Monday, August 24, 2015

T.M.I.: Theory Means Improv

My daughter and I often communicate by text message. Here's a conversation we exchanged recently when I asked her to do some cleaning in the house while I was out:

I may not have recognized "nvm," but "T.M.I." is a little more well-known. You probably know that it's urban slang for "too much information." This is what my daughter says with a dramatic eye-roll when I make a comment that is only slightly more personal than "My, what hot weather we're having!"

This year, my piano students have a new definition for T.M.I.: Theory Means Improv. It's my goal this year to incorporate an improvisation component into every theory lesson.

Last week, we started our fall semester and my early level students reviewed basic note values by taking home cards printed with various 4-beat rhythms. They could spread out the cards in any order they chose and then improvise their own melody using that rhythm and the notes within a 5-finger pattern. Some of my intermediate students were assigned to improvise broken chord patterns alternating between major and minor triads. Changing major triads to minor and vice-versa was a review for them, but using those triads to make their own music added a new twist. This group will soon be reviewing diatonic triads within a key as we work toward learning to play from lead sheets this year.

If you've been reading my blog, then you know that I had a great time attending the 88 Creative Keys Conference in Denver with Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss. As I think about how I want to incorporate more improvisation into my teaching, I keep coming back to the idea that I am teaching a language. Before I went back to school for music degrees, I taught English. If I teach a grammar lesson on direct objects, then a good follow-up assignment would be to ask students to write their own sentences containing action verbs and direct objects. It's a better way to determine whether they really understand than asking them to circle the direct object in a given sentence. So, why wouldn't we assign students to create their own melodies using quarter and half notes after a lesson on those note values? We all know the proverb:  "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand." Students who create their own music using the theory concept being taught will recognize those theory concepts at work in their literature more quickly.

It's easy to find lots of ideas on the internet for improvisation projects, such as teaching students to create their own 12-bar blues piece. And these are appropriate. Their parallel in a language class would be composing paragraphs and essays. But what if improvisation was a more integral part of our teaching, not just an occasional stand-alone project? What if it were the primary way we asked students to demonstrate their understanding of the language? This is the equivalent of asking students of a foreign language to converse in real time. If you say to a student of German "Welches Datum ist heute?" then the correct response should be that the student tells you today's date, in German. No translation necessary. What if our theory assessments at Festivals and similar events went beyond translating theory knowledge into English (what is the definition of a plagal cadence - student responds by describing a plagal cadence with words), but about expressing that understanding in the language (play a plagal cadence in the key of F Major - student responds in the language, no translation necessary)? I write the theory exams for our local association's Festival, and I know that trying to create an assessment like that would be a nightmare because it would require one-on-one time with a theory examiner for each individual student. But, if we believe that music is a language, then shouldn't we expect some "oral" exams? It may be too unwieldy for Festival, but it's quick and easy and entirely appropriate in a one-on-one lesson.

So, we're experimenting with T.M.I. in the studio this year! I'm interested in hearing your ideas and suggestions!


Jan Tuttle said...

I love this idea! I try to make theory as practical as possible, and also try to incorporate improvisation into the lesson. What great idea to marry the two together! Thanks for sharing!

Jennifer Foxx said...

Fun idea!