables).  The same procedure is used for reading and writing. Notice the transition from songs learned from rote, then applying labels to the notes of those songs so that the sounds are associated with the labels (syllables), and then using the labels (syllables) to assimilate new learning.

When notes are associated with instrument keys instead of syllables, the child has no way of knowing what the music sounds like apart from the instrument. A child in this situation cannot compose or improvise in a creative sense, because they have no materials to work with. To compensate for this, teachers who have failed to teach literacy often rely on music theory to teach improvisation. They will tell the students how to improvise over chord changes, and the student will “improvise” by playing from one chord tone to the next while counting beats or measures in order to know when to transition to the next chord. This is a highly unmusical way to create music, if indeed it is creating at all. Although a child trained in this manner can play on an instrument, the activity has avoided literacy training, and often built a dependence on the teacher to fill in the gaps in the child’s training. This in turn leads to the disturbing discovery that the child cannot play much of anything when the teacher is no longer there, resulting in a large attrition rate for school musicians after graduating.

Traditional music teaching methods developed by Orff, Kodaly and Dalcroze highly value true music literacy, and have been proven to be effective in developing musical literacy. Orff and Dalcroze also give priority to exploration and improvisation with movement and instrumental music. The use of barred instruments in particular is a well known aspect of Orff’s approach. The playing of those instruments is tied to movement and rhythmic activity on body percussion, and with improvisation over ostinati. Other methods that make use of technology as a means to quickly get students playing an instrument, especially a keyboard, can leave the child underprepared in these important aspects of a comprehensive music education.

Practicing Improvisation

2011 Symposium2

This week, a colleague was reading a unit plan I was working on, and noticed the phrase “practice improvisation.” She immediately pointed out to me that improvisation can’t be practiced, and to put those two words together makes an oxymoron. I was not convinced and still am not convinced that this is so. What is true is that once a musician starts practicing something he or she has already improvised, working on it to play that particular idea better, then that is no longer improvisation, and the student at that point is practicing a melodic line or chord change. But the artistic sub-process of improvisation can be practiced just as composing can be practiced. Practicing is the act of doing something, evaluating the results, deciding on what change/improvement to make, and then doing the thing again with the change/improvement, and repeating the process until the thing is done well enough to meet a performance standard.This  three part cycle of perform, evaluate, plan can certainly be applied to improvisation.

Before a person can improvise, he or she must first have a musical idea in mind. We are accustomed to having thoughts in the form of words, pictures, and feelings, but having thoughts in music is less familiar to most of our students, and perhaps to us as well. I consider myself a good improviser even though I am not a jazz musician.This is because there is nearly always music running through my mind. By this I do not mean that I often have a melody “stuck in my head,” but instead that I am frequently just humming away at something. If someone asks me what I’m humming, I often have no idea, or else I am aware that I am just “making stuff up.” But I’m not really creating music from scratch, I’m playing with musical ideas I’ve heard before, or that sound similar to musical ideas I’ve heard before. I’m singing things that come  to mind out of a wealth of musical patterns, and motifs that I have heard and remembered over years of listening to, singing, and playing music.

When I was in high school, I enjoyed going down to the music wing during my study halls, and just sitting at the piano and making up little bits of counterpoint. I loved the inventions and fugues of J.S. Bach, and wanted to imitate his music. I was aware then and am certain now that nothing I ever improvised came remotely close to actually being mistaken for a Bach fugue, but it didn’t matter to me. I enjoyed thinking up some little phrase, and then playing it with my other hand while trying to keep some kind of counterpoint going. My point in telling you this is that in both cases, while humming and while making up counterpoint on the piano, I was practicing improvisation. It wasn’t even an intentional thing, where I decided I was going to practice improving, but that was in fact what I was doing. I was putting my store of learned bits of music to use to generate new bits of music, and stringing them together into a cohesive melody that resembled music of the culture within which I had lived and with which I had become familiar through years of listening, humming, moving, and playing.

