How can we make a judgement about a musical improvisation?
When a pupil or student plays a piece of music from a notated copy it’s not that hard to give the performance a mark. True, different judges might give different marks, but in such a case they would be able to debate and justify their gradings.
Starting with the most obvious issues of whether the notes written down were played correctly, and whether the rhythm was maintained, one can move on towards the more subtle issues of tone, volume, pulse, interpretation, style, and so forth.
But with improvisation, this is much harder. Of course, if the improvisation is set up to be a musical interpretation of a non-musical event or object, one can wonder whether the repeated hitting of a cymbal as hard as possible has much to do with the topic of a butterfly. However, there is nothing that says that improvisations should be about anything any more than a Beethoven piano sonata is about anything.
There are a number of approaches to exploring the issue of improvisation with pupils and students beyond this notion of making the music “about” something.
Below I’ve selected five such approaches – if you have other ways of approaching the question I’d be really interested to hear from you. My email address is at the end if you want to write to me directly, or you can comment below.
Option 1: Get the pupil or student to talk about the improvisation.
Of course, this is not an option with younger pupils, but just as you might expect 12 year olds to be able to talk about a painting or drawing that each has done, or a set of dance steps that they have evolved, or indeed an improvised drama scene, so young students can be encouraged to talk about their improvisation.
They might well struggle the first time round, but if given help in understanding what they are performing, it is normally the case that by the fourth or fifth short improvisation they can begin to express meaningfully their own feelings about the piece.
Option 2: Undertake short ensemble improvisations.
Here, of course, the key point is for everyone to be aware not just of themselves but also of the others in the group. There is always a temptation to have a conductor for group improvisations, but if you can work with chamber groups improvising around a musical theme then the requirement is very much for each to be able to hear the others and fit in with what is happening.
Yes, of course, this is tough and demanding, but improvisation is indeed as tough and demanding as playing from notated music.
Option 3: Do it again.
Performing a short improvisation (and 30 seconds may be all you need) followed by a short discussion, and then another performance of the improvisation modified in the light of the discussion can lead to very positive steps forward in terms of the student’s understanding of what he/she is doing, and how it can be done better.
Option 4: Shades of differentiation.
Younger performers suddenly released from the requirement to follow the music can become involved in extremes – usually of volume. So it can be helpful to give the performers a focus and help them move towards ever smaller differentiations in the music, rather than grand rushes from ppp to fff.
Option 5: Stress the unity of the work.
Is there any sense of development or progression? Is there a sense of a beginning and end? Of course, there doesn’t have to be, but adding such requirements to early improvisations does help the pupil or student understand how music can be used to convey emotions, feelings, setting, and abstract notions.
For myself, as a pianist, when I have worked individually with a five or six year old, I’ve sometimes sat at the piano with the child, on the child’s left, playing a slow pulse of two alternating D’s an octave apart. I then ask the child to join in playing anything. And I’ve been surprised to see colleagues who are string teachers using a similar technique as they play a regular pulse on the open D string, allowing the child to improvise around this.
Inevitably, apart from with the most musical of children, the first attempt is fairly random, but my experience is that even without my making any comment, and just doing a number of pieces lasting maybe 90 seconds each, the child begins to appreciate that simply playing loud notes and making noise is less satisfying than trying to work around my alternating bass Ds.
I am sure you can imagine what happens next – we talk a little about the music, and the occasional suggestion is made, such as not using the black notes, and gradually we get a piece that is recognisably Dorian in construction. It is amazing just how fast a child can develop an understanding of music in this way.
If you have comments on this you’d like to share either with the author or with all readers of this newsletter please do email Tony@hamilton-house.com