Thursday, March 30, 2006

Leading a Coalition of the Unwilling?

Mike Echo, in a comment on “Why Classical Musician’s Don’t Improvise, Part II," writes,

I think one answer to the riddle you propose is a kind of Zen approach. If a student asks you, "Why should I improvise or compose -- the great masters have already done it much better than I?" the answer could be: "If that's how you feel -- then don't!" Not all classical musicians "should" improvise or compose. Those who find it fun to experiment, who have the time to do it, will naturally just do it. I think it is a mistake to push classical musicians into improvising and composing if they don't find it fun. "Follow your bliss" is my motto as a musician. If your bliss is all about playing from the classical canon, then what's the problem? I think the deeper question you're tackling with has to do with the classical musician who has the spark to improvise or compose, but feels scared, put down, or lost. THOSE musicians are your target audience. But for those who are happy to play in orchestras and not give improvising or composing a second thought -- well, so what? Good for them: we need them.

Very good point. I certainly don’t want to be suggesting that adult classical performers who are not interested in improvisation and composition ought to be forced or shamed or otherwise manipulated into it.

The "classical musician who has the spark to improvise or compose, but feels scared, put down, or lost,” is indeed an important part of my target audience and may well be the person most likely to pick up a book like the one I’m writing. Or to buy Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play, Alludin Mathieu’s The Listening Book, or find their way to a Music for People workshop and/or order MfP’s handbook, Return to Child.

Part of what this project is about is inviting and supporting people who already are classical performers (of whatever level of experience and expertise) to explore and embrace their creativity by making their own music. Musician-to-musician, this is not about what someone else should be doing. I hate it when other people tell me what I should do or who I should be. And I've learned, the hard way, that unsolicited suggestions to someone else about what (s)he "should" be doing are as predicatbly counterproductive as they are unwelcome. ("You're not the boss of me! " in some form or another.)

But some people, or at least their parents, actually pay me (and other people with jobs like mine) to tell them what they "should" do. Even to force them to study certain things in certain ways.

This happens in my lives as a private cello teacher and a college-level music educator. All music education, including non-institutional, individual applied music teaching (i.e., private lessons), involves the teacher making choices about both curriculum and methodology.

When teaching private lessons, we make decisions about pieces to assign or select for a student to chose from, whether or not to use certain exercises and etudes and method books, etc. Those are curricular decisions, even though private teachers, especially those not associated with institutions, rarely use that term. Then there are choices about how to teach. Do I just give fingerings for the Schumann Cello Concerto to a student, or do I ask her to develop her own fingerings and then engage in a dialogue with her about those fingerings and offer my own as alternatives? That’s an issue of methodology. Do I spend time in some or all lessons improvising with a student? Do we do free improvisation? Do we improvise ornaments in a Vivaldi slow movement? Those are questions of both curriculum and methodology.

On the institutional level, we are, in part, in the standards and requirements business. We constantly revisit the question of what subjects our students should be required to study, and what sorts of experiences we want to make sure they are exposed to. To what extent should improvisation and composition be part of these required experiences?

When a college music faculty, or an elementary or secondary curriculum committee meet to discuss these issues, the conversation is by necessity shaped in part by external forces: educational standards set by national organizations.

The National Association of Schools of Music accredits college-level music programs, and every ten years decides whether or not to reaccredit them. Part of the NASM 2005-2006 Handbook’s standards for “Competencies Common to All Professional Baccalaureate Degrees in Music and to All Undergraduate Degrees Leading to Teacher Certification” state that

Students must acquire:

1. Rudimentary capacity to create derivative or original music both extemporaneously and in written form.

2. The ability to compose, improvise, or both at a basic level in one or more musical languages, for example, the imitation of various musical styles, improvisation on pre-existing materials, the creation of original compositions, experimentation with various sound sources, and manipulating the common elements in non-traditional ways. (76)

[you can download the entire handbook as a 216-page pdf file for free, if you want]

And the kindergarten through twelfth grade “National Standards for Music Education” developed by MENC include, “3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments” and “4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.” (These standards include detailed expectations for each grade level, which can be found from the National Standards main page.)

So all of us teaching music in the United States at one point or another have to deal—at least as a group—with the fact that, like it or not, our national organizations expect us to include improvisation (and composition) in our curricula and teaching methodologies to some extent or another.

In many cases this seems to lead to a “coalition of the unwilling,” or at least a coalition of the un- or under-prepared. And to various states of denial, and avoidance, and hope and expectation that someone else on the faculty will take care of these things. “Aren’t they doing some improvisation and composition in theory class? In class piano?”

This plight we music teachers find ourselves in is a result of the situation these standards and requirements are meant to address. We are being not just asked but in a sense forced to include in our curricula all sorts of things we were not taught (unless we are organists or, more recently, studying “early music”). We don’t improvise and compose, not just because we have made a conscious decision not to do so, but much more often because it was never presented as an option to us, and because our teachers, especially our private teachers, never modeled it for us. We are being asked to teach to at least some extent something we were never introduced to or taught to do in our own educations. I have three degrees in cello performance. I was never required to improvise, never heard one of my cello teachers improvise, and only improvised myself when playing the occasional aleatoric piece, and then didn’t actually realize that what I was doing was improvising.

So another purpose of this book-in-progress, beyond offering encouragement and support to adult classical performers who want to improvise but are hesitant, is to offer some starting points to my friends and colleagues in music education who find that a national organization has put the improvisation gun to our heads, aren’t sure why it is there, and don’t know what to do next.


Mike Echo said...

YES! Great answer. In teaching, we strike a balance between helping students follow their own bliss... and pushing them, inviting them to discover new things, giving them tools to explore. It's a holy balance.

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