It is possible to turn practicing improvisation into something else. This happens when music theory is allowed to drive the choices a musician makes in the guise of improvising. If I am consciously selecting notes based on whether or not they belong in this chord or that chord, and I am not calling to mind patterns I have already learned through listening, then I am not really improvising. The reason is that if I am just choosing chord tones as I go along, I don’t really know what motif or phrase I’m going to play ahead of time. I’m art-of-teachingtruely making it up as I go along, and creating something that has little if any musical meaning to me, because I cannot group the notes into phrases until after I have already played them and only if I can remember what I played. It may sound like improvisation to a listener, but the action I am taking as the musician is unmusical and fragmented. It is as if I am reading by only seeing one word at a time, and with no prior knowledge of what the material I am reading is about. Every word is a surprise, and cannot possibly be read with fluency or expression because I cannot know how any word fits into the context of the sentence until I have already read it; until it has been revealed to me at the moment of reciting it. We don’t think that way. We need a complete thought to find meaning, whether it is in language or music. So improvisation must be the performing of complete musical thoughts, at least a completed motif, with the context known before it is played or sung. Chord changes provide the context that gives the motif or phrase meaning. Their function cannot be corrupted into selector of notes on the fly.

Music theory is of great value in understanding and studying music that has already been performed or written down. There is much to learn from studying transcriptions of solos of great improvisers. We can see how one idea generated another, and learn a great deal about the improvisers musical mind by studying these. But this is apart from actual improvising. This is learning about music, which is a different matter from learning to make music. As with developing music literacy in general, theory can never be allowed to drive practice, but rather theory must be used to explain practice. Out of the stores of a person’s musical memory will come improvisations informed by common cultural practice.


Can Encouraging Creativity Include Correcting Errors?

2011Symposium_1_2Today, as I attended the fifth biennial Symposium on Music in Schools at Yale University, I became occupied with a question that came to mind as I listened to Sebastian Ruth talk about helping students find their voice through music education. His talk and the discussion that followed included points on developing relationships with students as co-learners with their teachers, downplaying the traditional authoritative nature of the teacher. This is done by leaving the child to make more decisions about his or her own learning, and giving the student the freedom to operate within his or her own cultural perspective and personal experience with music. Creativity plays a critical role in all of this, and certainly in arts courses, including music, it is reasonable to expect that students will have more opportunity and encouragement to be creative and act on creative ideas than they perhaps will have in other disciplines.

The discussion began to get bumpy, at least for me, when it turned to the relationship between teaching the craft of music making and the personal relationship with a musical experience, summarized in the term aesthetics. Doesn’t a student need the wares of music performance, the musical vocabulary of training and experience on a musical instrument to act upon creative ideas successfully? In other words, is it not necessary for a person to be proficient on an instrument before they can be creative with it? On the road to gaining proficiency, the student cannot be left to creativity alone, but must learn to discriminate between what is right and what is an error as he or she plays a composed piece of music, or even as he or she improvises over chord changes. The ability to detect and correct errors is in itself a skill necessary for developing proficiency.

So craft must precede aesthetic performance experience. Once that is achieved, is it then possible that a creative idea, onceSelf-Image expressed with performance on a musical instrument, can be errant? Is there such a thing as a wrong creative idea, and even if there is, should music teachers tell students that a creative idea they have played is wrong, or just encourage them to continue being creative by accepting equally every idea that comes along? At what point, if ever, does the music student need to learn that some ideas are better than others, some ideas should be forgotten while others should be remembered and referred to often? Is it a legitimate part of developing creativity to also be developing the intellectual and emotional capacity to evaluate creative ideas, and to be selective in which ones to retain and develop into larger musical works?

In the context of the symposium, the answers to these questions will depend on how they affect the development of the student’s voice, which is to say his or her personal identification with a specific musical experience. In my own teaching experience, if a child is asked to improvise and yet does nothing more than repeat exactly what they have just heard from me or another child, then that is not the same as when a child, hearing one musical idea, responds with a related but different musical idea. The latter is a better response because it shows original musical thinking, which is beyond the ability to recall and reproduce exactly what one has heard. Pushing the student to go beyond mere repetition is indeed a step toward developing independence, which is how one finds their own voice.

