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.

What Is Music Theory and How Does It Fit Into Music Education?

2011Symposium_1_2A casual survey of so-called music theory books used by piano and violin teachers reveals that music theory is frequently understood to be the body of knowledge needed to read music. When students using these materials “learn music theory,” they are asked to name notes and chords, identify and define symbols such as key and time signatures, measures, kinds of notes, and so forth. When I got to college and had to take freshman music theory, I saw that now my professors considered knowing how to label octaves, write with correct voice leading in four parts, and analyze chords as music theory. Later still, I found that studying music theory meant doing Schenkerian analysis, which included making reductions. So what exactly is music theory? Is it note and chord spelling, a method of musical composition, or analyses of musical works?

Perhaps we should start with a simpler question: what is a theory? The writers of the Webster-Merriam Dictionary wrote that a theory is “an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events.” Notice that the facts and events themselves are not the theory, but the explanation of them. Theories explain how things in the world work; things like gravity, the human mind, and relativity. A theory of music, then, describes how music works, but not in the sense of A’s or G-sharps or B-flats, but in terms of harmonics and vibrations. It would explain why certain pitch combinations sound dissonant with a discussion of the tones not sharing overtones, while notes that sound consonant have multiple shared overtones. Such explanations have a scientific basis, and explain why music sounds the way it does. Piano tuners use such a theory all the time as they measure the tempering for pairs of notes. Knowing that a pitch is a B-flat doesn’t explain how music works, any more than saying a house is made of wood and bricks explains the forces acting upon that house that keep it from falling apart. Children who are learning note names, chord names, and note types are learning the materials of music, not music theory.

While it may seem pedantic to dwell on this point, many well-intentioned music teachers have been led to believe that note, chord and rhythm spelling is all one needs to know to learn to play or sing competently, and to understand music. A teacher with this disposition will not find it necessary to go further, avoiding such important things as note tendencies and attractions, differences in the tensions of different intervals, and the expressive potential of these. If one focuses only on what is found in so-called music theory books, (and the reader will now understand why I say “so-called) aural skills will often remain divorced from music spelling limiting the musical understanding to written signs and symbols without sound and, because it is music, without meaning.

Schenkerian analysis hits closer to the mark, because it at least begins to explain how the human mind organizes musicMusic Notes Background beyond the physically heard sound. Lerdahl & Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music comes even closer, articulating a psychological basis for how we organize and understand music that we hear. With knowledge of these actual theories, a music student can then understand how the notes, chords and rhythms they are learning are formed into structures of meter, motifs, themes, theme groups, sections, movements and works over periodic time-spans, and create patterns of tensions and relaxations that are the expressiveness of music. Note names, chord names, and rhythms are just the beginning, and alone are inadequate for teaching music theory and music in general. Teachers should by all means teach music spelling, but must also teach what sounds those things being spelled are, how and in what forms they exist in the physical world as sound, and how they interact and are perceived as musical in combinations that have musical and psychological bases. That is the essence of music theory and essential to good music teaching.

What is Musicianship?

2011Symposium_1_2Musicianship is one of those words that is used frequently but thought about rarely. As music teachers, we want our students to acquire musicianship, but we don’t necessarily spend much time specifically teaching it. Much of the time we are teaching skills, and then assuming musicianship will automatically follow. But it is often the case in education that the transfers of knowledge we think students will make on their own go unnoticed. Often, it is necessary for us to guide students through the transfer of knowledge from one application to another, or from one level of proficiency to the next. So it is with transferring skills to the practice of musicianship.

When I was an undergraduate at a major music conservatory, there was one weekly class I had to attend every semester for all four years. The name of the class was “musicianship.” Students signed up to play for a master class taught by a distinguished professor with the whole school watching. Several students would perform each week, and through it all we saw and heard how to shape musical phrases into performances that were pleasing, expressive and even passionate. What we did not learn in that class were fingerings, bowings, and what notes to play. That was not part of learning musicianship. Learning to play musically was the purpose of the class called “musicianship.”.

Implicit in this view is that musicianship is the highest level of musical thinking and performing—it is what elite players domusic_words_large to cause their performances to be outstanding above the rest. Musicianship cannot be thought of as only what a musician does, because some of what a musician does cannot be considered practicing musicianship. Knowing how to play, and practicing fingerings, notes, and other things must precede practicing musicianship, but technical matters of playing an instrument do not come up to the bar of what musicianship is. Knowing what to play is not included in musicianship, but knowing how to play and playing that way, does demonstrate musicianship.

