Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

The values of improvisation

“ I don’t improvise,” the musician told me, the lightness of his tone belying the tension I sensed he was feeling. “Most of us here don’t improvise. It’s the opposite of what we do in this job.”

That’s okay, I thought. We don’t need to call it improvising. We’ll just make stuff up.

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

This interaction came on the first day of a 2-day training project I ran for a symphony orchestra recently, aimed at encouraging the musicians towards performances that moved beyond standard concert formats into more interactive, informal, and responsive models, such as those that are appropriate in many community contexts. I describe it as flexible musicianship, and it involves breaking down the intentions behind a performance, and exploring processes like workshopping, teamwork and collaborative decision-making, composing, and yes, the i-word, improvising.

Why does improvising create such tension for a lot of orchestral musicians? As this man said, and as others have pointed out in many training sessions before this one, improvising is pretty much the complete opposite of what a professional orchestral musician is asked to do musically in his or her daily job. Orchestral rehearsal and performance are about honouring the intentions of the composer whose music sits on the music stand in front of you. The group of 50+ musicians all make that commitment. They place their trust in a conductor whose interpretation of the score will determine the nuances of the performance, and their job is to perform their part accurately, honouring the vision of the conductor and the composer, ahead of their own personal preferences or choices.

By contrast, improvising is all about personal preferences and choice. Of course there are stylistic ‘rules’ or parameters that govern the choices that you may make in any particular context, but there is a trust in the moment and in the work you have done to prepare beforehand. Something that comes out slightly differently to what you’d intended is not necessarily a mistake; it can also be a new path, opening up a serendipitous set of possibilities. This is quite a different mindset to playing and performing in an orchestral context.

What the conversation about improvisation reveals is the way that our musical enculturation establishes within us a set of values and beliefs about music-making. These values and beliefs determine what makes sense and feels comfortable to us.

Orchestral music – performance, and the training that prepares musicians for this work – is underpinned by values such as precision, virtuosity, and accuracy (e.g. there are right and wrong ways of playing this music); expertise; and clear communication of hierarchies (leaders need to act with authority so that players can relax and feel they are in good hands – more a benevolent dictatorship than a collaboration). When the intention is one of honouring the music as a thing that exists autonomously, the finished ‘product’ is the focus, rather than the process or experience of getting to that end goal.

When my non-improvising musician talks about ‘not improvising’, he is revealing his musical enculturation in two ways. One is the discomfort of working musically in a more open-ended or less predictable environment. This jars with the expectation of predictability, and his perceived responsibility for accuracy and ‘correct’ realisation of the music. The other is about the way those values are loaded into a word like ‘improvisation’. In a musical world where music is presented to others, rather than a platform for participation, ‘improvising’ refers to a different musical expertise – that which is developed by a musician who has studied in depth the techniques and language of musical styles that are not dependent on notation. It takes years of dedicated, focused, painstaking work to develop that language in order to improvise with fluency. I can see why he wants to say from the outset that he doesn’t “improvise”.

Therefore, I don’t use the word ‘improvise’ in these contexts, at least, not at the start. It invokes too much immediate resistance and fear. In reality, the improvising you do in a workshopping situation or participatory performance environment, is more about creative thinking, responding spontaneously ‘in the moment’, and seeing your musicianship as a kind of arsenal of possibilities that can be applied in any number of situations, rather than only when particular parameters are in place. We can all do this – extremely specialised and detailed training cannot help but establish this kind of skill base – but we may need to learn to dismantle some of the preconditions our musical enculturation has attached to those skills.

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Too many bright sparky children

Sometimes it is so hard to choose. This week I needed to make a Final List of offers for the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a composing and improvising ensemble for 28 children and professional musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, working under my direction. We held our annual weekend of try-outs at the start of February.

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

Around 120 children took part in 6 free 1-hour composing workshops. The workshop process is the same each year – it gives children a taste of the strategies we use for collaborative composing in the Ensemble, and shows us who is out there to invite into the Ensemble for 2014. (Read more about the workshop process here).

Workshop group (G. Howell)At the end of each workshop, the two MSO musicians and I discuss each participant, noting how they responded and the sorts of strengths and preferences they showed. We look for “bright, sparky kids” – children who like the idea of making things up on their instrument, who are open, who feel comfortable working in a group made up of adults and other children, and who are happy to try out other people’s ideas as well their own. They need to be comfortable on their instrument, but high-level skills are not a primary criterion.

We score each child with a Yes, No, Maybe/Yes, or Maybe/No. Usually the Ensemble is made up of children on the ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists. Other ‘Maybes’ go on the Reserve list in case someone doesn’t take up their place.

By the end of the weekend I had 41 ‘Yeses’. There are only 28 places in the group… I had to take a deep breath, and steel myself to do a Big Cull. It hurt! While it is great that we are attracting so many children who are such a good match for the program, it’s tough to know that there were children – fabulously imaginative, perceptive, inventive kids, with a deep connection to and love for their instrument – who would be awesome contributors to this Ensemble, that I couldn’t offer a place to this year.

Choosing is always difficult, especially in an education context, where the goal is one of supporting each child’s development, rather than just finding the best players. There are always children that we see who, for whatever reason – maybe shyness, or self-consciousness with the shift away from notation and right/wrong notes into this inventive and open-ended process – don’t shine as brightly on the day as others but who we believe have great potential and would benefit from participating in the Ensemble. Finding the right balance of personalities, potential, and instrumentation is important.

I think the process we use is a good one, and a fair one. There is space for children to come in and just be themselves – every ensemble benefits from a mix of extrovert leaders as well as quieter, rock-steady leaders, and section players. We get a lot of quirky children coming to us – their out-of-the-box thinking is such an asset in creative projects like this, and they often thrive in a social environment with lots of other non-conformist thinkers.

Nevertheless, there is no ‘perfect’ choice. The choices I make will create the Ensemble that we get – a different set of choices will create a different Ensemble. By choosing, I am also laying the ground for a set of experiences and relationships for those children, and for me. The first MSO ArtPlay Ensemble was formed in 2006, and that year, there was no selection process. We just accepted everyone who applied. That group is now finishing school, some are even at university. Quite a few have kept in touch over the years, letting me know what they are up to with their music. They are making choices now that will see them becoming the next generation of orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, music therapists – I’m sure. I’m not suggesting those choices are due to their experience of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble! But I believe that if you experience yourself as musical and creative in your formative playing years, this creates a strong foundation for seeking and trying out new musical ventures as you mature.

Being the one to choose is both a privilege and a responsibility, because choices open as well as close… and set new things in motion. Ah well… I’m looking forward to this year’s journey, despite the challenge of choosing!