A moment ago I used the word “related” to qualify the musical response. That is another indicator of quality in this case. An improvised response that is different but entirely unrelated to the preceding phrase is inferior to the response that is related. Unrelated is dangerously close to random, though it may also be highly creative and original.  The need for making these discriminations does not inhibit or discourage a child from finding their voice, but makes it possible for them to do so. The trick is to make risk-taking safe while at the same time teaching children that they will not be right, or achieve their best result overtime they take a risk. If this were so, then there would not be any risk, because success would be assured. The very fact that there is a risk being taken means the possibility of failure is present. But the consequence of failure, if that is a fair word to use to describe it, must be minimally negative and viewed as much as possible as informative and helpful in reassembling resources into another effort informed by what was learned the last time. The process of repeated risk taking, enabled by a safe learning environment, results in high-level learning and introspective analysis, and improved responses. Yes, creative ideas can be right, wrong, and every degree in between. Artists are creative because they see things and think things that others cannot see and think on their own. It is the virtue of the artist to bring these things to light, and to challenge people to see the world in fresh, challenging and yes creative ways. That takes a great deal of experience, honing of skills and creativity, but it is well worth the effort.

Improvising With Tonal Patterns

2011Symposium_1_2Music is constructed with patterns of pitches and rhythms. As we have seen over the last two weeks, we begin to learn these patterns aurally from birth and even before. Aural learning continues into the school age years, and is necessary before music reading and writing can be taught effectively. Not only are the raw pitches and rhythms learned, but also the meters and tonalities resulting from those patterns. As  a person learns patterns, tonalities, and meters, he or she can begin using them in improvisation. Improvisation can only be done with patterns, meters and tonalities that have been learned.; we do not improvise from nothing, but from ideas that are essentially original orderings and variations on things we have already heard and are familiar with.

At its beginning stages, original musical thought may be slight alterations to a pattern the student has just heard. When I sing a pattern to a student, and ask that student to sing back to me something different from what I just sang, my youngest students sometimes have trouble thinking of something to sing. I then guide them with suggestions. I may point out that in what I just sang the pitches went down, so he or she could try singing something that goes up. Or I might suggest that the child sing what I did, but add or remove one or more notes. Another idea is to sing the rhythm of the child’s name. All of these strategies coax the child to begin generating musical ideas from musical thoughts. All of it is aurally based, without even a reference to notation.

When notation is brought in, it is only of patterns that the children have already learned aurally. Early on, I will write several tonal patterns on the board, sing one of them, have the class or an individual repeat the same pattern, and then tell me which pattern of those on the board we just sang. This strengthens the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Again, strategies may be needed to shore up this learning. For example, one of the patterns might be “do, mi.” After correctly singing and identifying that pattern, I might move on to “do, mi, so.” I have already made sure that only these two patterns begin with “do,mi,” so I can say to the unsure student, ” what are the first two pitches in the pattern I just sang?” I the sing “do, mi, so” again, and wait for the student’s answer. After finding them to be “do, mi” I then say, “pattern 1 was ‘do, mi,’ can you find another pattern that begins with the same pitches?” Using this question as a guide, the student can then find the pattern that is “do, mi, so.” All of this gives students practice in locating notes on the staff, and thinking in 101terms of patterns or combinations of pitches, instead of individual pitches.

After building proficiency at singing and reading patterns, students can move on to improvising with these same patterns. Students can repeat patterns, sequence several patterns, and alter one or more notes in a pattern to create improvised music. Until rhythm is added, there is no meter, but students are already hearing a tonality form the patterns they are improvising, because the patterns I have taught them for this activity are all in a single tonality. Do, mi can become do, mi, mi; so, fa, re can become so, fa, re, so; so, mi, do can become so, do, and so forth. I can use the same approach with rhythms, beginning with rhythm patterns aurally, then going into notation, and leading into improvisation. After using rhythm patterns in this way, I then reinsert pitches, and have students play with both tonal and rhythm patterns at the same time; that is, they can now change pitch, rhythm, or both as they improvise.

