Category Archives: facilitation/teaching distinction

Rigorously Playful: Today’s Adventure in Improvisation

This semester at the DePauw School of Music (where I’m on the steering committee for our developing 21st Century Musician Initiative), I’m having a blast teaching, well make that facilitating, a section of our team-taught first-year seminar, Understanding Music, as well as two sections of Improvised Chamber Music, coaching a cello quartet, and, of course, giving cello lessons.

Today was the first meeting of one section of the improv group. We’re based in the principles outlined in the Music for People Bill of Musical Rights, as well as embracing aspects of what was once avant-garde experimental music and throwing in a bit of theater improv as well.

I crossed out the word “teaching” above because my job with the improv groups is rarely to instruct, to tell people what to do or how to do it or what I think.  I’m there to create a safe space for people to express themselves, to connect with each other, and to see what happens when you disable the usual self-censorship mechanisms.

Today, it was just two students (both guys) and me. We started with some very familiar (to me) Music for People activities, both taught by MfP’s co-founder David Darling. They are so familiar, in fact, that they become effective transitional ritual into the improvisational energy. First comes “release,” a gesture in which we put our hands at the crown of our heads, inhale deeply, then let our arms fall slowly to our sides while exhaling and letting go of whatever we brought with us.  And then we shook out our hands, wiggled our fingers, and let our tongues move with our fingers, making babbling sounds.

This silly activity isn’t so silly of course–it’s all about freeing up and letting go of doing something correct or predetermined.

The two young men who joined me today, both first-year students, and both, it’s accurate to say, bursting with assertive creativity, joined in eagerly. One had been at a session last week, where we’d emphasized body movement as well as sound making, and soon we were interacting with each other freely, moving about the room. I should have recorded it, because, as is often the case when one is really in the moment, I don’t remember everything that happened. I do remember that we stuck with our voices for quite a while, moving from la sounds to hard-consonant sounds (“katakatakata” “tikatikatika”) to conversational exchanges to ostinatos (repeated figures) over which we took turns singing long notes, to long tones forming drones which we took turns exploring.

I needed to do no explanation (just modeling), no active encouraging other than being part of the adventurous/playful energy, and very little attention getting when I wanted to shift things. When I moved things into the ostinato section, I may have sung the word “ostinato” or the phrase “repeated figure” once, but things didn’t break down, and I didn’t have to explain that we were now doing repeated figures, as is often the case when I work with new improvisers.

And soon two of us were playing inside the piano, strumming, plucking, and thumping (don’t worry, it wasn’t the Boesendorfer, just one of those long-abused grand pianos you find in rehearsal rooms in every music school) while the third was rubbing erasers on a white board.  We played the walls. We played the chairs.  We thumped everything thumpable.  The two teenage students were bouncing up and down on the floor and acting like apes for a while in a way I couldn’t quite match. Everyone initiated some new section. By the end, we were singing again, and I exercised my professorial authority only to bring things to an end. (Auditions were happening soon, and all good things must come to an end.)

It was quite exhilarating for all of us.  One of the students had never improvised with others before, and he had the kind of look on his face when we finished that I must had at the end of the first day of my first Music for People workshop.

This kind of improvisation, where you’re saying yes to your ideas, and saying yes to other people’s ideas, connecting when you need to, getting out of the way when it’s time for that, letting go of what you have been doing and spinning into the next thing–it’s not something you learn to do so much as it is something you discover you can do.  What I’m very clear about is that most of the time I’m not teaching people a new skill, but rather assisting them in discovering what they already can do.

When things really click, there’s a synergy that is indescribable.

I actually envied my young friends today–they were more free than I was at times, especially when bouncing around like chimps. They reentered a boys-playing-games, Peter Pan zone that I couldn’t quite get to.  When you’re 18 or 19, the boy in a young man is still very present. The Music for People book on improvisation is called Return to Child; sometimes, though, you don’t need a book to get there.


Was this rigorous?

“Rigor” is a word we use a lot in academia. We want to challenge our students. We sell rigorous education. You can go to your crappy local community college for unrigorous education, I think we assume, although I imagine there are some brilliant teachers at many community colleges. I tell my cello students that if they don’t hate me from time to time, let me know, because it means I’m not pushing them hard enough.

I was part of a very long faculty meeting later in the day in which we were debating changes meant to strengthen our Winter Term program. There’s a concern that some of the experiential-learning courses taught in Winter Term (and other times) aren’t rigorous or challenging enough. My colleague Nicole Brockmann pointed out that experiential learning can be rigorous indeed.

There are many ways to be rigorous and engaging and challenging. Frankly, I don’t even like the word “rigorous,” because it often seems to be used in a way that confuses difficulty (often for the sake of difficulty itself) with genuinely engaged learning, or makes a professor present some monstrous crap pile of things to memorize rather than genuinely engaging students in the process of learning. As we sat in the meeting, I thought of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and realized that someone ought to articulate a set of multiple “rigorousnesses” as well.

Many years ago, I sat across a table from David Darling, and he looked at me and said, “When you go to a jazz camp, they ask you what chords and scales you know.  When you come to a Music for People workshop, we ask you to tell us who you are.”

Is there rigor in, say, wiggling your fingers and babbling? In being silly? There’s no real technique involved. It’s not something you can really practice–we can each already do it. Heck, babies can do it.

But you know what? To do it in front of other people, that’s not so easy. As a matter of fact, it takes courage–doing something when you are afraid–for most of us. And to do it with abandon, well, that is a real challenge, because you have to trust yourself and the other people in the room.

You can sing a note that’s defensive, hiding behind a good technique or doing something silly. Or you can sing a note where you take a chance, where you express a raw emotion, where you don’t know if you’re going to hit the pitch you’re hearing. That’s where there’s rigor in this.

It might look like total bullshit if you walk into a room and see two people thumping strings inside a grand piano while a third kneels and rubs erasers on a white board behind the piano, intermittently crawling under the piano and tapping the case. But if all three people are genuinely listening to and responding to each other, and they are allowing themselves to follow their intuition and do this even though someone might look at it and think, “bullshit!,” there is a genuine rigor. Even if you get it and it works on the first try.

What can I say? I love my job.


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Filed under David Darling, facilitation/teaching distinction, improvisation, Music for People