Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Teaching improvisation: Reality or myth?


November 1, 2008


(Version française incluse, voir plus bas)


Marc Chénard


There once was a time when conservatories viewed the practice of improvisation with something of a jaundiced eye; more often than not, students were discouraged to pursue this venue of expression, and banishing it from teaching curriculum was the surest way of ensuring that. But times they have changed. For better or for worse, it is now part and parcel of educational programs in high schools and universities alike. Though widely accepted nowadays, improvisation is still something of a hot potato as an educational topic. Given its transient and unpredictable nature, improvisation is subjected to the vagaries of the moment, resulting sometimes in missteps or accidents that are not always in accordance to the rights and wrongs of theoretical precepts.
Jazz, for its part, can be singled out as one of the most important developments in recent Western musical history, for it has legitimized anew the practice of improvisation. In its short history, it has succeeded in building a language all of its own, and a very complex one that has been readily codified by the educational system for its own purposes. But jazz, in the most generally understood sense of the term, is only one of many ways to improvise. Consider the myriad of world musics whose materials and practices are so much at variance with each other (including jazz), but where improvisation remains its most vital means of expression. Even here in the Western World, improvisation has opened up so many more venues, made possible by the arrival of free jazz, but expanding into areas remotely related to it, e.g. minimalism, noise music, electroacoustics and multi-media performances. Because of this expanse, the question arises if it is at all possible to teach improvisation, a question by no means new, but somehow more relevant than ever nowadays. To wit, there are more than a handful of jazzmen (both past and present) who have readily expressed their skepticism with regards to any kind of "teaching" of improvisation. One of these, the late alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, stated the following:
"Improvisation can be learned but not taught."
But is this point of view still valid nowadays? Given its acceptance in today's music education, this may well not be the case anymore. To shed some light on this issue, four points of view were sollicited, first by a pair of seasoned music educators, then by two performers of international standing.
Teacher responses
Andrew Homzy
(Professor of Jazz Studies, Concordia University, Montreal, Québec, Canada.)
Immediately, I question Desmond's credentials as an educator. His  comment is anecdotal opinion - unless he has taken many courses in  education, done the research and taught extensively. Improvisation can be taught - just as driving a car or licking postage stamps can be taught. Of course, the student has to want to learn.
However, not all students are equal. Some learn faster than others,  some have more support in their social environment, and some are more  talented. Also, some people take-up the wrong instrument—and dealing with an instrument which is in the wrong register for their  way of hearing or to which they are nor physically adept can also 
play into the chance of success.
Besides the physical mastery of the instrument, there is also the mastery of tone, rhythm and intonation. These are all factors which a good teacher will address. And there are very few good teachers.
This is not the place to expose a method or system of teaching  improvisation. Rather it is more important to present the overall aspects which are fundamental.
I believe one of the most important aspects in teaching improvisation is to create a situation where the student feels safe. Where errors are considered as part of the learning process. This leads to confidence and trust - the most important aspect in a student-teacher relationship. As well, the teacher must be able to demonstrate what the student is expected to do. It can happen that the student can eventually out-strip the teacher. In this case, the teacher must ask the student to find another teacher - or if the teacher has a strong educational/intellectual background, such a teacher can still be effective in presenting concepts and ideas without actually being able to demonstrate them.
In closing, I would also say that a good teacher will find or create opportunities for the student to develop in a practical way. This might be as simple as encouraging the student to play with other students - running a jam session - recommending attendance at events in the community - introducing the student to established professionals.
I believe Paul Desmond was taught improvisation - just not in a formalized manner - and that he was an exceptional learner at that.

Reno De Stefano (Ph.D.)

(Jazz guitarist, Professor of Jazz Studies, Faculty of Music, Université de Montréal.)