Although improvisation is not usually thought of as including notation, I find that including notation in these improvisation activities helps students strengthen their audiation and reading skills. By seeing what they are improvising off of in the small segments of tonal and rhythm patterns, they are connecting what they see to the changes they are making to it. It is also a kind of readiness exercise for improvising off of a lead sheet, where musicians have entire melodies notated. Learning to read in patterns first transfers to reading whole melodies, preparing students to see patterns in notated melodies, and isolate them as materials for fruitful improvisation. It also takes some of the mystery out of improvisation for inexperienced improvisers, because it feels less like they are making music out of thin air, and more of what it really is: making music out of patterns they already know.

Dispelling the Wrong Note Fallacy

2011Symposium_1_2If you’ve ever written a thesis, book or even a blog post, you probably know that just the right words don’t always just come flowing out of your brain onto the screen or page. Case in point, I have already deleted one word and replaced it with another in just these two opening sentences. The fact is there is very little we get perfect the first time, let alone at all. Good writers don’t worry about getting it down perfectly in the first draft, they just write and then go back later to revise, edit and polish.

When it comes to music, composing works much the same way. Though legends of Mozart composing whole symphonies at a time at one sitting, and without need of revision, this would be an astounding exception to the way most composers have and continue to work. Creating art takes time, requires many attempts and reworking before it finally settles into what the composer will accept as the finished work.

There is another aspect of creating music that lies somewhere in between the alleged perfection of Mozart and the seemingly endless struggles of Beethoven when composing. This aspect is improvisation. Like writing and composing, improvisations probably don’t come out just right most of the time, but unlike writing and composing, there is no opportunity to go back and edit. Once the tone is played or sung, it cannot be taken back. It can only be decontextualized into consequent tones that make the regretted tone sound less out of place or wrong. This is acceptable in improvisation, and the mix of “wrong” notes and “fixes” for them is what gives improvisation its often edgy and thrilling demeanor. In fact, many improvisors don’t consider there is such a thing as wrong notes when improvising.

It does, though, take a great deal of courage to improvise, especially in front of friends and peers. For less experienced music and the brainstudents, the fear of sounding bad is real, and prevents some from even trying. To be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel too good about giving a speech infant of our peers without any notice to prepare what we were going to say. Only a few people, the late Robin Williams among them, can just improvise a coherent, or at least entertaining five or ten or thirty minutes of comedy or poetry or prose. This is the obstacle young student improvisors face. How to play improvised music that sounds good to everyone listening.

Swing is an excellent choice of styles for inexperienced improvisors. The tempo can be held at a comfortable medium tempo, and a major scale has few if any bad sounding notes in it when played over a ii-V-I-vi progression. I like to teach my students the swing feel first by having them sing a couple of swing songs, and listen to a couple of swing charts. The song “To Swing or Not to Swing” from the Music K-8 series is a good tool to teach students what swing is. I then like to use Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Ticket A Tasket” as a song for the students to sing, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” for them to listen to. I have them describe what they hear the performers do that makes the music swing. Key is that they acquire an ear for the swing eighth notes, and be able to sing and tap them.

When these materials have been learned successfully, I then use a medium swing backing track for the students to improvise over. I pass a small Orff style xylophone around the class, and give each students 16 beats to improvise with swing rhythm, especially swing eighth notes. The students are quickly amazed at how quickly they sound good with the backing track, and are encouraged by quick success to continue improvising. Many will just play on the beat at first, and then will begin to venture into adding a few swing eighth notes. For the more reluctant students, I encourage them to continue playing on the beat, and every so often just play twice on a bar using a rhythm of two swing eighth notes. I try not to play or model too much at this point, because I want the best music to be made by the students. Once everyone has succeeded, then I take my turn before giving the xylophone back to a student. The important thing is that once the students start playing, they slowly realize that there are no wrong notes, and that a good rhythm anywhere on the diatonic scale will make them sound like a pro. Try this out with your students using this backing track.

