Thursday, May 21, 2015

Improvisation: Nurturing The Ear That Sees And The Eye That Hears

When I was a young piano student, my teachers never asked me to improvise. There were no gold stars awarded for “doodling” – no certificates, recital trophies, or pins.  So, I never did it. 

And that’s a shame.

Bach “doodled” until he became so good at it that he could test out new organs by improvising fugues on them. Beethoven “doodled” until he became so adept at audiation that he could compose the 9th Symphony after losing his hearing. 

Improvising is not mere doodling, and the ability to become good at it is not limited to the great masters or some sub-group of musicians who were “born that way.” It’s a learned skill. Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss are championing this belief with their Eye Ear Revolution. 

In the last couple of weeks of my piano term, with my students in the "just maintaining" stages of their recital pieces, we took some time to improvise. After some experimentation in the lesson, I assigned them a few ideas to play around with and waited to see what they’d bring back. When the sweet girl in the video played for me the next week, I was really surprised. She is, as her mother likes to say, a child who loves protocol. She wants to work through her assignments starting with item 1, then item 2, and so on, and finds it difficult to deviate from a plan.  When I expressed my surprise at how comfortable she was with improvising (this video was filmed in one take), I was surprised again to hear that for the last several years, she has regularly spent time with her older sister just sitting and improvising together.

So, I’ve been her piano teacher all that time, and didn’t know…

You may recognize the LH from Forrest Kinney's Pattern Play, Book One.  

What is my student accomplishing when she improvises?  Dr. Robert Pace, who was one of the 20th century's most esteemed piano pedagogues and a strong advocate of comprehensive musicianship, calls it “thinking in motion” and “creative problem solving.”  In an essay that you can read online here, he refutes the idea that improvisation is just a recreational activity, but instead defines it as “an interplay of the cognitive, affective and psycho-motor domains.”

When my student sits at home just “doodling” with her sister, she’s learning to anticipate what key will sound best before she ever reaches a finger toward it. As a result, not only will she be able to create her own music, but when she’s reading notation, she can do more than merely take dictation from the composer – she can enter into the creative space with him by recognizing where the music is headed before she even sees it written down.  Pace calls this “the ear that sees and the eye that hears.”  She’s discovering that repetition of motives and phrases give structure and balance to her music. She’s learning the value of a well-placed silence. She’s getting caught up in the flow of the moment and learning when it's time to drive ahead and when it's time to control the pace and slow down. She's learning to trust her instincts. She’s developing a sense of confidence in the validity of her own creative expression.

I find it very interesting to realize that, had I given my student a notated version of what she improvised and asked her to learn it, it would have taken her weeks. Improvisation helps develop motor coordination that doesn’t have to depend on translating the score first.

Pace, like Sowash and Viss, believes that “everyone--from the slowest learner to the most gifted--can create some music at the keyboard. Two things are required of the teacher--continuous opportunities and proper encouragement.”  Because I need to learn better how to improvise myself (as much as I believe in it, I’m really a beginner at doing it!), and because I want to provide the opportunities and encouragement my students need to become well-rounded musicians, I’m very excited to share that I’m going this summer to the 88 Creative Keys Teaching Creativity Conference on July 9-11! In fact, Bradley and Leila have given me a great vote of confidence by awarding me the first deputy scholarship for the conference. I'm very honored! I hope 88 Creative Keys is on your list of considerations for your own summer enrichment. I'd love to meet you there!

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