Saturday, February 2, 2008

Whither Improvisation?

I mentioned in a previous post that I was wondering when exactly improvisation ceased being a common skill in music.

In days of yore, the ability to realize figured bass was a common skill among keyboard players. Today, it is only a specialist that can do this spontaneously.  I will often draw the comparisons between a harpsichordist realizing a continuo part to what a piano player in a quartet is doing behind a soloist.  This always seems to make things clearer for students who aren't versed in the performance practices of modern jazz but to me it begs the question "why does improvisation have to either belong to jazz today or baroque then?"  Of course this is a big generalization and exceptions abound, but how many everyday students of music have improvisation as a part of their daily experience?  I am so encouraged in speaking to many music educators today who are:

a.  Not afraid of improvisation, themselves.
b.  Making improvisation something that all of their students can experience.

My son is a cello player and his experience in his school orchestra is typical of of most music education programs.  A VERY GOOD experience, but very traditionally based.  He is lucky that his private instructor (and his dad, too...) encourages improvisation and composition based on some of the things he is studying (scales, arpeggios etc...).  I have noticed that the material he improvises on becomes much more internalized than material that he just reads.  Of course, for many of us, this is no news at all but when I see how much more fun he has while improvising I can't imagine why it is not a part of all music curriculums.

I know I am being very naive and I further know and utterly respect the tireless work of elementary and secondary music educators.  I give thanks every day that people like Dan Pritchett (my old high school band director) continue to do what they do everyday.  I very humbly pose these questions to any music educator who may be reading:

1.  How can we integrate improvisation into the mainstream of music education for all musicians in all styles?  
2.  How can those of us not directly involved in middle/high school music education help?
3.  Not a question, but:  Thank you for everything you do to bring music to the future... 


D0nnaTr0y said...


The problem I find when it comes to teaching improvisation, at least at the elementary level where I teach, is that it is often overshadowed by so many other important musical, academic, and logistical aspects.

I have 3 instrumental "pull-out" ensembles. Two are traditional concerts bands, the third a jazz band. I confess to only teaching improvisation to the jazz band. This is because, like academic teachers who are forced to "teach to the test," I am forced to "teach to the concert." While I appreciate that my principal gives us so many opportunities to perform (we have 3 formal concerts, in addition to playing on graduation and other random events), it often feels like the performing arts at our school (choral music and dance included) are used purely for bragging rights. If our concerts lack a "showy" element or aren't completedly polished, we feel heat from our principal. This forces us to spend the majority of our time working on pieces that will be performed. Improvisation is expected from a jazz band, so I can get away with teaching it. But for traditional concert band, at least at a beginner level, teaching the dotted half note in order to play the grade 1/2 music takes priority over improvisation.

That said, a good deal of the method books out there right now have lines for improvisation in them. So with my private students that work out of the same books, I find it much easier to work improvisation into the learning process.

In regards to general music, which at my school preempts the performing ensembles, there are other obstacles. The standards. And sadly I am not referring to MENC's nine national standards. I am refering to the social studies, science, math, and reading standards, or "teaching points" as they are referred to in NY. We are supposed to devise lessons that support the academics, not prepare the students musically for the performing ensembles that are used to capture acclaim for our school.

Then theres' the simple logistics of running a music program. Because we are non-academic, our programs often get trampled on. For instance, I don't have a classroom, I teach in the auditorium. Not the biggest deal, except that the admin are constantly forgetting that I'm in there and schedule various events in the auditorium at the same time as my classes! Sometimes is a literacy workshop for the entire 5 grade to prepare for a standardized test; often they throw classes in there for a "mass prep" where a movie (Shrek, or the like) is shown with a couple of supervising teachers so that the classroom teachers can attend a professional development. One time a mass prep was scheduled during my band class so that teachers could attend a baby shower for another teacher! I've been kicked out for graduation practice, Santa Clause, and a celebration of the 100th day of school. And the most frustrating thing is that I often do not know that I'm being kicked out until the period starts and 5 classes in addition to my own come waltzing in. This makes it VERY HARD to stick to any kind of curriculum. As of this week, I have a lesson plan for Kindergarten that I was supposed to use 3 weeks ago and still have not been given the chance to teach because of interruptions like those mentioned above. Teach improvisation? I'd like to try teaching steady beat first!

It's a disheartening, complex web that seems to have no real starting point. I can't really blame my principal for the turmoil she causes us, she is under her own set of pressures, and so on up the chain.

To answer your question, and I realize that as a jaded NYC public school teacher I am being a bit dramatic and just took advantage of your concern to step on a soapbox, but I think that in order to teach the finer aspects of music, such as improvisation not just to jazz students, but to all, much about the education system as a whole needs to be improved on. Since that is not really on the horizon, perhaps we as private instructors can simply make it a point to add more improv into our instruction.

Gregory Dudzienski said...

Thanks so much for the very thoughtful answer. I understand that there is no simple solution to this, and I'm sure I came across as naive. Your thoughts about private instruction, I think, are right on. If there is to be serious teaching on this point, one on one is where it must happen.

I am so sorry to hear about the logistical frustrations that you have to endure. I wish the educational system in this country could allow for teaching the finer points of the arts. You and your colleagues are to be commended for the work that you do.

I fear I may have stirred up a hornet's nest, but your comments give voice to the type of conversation I was hoping for.

You have my upmost respect, both for your work in education and for the work you do in service to your own art and I apologize if I came across all ivory tower.

D0nnaTr0y said...

No worries! I see no ivory tower and the hornet's nest has long since been stirred! I apologize for going off on a rant; it's hard for me not to when I discuss public education. And I really should mention that the school I taught at in VA was much more organized and supportive.

I think you are right to raise such issues as teaching improvisation to all musicians. If we can add it to our private instruction, and if those teachers at supportive schools can work it in, maybe we can eventually start to make a bit of a difference in that area. We just need a little reminder every now and then. It's easy to become lax when we get into a routine, so I'm glad you raised the issue, and I hope others contribute to this conversation.

And I certainly appreciate your support and kind words!

Gregory Dudzienski said...

The more I think about it, one on one may be the best way to go with this. My feeling is the the current and upcoming generations of teachers are much more open to incorporating things like improvisation and composition into their pedagogy.

Don't know if you saw, but there were some other comments posted under "And Another Thing..."

Hope the piece is going well.