Rhythm, Beat, and Groove: What’s the Difference?

2011Symposium_1_2It all seems simple in the early grades. Beat is the steady pulse of the music, and rhythm is the changing durations of what is being sung or played. Using movement, students learn the difference between beat and rhythm by walking the beat while clapping the rhythm. Because they are not doing the same thing with their feet and hands, the point that they are not the same is easily made. The issue becomes more complicated when the students get older. Around age eleven, they develop their own musical preferences, and become more attached to the music of popular culture. With this change in how they relate to music and relate music to their peers, students begin talking about the beat in a different way. They use the word to describe the overall rhythmic affect on them that the music has; an understanding more accurately described as groove. Groove is the combined affect of beat and rhythm on the body; it is a word that describes how our body responds to music with movement. Labeling groove as beat glosses over rhythmic structure of music, making it almost certain that understandings of its component parts, that is rhythm, beat and meter, will be overlooked.

As music teachers, we are up against a misunderstanding brought about by common yet misleading usage of the thinking musicword beat. Part of the solution is to be sure our teaching goes beyond vocabulary, and includes application and experience. Defining beat as the steady pulse of the music is only engaging the intellect in learning the concept–it does not develop the deeper understanding that comes from experiencing the beat while being aware of what is being experienced, and manipulating the beat with creative and interpretive actions, which provides relevance and even deeper understanding. Here is how this could play out in a classroom. First, the teacher has taught the students what beat, rhythm and groove are, so that they can define each. This is the intellectual part of learning a concept, and must come first. Then the students might hear the music teacher play a repeated rhythm pattern–one which is easily recognized by the students. Then the teacher plays the same repeated rhythm pattern, but at a different tempo, and asks the students of the three elements, beat, rhythm, and groove, which one or ones have changed? The activity is then repeated, but with the students playing the pattern on body percussion or rhythm instruments. When ever either beat or rhythm changes, groove will be affected. Groove should not be confused with style. Funk is a style, not a groove. The groove of funk is the affect of the characteristic rhythms and beat of the funk style. That affect will always change when either rhythm or beat is changed, so groove can change even when style does not.

When a student says that a song has a beat that they like, it most likely is the groove they are referring to. Redirecting the conversation to groove opens up the opportunity to discover what combination of rhythm and beat created the groove that the student likes, and presents creative opportunities for students to explore tinkering with the rhythm and beat separately to alter the groove. Students tend to be deeply entrenched in a small number of rhythms that repeatedly occur in the music they listen to, so creating new rhythms that result in the same or similar groove helps widen their appreciation of music, and moves them from being music consumers to music creators, an important step in becoming educated musically. Students must come to understand that songwriters and composers have beat, rhythm and beat at their disposal to manipulate however they choose, and that the results of those creative decisions is a particular groove and/or style, and is very much related to the music creator’s expressive intent.

Putting the “Play” Back Into Playing (Or Singing) Music

2011Symposium_1_2If educators really want to know how students learn best, they should observe 3- and 4-year-old children. Over the last several weeks, one of the activities my 4-year-old class did was to improvise melodies for the rhyme, “Jack Be Nimble.” The children were asked to sing the words, using their singing voice. Naturally, some children sang the first time, while others needed several trials to sing rather than speak. Some sing right out, while others quietly sing almost just to themselves. Over several weeks, though , all were able to sing the rhyme, and deepen their understanding of the difference between singing and speaking. I mention all of this by way of providing background.

Today, one of the 4-year-old classes was given boom whackers. After discussing that the longer ones make deeper sounds, and the shorter ones make higher sounds, I told the children that I would play a drum beat, and they could play their boom whackers however they thought it would sound good. We all began to play. The children were having a great time, and the music they made conformed to the beat I was playing. After a minute or so, something wonderful happened. One child started singing “Jack Be Nimble” over all of the instruments. The children immediately changed what they were playing in response to what was being sung. Others then joined in and sang in their own way. Children dropped out or joined singing as they chose. This continued until one of them said “that’s enough of that song,” and they all agreed to stop.