In the jazz historical and pedagogical discourse as well as in various jazz publications we often encounter words and idiomatic expressions such as "The Jazz Language", "Jazz Vocabulary", "Elements of the Jazz Language", etc. For quite some time now many great performers, educators and authors have made comparisons and have found distinct similarities between the processes involved in learning to improvise jazz and learning to speak a particular language. I believe that through an understanding of these two very similar processes we can better respond to Paul Desmond's statement.
A child learns to speak English (or any other language) by listening to the sounds around him. He learns basic words from his mom, dad and siblings. However, in the first few years he has trouble constructing full sentences or expressing himself coherently. Through continued interaction with his family, siblings and friends he instinctively learns to listen, to pronounce new words, to correct himself, and acquires additional vocabulary which he uses to further express himself. Learning to make sentences is very difficult at first but the child slowly develops some basic language skills and some form of correct accent which he uses to express simple ideas. It is clear that from the very beginning the child learns sounds. He is guided and influenced by those around him strictly through an "aural process". However, is he really "taught" to speak the language, or does he pick up the skills aurally from his environment?
Similarly, jazz improvisation and its vocabulary has essentially developed and been passed on through this type of "aural tradition". Throughout history, jazz musicians have transcribed and memorized improvised solos of their predecessors and have continuously listened to recordings in order to learn jazz improvisation and jazz vocabulary. This was the most effective way to internalize the sounds of jazz and its distinctive rhythmic feel. They also interacted with others through jam sessions, gigs, concerts, recordings, etc. All this enabled the jazz musician to develop the vocabulary and the articulation needed (swing) in jazz improvisation.  It is interesting to notice that in both the language and jazz improvisation processes, the accent and articulation (i.e. swing in jazz), can only be learned through intensive listening, that is, aural tradition.
We might say that a child learns to speak by himself through interaction with others and through daily practice of the newly acquired vocabulary. At first the learning is strictly hands-on and the child directly and instinctively participates in the learning process, not through classroom learning, but through living the daily struggle to express himself coherently.
The jazz improvisation student goes through the same type of early development and struggle. He hears all this music and jazz vocabulary around him, on recordings, in jam sessions, in concerts etc. and tries to make sense of it through his daily practicing and performing. However, it takes quite some time before his musical ideas are expressed clearly, coherently and with ease.
At some point the child goes to school and is taught new words, proper pronunciation, spelling, additional vocabulary, and the basic rules of grammar and syntax which will finally bring him to "understand the internal mechanisms of the language". We understand that this classroom approach is essential and it will teach him how to write properly, to speak better and more freely. It will teach him to understand how the language is put together and what is good and proper writing style. In conclusion, we might say that we can teach someone English but we do not necessarily teach him how to "speak" English. He must experience the language aurally or orally in everyday life through interaction in order to learn how to speak properly.
It is essentially the same process that is involved with jazz improvisation and the classroom approach. Students that improvise learn to further control the grammar and syntax of the jazz language through the guidance of a teacher. In a classroom they learn through analysis, how to use better voice-leading when improvising from one chord to the next, and are introduced to jazz sounds with which they were not entirely familiar. They might also learn to tackle more complex contemporary harmonies and chord progressions. Similarly, we can say that we can teach someone the "internal mechanisms of jazz improvisation and its vocabulary" but we do not necessarily teach one how to improvise jazz. He must experience learning through an individual and progressive "aural process" in order to experience the complete growth.