So far I have defined musicianship in the realm of musical performance only, but musicianship can also be demonstrated by any act of music making. These include composing, improvising, and listening. In our Western art music tradition, composers create the master plan that the performers will follow during rehearsals and concerts. Because the composer imagines what the work will sound like when performed, all of the benefits of musicianship must come into play during the composing process. Phrasings and expressive details must be planned and executed in the writing of the music, and so requires musicianship. The composer builds a musical structure that the performers will animate with physical sound. Listeners then receive that sound, and must apprehend the structure and all that the composer and performers have expressed, and come to a hearing of the piece that includes the composer’s intent, the performers’ intent, and through the listeners’ own experience and musicianship, understandings of both. Listeners’ musicianship is apparent from the way they recognize musical patterns, respond emotionally to music, and remember motifs, themes, phrases and melodies. Musicianship is practiced wherever knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity, to borrow from the Random House Dictionary, are brought to bear on an act of music making.

When we are teaching students solfege, ear training, instrumental technique, sight-singing or any other musical skill, we are not teaching them musicianship, but instead preparing them to make music with musicianship. There is nothing particularly musical in an artistic sense of the singing that is done in an ear training class, or the music that is played in an early level instrument lesson. Though music is being made, it is not necessarily musical. This is because musicianship has not yet been applied to the skill of producing pitches and rhythms. Musicianship is a synthesis of music skills, accomplished in a single act of music making. We teach someone musicianship when we teach them to bring all the necessary music skills together into a performance of artistic excellence.

Tiering Musical Motifs like Vocabulary Words for Common Core

ImageIn the district where I teach music, the leaders have decided to roll out Common Core with an emphasis on building vocabulary. They have devised three categories for words. The first tier is for words that are learned early on. These are small words that would be known by any native speaker, and words that would be used in verbal communication. The second tier is for words that are mainly found in texts, and have specific but different meanings across two or more content areas. For example, the word blue is a tier-1 word when learned as a color, but becomes a tier-2 word when it describes a mood conveyed in art or music. The third tier is for words that are specific to only one content area, as arpeggio belongs strictly to the content area of music. The leaders also made it very clear that “text” refers not only to documents written in a language, but also to an artistic work, such as a painting or a music score.

As I considered all this, I remembered that music and language are both processed in similar locations in the human brain, especially in Broca’s region. If the intellect were being developed through linguistic vocabulary acquisition, why would it not also be developed in much the same way through acquiring musical vocabulary? I began to see the possibility of musical melody also being categorized into those same three tiers. We learn motifs, and then come across them in different contexts, where they have different meanings. For example, Brahms 4th symphony begins with a descending major third. As long as that is the only use of the descending major third I know, then it is a tier-1 motif. When I hear an orchestra play those first two notes, I immediately know I’m about to experience that masterwork. But when I visit someone’s home and I ring the doorbell, I may hear the chimes play a descending minor third. I recognize the motif, do not hear Brahms 4th symphony continue, and the timbre is very different. I learn that the descending minor third is now announcing my arrival to the homeowner, and has nothing whatsoever to do with a symphony composed in the 19th century. Because the descending minor third has two different meanings in two contexts, it is a tier 2 motif. There are a few motifs that are tier-3. One that comes to mind is the repeated perfect fourth of an emergency vehicle siren. That motif can only mean one thing, so it is a tier-3 motif. It has no meaning in any other context.

Other motifs have taken on iconic status. The opening three notes of Bach’s Toccata in d minor have become ghoulish, and the first four notes of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Wagner’s Lohengrin bring thoughts of weddings. Both of these motifs have meaning associated with them just as surely as if they were a words. As we find meaning in these short note sequences, and in dozens of others I’m sure, we are building a music vocabulary so that certain ideas or images bring to mind specific musical motifs. This is very much like having a word called to mind by an idea or visual image. This is not to say that music is a language in the same way that English or German are languages, because music cannot represent specific concepts. But the brain does handle them all similarly, and they all do represent something to our minds.

I am not advocating abandoning teaching our students music words. The jargon of music is necessary in order for us to be able to evaluate, analyze, describe, interpret and think about music that we experience, and clarifying the inevitable confusion that arises from a single word having different meanings in different classes is vitally important. But I am suggesting that alongside our word walls, we might also keep a motif wall. Learning, recognizing, and finding meaning in many motifs will deepen our knowledge about and experience of music, and occupying our students minds with thinking in music to augment mathematical and linguistic thinking seems to me to be a really good idea. And handling motifs as if they were words strengthens our position with those who prowl our schools insisting that music education pull it’s share of the load in meeting Common Core objectives. I for one am convinced that we at least pull our share of load, and probably more of it than most realize.