Here’s what I observe form this marvelous session. First, the improvisation had a lasting effect on the children. They Dance-and-Movementwere, through their timid and tentative trials over the last weeks, assimilating musical patterns that they could use with that poem. Second, they intuitively connected a new improvisation activity with a familiar one, combining them into one. The new experience of improvising without words and with boom whackers was combined with improvising with words and without instruments. I never suggested that they sing while playing the boom whackers, and in another class, no one thought of doing so. Third, the familiar improvising activity, which was singing provided words, led one child to sing with different words while playing her instrument. In a lovely head voice, she sang a beautiful melody that captured her friends attention, as they kept playing but listened attentively to her improvised singing. Children will go places that you as the teacher will not think of directing them, especially when it is in the context of play. That leads to the fourth observation. Because children are naturally curious, and enjoy playing, they will learn a great deal from playing with things we give them to play with and with which they can do things we want them to learn how to do. If we want them to learn how to play musical instruments, we can give them musical instruments that are age appropriate, like boom whackers, and let them explore and play. Remember though, that they need some basis for their creative thought and play. Having material to work with, which in this case was the improvisation on “Jack Be Nimble” gives them a starting point; a home base, if you will, from which they can venture to explore other possibilities, and to which they can return when they need to ground what they are doing in something familiar or structured.

What does this kind of play look like in people that are grown up, instead of four years old? Yesterday, I played keyboard on the worship team at my church. Friday, at the end of the rehearsal, the leader told me that for the offertory we would improvise something. He would play drums, the bassist would play, and I should improvise over bass and drums. That was it. Sunday morning came, the offertory was taken, and while it was, we jammed. It was a funky, fun piece, and we could see the ushers taking the offering were moving about with an unusual bounce in their step. After the service, many people complimented us on how fun the offertory was. We had fun playing, and the worshippers had fun connecting to what we were doing.. There is a joy in expert spontaneity that cannot be matched by performing from a score. We all need more of that. Let’s all play and let play with our students.

What Is Creative Musical Thought?

2011Symposium_1_2It has been my observation that the words creative and improvise are among the most misunderstood in the field of music education. Both of these words often given a connotation of being original or of being made for the first time from ideas that are vowel or heretofore unknown. Before discussing creative and improvisation as applied specifically to music, I will first discuss the words creative and original in order to set a necessary context for understanding improvisation.

Current understandings of creativity are weighted toward the process of creating something. That is, creativity is most apparent in the process of making something. The creative process leads to the making of something which is viewed as creative, and which is evidence that the process by which the thing was made was creative, but for a person to do something creative, the process is central, and the product is the result of the process; the thing made will be creative if the process has been creative.

A creative process typically includes divergent thinking whereby the thinker sees things and thinks of things in a way that is different from the norm. These creative ways of seeing lead the creative thinker to ask questions others are not as likely to think of, to find ways of seeking the answers to those questions others have not often used, and to find answers that most others have not discovered, because they have neither asked those questions, used that path of inquiry, or found those answers.

So far, I have avoided using the word originality. This is because creativity is often confused with Feed Your Brain Musicoriginality, especially where musical improvisation is concerned. Whereas a creative idea may be original, there are many creative ideas that are not. The word original refers to something that is a first, that has not been copied or done before. Something that is original cannot be derived from something that already existed, or be an improvement on something, but must be wholly unique to its originator. If something has never been done before, or never existed before, and it is done or made for the first time, then it is original. Taken to its purest form, because we cannot make anything out of nothing, then nothing is truly original, but merely a creative use of something that already existed. Philosophers will debate what is or is not original, and a great deal of monetary gain is at stake when one claims one has made an idea or thing that is original.These distinctions are not important to my purpose of making clear the distinction between creative and original in musical improvisation.