Performer responses
Steve Kuhn
(Pianist, active on the jazz scene since the late 1950s.)
Basically, I agree with that statement. You see, I came up in a time when there were no jazz schools around. I first learned how to play piano with a classical teacher in Boston, Margaret Chaloff (the mother of the noted jazz baritone saxophonist, Serge Chaloff). But I was also exposed to one of the earliest jazz teaching environments, the now legendary Lennox School of Music in the late 50s (where Ornette Coleman made his first big impression before his Five Spot engagement in New York). The teachers were all active performers participating in a summer music camp, so it was geared on sharing their experiences with the students rather than a set curriculum like they have in schools today. There is something in the wealth of experience you gain by working steadily that you just cannot get in a classroom. I was fortunate to come along in that period where you played constantly, there were so many outlets for the music and great players who were the teachers (Miles and Coltrane were really the two great leaders of that period). I was lucky enough to be Trane's very first pianist in his quartet, even though it lasted only two months, he was waiting for McCoy Tyner who was busy with Benny Golson's Jazztet at the time.) And as we know, the rest is history. All that to say then, that to really feel this music you've got to live it and it's the feeling that really counts, something which you can only learn by yourself.
Marilyn Crispell
(Pianist, best known for her work in the area of free improvised music.)
Well, I think that if it can be learned, it can also be tought somehow. I don't really see the difference here. Mind you, I've never held a teaching position, and never really wanted one either, but I like to give improvisation workshops anyway. For me, the most important is to make people more aware and responsive to what is going on, and there are ways of doing that, too. Pauline Oliveros gives a whole course on that, spread over four years or something like that. And I'm talking here about a context of free improvisation, not really one of, say, showing how to play chord changes and the like. Improvisation is more a question of playing attitudes, like, accompanying someone else, imitating what another person is doing, if not going in a completely other direction that what might be happening in a group. I like to have students play in duos, so they can really focus their attention on each other, and then we, meaning both I, the players and the rest of the participants can sort of analyze what went on in. It's not really a question of right or wrong here, it's more a question of making them better listeners, which to me is the key of all good improvising. 
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Résumés français
Table ronde
Enseigner l'improvisation : fait accompli ou chimère ?
Reléguée pendant longtemps aux oubliettes de l'enseignement, l'improvisation musicale demeure la pratique la plus difficile à cerner d'un point de vue pédagogique.
Éphémère de nature, elle fait souvent la sourde oreille aux règles bien arrêtées du savoir théorique. Le jazz, comme on le sait, a replacé cette pratique sur l'échiquier musical de l'Occident, mais cette tradition s'est codifiée de manière à donner un droit de cité à l'improvisation dans les milieux scolaires. Il n'en demeure pas moins que le jazz, dans son acception habituelle, ne constitue qu'une approche possible à l'improvisation. D'une part, bien des musiques ethniques la conçoivent selon des critères différents, que ce soit en Inde, en Chine ou en Afrique; d'autre part, la musique occidentale abrite aussi un vaste éventail de pratiques purement improvisées, historiquement tributaires du free jazz, mais s'étendant dans d'autres domaines plus ou moins éloignés (minimalisme, bruitisme, électroacoustique, multimédia). Compte tenu de cette diversité, on peut se demander si l'improvisation peut véritablement s'enseigner, question certes pas nouvelle, mais plus pertinente que jamais. Bien longtemps avant que cette pratique musicale se répande dans tous les sens, certains jazzmen entretenaient le doute envers tout enseignement de type « scolaire ». Parmi eux, le réputé saxophoniste alto Paul Desmond, du célébrissime premier quartette de Dave Brubeck, déclara un jour : « L'improvisation s'apprend, mais ne s'enseigne pas. »
De nos jours, tout semble porter à croire le contraire. Rares sont les universités, conservatoires ou collèges qui ne sont pas dotés de cours, voire de cursus complets de jazz. Nous avons recueilli quatre sons de cloches sur cette question de l'enseignement de l'improvisation, les deux premiers de musiciens éducateurs de chez nous, les deux autres d'artistes de scène de réputation internationale.