What is important is that musical improvisation does not need to be, and is most often not original. The best improvisors employ motifs, themes, chord changes, and rhythms that they have already learned and often used before, and that are derived from the song on which they are improvising. The fact that the basic materials of improvisation are already known and are derivative disqualifies them from being original, but not from being creative. In fact, the divergent thinking necessary for organizing and presenting those motifs, themes, changes and rhythms into musical phrases points to the product of that thinking being creative. This does not preclude some element of originality being injected, such as a new timbre created by a novel method of sound production, but such originality is not necessary for the improvisation to still be creative. On the other hand, if an improvisor were to play in such a way that the music sounded random and disorganized, it might be highly original, but we would not be likely to describe its incomprehensibility as creative. Creative product has apparent usefulness and value, attributes that are not likely to be ascribed to incomprehensible noise, even when produced on a musical instrument (though it be used in an unmusical manner).

It is therefore a mistake to teach students improvisation by telling them to “make something up.” When we take this approach, we are erroneously teaching them that improvising is something that must produce original results, which we have seen is not the case. Instead, music teachers should show students how to divergently think about musical ideas they already know, organizing and using them in such a way that they produce a creative result. Creative results will always be musical, whereas, as we have seen, original ideas are not. This in turn makes apparent the necessity of teaching students enough music, and building up within their imaginations enough musical ideas for them to have sufficient raw materials from which they will be able to build improvisations, not out of nothing, but from those learned ideas.

Student Choice in Selecting Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2One of the challenges that often face music teachers is a tension that develops between students playing music they enjoy, and teachers who want their students to play music that facilitates growth in musicianship. Often, this comes down to the teacher wanting the student to play classical music, and the student wanting to play popular music. Many teachers take the attitude of accommodating their students with a sort of compromise, where if the student will practice a classical piece, the teacher will allow the student to prepare a popular piece for a portion of the lesson. While this arrangement is workable, there is a better way.

The core arts standards for music include a content standard for selecting under the artistic process of performing. The enduring understanding (EU) is, “performers’ interest in and knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context for a performance influence the selection of repertoire.” The essential question is, “how do performers select repertoire?” This immediately brings an aspect of music teaching that often is overlooked: teaching students how to select repertoire is one of the responsibilities of a music teacher. When the teacher selects all of the repertoire, or has an overriding influence on selection, the student never learns how to independently make these choices. The standard includes three areas for the performer to consider when selecting repertoire: interest, knowledge, and technical skill.

All three can be developed through further study, so sometimes a student may select a musical Personen / Musiker / Liszt / am Klavierwork from interest, but realize that s/he needs more technical skill in order to realistically begin practicing the piece. This can be an excellent motivator for working to develop technical skill, and for the teacher to assign exercises and repertoire to accomplish technical growth that the student might not otherwise be receptive to learning. On the other hand, a student may select a musical work based on interest and find that they have plenty of technical skill to play the music, and can successfully perform it with very little practice. These selections are valid for the student to simply enjoy music making, without attempting to grow or improve from the experience. We all enjoy just sitting down and playing or singing music without always working on things we can’t yet play fully. Selecting on knowledge can be a way for students to discover and explore new pieces within a familiar idiom. A student may be knowledgable about minuets, but perhaps has only played those of Mozart and Haydn. What about minuets by other composers? What about related forms such as Landler, waltz, scherzo and polonaise?

For the teacher’s part, one should sometimes take the approach that the skill or concept to be taught is more important than the musical work chosen. For example, if a piano teacher wants to work on developing independence of hands using a broken chord accompaniment, she might use Schubert’s Waltz in A-flat major, D. 365, but she might also use the song “Let It Go” form the movie Frozen. The student may practice “Frozen” much more, and learn the skill much better than if they must learn it from the Waltz. The teacher can then show the student that Schubert used the same kind of writing almost two hundred years ago, and perhaps interest the student in playing Schubert to after building the skill on the easier popular song. This makes the inclusion of popular music and classical music part of a holistic approach to music teaching, and makes it possible for the student to evaluate their own needs and interests while considering repertoire possibilities. We shouldn’t feel as though we must indulge in our students’ musical tastes in order to hold their interest, but instead look for opportunities for better, more effective instruction by using the music they are interested in to build concepts and skills. If the music they select is consistently “too easy” for the growth the teacher is looking for, add value to those selections by having the student improvise on their selection, thereby incorporating more advanced technical opportunities, or even compose variations which the student must then play. Judging music a student wants to play as inappropriate or as only a reward for good behavior practicing classical pieces promotes a musical narrow mindedness that is contrary to one of the goals all music teachers should have, that of teaching a diverse repertoire.

Teaching Improvisation

2011Symposium_1_2I view improvisation as a form of conversation. Unless we are giving a prepared speech, people don’t know ahead of time every word they are going to speak. We speak thoughts as they come to mind, respond to what we read, see and hear other people say, forming thoughts that turn into words we speak to others (or possibly even to ourselves). We draw on our known vocabulary and connect what we have observed with our experience to come up with what we say in conversations and in teaching students in a classroom.

The same process is used to from musical thoughts which are played on a musical instrument or sung instead of spoken. We sing or play thoughts as they come to mind, respond to music we read and hear and possibly see (think of pictures or colors to portray with musical ideas, for instance). We draw on our known musical vocabulary of motifs, chords, scales, themes, rhythms, timbres, and meters, and our experience with a diverse repertoire of music to come up with what we say in musical conversations, which we commonly refer to as improvising.

The difficulty most students and truth be told many music educators face when asked to improvise, is that our musical vocabulary is not nearly as developed as our language vocabulary. Even if children have had appropriate musical training from early childhood, they probably haven’t been asked or even thought of on their own using music as extensively and as frequently as language, and rare is the person who hears as many musical ideas, and has as frequent experiences with music as he or she has with their language.

In order to teach students to be improvisers, we need to treat music more like language. This is not to say music is a language; I will not enter to that debate here. But to treat music like a language means that we provide opportunities for children to spontaneously sing musical ideas in a kind of musical conversation. The music teacher sings to a child, “Bod-ee-ba-beep” and the child repeats it back, or sings back a different response, such as “bop-bop-bee-bop.” Eventually, both teacher and student grow a vocabulary of these motifs, and begin to reuse them in different combinations and in different musical settings, using them like the words of a language vocabulary. By doing this frequently, everyone becomes comfortable with improvising, and in fact begin to look forward to improvising, which becomes a fun game to play with combinations of musical sounds, these motifs and patterns of a musical vocabulary.

With a familiarity and background like this, students are never put in the position of pulling an music and the brainimprovisation out of thin air. Improvising music becomes natural, approaching the naturalness with which we regard speaking. Then the mind becomes more musical. No longer does a person just think of a melody, but now delights in playing with it, out loud or silently, privately entertaining him or herself. I have enjoyed this private music making for as long as I can remember. People have frequently caught me softly singing something to myself, and frequently ask me what I’m singing. I often don’t know what I was singing, or can’t tell them because I was just playing around with a rhythm or motif that interests me at the moment. In this frame of mind, music doesn’t get old or annoyingly stuck in my head, but is always an exciting opportunity for musical enjoyment.

An important point in all of this is that improvising is not something an older student can just start doing by “making something up.” It is not reasonable to first bring up the subject of improvisation to a middle school or high school student and expect him or her to quickly be able to pick it up. Musical improvisation is not making random sounds; it is thinking of and performing musical patterns that are typical of a particular musical idiom. Both the patterns and the idiom must be well enough established so that they are familiar and so that the student can fluently think in and perform them as complete musical thoughts. Desperately grabbing at notes from a given scale to fill time in an improvisation section of a jazz chart is not improvisation, because the student is not equipped to organize pitches and rhythms within a known musical syntax. An older student can certainly begin to learn how to improvise, but must go through the same process a young student would: learning musical patterns and styles and beginning with short motifs, gradually building a vocabulary with which the student can fluently work with.