Andrew Homzy
(Professeur titulaire, département d'études jazz, faculté de musique, Université Concordia.)
Tout de suite, je mets en doute les qualifications d'éducateur de Desmond. Son commentaire est purement anecdotique. On peut aussi bien enseigner l'improvisation que la conduite automobile, pourvu que l'étudiant veuille apprendre. Mais il n'y en pas deux pareils; certains sont plus doués ou apprennent plus vite que d'autres ou bénéficientd'un milieu familial propice. Un professeur doit aider l'étudiant à améliorer sa technique, à maîtriser le son, le rythme, etc. À mon avis, l'un des aspects les plus importants de l'enseignement de l'improvisation est la création d'un cadre dans lequel l'étudiant se sent bien et où l'erreur fait partie du processus. Cela instaure la confiance, élément essentiel de toute relation professeur-élève. De plus, un bon professeur trouve et crée des occasions propices au développement de l'étudiant. Desmond était un surdoué, mais je crois qu'il a reçu un certain enseignement en improvisation, même si ce n'était pas de manière formelle.
Reno de Stefano (PhD)
(Guitariste et professeur au programme d'études jazz, faculté de musique, Université de Montréal.)
Pour mieux répondre à l'observation de Paul Desmond, procédons à une comparaison entre l'acquisition du langage verbal et celui du jazz. Tout enfant apprend une langue d'abord par l'écoute des sons autour de lui pour ensuite les assembler de manière instinctive et graduelle en mots et en phrases. L'improvisation jazzistique découle aussi d'une tradition auditive, acquise par l'écoute et le repiquage de solos sur disque, sans oublier le jeu avec d'autres. L'écoute attentive est donc le seul moyen pour en arriver à la maîtrise des différentes articulations et des accents propres au langage verbal et au jazz.
En entrant à l'école, l'enfant apprend les règles d'une langue afin de pouvoir comprendre ses mécanismes internes. Bien qu'on la lui enseigne, cela ne veut pas nécessairement dire qu'il puisse vraiment la parler, phénomène qui, une fois de plus, repose sur l'écoute. Ainsi en est-il de l'improvisation jazzistique en situation scolaire : l'étudiant apprend ses mécanismes internes, mais cela ne signifie pas pour autant qu'on lui enseigne à improviser; l'écoute se trouve à être le seul garant d'une évolution constante des aptitudes de l'étudiant en matière d'improvisation.
Steve Kuhn
(Pianiste, actif sur la scène du jazz américain depuis la fin des années 1950.)
Je partage cet avis. Dans ma jeunesse, il n'y avait pas de ces programmes d'études de jazz. J'ai étudié le piano classique à Boston avec Margaret Chaloff, mère de Serge, un jazzman avec qui j'ai eu l'occasion de travailler dans mon adolescence. Cela dit, j'ai participé aux premiers cours de jazz qui se donnaient l'été à la Lennox School of Music, mais ces stages étaient dirigés par des performeurs établis, pas des universitaires. Le milieu éducatif actuel ne peut pas fournir toute la richesse d'expériences acquises en travaillant régulièrement sur scène. J'avais de la chance d'arriver à une époque où le travail ne manquait pas et où l'on apprenait en voyant les grands maîtres à l'œuvre. Le fait d'avoir été le premier pianiste du quartette de John Coltrane pendant deux mois en 1960, avant l'arrivée de McCoy Tyner, a été tout un enseignement pour moi. En un mot : on ne peut vraiment apprendre cette musique qu'en la sentant; personne ne peut t'enseigner cela.
Marilyn Crispell
(Pianiste associée à la mouvance du free jazz et des musiques improvisées.)
Je ne vois pas de différence entre les deux: si ça s'apprend, ça peut bien s'enseigner aussi.
Même si je n'ai jamais eu le désir de détenir un poste d'enseignante, j'aime quand même donner des ateliers d'improvisation. Ce qui compte pour moi, c'est de sensibiliser les gens à ce qui se passe autour d'eux et de rehausser leur capacité d'interaction. Entendons que je travaille dans un contexte de libre improvisation, alors ce n'est pas une question de montrer quels accords joués et comment. L'improvisation est davantage une question d'attitudes à prendre dans une situation de jeu, que ce soit d'accompagner un autre, de l'imiter ou d'aller à l'encontre même de l'activité musicale du moment. Un des exercices que je donne, c'est de faire jouer les musiciens en duos pour mieux fixer leur attention et de procéder à une espèce d'analyse ou de critique, si l'on veut, par le reste des participants. Je cherche tout simplement à aiguiser leur capacité d'écoute, ce qui demeure pour moi la clé du succès en improvisation.
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